09/05/04 — A tale of two soldiers -- Derek Durham

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A tale of two soldiers -- Derek Durham

By Sam Atkins
Published in News on September 5, 2004 9:00 AM

Sgt. Derek Durham has changed in many ways over the past year. He has seen his fellow soldiers badly hurt and even killed while defending the United States.

One word comes to his mind when he recalls his deployment to Iraq -- scary.

He was part of the U.S. Army's Headquarters Company, 1-36 Infantry Battalion, stationed in the Rusafa district in downtown Baghdad. Iraqis were constantly attacking them with bombs and bullets.

During many of the attacks, Durham was on the headquarters' roof wearing his body armor and pointing his weapon while he peered through a hole trying to locate who was firing.

Twenty of the 200 people in his company have been killed. One day a convoy was returning to headquarters and was blasted by a roadside bomb, which had been detonated by a cell phone. It resulted in one dead and three severely injured. The person killed had trained Durham how to operate the generators in the area, which was one of his jobs.

He recalled seeing blood all over the vehicle when it was brought back. Durham was supposed to be leaving the headquarters around the same time the convoy was returning, so the bomb could have hit his group.

Durham also remembered seeing an 18-year-old girl getting caught between fire around their headquarters and being shot in the head, neck and stomach. She was pronounced dead on the scene.

Any Iraqis working for Americans, from cleaning ladies to carpenters, were constantly threatened to be killed if they did not stop supporting the U.S., he said.

Durham, 30, from Goldsboro, deployed to Iraq in May 2003 from his base in Friedberg, Germany. He entered the Army when he was 19, and it was his first deployment.

He first arrived in Kuwait and was in charge of setting up lights for the tents, doing maintenance on generators and fixing vehicles to make sure they were mission ready. He would walk miles in the intense heat to provide assistance.

"They wanted to make sure we were tough," he said.

After entering Iraq, the company received ammunition and radios along with a briefing about where the "hot spots," or war zones, were located. They left at night for a long ride to Baghdad, dealing with a torrential downpour along the way.

When they entered Baghdad, they drove fast to avoid being ambushed. They threw out candy and MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat, to the Iraqi children, who would swarm around their vehicle.

They relieved the 3rd Infantry Division and fixed their vehicles that had been damaged from explosions and wrecks. They set up a headquarters, which consisted of eight dormitories per story, four stories high. The dorms were surrounded by 80-foot-high walls and gates.

They spent the first month escorting the Iraqi students out of the dorms. The students chanted "Go Home USA" as they left and some attempted to fight the soldiers.

The dorms were dirty with food that was left on the stove, and Iraqi helmets and gear were left on the ground, said Durham.

It was over 100 degrees at night, and he would wake up in a pool of sweat with bugs, rats and roaches crawling over his face and body. He only had three hours of sleep a night.

Durham was the only generator mechanic in the battalion, and he fixed big industrial generators from different countries, which powered the headquarters. He won several awards for his work.

He also worked on vehicles and had guard duty on the roof for four hours at a time. He went on ration and fuel missions and was in charge of the guard force at the compound.

The Iraqi prisoners were interrogated to find out what they knew about hidden ammunition. They were then sent to the main detainment center a few miles away.

Durham was in charge of different prisoners every couple of days and made sure they had something to eat and drink. Their hands were tied behind their backs, and they were put outside in cardboard boxes. Many of them were crying and wounded, he said.

They trained the Iraqi Army to work guard duty. He said that many times the Iraqis would complain or not show up for work, or they would fall asleep at their posts. One Iraqi was given an AK-47 and left his uniform at the post and fled.

Durham was later stationed at Baghdad Airport for a few months, attached to a cavalry. He provided security on bridges and conducted raids.

In July, he returned with a small group to Germany. He went through seven days of medical evaluation and made sure his finances were in order. He was then given about a month of leave and came to Goldsboro to see his family, who gave him a welcome home party.

Durham said he did not really feel as if he was back when he first returned home. He began to notice the little things he had taken for granted and looked at people differently. He said he felt support from the Goldsboro community while he was gone and when he returned.

"I feel kind of proud of that," he said.

Durham is supposed to have a year before deploying again, but he may only have three months before his return.