MOSUL, Iraq – Tonight I watched the sun set on the glowing Tigris River (search), and as I smelled the marshland water in the cool breeze that washed over me, I wondered if a few months ago, Saddam Hussein himself wasn't watching the same scene -- I am sitting on his balcony, after all.
After months of vehicle hoods, tents and foxholes, the ground and concrete schoolhouse floors, nasty critters, stray dogs and sandstorms, I'm sleeping in a palace tonight overlooking the lights of Mosul (search). It's incredible to look back.
We've accomplished much in the past month of fighting. We've liberated a country, broken the back of a firmly established totalitarian regime, begun to provide for the masses and are teaching a nation how to stand on its feet. I've had so many experiences, seen and done so many exciting, strange and sometimes crazy things; I cannot begin to describe them.
Some might say we had a little luck; others would say the campaign was simply well planned. I couldn't say whether luck was a factor, but looking back, I see many things I am thankful for having happened:
For the successful campaign of the coalition forces, who freed the noble Iraqi people from 30 years of oppression in less than 30 days. The smiles and cheers of the resilient citizens I've met in An Najaf (search), Karbala (search), Baghdad and Mosul, and their iron will to learn how to support themselves without the Ba'ath Party (search) infrastructure, are all the reasons I need for being here. For their happiness, their kind hospitality, the little girl who gave me a rose, I am thankful.
For the leadership of the 101st Airborne Division (search) (Air Assault), my fellow Screaming Eagles (search), who had little time to prepare but were still able to successfully orchestrate the unique capabilities we have so that we could participate in Iraq's liberation.
For the 3rd Infantry Division (search), whose tanks charged relentlessly across the Iraqi desert and set the fastest invasion pace ever seen. Behind them, the 101st Airborne Division was able to set up fuel points that enabled our helicopter-heavy brigades to conduct combat air assaults and allowed our Apaches to strike deep into the ranks of the Republican Guard (search) -- helping us get home that much sooner.
For the Marines (search), especially for sticking it out at Al Nasiriyah (search), the bloodiest battle in the war with the possible exception of Al Basrah (search). The liberation of Nasiriyah will forever be preserved in their legacy, along with Okinawa (search) and Tripoli (search). Semper Fi.
For the British, who fought bravely and successfully secured the Al Faw peninsula, averting ecological disaster, and liberated Al Basrah, although the Ba'ath Party intended to make its streets run with British and Iraqi blood alike.
For the Iraqi soldiers who, faced with tourture and death if they were caught, braved those risks and capitulated. Those who realized Saddam wasn't worth fighting for will live to participate in the building of a better Iraq. Their people owe them a greater debt of gratitude than they will ever know.
For the weapons of mass destruction (search) that were not used, even though our intelligence said they would be. Perhaps they heeded our warnings, or perhaps we eliminated their capability to unleash them early on in the war. If it's the latter, the credit belongs to the Navy and Air Force for diminishing that capability. That they had such weapons is no longer a question.
For the Patriot missile (search) batteries from the 11th Air Defense Artillery Division (search) out of Fort Bliss, Texas. The new Patriot Advanced Capability 3 technology (search) has been targeted with harsh criticism, but all I know is that it kept Iraqi missiles from hitting us.
For the safe return of our prisoners of war -- roughed up, but alive. I knew Spc. Joseph Hudson (search) of Fort Bliss, Texas from high school, and the sight of his grizzly, weary, but smiling face as he walked down the tarmac has been a highlight of my deployment.
For the opportunity to take time and grieve with my brothers of 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, when we lost Capt. Chris Seifert (search) during a grenade attack in Kuwait. It really helped speed the healing process and prepared us for what could lie ahead for any one of us. We must carry on the work of the living, but not forget the fallen, the most noble among us. Chris and Air Force Maj. Greg Stone (search), who later died from injuries suffered in the incident, are no exception.
For the fact that nobody has planned my memorial service yet, as well as almost 250,000 others. I've been shot at enough to distinguish an incoming AK-47 round from one fired away from me, enough to earn my Hostile Fire Pay (search) five times over. And many service members have endured more than I. To the higher being in all of our lives, for seeing that so many soldiers on both sides of the fight escaped harm -- including me -- I thank you.
For those brave souls who will never return home, whom more than self their country loved and mercy more than life. We must always remember that those soldiers, Marines, seamen and airmen, and their families, paid a price so high it can never be repaid.
For those men and women I serve beside, who understand and have seen the ultimate sacrifice we all may be called upon to make for America, yet choose to serve anyway.
Certainly not least, I am thankful for the support we've been given by those who are back home, by the families and friends of soldiers and perfect strangers. For the letters, the care packages, and the rallies. Americans, you are the ones who remind us what we're fighting for.
Our work in Iraq is far from over, true, and we're not out of danger yet. Even as I write, the night sky is painted with the bright orange and red streaks of tracer rounds, and sporadic small-arms fire crackles like popcorn, sometimes interrupted by the quivering explosion of a grenade. And there's no telling what tomorrow might bring.
So tonight, I'll sleep on my cot in this palace, listening to those sounds in a foreign, far-away land, and count my blessings that when I do wake up, tomorrow I'll be one day closer to coming home.
Pfc. James Matise is a public affairs specialist with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).) This column was published by the Army News Service on April 30, 2003. Pfc. Matise is still serving in Iraq.