The Iraq war has become for many of us a newspaper headline or television sound bite, a point of political debate, a military operation reassuringly remote from our own homes and offices.
But for Emory alumni among the nearly 150,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the danger is very real and the hope for peace, elusive.
This war is different from other conflicts because the “kill zone” is everywhere, says Emory psychologist Barbara Rothbaum. “No place is safe, you can be walking down the street and get hit,” she says. “You can’t predict where the danger is, and that’s very hard on soldiers.”
First Lieutenant Justin Wong 01Ox 03C knows that his office in the former Republican Presidential Palace is a relatively safe oasis inside the heavily reinforced International Zone, but attacks just outside the compound are commonplace. Wong recently e-mailed Emory Magazine a photo he took of a bomb detonating near his office, grey smoke rising like a storm cloud over palm trees and razor wire fencing.
“This was a car bomb that was thankfully found and exploded by the bomb squad,” says Wong, who admits to being tense enough during his trips from his living quarters to the palace to keep a magazine in his M-9 for the walk. “There was this taxi that pulled a quick U-turn near me and . . . made for a little adrenaline rush.”
As the article that begins on page xx reveals, Emory alumni who have chosen to serve and work in Iraq and Afghanistan do so at great personal risk. And unlike draftees during the Vietnam era, many of whom were poor and uneducated, they had choices other than the path that led to an armed conflict in a distant land.
Wong, for example, was an economics major and political science minor at Emory, and he plans to pursue a law degree and a master’s degree in urban planning after he returns from Iraq.
He grew up in Largo, Florida, where his parents owned a popular Chinese restaurant named Ming Dynasty for nearly twenty-five years. His mom is from Iowa and his dad is from China. His decision to join the Air Force, Wong says, grew out of this heritage as well as a firm belief that the military should be a cross-section of the population.
“The way to address the complaint that the war is fought by those less fortunate,” he says, “is for those more fortunate also to serve.”
To place oneself in harm’s ways seems a nostalgic ideal more associated with the “Greatest Generation” than GenXers. But Wong unabashedly uses words like “courage” and “honor” to describe the young soldiers he’s come to know.
Emory alumni who are serving in the Middle East as surgeons, soldiers, psychological operatives, and chaplains are proud of the work they have done in the midst of chaos, uncertainty, and fear.
Amid the dangers, they have found hope in the camaraderie of soldiers trying to right an overturned Humvee, the smiles of Afghani children playing with a new soccer ball, prayers murmured in a makeshift chapel, and the sight of the Milky Way from the roof of a desert hut.
They speak of a deep desire to help local Iraqis and Afghanis—those for whom the conflict zone is home—by providing medical care, resources, job opportunities, and protection from the ubiquitous cycle of violence and despair.
“People who have a stake in their government, who have a future,” writes Wong in an e-mail home, “do not strap bombs to their backs to blow themselves up.” —MJL