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Jamie Tobias Neely: Rays of light pierce dense Iraq darkness

On recent grim winter mornings I gaze out the window past my computer screen into the grainy, pock-marked snowbanks in my backyard. Some days, a message pops into my inbox to paint an even darker scene from the other side of the world.

I’ve been corresponding since last summer with Col. Darel Maxfield of Spokane, now serving at Besmaya Range Complex in Diyala Province. The forces of evil, as Maxfield describes them, have loomed as prevalent and pervasive in Iraq as in some of Hollywood’s most celebrated films this season.

Maxfield, who describes a wholehearted commitment to this war, sees it through a much different lens than I do. He’s ordinarily a social studies teacher at Ferris High School in Spokane, but now he supervises an American unit helping to train the Iraqi military.

Last winter, Maxfield left Spokane to encounter unsettling images: the body of a dead Iraqi soldier, his face unlined and innocent. A headless torso pulled out of the Diyala River. Holiday ribbon trimmed with snowmen crumpled in the rubble outside an empty, shot-out school building.

Even the ribbon broke his heart. Spokane schoolchildren had sent cards and drawings wrapped in that ribbon to their counterparts in Iraq late last year, and Maxfield arranged to have these holiday greetings delivered with other gifts to a school in a nearby village.

Terrorists apparently took offense at the American presence. “A patrol went back three days later and found that our help may have actually caused a great deal of pain to those we helped,” Maxfield wrote.

As violence surrounded Besmaya last year, Maxfield’s return date was uncertain. At one point, it appeared likely he’d miss his son Ben’s graduation in June.

Maxfield turned to a desert-colored mongrel named Sandy, and her reassuring eyes, for strength. He read and reread a prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel, sent by a Spokane friend.

“Glorious Saint Michael,” the prayer begins, “…come to the assistance of His followers, against whom the powers of hell are unchained.”

Lately, though, the tone of Maxfield’s e-mails has begun to shift.

In mid-February another brigade of nearly 3,000 Iraqi soldiers completed training at Besmaya and underwent “the weirdest damn graduation” he’s ever seen. They performed outrageous demonstrations of their loyalty and determination. One group formed a human pyramid as a soldier climbed to the top waving an Iraq flag. Another group simulated hand-to-hand combat so intense a small fight broke out. And a third group sprinted forward to kill live rabbits with their hands and tear into them with their teeth, “spitting out rabbit fur and blood and goo.”

It was a scene, Maxfield wrote, perfect for Monty Python.

The U.S. military surge has reduced the level of violence surrounding Maxfield. The Iraqi military keeps discovering hidden caches of munitions and destroying them. And enemies lob fewer shells these days at Besmaya.

Last Sunday afternoon, Maxfield wrote of hope reappearing in the sun-filled desert. Temperatures reached the mid-80s and the afternoon filled with benign sounds: a basketball bouncing in a pick-up game on the court outside, rifles popping on the training range, a boom box blasting modern Iraqi music from a nearby guard tower and small birds chirping.

After postponements and delays, Maxfield finally learned his departure date. He’s scheduled to leave in April, well before his son’s graduation.

“So Saint Michael and Sandy the dog seem to be doing a pretty good job of guarding me,” he wrote recently.

The forces of evil have not left Iraq, of course. Just over a week ago, headlines described an attack carried out by a suicide bomber using a wheelchair. Maxfield mentioned that in last Sunday’s e-mail, too.

“More and more people are standing up for good things,” he wrote. “But it’s a slow two-steps-forward, one-back process.”

That ratio beats the alternative, I’ve concluded. I don’t know what will happen when the surge is over or how this war will end. I doubt I’ll ever be convinced it was a good idea. But these days I seem to need even small glimpses of hope and humor in Iraq far more than Hollywood’s finest contemplations of evil. Iraq may be “no country for old men” either, but I’m still yearning for goodness to prevail.

Last week, temperatures in Spokane hit the 50s. As I gazed at the sparkling snow berm receding outside my front yard one morning, a teen skateboarded down the street in a turquoise blue T-shirt, arms bare. Darkness has begun to give way to light around here, too.

Crocuses can’t be far off.


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