MERCER COUNTY: Soldier’s letters describe life in Iraq

By Natalia Knochowski, The Packet Group
   CRANBURY — What do you do when you’re in Iraq, it’s 120 degrees outside, and you’re bored?
   If you’re 22-year-old Cranbury resident Jonathan Bowker, who is deployed in Iraq for about a year, you sometimes “find something completely random and play Iraqi Scavenger Hunt on patrols just to have some fun.”
   Or you see if a pile of gummy bears will withstand the heat.
   ”It worked, but was extremely sticky,” Mr. Bowker said, explaining a photo of himself clad in sunglasses and his Army gear, licking that red “pile of gummy” off his hand.
   Mr. Bowker is an E-4 specialist in the Army with the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, in the 3rd Infantry Division, at Fort Stewart, Ga.
   In his e-mail correspondence with the Cranbury Press, he said his duties include “calling for and adjusting indirect fires from artillery, mortars and naval gunfire.”
   ”But right now,” he added, “I am the eyes on the ground for the aviation that we have here. I am with the infantrymen walking on the ground controlling and directing the Apaches or Kiowa Warriors, which are both attack helicopters, and gathering information on what they can see from the sky. If things heat up, I direct where they should shoot and fire their missiles and such.”
   He adds, “Basically, we go out there and do routine security, making sure there aren’t IEDs being placed on a major stretch of highway leading from Ramadi, where we are, all the way to Fallujah, where another company from our battalion is.”
   This is definitely a different type of schedule than the one Mr. Bowker had just a few years ago. After graduating Princeton High School in 2005, he started taking classes at Mercer County Community College and worked 40-hour weeks at GameStop and Pet Valu in East Windsor.
   School, however, wasn’t a successful choice, Mr. Bowker said. He would skip classes or just not go at all.
   He just wasn’t “ready for school,” he explained.
   But he did have an interest in the Army since 2003 when the main television networks started reporting on the initial invasion of Iraq.
   ”I would watch the explosions, the pictures of the palaces getting bombed and seeing how every day we would either capture, kill or uncover someone who was involved with something bad, whether it be the Mahdi Army or someone in Saddam’s regime,” he said.
   ”We have the greatest army in the world, and I wanted to be a part of it,” he said.
   So Mr. Bowker began to talk to an Army recruiter. After a year, he put together a pros and cons list, and the pros won; he joined July 24, 2008, and is scheduled to be discharged next year.
   Mr. Bowker says his mother, Linda Bowker, at first wasn’t happy. She was worried and in “mother mode.” But now, he says, she’s proud of him, and that’s the best part of the job, he said.
   ”I supported his decision from the beginning; everyone is our family has been in the military,” his mother said. “As a mother, I was concerned since he joined during wartime.”
   But, “I am, have been and always will be proud of everything he accomplishes,” she said.
   ”Knowing that I’m part of the 1 percent of the population that joins and serves is a great feeling,” Mr. Bowker said. “I was a little eager to go since finally I’d be doing my part and really when you join a branch like the Army or the Marines in a time of war, you know you’re going to the Middle East.”
   Still, he adds, “I’m only human, and no matter what people say, that they’re not scared or anything, everyone is a little scared for different reasons.”
   The possibility of not returning home is what Mr. Bowker said scares him the most.
   ”I know that it’s a reality,” he says. “It could happen, and at some point you have to accept that. But being here, I know I’m trained enough, and I have 30 brothers in my platoon that won’t let anything bad happen to any of us, and we all have each other’s backs.”
   But the fear is always there, and that’s when it seems his Iraqi scavenger hunt, gummy bear eating attempts and his planning for the future — of a new car and going back to school — come in handy to pass the time.
   Mr. Bowker, underneath all the soldier gear, is still a young adult, who admitted to missing the little things he says he took for granted before — his home, his friends, trips to Wawa and Hoagie Haven, being a part of the Cranbury Fire Department, “the leaves turning once fall hits” and letting his hair grow long.
   These are things, however, that will have to take a back seat for a little while longer.
   Still, Mr. Bowker is confident he and the other platoon members are trained well. He says they are “busy and still working hard.”
   ”Prior to my deployment, we didn’t really hear much about Iraq on the news,” he says. “No one really reports on it here since Afghanistan is the hot spot so since we didn’t really see much or here much about Iraq. We assumed that we were just going to be sitting here bored out of our minds, not doing anything, but that proved to be false.”
   He adds, “There isn’t a time of day that isn’t covered by one of our patrols. Not to mention, we’re not exactly riding in luxury; the massaging leather seats and climate control is not included in our trucks. If you fall asleep in the trucks, it’s not due to them being comfortable. It’s just due to exhaustion.”
   His battalion is responsible for Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah and Tikrit or the “Sunni Triangle,” and the battalion’s mission is to cover the land and check that IEDs, (improvised explosive devices), which Mr. Bowker said resemble car bombs, are not being placed within the area.
   He took a picture of a bombed bridge that crosses the Euphrates River in Ar Ramadi and uses it to remind himself of the ever-present danger.
   ”I look at it as a reminder to always stay vigilant on patrols because things do still happen here, and really, you can see the results of what can happen,” he says.
   It reminds him there is no such thing as a typical day in Iraq.
   What is typical, however, is the extreme heat Mr. Bowker and other soldiers have to face every day.
   ”Days are pushing 120 degrees, and being in all of our gear, in the back of armored vehicles with air conditioning that barely works, you bake,” he said. “You sweat everywhere. I have sweat coming out of everywhere, even places I didn’t think sweat came out of.”
   In addition, another attribute to his days are his and the other soldiers’ interaction with the Iraqi people, who Mr. Bowker says have been pleasant and welcoming. There are times the Iraqi people will offer food or talk about their families.
   The kids, Mr. Bowker says, often will ask for chocolate or money or run outside in hopes of candy.
   The “majority of the kids I’ve met have really only known Iraq for the Iraq it is now — ridden with charred areas of highways where explosions have happened, bridges that are still out from explosions and really the Iraq that has America here, but they’re kids — they don’t let that bother them,” he says. “They’re more interested in running around and playing soccer here, which is another hot commodity — they want soccer balls.”
   Mr. Bowker supports the United States efforts in Iraq and believes a lot has been accomplished.
   ”Things here are going well,” he says, “and it seems that pulling out of Iraq can happen sooner than later.”
   He says the Iraqi police and Army are “really stepping up.”
   He adds, “Those guys love their country and want to work. They’re eager to do everything, and their morale is high, which is awesome.”
   He says he tries to look on the “bright side” of his own situation and maintain the role of “funny guy.”
   ”I try and keep everyone laughing and their spirits up, and you really can’t go everyday thinking about the bad things,” he says. “We’ve got a year here. We’ve got to make the best of it.”