Ac­count of too many close calls in Iraq

The Covington News - - Sports - PETE MECCA

Born in Macon, Cov­ing­ton res­i­dent Eurey Hooper grew up in By­ron, and joined the Army re­serves at 18 years old.

Dur­ing the Gulf War, he vol­un­teered for ac­tive duty. “I didn’t cross ‘The Pond’ but two of my broth­ers did,” he said. In civil­ian life, Hooper worked as a me­chanic at Harts­field In­ter­na­tional air­port, Cummins Diesel, and soon learned an oc­cu­pa­tion that would serve him well af­ter 9/11 — de­mo­li­tions.

Hooper was back in ac­tion. He said, “I was train­ing at Fort Ste­wart when the 10th Engi­neer­ing re­turned from their ini­tial de­ploy­ment dur­ing En­dur­ing Free­dom, the in­va­sion of Iraq. They were dis­banded and we be­came part of Echo Com­pany of the 315th In­fantry.” In Jan­uary 2005, Hooper landed at Bagh­dad In­ter­na­tional. “I knew we were re­ally there when I stepped off the plane,” he said. “I only had one foot on Iraqi soil when a shock wave hit me from an enor­mous ex­plo­sion. A big black mush­room cloud bal­looned sky­ward in the dis­tance. The de­mo­li­tions boys had blown an in­sur­gent ammo dump. Wel­come to Iraq.”

As­signed to FOB Hope (For­ward Oper­at­ing Base) in Sadr City, the big­gest slum in Bagh­dad with three mil­lion res­i­dents, Hooper was pushed up to bat­tal­ion level due to his ex­pe­ri­ence in heavy equip­ment, con­struc­tion and de­mo­li­tions. He said, “My job was qual­ity con­trol at FOB Hope. I over­saw work for the Iraqis, com­piled data info for their first elec­tion, and sur­veyed their crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture for SWEAT — sewer, wa­ter, elec­tric­ity and trash.”

Wells were dug for wa­ter. “When fin­ished we’d hand the wells over to the Iraqis, but Cler­i­cal mili­tias would take over and charge the peo­ple for wa­ter. The mili­tias even took over the wa­ter spig­ots. The sit­u­a­tion was frus­trat­ing, to say the least.”

The frus­tra­tion would in­ten­sify. “Sad­dam Hus­sein was Sunni but the ma­jor­ity of the Iraqis in Sadr City were Shi­ite, so they lived in ex­treme poverty,” Hooper said. “You’d see Shi­ite kids with no shoes, no clothes; then travel through a Sunni area and see beau­ti­ful homes with swim­ming pools.” Asked to cri­tique the peo­ple of Iraq, Hooper said, “To tell you the truth, they want to be left alone to pro­vide for their fam­i­lies just like most peo­ple, but they live in a hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion.”

Bribery was a way of life. If some­one needed their trash picked up, the elec­tric­ity turned back on, or their sewage pumped out: PAY ME! “That’s the way it was,” Hooper said. “They caught and ate fish out of sewage canals and the kids swam in the filth for fun.”

On war ac­tiv­ity, Hooper said, “Dur­ing our sec­ond week in Sadr, a young medic was killed by a sniper. We were told the sniper was Syr­ian, paid off by the lo­cal mili­tia just to ‘make a point’ that they were watch­ing us.” On an­other oc­ca­sion, Hooper was on the roof of a mo­tor pool build­ing with a chop­per hov­er­ing about 50 feet above him. “An RPG (rocket-pro­pelled grenade) zoomed right be­tween us,” he said. “I guess had they hit the chop­per I’d been a goner. That was in­ter­est­ing.”

In­ter­est­ing? “Well, maybe the word is un­nerv­ing,” Hooper said with a grin. One night dur­ing a mor­tar strike shell frag­ments flew through his bed­room win­dow. “I was tex­ting with my wife at the time,” he said. “My room­mate was still asleep so I just cov­ered him with a flak vest and kept on tex­ting.” Asked if he in­formed his wife a mor­tar at­tack was in progress, Hooper said, “Nope, I didn’t want to up­set her.”

Be­fore Hooper ar­rived in Sadr City the area was one of the most mortared cities in his­tory. “Ap­par­ently an Abrams tank ac­ci­den­tally ran over a cleric, so the base got pounded daily,” he said. Hooper was a bit luck­ier; FOB Hope re­ceived in-com­ing weekly in­stead of daily. Al­though Amer­i­can mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy could pin­point a lo­ca­tion of an en­emy mor­tar team, Hooper said, “We couldn’t get per­mis­sion to fire back. That’s a hellava way to fight a war.”

His luck would hold. In­spect­ing an un­used build­ing inside the com­pound, Hooper stepped on a pile of ply­wood and junk. “I heard a strange sound so I checked out the stuff un­der­neath the junk pile,” he said. The ‘stuff’ turned out to be live an- ti-tank and anti-per­son­nel mines. “Yeah, that was ‘in­ter­est­ing’ too.”

Men were lost 150 yards out­side the com­pound. “IEDs,” Hooper said. “Humvees would be pulled back in with the floor­board cov­ered in blood; boys all man­gled up and we couldn’t do noth­ing about it.” Iraqis em­ployed by the U.S. were mur­dered by mili­tias. “They worked be­cause the money was good,” he said. “But some of them paid with their lives.” Two women em­ploy­ees were butchered by a mili­tia; the de­tails too grue­some for the gen­eral pub­lic.

Hooper saw a big wall of dust head­ing his way one day. “Sand storm,” he said. “I would hold my arm out and couldn’t see my hand. You had to pull up your neck ga­tor in or­der to breathe. Gog­gles or sun­glasses were a given.”

Asked his feel­ings on Iraq, Hooper said, “Mixed feel­ings. Some­times I thought we should bull­doze the whole coun­try into a golf course, but I al­ways had to think of the Iraqi peo­ple. I ate with them, worked with them, good peo­ple try­ing to live in a land that has fought sec­u­lar con­flicts for thou­sands of years. It’s sad, re­ally. I’d hear from many an Iraqi ‘the best way to get our at­ten­tion is to crack us over the head.’ I be­lieve within time an­other strong­man will be in charge, that’s the way it is.”

Hooper and his fam­ily at­tend Epiphany Lutheran Church. Com­ment­ing on cer­tain reli­gious prin­ci­ples as op­posed to war ac­tiv­i­ties, Hooper said, “I knew I’d never be in Iraq again, so I made the best of it. I saw things men­tioned in the Bi­ble, like the Ti­gris and Euphrates Rivers, watched desert foxes scur­ry­ing for food, saw camel spi­ders and soft-scaled vipers, and I came home in one piece. That right there is more than enough to be thank­ful for.”

Hooper re­turned home in Jan­uary 2006 and left the mil­i­tary af­ter surgery on his right knee for a non-war re­lated in­jury. He is em­ployed at the Snap­ping Shoals main of­fice in cus­tomer ser­vice.

Pete Mecca — Viet­nam vet­eran, colum­nist, and free­lance writer. Contact Pete at avet­er­ansstory@ gmail. com Visit his web­site at avet­er­

Eurey Hooper, an Iraq vet­eran, opens up about his time serv­ing in the war.

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