Iraq war vet speaks to Kiwanis | SierraSun.com

Iraq war vet speaks to Kiwanis

Megan Feldman

Andrew Garza still remembers getting that care package of clean, white socks. “It was like gold,” he said. During the war in Iraq, Garza said clean socks were hard to come by.

Garza, 21, arrived in Kuwait with the First Marine Division, on Jan. 27 and began the invasion of Iraq on March 20. He shared his recollections of the war with the North Tahoe Kiwanis Club last Thursday as guest speaker at the group’s monthly meeting.

Now stationed at 29 Palms near Palm Springs, Garza grew up in Sacramento and his mother lives in Truckee and works at AAA. With more than three years in the marines under his belt and eight months to go, Garza said when he’s done he wants to be a fire fighter.

Looking back on his months in the Middle East, he said one of the hardest parts was waiting near the Iraqi border in Kuwait and wondering what the war would bring.

“Most of us were wanting the war to happen – we were just stewing in Kuwait,” he said. For two months leading up to the invasion, his division did mechanized training, with constant drills and exercises. Then on March 18, they were ordered to suit up for the invasion and waited for two days just outside the Iraq border.

The night before they crossed into the country, they heard and saw the U.S. shock and awe air campaign. Intermittent gas and artillery drills combined with the American missile strikes made sleep difficult.

“We could see all the flashes, the ground was shaking,” he said. “Nobody could sleep for two days, then we crossed [the border].”

His impression while moving north near Basra and Nasiriyah was that the Iraqis weren’t interested in fighting. After a mild tank battle near the southern city of Basra, many soldiers surrendered, he said. The prisoners were turned over to another marine division specifically in charge of prisoners of war and interrogation, he said.

Garza carried either an M-16 or a shotgun with about 65 pounds of weight, and being transported inside an enclosed armored personnel carrier while wearing a chemical suit made for sweltering temperatures.

The first night of the invasion they were in the carrier for eight or nine hours without getting out, and with the hatches closed, “It was just sweltering,” he said.

During the trip north to Baghdad, Garza said his division took orders without knowledge of what was happening in the larger war or the opinions back home. “We weren’t told anything – you probably know more about the war than we did,” he said.

But now that he’s back in the U.S. he has access to news reports and information, and he’s still certain the war was the right thing to do.

When asked about current controversy over the weapons of mass destruction that have yet to be found, he recalled the Iraqi exuberance he encountered after the toppling of Saddam’s regime and villagers’ stories about the dictator’s extreme brutality.

During the march north, “we were running through towns blowing up anti-aircraft guns and it was hard to maneuver because people came up and hugged us…men offered us their daughters,” said Garza. “They were so happy to see us…we got a really warm welcome.”

Garza remembered one family telling him the story of their daughter – several family members spoke enough English to communicate. One day armed men employed by the regime came to the house and took her outside to a nearby alley, they said.

The men gang-raped her and videotaped the act, then decapitated her and left her body on the ground. From the other stories he heard, said Garza, such atrocities were common practice.

“The weapons of mass destruction may be in Syria – even if they’re not, Saddam needed to get out of there,” he said. “I think the war was totally justified.”

Garza also told those at the meeting about the poverty in Iraq, saying most of the homes he saw were one-room mud huts and many people went without shoes.

On the second day in Baghdad, his platoon was present for the famed moment when the statue of Saddam was torn down. He showed a piece of it to those at the luncheon, along with a couple stars off the uniform of a Republican Guard soldier.

Garza returned to California on May 23, and his strongest emotion that day was relief, he said. The marines, he added, were tired and many of them had gotten sick from contaminated water and mosquitos. They were glad to be home.