Council member serving in Iraq

Thursday, August 11, 2005
Master Sgt. Michael Harris poses in front of the Camp Anaconda office.

SIKESTON -- Sikeston city council member Michael Harris may be thousands of miles away, serving the country in Iraq, but he remains Sikeston proud.

"One of things they told me is I'm an ambassador for U.S. over here, but I also look at it like I'm an ambassador for the city of Sikeston as well," Harris said during a telephone interview.

He even misses attending city council meetings, Harris said. And since he can't be here in person, Harris tries to stay informed about Sikeston as best he can.

"My wife has gone to the meetings, and we'll talk," Harris said. "I try to keep in touch with the city staff, but there's not a whole lot of input I can do."

In late April Harris was deployed with the Missouri Army National Guard, Engineer Brigade 35th Infantry Division out of Cape Girardeau to Fort Riley, Kan. The unit arrived June 2 in Iraq.

A master sergeant for the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf Region Division, Harris is stationed near Balad, Iraq, at Camp Anaconda -- home to several thousand, he said. Harris is quick to point out the Army side of his post is Camp Anaconda, and the Air Force side is called the Balad Air Base.

The Corps of Engineers operates throughout the entire country of Iraq and is broken into three divisions: Gulf Region North, which is where Harris is; Gulf Region Central, which is around Baghdad; and Gulf Region South, which is south of Baghdad.

Harris said most of his days are spent in the office.

"I try not to worry about the day-to-day things. I get into the office and do paperwork and make sure missions get complete and just keep moving on," Harris said.

Some of the projects the Corps of Engineers is doing during its assignment in Iraq include installing electrical distribution centers to various municipalities, constructing hospitals and schools, building border forts to help with security and helping train the Iraqi National Guard, Harris said. Also the military, and not necessarily the Corps of Engineers, is making sure the Iraqis are policing their communities, he added.

Most of the Iraqi citizens Harris has encountered in the community have been very receptive of America's presence, he said.

"People are going to work and actually making money and so they're able to buy necessities," Harris said. "I don't know what it was like under the Saddam administration, but they seem to be very pleased at what is happening."

On the other hand, there are some people who don't want U.S. troops in Iraq, Harris pointed out.

"That's why we have the bombings and this type of stuff," Harris said. "I had the opportunity to have lunch with one of the generals and an Iraqi general and he was very favorable of us being here."

American soldiers are trying to put the Iraqi citizens in charge of the reconstruction effort, Harris said. They're also helping rebuild the educational system, which is in somewhat of disarray, Harris noted.

"I think that a lot of good things will come out of this once the elections are held and we get a good government in place here," Harris said.

And only time will tell, Harris said.

"Soldiers over here are making a big sacrifice in order to make a difference in the country of Iraq, and my hat goes off to them and everything they're doing," Harris said, adding he feels blessed to not have to be on the front line.

For Harris, the biggest adjustment to living in Iraq is being separated from his family and friends.

"That's always a tough one; however, it all depends on how you look at things," Harris said. "You can look at it and worry about it a lot or you can think every day I'm getting closer to being back home."

Harris noted he's fortunate to have Internet and phone services at Camp Anaconda so he's able to communicate with his wife and family as much and as often as he has time to do so.

And there are morale, welfare and recreation facilities available for soldiers. There's a billiard center, swimming pools and movie theater, he noted. "I try to make sure to attend church services and build some relations with the church community here," Harris said.

Adjusting to the different climate is also something troops must endure.

"We get sandstorms like we get rainstorms back in the state. There's never a full two-week period that passes by that we don't get sandstorms, and it shuts down a lot of operations," Harris said. "It gets pretty dusty."

Despite the circumstances that brought him to Iraq, Harris is taking advantage of the cultural experience. Last week during a visit to border forts, he noticed people making homes out of mud and straw.

"Here it is in 2005 and people are making a house out of mud and straw and were without electricity. It reminded me of biblical times," Harris said.

Harris is currently scheduled to return home May although soldiers have the privilege to come home for a couple of weeks during deployment.

Meanwhile, Harris is just taking it one day at a time, anticipating his return home.

"Once I make it back, I will resume my city council duties and complete the last year of my term, which ends in 2007," Harris said. "At that point, I'll look at what else I might want to do, and I'll just see how things go."

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