Spc. Will Rusaw doesn't know whether the 10 months he spent in Kuwait and Iraq were worth it. He doesn't insist the United States had to overthrow Saddam, but he doesn't say the intervention was unnecessary, either.
All the 22-year-old Juneau-Douglas High School graduate knows is that duty called.
"I was told to go, so I went. I didn't see Baghdad prior to the war, so I can't really make that call," Rusaw said last week in his parents' Mendenhall Valley home.
Rusaw joined the Army in 2000. He wanted to get out of Juneau for a little while and see the world.
"I wanted to kind of give myself a head start on real life," he said.
He got to see Baghdad from the driver's seat of a tank. Photos taken from his vantage point show wide roads cutting through the desert, heat curling up from the steaming asphalt and hazy skies. The sides of the roads are littered with Iraqi tanks, some blown up, others just abandoned when their occupants doffed their uniforms and hid among the civilians as the allies came through.
It took awhile for the reality of the war to sink in, he said.
"For the first couple of months, I was like, 'This is real,' " he said. "I was used to seeing all these machines fire, but this time there were actually people shooting back."
When Rusaw wasn't driving the tank, he was manning the gun on a Humvee, but he never had to shoot anyone. The same did not go for the gunner on Rusaw's tank. When Iraqis fired on the tank, the gunner had no choice but to shoot back, he said.
"It was either them or us," he said.
But for the most part, Rusaw had pleasant experiences with the Iraqis.
"There's a lot of really good people in Baghdad. There's really families there that are happy to see us and are very thankful," he said, noting that many Iraqis speak English.
Rusaw said Army soldiers were not allowed to give the citizens food and water. But the staggering poverty tugged at many hearts, and soldiers often disregarded that rule, sneaking military meals-ready-to-eat or bottles of water to hungry children.
"In the first place we stopped, I saw kids coming up and grabbing stuff we didn't eat, so quickly I handed an MRE to this little kid," he said. "I've never seen poverty on such a level."
Before Baghdad, Rusaw spent six months in the Kuwaiti desert, training and shaking sand out of all his belongings, and occasionally watching or reading media reports. He said most of the news from home focused on anti-war sentiment.
"We weren't seeing any of the support. We'd be sitting around, not really enjoying being there, and seeing in newspapers how many people were against us," he said.
There was a significant amount of boredom, too. Among his collection of photos are self-portraits, a photo of a scorpion trapped in a water bottle ("We'd play with scorpions and spiders and bugs, put 'em in there and see how long the insects would last"), and photos of endless desert.
The soldiers did get to see a USO show including rapper Kid Rock, actor John Stamos and Rebecca Romjin-Stamos and various athletes. The sweltering heat in the tent where the show was staged was too much to bear, though, so Rusaw and his buddies went to the Burger King at the Baghdad airport, where the wait is typically two-and-a-half to three hours.
Rusaw most looked forward to visiting Juneau upon his return from the Persian Gulf. This visit is his first since he joined the Army. He'll go back to his base, Fort Stewart, Ga., in mid-September to serve his remaining 14 months in the Army. After that, he might re-enlist, or join the National Guard and go to college.
"The military is kind of fun. It's kind of fun to be able to drive a tank. You tend to meet people and get to know people better than in other jobs," he said.