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Valley veteran will return to Iraq soon

Before coming under enemy fire in Iraq, Spc. Eric Hickam was a self-described cynical, pessimistic, "ungrateful human being." That all changed after surviving his first skirmish in Southern Iraq.

"You've got to become an optimist," he said, an easy chuckle accenting his point.

Hickam, 20, said his experience with the Army in Iraq was, overall, positive. He spent eight months this year as a radio operator in the Middle Eastern country. After additional training this winter in Colorado, Hickam will return to Iraq for another tour of duty. He joined the military in June 2004, signing up for a six-year commitment.

He doesn't dread his return to Iraq, but instead is thankful for his extended respite in America. He spent September and October visiting friends and family, including three weeks in the Valley and Seattle. He grew up in Fall City; one of the first places he visited when he returned was Fall City Elementary School, and the teachers who taught him the basic lessons of life.

What surprised him most was the overwhelmingly positive reception he got from nearly everyone he met, even from liberal college students, Hickam said.

"I wasn't expecting the support," he said. "I think I watched a bit too much of the news when I was deployed."

Hickam said he and his fellow soldiers often watched news broadcasts and came away with the feeling that there was overwhelming disapproval of the war effort in Iraq. It was odd to watch coverage of events he sometimes witnessed personally that often were portrayed in a vastly different ways than he experienced, Hickam said.

So, he wasn't expecting the positive reception he got and said he wished to express his thanks to everybody he spoke with in the Valley during his vacation.

"It really meant a lot to me," Hickam said.

Though nobody should expect deployment in a war zone to be "a bed of roses," Iraq really isn't all that bad and he doesn't mind going back, Hickam said.

"After all, somebody's got to do it," he said.

Part of Iraq, especially the northern areas under Kurd control, are very friendly toward U.S. soldiers. There, it's safe to go outside without body armor and to drive with the bullet-proof windows of the armored vehicles rolled down, he said.

He described visiting the Christian-majority town of Ankawah near the Kurdish capital Ervil and seeing the church built in 96 A.D. In Ankawah, the women dressed in jeans and T-shirts instead of the full body-covering robes and scarves worn in southern Iraq and didn't fear to walk in the streets holding the hands of their boyfriends, Hickam said.

On the other hand, around Baghdad and in southern Iraq, U.S. soldiers weren't welcome and the culture was more repressive and hostile toward Americans, Hickam said. He came under fire several times while serving as a radio operator for convoys.

"That was no fun," he said.

Generally, the insurgents would hide improvised explosive devices along convoy routes that would explode as vehicles passed. The explosions often would be followed by small volleys of small arms fire. The local farmers often knew the bombs existed, but "you can't blame them" for not telling U.S. troops about the traps, Hickam said.

"They've got to watch out for their own lives," he said.

The most eye-opening thing for Hickam about his experience in Iraq was learning that not everybody in the world thinks rationally or values free speech and religious freedom. That doesn't mean the United States can give up its responsibility toward the Iraqi people and "just leave them to suffer," he said.

"Iraq has a chance," he said. Though there are violent areas and many difficulties to overcome, Hickam is buoyed by the optimism he gained during his eight months as a soldier in Iraq.

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