Naval reservist Matthew Bradley of West Tisbury returned home Saturday afternoon from a 10-month volunteer tour of duty that included seven months in Iraq, serving as a medical corpsman with a U.S. Marines unit.
Nearly 100 friends and family turned out on the tarmac at Martha's Vineyard Airport, along with every ambulance service on the Island. A dozen or so emergency vehicles' sirens wailed as the small plane landed and taxied beneath a giant arc of water formed by two firetrucks' spray. After countless hugs, a line of veterans in dress uniforms saluted the 28-year-old soldier in military fatigues and a cap.
This week has been filled with reunions, plenty of home cooking and a certain amount of driving for Mr. Bradley, who gets a kick out of it after becoming used to driving Humvees down the center of the road or off-road in the desert.
Unlike the soldiers in combat, who return home without the words to describe their experiences, Mr. Bradley is eager to tell the story of how he and nine other soldiers were part of a special team that went to Haditha - a town rife with insurgent activity - and turned a concrete recreational center into a police station with a force of 300 trained Iraqi police (IPs) by the time he left on March 8.
Some of the Iraqis became his good friends, staying up late together, talking and drinking chai tea. The Iraqis loved to talk, smoke and drink tea for hours, he said, and often cooked dishes such as lamb and rice for everyone in the barracks where they lived.
"It's nice being home because I don't have to worry about anything," Mr. Bradley said, although the departure was bittersweet in some respects. "You miss the guys you were with. You wake up and you're by yourself."
With eight years' experience as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for Oak Bluffs and Tri-Town Ambulance services, Mr. Bradley was a medic in Haditha, in addition to recruiting and training Iraqi police and defending the police station.
"I was basically the doctor," Mr. Bradley said. He saw from five to more than 20 patients in an average day, he said. With additional medical training from the military, he was prepared to give local anaesthesia, do nerve blocks, administer antibiotics and even do minor surgery.
"Dental stuff I stayed away from," he said.
Last summer, after being selected for the special operation, Mr. Bradley spent two months at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms Base in southern California for special training. With temperatures of 120 to 130 degrees every day, he called the base "hell."
"After that, Iraq was no problem," he said. "The training was great."
His battalion practiced helping helicopters land, calling in artillery and driving Humvees. He also got extensive weapons training, some SWAT training and a week of half-day lessons in Arabic and Arab customs.
"This is all geared towards teaching Iraqis and also keeping us alive," Mr. Bradley said.
When training ended in the middle of August, he thought his battalion would be able to go home for a couple of weeks before being deployed to Iraq, but after spending one day off in Las Vegas, they were told they were leaving the following day.
It took months for people in Haditha to begin trusting the American soldiers - or believing that an Iraqi could become a police officer and not be killed by insurgents.
"The first two months, they were mortaring and shooting us every day," Mr. Bradley said. "The people, you couldn't blame them, because if they talked to us, they'd end up dead."
Slowly, after standing watch at the station for those months and continuously filling sandbags to absorb the weaponfire, relations improved. Police academies in Jordan and Baghdad sent 50 to 100 new Iraqi police recruits at a time to staff the station and to receive more training.
Then, local sheikhs, who are community leaders, began sending young men who were otherwise unemployed. The recruits moved into the concrete building. At one point, there were 150 Iraqis living in the station, in addition to some interpreters and U.S. Marines, Mr. Bradley said.
In the beginning, all of the recruits were Sunni Muslim, but Shi'ite Muslims arrived later as well, and the Americans did what they could to appease the arguments and fist fights that broke out between the opposing religious denominations in the first nights, Mr. Bradley said.
"The other Marines were scared to death to actually live with Iraqis - they were like, you know, that's crazy," Mr. Bradley said, referring to a company of about 200 Marines that was stationed on a base about a quarter-mile away.
But he and some others built a rapport with the Iraqis, both at the station and in town, by talking, showing photos from home and sometimes wearing shorts and sandals and taking time out to play soccer.
"That's how you got the trust - not always wearing a uniform and carrying an M-16," he said.
They knew they made a breakthrough the day a member of the community gave them a tip that he had seen someone burying weapons nearby. Mr. Bradley and some others investigated and found some anti-aircraft rockets and other artillery under the dirt and sand.
"That's how we're going to win the war," Mr. Bradley said. "If we were just by ourselves, people wouldn't have come up to us," he added, referring to the fact that the station contained Iraqi police.
When he wasn't tending to patients, Mr. Bradley helped with the training and organization of the Iraqi police. The Iraqis received American-style police training and ethics education, for example that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and must be treated accordingly. Before the American occupation of Iraq, the police had more para-military roles, while judges had the job of investigating problems.
The recruits also received some emergency medical training and learned to account for the weapons and gear they distributed to officers, to ensure they weren't given to family members or sold. The U.S. military provided the Iraqis' uniforms, weapons, new pickup trucks, Humvees and most of their food, while the Iraqi government paid their salaries, Mr. Bradley explained.
Often, cultural differences provided the biggest challenge - like explaining that promotions had to be based on merit and not whether someone was a blood relative, and that a higher rank meant more responsibility, not less. The military also had to enforce upon the Iraqi police that their job was not to intimidate, but to gather intelligence.
Other times, it was difficult to convince the Iraqi police to do much work in general, Mr. Bradley said.
"They got too used to the Marines doing everything," he said. "They didn't understand that it was their fight."
An iris scanner, thumb printer and camera helped to keep track of the Iraqi police - and members of the community. The information was logged into the American soldiers' laptops and updated periodically.
Since the police station also had satellite phones, Mr. Bradley was able to call his parents Fran and Daniel Bradley in West Tisbury every Sunday. His father recalls his son missed only one Sunday - because his Humvee hit a roadside bomb. He had not been badly hurt because he'd been in the back of the vehicle, but he did suffer hearing damage.
"We only got hit by one IED [improvised explosive device]," Mr. Bradley said. "We were lucky."
Mr. Bradley's parents often sent letters, photos and food in the mail.
"We lived on care packages and Iraqi food," he said. The care packages carried useful items as well, like flashlights, coffee pots, hot plates and a box of 1,000 plastic forks and spoons, since the station's ability to get supplies was often limited.
It was no small task to pick up the mail, however. The soldiers had to drive three very dangerous miles to the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River, through an uncontrolled area with a high risk of roadside bombs and insurgent activity. It might seem crazy to risk so much for the mail, Mr. Bradley said, but after a week or two without any, "you were just that desperate to get anything out of the ordinary," he said.
Clicking through hundreds of photographs and several short videos on his computer, pointing out names and places and memories, he says he plans to keep in touch with the soldiers in his company and the Iraqi friends he made. He doesn't plan to go back into active duty in the near future, and notes that he can no longer be sent to Iraq unless he volunteers.
"It was good times - better than sitting on a base," Mr. Bradley said. "Overall it was a good experience and we did some good by getting the police up and running."