Born in Macon, Covington resident Eurey Hooper grew up in Byron, Ga. 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 2001 - demolitions.
After 9/11, 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 3 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 anti-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 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.
Hooper and his family attend Epiphany Lutheran Church. Commenting on certain religious principles 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."
Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist, and freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com or through aveteransstory.us.