Lt. Col. Roger L. Cloutier, a member of Task Force 1-30 Infantry at the Forward Operating Base Normandy in Iraq, wrote this essay for ABC News' "Where Things Stand" series.
At Forward Operating Base Normandy in Iraq, one of the greatest things about our deployment for me and our soldiers was that we lived with the Iraqi army. For 12 months, our base, located near Al Muqdadiyah, in Iraq's Diyala province, was home to both the Task Force 1-30 Infantry "Battle Boars," a battalion-size U.S. Army unit, and the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 5th Iraqi Army Division "Tigers." Daily, we interacted with Iraqi soldiers at all levels. We lived by the principle that we were friends and brothers first, comrades-in-arms second. For all of us, this turned a yearlong combat deployment into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Our year in Iraq was to be spent training our Iraqi friends and combating a terrorist insurgency. Those things happened, but in many ways they were not the most important. Living, fighting and dying together, we became brothers.
An element universal to both U.S. and Iraqi soldiers is competition. One day, after meeting to discuss an upcoming mission, Col. Thea Ismael Abid, commander of the Iraqi army battalion and my counterpart, asked if we'd like to play his soldiers in a game of soccer. During that game, I saw groups of men who couldn't communicate without an interpreter discover a complete mutual understanding of the moment. Since that day, we've competed with the Iraqis in footraces, tug of wars, volleyball, and, yes, a lot more soccer. We've both won and lost, but the friendships that would last beyond the playing fields knew neither victor nor vanquished.
As part of an Army working thousands of miles away from home, we couldn't know how different our Iraqi counterparts' lives would be from ours. The U.S. Army, after all, is accustomed to being in foreign countries, but the men from 2nd Iraqi Army Battalion were stationed at a military base within a few miles of their homes. Sincerely grateful that we were there to help them, the Iraqis showed us a hospitality that was astounding. At meetings, hot, sweet Iraqi chai (tea) was served alongside homemade pastries. For Islamic holidays and everyday get-togethers alike, we were served roasted lamb, rice, and homemade bread and pickles -- the variety was endless.
This hospitality was not unique to the Iraqi army either; even on patrols into the surrounding area, we were often invited into the homes of Iraqi citizens to sit and eat dinner. In villages where unemployment was often above half of the population, and a month's income was around $50, people were willing to share everything they had, to show how thankful they were for our efforts, and to welcome us with a hospitality that was truly humbling. With the headlines focused on death tallies and IEDs, those acts of kindness are usually absent from the media's coverage of Iraq, but are nevertheless important and true.
During our time at FOB Normandy, not all of the experiences we shared with our Iraqi comrades were so idyllic. Early on, we lost our first soldier. Cpl. Jacob Palmatier was killed by shrapnel from a roadside bomb on Feb. 24, 2005, within a month of our arrival. His death sent a ripple through our ranks, but we weren't the only ones who felt the loss. Col. Thea approached me that day and said: "I'm so sorry about your soldier. You know, it never gets any easier." A few days later, during a memorial ceremony, we paid Cpl. Palmatier our respects and rendered military honors amid formations of polished, rock-hard soldiers. On the other side of Palmatier's upright rifle, helmet, boots and dog tags stood 50 "Battle Boars" side by side with 50 Iraqi "Tigers."
As we prepare to return to our homes in America, we can reflect on the weapons and terrorists we captured, and how we left our homes and fought so that we might keep those same homes safe from terrorism. These are important accomplishments, but we also forged a bond that transcended war, cultures and language. As soldiers and men who love their country and are sworn to defend it, we and the "Tigers" saw no politics, only the desire to make Iraq a better place. Together, we helped do that, and when I finally get home, I will be able to look my family in the eye and tell them we made a difference, a difference in a small corner of Iraq, far from the beaten path, a small place called Muqdadiyah.