Former Union City resident Rubin Gomez kept a promise he had made by mail while still in Iraq.
During his 14 months as field medic in a combat zone, Gomez received mail from 22 students at Woodrow Wilson School in Bayonne, asking about him and offering him encouragement from home.
In returning their mail, Gomez included some photographs of the landscape, his team, Iraqi kids and his pets, and made a promise to visit the Bayonne kids when he returned to the United States.
In coming to the classroom last week, he kept that promise, greeting the kids with a grin and a shake of his head as he fielded questions and showed the students even more pictures of the place where American troops are currently deployed.
Each student from Julie Kochanski's class had a small American flag, and showed remarkable patience as technical difficulties delayed the display.
Gomez is dressed in desert uniform with a baseball style hat and heavy black boots seemed larger than life, a image expanded from the tiny TV screen of nightly newscast and transported into the classroom for the students to admire. Each of these second graders wrote their letters as part of an exercise and a show of support for the troops over seas.
They heard about the soldier through Miss Lee Weehning, senior volunteer aide who worked at the school and knew the soldier was related to Rev. Oscar Gonzalez, pastor of the Cavalry Church on Avenue C in Bayonne.
Gomez told the students he had served his 14 months in the Suni Triangle in the northern part of Iraq and a stone's throw away from the Iran border. He had left for Iraq in January 2003, as part of the military build up before the conflict began, and told the kids he had spent each holiday there, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. Food from home had allowed his unit to have a cheerful Thanksgiving dinner, but a 22 day patrol took him out into the field for Christmas where he ate army rations on the back of a truck.
"I missed a lot of things during that time," he told the kids. "But I did it for a particular reason. I did it to do my job. My job is to go over there and help out the Americans and help out the Iraqis. It was long and it was hard. It was very, very difficult to do, but I’m glad I had the opportunity here and talk about it."
A long trip there
Gomez trained at Fort Bragg, North Caroline, which he called one of the biggest Army bases in the United States. And recalled the 13-hour flight he took to Romania where his unit looked over their equipment before being deployed to Iraq.
As a field medic, he was part of a team of four men, with two teams traveling together through the combat zones of Northern Iraq. If they came down with some ailment, he had to provide treatment. If they got hurt, he had to fix them. If they got wounded, he had to patch them up and get a helicopter to take them to a hospital.
"Our units went out hours from everyone else," he said. "It was difficult but great job. I had to make my men well so that they can do their job."
In first few weeks of deployment, he and his fellow soldiers slept in or under military vehicles. He said was constantly hot there.
"For instance in April, it is 95 degrees by 8 a.m.," he said. "Everyday it is over 100 degrees. In July and August, it gets up to 130 degrees. It is so hot that the rubber melts on the soles of their boots if they stand too long on the street.
As Mark Twain noted in his famous travelogue from the 19th Century called “Innocents Abroad,” this area is known for its dogs. Wild dogs are everywhere, Gomez said.
His group adopted dogs, fed them, and the dogs in turn guarded them and their possessions against the packs of other dogs that traveled through the area.
“Our dogs loved us. We took care of them and they took care of us,” he said.
One dog they called “Speed Bump” because he kept lying down in the middle of the road. He had a female cat named Lucky, who was almost dead when he found it.
"The cat had not eaten in a long time," he recalled.
Gomez also had a pet squirrel that had a leash and collar, and often traveled on his shoulder, or clung to the antenna of a radio and frequently slept in his hat. He was very impressed with the donkey, which people used as transportation and to cart possessions.
Sights of Iraq
Traveled around with an Iraqi interpreter, who helped them communicate with people there.
Over the years, they became close enough friends with the interpreter to tease him.
For Halloween some of his units dressed up as Iraqis.
During his travels he came to many historic sites, such as the bridge over 1,500 years old.
“It was so old we were not allowed to drive over it,” he said.
Many people there live in mud huts, made up of blocks shaped of direct and mud with a small piece of tin for roof – which they hold down with rocks.
“Whole families live in one hut and sleep on the floor,” he said.
He said a big part of their duties over there is to help the people in the aftermath of the war, to make life better for the people who have lived badly under Saddam.
"If they needed water or food, we helped them get it. If they needed shelter, we erected it. We talked to the people through an interpreter and if we found a need we try to provide it," he said.
In one case, a girl was wounded when a missile struck a nearby military emplacement. She had caught a piece of metal in her shoulder and Gomez had to take it out. Then, he arranged for her to go to a hospital, something the family could not afford on their own.
He frequently treated kids for diarrhea and did medical assessments. Most people washed and drank in local lakes, which animals also used. The Army also provided medical equipment to local clinics, such as an EKG unit to evaluate heart ailments.
“They never had one,” he said.
Soldiers of his unit also gave kids candy, something kids there could not afford, some had never tasted candy. Gomez said he once bought a girl a teddy bear.
“I love kids,” he said. “We always make times for the kids,” he said.
Some of the kids seemed to adopt him, though they could not speak English, they could pronounce his name and would chase his truck shouting “Rubin, Rubin.”
When they found the local school had outdoor bathrooms, his unit helped construct a wall to enclose it.
They helped provide running way, new desks, and money for books.
Not an easy job
His unit was stationed within a stone’s throw of the Iran border, but in his travels saw many sites such as one of Saddam’s palace’s in Baghdad or a city built into the side of a mountain. The walls of one city he saw were 2000 years old.
“There is a lot of history there,” he said.
And he has seen some disturbing sights, such as the museum to the victims of mass slaughtered under the old regime.
Part of their duties involved teaching local police to help themselves.
Tours of duty often involved confiscating weapons, such as Russian manufactured AK-47s.
His unit also blew up caches of weapons and remembered one explosion was so powerful he felt the force of it from two miles away.
Signs of violence were everywhere, and it was often dangerous, but he said he wanted to go.
“It is very difficult, but I wanted to go,” Gomez said. “We’re trying to make Iraq safe.”
Second grader Paulo Piccolo said he found the presentation funny, but was also concerned about Gomez getting hurt.
Classmate Rita Portenti said, “It was really fun.”
Published, The Bayonne Community News, 2004