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Chaplain in Iraq: Leaving the field means saying goodbye to special people
Rep. Doug Collins

Editor’s note: State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, currently is in Iraq as a U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain. He began his service there in September. He is reporting weekly on the activities at his location. His e-mail address is Collins has begun the process of transitioning to leave Iraq shortly, so this will be his last column from there.

The time between Christmas and New Year’s long has been a time in my family for slowing down and reflecting on the past year and looking forward to the New Year. Each year, Lisa and I take a trip with the kids, and all we do is relax, read, scrapbook and play. In the midst of all this there is typically one night in which Lisa and I sit down and we plan and dream together. Last year was no exception.

When I made out my list last year it had on it things like survive the upcoming legislative session, finish my last semester of law school, pass the Georgia Bar exam and get re-elected. As I look back over this list, I feel good that those things were accomplished, however, the one thing that has made 2008 so interesting and life-changing for us was not even on the list back then.

Coming to Iraq was not on my radar screen. I have learned that many times God does not forewarn us of the adventures that lie ahead. Instead, I believe he just gives us the strength to see them through.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend Kerry Cook wrote to me and said that he knew that a few months back I did a very hard thing by leaving Gainesville and my family to come over here.

He went on, however, to say that in just a few weeks I would do a similar hard thing and that is I would say goodbye to those who have become my family in the desert.

He is so right. I cannot wait to once again be in Gainesville with my family. But over the past few nights and for the next little while, I am saying goodbye to some very special people over here that just a few short months ago I never even knew. Now we share the common experience of alarms, threats, missions, long hours and little sleep. We have shared the dining hall with its never-changing menu based on the days of the weeks. We have lived through 110-plus degree heat and below-32 degree nights. Battled the pain of homesickness and rejoiced in the little victories of military life, such as promotions and passing job-related tests.

I have tried to share with you the simpler side of life in a war zone, the side that never gets reported because it lacks the punch that other stories from over here might provide. I have been with America’s sons and daughters, who should make a country proud. They do their job and ask for nothing except respect.

I have watched young airmen just out of high school grow up right before my eyes. I have seen older veterans come to the end of their tour and go home to a well-deserved retirement with the knowledge that they have answered the call and have been found standing tall.

I have also learned that the oft-repeated phrase "war is hell" is too true. I have marks upon my life that will forever stay from the heroic actions of many. Someday, I hope to share with you more of what I have seen, but for now just know that the sacrifice of many is great, and the price is always high in war.

On a lighter note, when I return I will have to remember not to blow the horn every time I back up. I probably will look around for my reflective belt before going out, since it has become a permanent fixture around my waist. So if you see me wearing a suit and a yellow reflective belt, just realize old habits are hard to break. It probably will take me a while to not check the tire for FOD (foreign object debris) before driving off, and I will have to remember that just showing my ID card will not get me a free meal at the local restaurant.

So as the time draws down and the goodbyes over here begin, the words of my friend from so far away begin to echo in my ears. In a little while, I will get on a plane and say goodbye to this base that has been my home for the past four months. When I do, I will leave here a better man for all I have learned and because of the new friends I have made. As we each depart for our true homes, each of us will carry this place in our minds, if not our hearts. It has changed us all.

No, some plans were not on the paper last year. I wonder what will lie ahead this coming year. What I do know is it has been one heck of a ride.

Thanks for your support. May you find the New Year truly blessed.

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