Staying Inside Iraq and Outside the Wire

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Army Major Michael Bugaj, a field artilleryman, had two striking experiences during his first tour in Iraq in 2005-2006: the gloom that permeated his unit when it learned its tour had been extended without notice, and what it’s like to come under fire for the first time.

Bugai, who has since pulled a tour in Afghanistan, spoke of his Iraq experience in this recently-posted March interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Highlights:

I was three days out from returning home. I went to work that day — I think we did 12-hour shift rotations — I found out that we were on administrative blackout from the phones and everything like that. Come to find out, we did get extended as part of the surge in Iraq. We had to bring back 300 people from Alaska. A good friend of mine was there for a good 24 hours before he had to get back on the plane. He got to kiss his wife and then come back on a plane.

We had several hundred people down in Kuwait. It was kind of tough. I think the first expression or first feelings that everyone had was, “This is complete bologna. We don’t want to do it.”

COL Shields, who was our brigade commander, was absolutely fantastic. He came in and he said, “Hey, I know everybody is mad but the bottom line is that we were chosen for this mission for a reason. Get mad and stay mad today but tomorrow when you wake up there is work to do.” Within a week we were down in Baghdad…

Specific memory while deployed? [Pause] There is a lot. [Laughs] I don’t think there was one memory while on deployment. I think the biggest thought of mine in regards to my deployment experience was basically the first time I left the wire.

Quite honestly, you’re scared.

You are terrified to even know what is going to go on. You had that feeling of being on edge and just having that feeling is something that I won’t forget very quickly.

I think the second one was being shot at for the first time. That’s an interesting thing to have happened. It’s very interesting. I didn’t know how I was going to react. I didn’t know if I was going to be running or screaming and running away or what.

Surprising myself, I was relatively calm. [Laughs] After you get some of those experiences under your belt, you kind of know what to expect. I don’t want to say that you are relaxed but you don’t put yourself on edge all of the time because you can drive yourself kind of crazy if you were worried about everything.