Coming Home From Iraq

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Children wonder, has local sniper been shot at?

Justin Armstrong had attended college for a semester after graduating from Alta High School back in 2001, but he found himself without a clear direction on where he wanted to go in life. He knew where to look for it. He joined the United States Army.

Since August, Justin, the son of Gary and Sandy Armstrong, Storm Lake, has been serving his country in Iraq in the highly stressful post of infantry scout sniper. He and his platoon spend their days in search of insurgents.

Justin seems composed about his duties but his mom thinks differently.

"I tell her not to worry," Justin said.

"We were totally in shock when he told us he was joining the Army," Sandy reflected. "We've never had any connection with the military. It takes getting used to and we've learned to adjust."

Justin finds that most of the soldiers in his platoon are well-tested, many now on repeat tours of duty in Iraq.

The 23-year-old was deployed to Iraq from Ft. Wainwright in Fairbanks, Ala. When his mission is up in mid-July, he will return there. But first, he's had a long-awaited two-week visit home.

Justin visited Concordia School, where his mom is a secretary and where his younger brother Tyler attends school, and talked with the students, curious about his life in the war zone.

The students had the opportunity to ask questions of Justin, who showed up in his desert camouflage fatigues.

"Where do you sleep?" the students wanted to know.

He told them he usually slept in a building equipped with television, internet and even air conditioning.

The students were relieved to hear the answer, admitting they thought he had to sleep in a tent.

Based in Mosul, 60 miles away from the Turkey border, Justin explained that there are seasons much like there is in Iowa. The temperatures have been below freezing and at its highest, temperatures have been well above 100 degrees.

The students asked Justin if he had ever been sunburned while in Iraq. His answer was "yes" and "ouch."

He explained that when he and others in his platoon arrived in Iraq, many missions were carried out in search of the insurgents. Accompanied by interpreters, the troops are now making less searches, as the duties are slowly being transferred to the Iraqi natives of the newly-emerging police department.

He recalls one mission where he had to jump from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of a dangerous insurgent.

Once caught, the insurgents are detained and blindfolded as they are transferred to another location for interrogation by other U.S. military officials, he told the students.

The Concordia kids were curious about how many guns Justin was responsible for and what he had to wear. He told them he had two guns - an M4 rifle and a machine gun; and besides the fatigues, he wears a helmet, body armor and always, sunglasses.

Often, he comes in contact with Iraqi children who know enough English to say, "Mister give me candy." And though many of the soldiers ignore the requests, he always shares whatever he has with them. He has also "shared" his sunglasses with the youngsters while trying to communicate with them. It is difficult to resist the smiles, he said.

The students were also curious whether or not any of the soldiers had pets.

Though they are not supposed to, he told them, there has been a pet rabbit, cat and a puppy that the soldiers in his location have at different times wished to make their own. A few have adopted lizards and snakes as well.

The vehicles Justin most often rides in are called strikers, tanks that have wheels instead of tracks. The students were curious about how many soldiers could fit in the vehicles.

"Comfortably? Ten. Uncomfortably? Twelve - which is how many there usually is," he told the kids.

It was just too tempting for the kids and they couldn't help but ask, "Have you ever been shot at?"

Justin softly replied, "yes," and left it at that.

Though dangerous, Justin said his experience in the U.S. Army has been a good one. It has forced him to grow up and take responsibility, he finds.

"It's been fun and has given me new experiences and it's been exciting," he concluded.

Justin begins his trip back to Iraq today.

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