Heard first-hand, we need to be there | TheUnion.com

Heard first-hand, we need to be there

By 3 p.m. (Iraqi time) today, the temperature in Najaf, Iraq, will be hovering somewhere around 113 degrees. Imagine for a moment wearing 60 pounds of gear, a 16-pound flak vest and helmet in a heart-pounding, door-to-door search for guys who are trying to kill you and don’t particularly seem to mind if you kill them first.

Ask 22-year-old Dan Hilsabeck about it and he’ll probably say, “Been there. Done that.” Hilsabeck, or “Private Dan,” as his father Dennis refers to him, is home from Iraq this week. The former Sierra Mountain High School student spent almost 10 months in Iraq with the Army’s 37th Armored Regiment, 1st Armored Division. He was in Najaf in early April, when radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militiamen seized that holy city.

Sadr’s followers were back at it again last Friday as the two-month truce ended abruptly with one U.S. soldier and several militiamen killed during fierce fighting.

Located 190 kilometers south of Baghdad, Najaf is considered a holy city among Shi’a Muslims. It is purported to be the burial place of ‘Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the person Shi’a Muslims believe would have succeeded the Prophet in leadership after his death. In 661 A.D., Ali was assassinated in Kufa, a town just northeast of Najaf.

Amazing what you learn on the Internet.

Private Dan spent some time in Kufa as well during his tour with the 2-37th Iron Dukes Scouts.

“It was urban fighting,” Private Dan explained, looking much like any other young man enjoying a summer afternoon in Nevada County. “It was hot in the body armor. We’d go building to building trying to clear an area. But as soon as we left one building, they would occupy it. You were always worried that some guy would pop up around the corner.”

Lots of them did pop up around the corner. The militiamen are no match for the U.S. soldiers, but they keep fighting and dying as al-Sadr the fanatical cleric sends them to the slaughter. More than 1,200 insurgents were killed in last April’s fighting alone.

“They (enemy) are dedicated,” said Private Dan. “Guys would run out with an AK-47 and attack a tank. It was unreal.”

Private Dan turns 23 next Sunday and will be heading to Germany to finish off his tour of duty. After high school, he worked for a local electrician for three years before joining the Army. I asked him if he would have joined had he known then there have been no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq.

“I would have still gone,” he told me. “Believe it or not, we’ve done a lot of good things in Iraq.”

Private Dan gave an interesting perspective on the radical Muslim uprisings.

“All Muslims want a piece of Iraq,” he said. “It’s really no different than this country. They have liberals and conservatives just like us, except they have guns.”

Imagine Bush and Kerry whipping thousands of armed convention-goers into a complete frenzy and then sending them to the streets for some real hardball politics.

Private Dan said al-Sadr has a firm grip on his followers.

“Najaf and Kufa are pretty much connected,” he explained. “There are two main mosques and Sadr gave speeches in between the two. Whatever he said, the next day his militia did it. We’d have a cease-fire, and they would end up breaking it.”

As a member of the Scouts, Private Dan’s job was pretty much to draw enemy fire. A human decoy, if you will. “We’d try to get them to shoot at us and then the tanks would take them out,” he said matter-of-factly.

Newspaper delivery days were some of the best for Private Dan. A couple of months ago, his dad asked if we’d send him copies of The Union so he could keep up on things at home. He particularly enjoyed the opinion pages.

“I like that everybody is free to express their own opinion,” he said. “But if we pull out now, there will be a civil war. The Middle East would be too unstable. We’ve got to wait until they are at least able to govern themselves.”

Private Dan is thrilled to be home.

“I honestly didn’t think I would make it,” he said. “It was very stressful. At the beginning, there were always large crowds around us and anyone could have walked up and shot me from behind. After April 4 (when al-Sadr launched his attacks), we patrolled, but mostly stayed on the outskirts of Najaf.”

He said his homecoming has been good. “It’s different,” he said. “All my friends are working and they’ve all been pretty cool about seeing me.”

I think it’s pretty cool, too. Private Dan is a good young man, and I’m glad he came by the office so I could shake his hand and say welcome home.


Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays.

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