Back in Iraq for the holidays

While many Valley residents were celebrating Christmas, Toby Hockenbury, 23, was on his way back to Iraq. He was home with his family in North Bend for a two-week leave from his one-year tour with the 448th Civil Affairs Battalion based out of Fort Lewis. He returned to Iraq on Dec. 21.

Hockenbury, an E-4, or specialist, is in the U.S. Army Reserve and is currently deployed with the 448th in Baghdad, Iraq. His unit is tasked with managing and overseeing a multitude of infrastructure projects, such as helping supervise sewer, garbage, electricity and school projects. The 448th also supervises projects contracted to local work forces. His unit functions as a liaison between the U.S.-led coalition forces and the local population, smoothing any misunderstandings and generally helping the Iraqis rebuild their shattered nation. Although he feels his mission is an important one, Hockenbury said he was just glad to be home.

"It's pretty surreal actually," Hockenbury said. "Here it's so busy, you know. It's a different world."

The holiday break was a welcome respite for Hockenbury, whose first six months in Iraq were highlighted by a harrowing encounter with a suicide car bomb in August. An initial car bomb attack earlier in the month had been centered on an American convoy handing out toys and food to local children. Fifty civilians were killed, including 30 children. Two weeks later, another suicide car bomber struck, this time at Hockenbury's convoy.

"We were tasked to go to that area and kind of talk to people to find out who was responsible [for the first car bombing] and we were pretty much expecting to get hit because it was a pretty bad area," Hockenbury said.

The local Iraqi populace reported that a Syrian national had organized the first car bomb attack, and was also responsible for setting up improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in the area. "He knew we were there, so he called in a car bomb on us to distract us and [it] pretty much came in, blew up 12 feet in front of me and luckily, it didn't kill anybody."

A few civilians were injured and then treated by the U.S. soldiers. Amazingly, the only injuries Hockenbury received were comparatively minor shrapnel wounds to the face and arm.

"I just had shrapnel in my face and arm; no big deal," Hockenbury said. The suicide car was a Chevy Suburban. All that remained from the explosion was the Suburban's engine block. The driver of the car, Hockenbury vividly remembers, had been chanting, "Allahu Akbar" or "God is great," right up until he had blown himself and his vehicle up.

"The last thing I saw before he blew up was his face, and he was definitely screaming," he said. "It was pretty much the scariest thing I've ever seen. I never want to see that again."

Hockenbury had been standing in the turret on top of his Humvee when he spotted the suicide driver.

"I mean, I was pretty much tasked with looking out for car bombs all day but didn't think it would actually happen, and then when it did, it happened so fast. It wasn't like in the movies when there's a cool explosion ... it happened and the hand of God came and hit me in the face."

He was awarded a Purple Heart for his wounds.

Later, the bomb plotter and other insurgents responsible for the attack were apprehended.

"The people were really happy because they had lost sons and daughters ... they were really relieved because they were really afraid of those guys," Hockenbury said.

Sharon Hockenbury found out about the attack on her son's convoy when she read a forwarded e-mail that he had sent to a church's military support group in Maple Valley.

"Well, I'm reading this e-mail, not realizing it's my son that's been hit, and so I get down to the bottom and it says 'signed Spc. Hockenbury' ... and then he called a few minutes later," Sharon Hockenbury said. "He didn't want to call us right away because of the time difference and he [said], 'Mom, Dad, I don't want you to freak out' and I said, 'What? You were hit by a car bomb?' [and he said] 'How did you find out? I didn't intend for you to find out this way.' It was quite an experience for a parent to read that, and we believe in the power of prayer," she said.

Hockenbury and his family are devout Christians, and say their collective faith has helped them through what would otherwise be an unbearably stressful time.

"I don't worry much, honestly. I spend a lot of time praying, many hours, day and night, praying," Sharon Hockenbury said.

"I don't worry. He comes to my mind a lot," said his father, Doug Hockenbury, a teacher and coach. "When he comes to mind, I shoot up a prayer."

"We just choose to focus our energies into doing positive things like sending boxes, and we have a prayer wall ... we hang pictures of soldiers ... and we pray for them every day and just chose to focus our energies instead of worrying," Sharon said. "I've heard of military moms that get on the Internet and follow all the stories and I thought, 'I'm not going there.' I can make better use of my energies."

His family is thankful that was the worst incident in his first six months in Iraq, which have passed surprisingly quickly, Hockenbury said.

"I thought it was going to be a lifetime, but I can't believe how fast time has flown by, probably because we have been so busy," he said. "We actually consider ourselves lucky to actually be able to go out every day and do missions."

Spc. Hockenbury's unit occupies Saddam Hussein's former intelligence headquarters, a huge, concrete building located in the heart of Baghdad. Bombed during the early stages of the war, it has since been taken over by coalition forces and modernized. His unit bivouacs in a large bay in the building, with each member having a separate sleeping space. They have running water, showers and wireless Internet access.

Hockenbury said he was disappointed that he could not be present for the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. He was present, however, for the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum. His unit provided security and was on standby just in case any violence broke out or any attacks occurred.

"Honestly, we thought it was going to be a pretty bloody day, but it turned out nothing happened at all," he said. "It was pretty amazing."

Being a part of history is a strong part of what motivates Hockenbury to do his job.

"You kind of sit back and think ... even though it can really seem like a chaotic situation [and] a lot of people back here don't think it's going to get better ... no matter what, this is the [Iraqi] constitution, this is the second democratic election in this country's history."

Hockenbury said he senses a disconnect between what is reported and what is really going on in Iraq right now.

"We have TV, and we turn on CNN and [it is] showing pictures of people dying," Hockenbury said. "That stuff happens ... but ... when you're there, it doesn't seem like it's that bad, you know."

Events can get blown out of proportion, he said.

"I mean, it comes in days, and some days you're wondering if you're going to make it out alive but ... the media has a way of setting it up like it's the end of the world. It's just another day there, you know, and people are just going to continue to live their lives and continue to function even though a hospital is car bombed and people are killed. People over there just go on with their lives. They aren't crippled by terrorism, which is pretty amazing."

Hockenbury acknowledges that the road to a stable Iraq will be a long and difficult one. He said that Iraq is basically a country being rebuilt from the ground up, and he said he knows firsthand how far Iraq must go from his work in civil affairs. The battle is now being fought in the realm of ideas, he said.

"It's turned into a media war," Hockenbury said. "Al-Qaeda and all the insurgent groups feed off the media, and ... they'll attack a hospital or a hotel just for media coverage, you know. The shock value of it has kind of worn off over there. But the American media is still feeding off that, and the

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