Soldier's Diary: It's a Marathon, Not a Sprint for Soldiers in Iraq

Editor's note: U.S. Army Capt. Dan Sukman is serving a one-year deployment to Iraq. For previous entries and his bio, see the Soldier's Diary archives.

May 14, 2006

In 2005, following the first stage of the Tour de France, a young American named Dave Zabriskie was in the lead. He captured the first stage in unexpected fashion. The winner of the second stage was a Belgian named Tom Boonen. But if you are like most of us, and follow bicycling only once a year for two minutes while watching the highlights of the tour on ESPN, the fact that these two were ahead after the first two stages made no difference who the winner was going to be.

Much to no one's surprise, at the end of the race, Lance Armstrong was the six-time champion. For Lance, this was an accomplishment only to be matched by his Oscar-worthy appearance in the movie "Dodgeball."

On the first day our unit officially took over operations in Baghdad, we lost four soldiers to a catastrophic IED [improvised explosive device] attack. I remember the moment very clearly: The call came in to the TOC [tactical operations center], Medevac birds were en route, but in the end they made no difference, four soldiers were dead …Welcome to Iraq.

Since that first day, I have seen the soldiers of our brigade continually perform and accomplish missions no one thought possible. Our infantry and cavalry troops have secured enormous amounts of land, making South Baghdad a safer place for the Iraqi people to live. Our infantry battalions have literally pacified the largest population center in South Baghdad, accomplishing such tasks as setting up a city council and opening two police stations, not to mention killing or capturing numerous terrorists.

In December, and I have mentioned it before, we had over 110,000 Iraqi citizens dip their fingers in ink and vote in the elections. That was a credit to the soldiers in the brigade, and even more to the Iraqi army who secured the polling sites and ran the election.

The soldiers in our brigade have rebuilt schools, opened medical clinics, and most importantly, trained the Iraqi army and police to secure their own citizens. There is a lot of work still left to be done, but much like the Tour de France, our tour is a 365-day marathon, and not a one-day sprint. It won't be won or lost in one day.

All the credit for all of the brigades' accomplishments belong to these soldiers, many of whom are working 16- to 20- hour days, and spending most of that time outside the wire; and for them, this marathon is at a five-minute-a-mile pace.

Over the course of this run, we have had setbacks; the first-day setback was not the only one we have faced. As a unit, we have lost over 30 soldiers to date, and when these setbacks happen, it's like the marathon is being run on a treadmill — lots of energy spent, but nothing to show for it. It's a glass half-empty outlook, but it will never last for more than a couple of minutes.

What takes the momentary feeling of failure away is the ability to walk outside the office and see the soldiers getting ready for the next mission. At any given time, you can see a patrol getting ready to roll out of the gate to perform the next task, be it a trip to talk with the local leadership or a patrol ready to go out and find the enemy. If those soldiers can take the losses and still perform the mission, then I know who to place my bet on for the marathon.

I have mentioned some of the outstanding NCO's [non-commissioned officers] and soldiers I work with on a daily basis. I can't say enough about them. Sitting in the chow hall and talking to a soldier is all the motivation you need to keep running in this race.

We took those losses on the first day, and there is always the possibility that on our last day in country, we can lose more. Does that mean no progress has been made in the course of a year? Absolutely not. Nothing can take away the accomplishments and the sacrifice of the soldiers over here. The marathon is longer, and the picture is bigger than our one-year tour over here.

So why am I writing this entry now? I am not quite sure. Perhaps it is because we lost another soldier this weekend. Or maybe because we are nearly eight months complete, and the feeling of complicacy, or even overconfidence, can be setting in. Combine those two and looking at the next four months can be like looking at the final hill of the race, but the hill goes up and you can't see the finish line quite yet.

To quote Lance Armstrong's words of wisdom to Peter Leflore [played by Vince Vaughn] in "Dodgeball": "If it were not for giving up when the going gets tough, we would have nothing to regret for the rest of our lives."

When you look at the soldiers here you just know we will have no regrets when we leave.

E-mail Captain Dan at Click here to read his bio.