Editors Note- Nearly a dozen Gaucho alumni are serving or have served in Iraq and the Middle Eastern Theater. The second of a three part series, today’s story looks at the active duty experiences of three UCSB alumni, from the danger to the monotony. Part I can be found at www.dailynexus.com.
Somewhere in Baghdad, her exact location classified for security reasons, 2nd Lt. Jennifer Pozzi serves with a U.S. Military Police unit in a combat zone she describes as “pretty darn scary.”
Her daily responsibilities include reconnaissance and surveillance missions, in addition to setting up traffic checkpoints to search for rockets, small arms and vehicles wired with explosives that suicide bombers use to ram coalition convoys.
“Mortars and [rocket propelled grenades] coming into the camp is a daily occurrence,” Pozzi, a UCSB alumna, said in an e-mail last month from her forward base. “For anyone that has ever been in a mortar attack, they will tell you it’s a humbling experience. You can’t tell where they are going to hit – its kind of ‘you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time’ and you’re dead.” In 2004, a dozen UCSB students completed the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program and were commissioned as officers in the U.S. Army. All of them in their early 20s – including Pozzi, 2nd Lt. Jeff Rothstein and 2nd Lt. Andrew Feitt – graduated into a workplace defined by the nation’s continuing war on terrorism and the war in Iraq.
Pozzi, shipped off to Iraq in February 2005, just after getting married to another cadet in the ROTC program, William Rion, a second lieutenants currently stationed in Texas. Because of the nine-hour time difference between Texas and Iraq, and her on duty shifts that stretch from 16 to 20 hours every day, she said the couple does not have very much time to talk.
“There are no days off – everyday is ‘Monday;’ it’s hard to get used to,” Pozzi said. “But I love my job. I am totally dedicated to my platoon and I trust them with my life. The downside to being here is I miss my family, friends and, most of all, my husband. Without him I don’t know where I would be.”
Right now, at only 23 years of age, she is halfway around the world commanding 31 men. All but three, she said, are older than she is.
“[My men] look to me for guidance, problem solving and in a combat situation, I lead them,” said Pozzi. “I am 5’4″and 125 pounds. With all my gear on I literally look like a child, but they follow me.”
Back at UCSB last month, Feitt, 22, was preparing to leave his advisory role at the Surfrider Battalion to join the Third Infantry Division at its home base in Fort Stewart, Ga.
After some additional training, he will ship off to northern Iraq at the end of this month to join his unit, which has already deployed.
When Feitt joined ROTC four years ago, immediately deploying to a combat zone after graduation was not a possibility.
“Speaking personally, I’m anxious to go,” Feitt said. “I’ve been trained in this stuff. I feel pretty confident in my training.”
A copy of the Quran sits on the desk in his office, in the military science building behind Phelps Hall.
“One of my big regions of study is in the Middle East, so I know a little Arabic and studied up on Middle Eastern history,” Feitt said. “I have a lot of respect for the culture and I have a lot of interest in the culture. That’s one of the big things I tell the cadets here is learn a language, learn a culture. It will help you out a lot in the operations we’re involved in now.”
“Pretty damn boring,” is how Rothstein describes life at Camp Doha near Kuwait City, Kuwait, which borders Iraq’s southeastern edge. While its operations were in the process of being moved last month, and the base is now closed down, the sprawling industrial complex was a major staging area for U.S. troops entering or leaving the combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rothstein, who graduated last June from UCSB with a degree in history and received his officer commission with Pozzi this past September, serves as the base’s officer in charge of the signal corps detachment. The handful of soldiers and the several hundred civilian contractors he commands maintain the entire base’s telephone lines, Internet access, cable television signals, radio rebroadcasts and manages the transfer of routine and top secret communications.
“Not too many grads can say they are in charge of 200 people and several million dollars of [information technology] equipment right out of college,” Rothstein said in an e-mail last month. “It’s a hell of first job. I had to hit the ground running and I haven’t stopped since.”
Pozzi, a native of Laguna Hills, a small city in Southern California’s Orange County, said joining the army reserves during her senior year in high school was one of the hardest things she has ever done. While her interest in the armed services stemmed from her father, a former Navy SEAL, her hometown peers – glamorized on FOX’s television show “The O.C.” and MTV’s “Laguna Beach” – rarely choose to pursue careers in the army.
“No one joins the military there,” Pozzi said. “All the kids just go to college.”
After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Pozzi joined the ROTC program, first at UCLA, but then transferred to UCSB’s Surfrider Battalion because it was more convenient and a better program, she said. Possi said she loved her time at UCSB, and that her Gamma Phi Beta sorority sisters attended her wedding before she deployed to her unit and continue sending her cards, e-mails and letters to keep her spirits up.
In the neighborhood she patrols in Baghdad, Pozzi said the impoverished living conditions are the saddest she has ever seen.
“These people live like animals,” she said, describing the trash everywhere that children play in and the raw meat that vendors sell on fly-covered hooks hanging in the sun. “They live in mud huts … the kids are always hungry, and if you give them a BIC pen, they will yell out like you gave them a million dollars.”
However, she said the kids love the U.S. soldiers, and recent media portrayals of the situation on the ground leaves out much of the positive change.
“We are doing a lot of good things here,” she said. We help people and try to improve their way of life. You would not believe the poverty. People live in houses made of trash.”
Pozzi described a boy that her unit brought medics to a village to help. He had broken his foot – four months earlier – with only a bandage made from a dirty cloth to control the swelling.
“The kids run around in garbage without shoes,” Pozzi said. “I feel so bad, I wish I could give them all I have.”
Feitt, a Santa Barbara area native, said with his training in military intelligence, he could be called upon to perform a myriad of tasks, including setting up ground surveillance radars that detect movements of armored vehicles, interrogations, collecting data from surveillance aircraft and analyzing satellite photos. He said he will not know his exact job until he joins his unit.
“In terms of [military intelligence], we can be three to five kilometers ahead of the forward line of troops to back at the main headquarters if there is a headquarters,” Feitt said. “Now, when you’re facing an insurgency in an urban environment, there are no real front lines. You’re just as likely to be in danger in brigade headquarters as you are in the perimeter.”
Rothstein said he requested deployment to Kuwait to try and get to Iraq as soon as possible. However, the native of Canyon Country, near Southern California’s Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park in the Santa Clarita Valley, said it turned out that his friends who requested stateside deployment got sent to Iraq first, and he will actually not be going at all.
“There are usually two kinds of soldiers permanently stationed in Kuwait: those that hate it because it means they won’t be sent up to Iraq and those that love it because it means they won’t be sent up to Iraq,” Rothstein said. “When I first got here, I was definitely in the first category, but the more I work here, the more I see how important our mission is here.”
Before the soldiers starting shipping out and the camp began to dismantle, Rothstein said Frosty’s was the main hangout. Named in homage to the region’s desert climate – as opposed to heralding the availability of ice-cold beer since consuming alcohol is forbidden in Kuwait – the club hosted open-mic nights, karaoke, pool tournaments and had televisions with Xboxes and PlayStations attached. There’s also a free movie theater.
Rothstein said he works six days a week and lives out of a metal shipping container, hundreds of which are stacked two stories high inside giant warehouses.
Arriving at UCSB in 2000, Rothstein said he enrolled because it was the best school that accepted him. He said he took ROTC classes his freshman year just for fun because the program does not require a military service commitment until junior year.
“I had a lot of time to decide if I wanted to sign the contract or not,” Rothstein said. “I was getting ready to go back to school for my sophomore year when 9/11 happened. “I was already thinking seriously about signing up and that was the deciding factor.”
Feitt said his younger brother served in combat in Iraq in 2003 and has returned home.
“It was a little rough for him because he was straight out of high school and did not expect to be called up to active duty – that’s why he joined the reserves,” Feitt said. “It was a life changing experience for him I would say.”
Feitt said his parents are supportive, but he would not categorize them as ecstatic about his departure for the combat zone on the heels of his brother’s safe return.
“Well, obviously my mother is concerned, as you would expect,” Feitt said. “My father is very supportive. They understand I’ve been building up to this for quite a few years now. I have thought quite a bit about [my brother’s] experience over there. I’m looking forward to sharing mine when I get back; fingers crossed.”
In Kuwait, Rothstein said driving poses more of a danger for U.S. troops than terrorists.
“The Kuwaiti freeways are crazy,” Rothstein said. “There aren’t really any laws, so Kuwaitis drive the wrong way, drive in reverse if they miss an exit, and weave around at 120 miles per hour.”
Somewhere in Baghdad, faced with the constant threat of mortar rounds that could sail into the camp at any moment and the danger posed by snipers outside her camp’s perimeter, Pozzi said her responsibility to the men she commands trumps her other concerns.
“I have to look out for their mental and physical well-being,” Pozzi said. “I know every time they step outside the wire they could be killed.”