Back from the front
Although Avenue C near 28th Street in Bayonne is hardly a quiet corner, as cars, trucks, buses, even emergency vehicles from the nearby fire and police stations rush by, to Dr. Jack Smith - who just returned from a tour of duty in war-torn Iraq - it must seem like heaven.
For Smith, currently a major in the U.S. Army Reserve, this was his second tour to one of the conflict zones in which American troops are serving. In 2005, Smith served in Afghanistan in a similar role.
Smith was part of the Surgical Combat Hospital unit at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, which operated an on-site hospital near the airfield, treating both military and civilians during combat missions. But he also provided humanitarian relief to villages that had no other medical facilities, often drawing thousands of people from miles around whenever his unit set up a clinic.
A captain during his tour in Afghanistan, he was promoted to the rank of major prior to his being shipped out to Iraq in late 2006.
Smith said in an interview this week that the two fronts couldn't be more different. Although a member of the U.S. military team, Smith also did significant humanitarian work in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iraq was different from Afghanistan
"One of the things you notice is the praying," he said. "In Afghanistan, people prayed all the time. I don't recall seeing anyone praying while I was in Iraq. Iraq has a much more secular society."
The intensity of ill feelings is greater in Iraq, Smith said, and everybody lives with the fear of retribution against Americans, family members of American soldiers, and those who work with the Americans to create a safe environment.
Smith said the weapons used in the conflict are terrifying, such as explosive devices capable of ripping through six inches of armor. But the quality of the military people is outstanding, he said.
"They are very courageous and unbelievably great people," Smith said.
Despite 118-degree weather and hostility from a determined enemy, Smith said the morale of the soldiers is good.
"They know they have a mission and they are doing what they are supposed to do," Smith said.
Smith was critical of politics back home. He said there seems to be a push to put "an Iraqi face" on the war. In other words, political forces are moving to have the Iraqi military take over the war effort.
"But they're not up to the job," Smith said. "In the end, I think we will make a graceful effort. But I'm worried about the billions of dollars' worth of material we will leave behind."
He recalled one checkpoint where he had seen Iraqi soldiers briefly unnerved by the arrival of a fully armed and ready American military unit, testifying to the level of fear each Iraqi is living with.
Smith said the war is often one between villages, and loyalty isn't to the nation of Iraq, but to a village or a tribe.
Often, there is no single entity to negotiate with, even if the enemy is willing to negotiate in good faith.
"I don't think we can have a meaningful dialogue," Smith said. "Those we are fighting over there seem only to understand violence."
Smith, however, doesn't believe Americans will be leaving Iraq soon. Just as he was leaving last month, a new fortified hospital was being constructed to replace the collection of tents in which he operated while in Iraq.
Not a very entertaining place
Smith continued to praise the troops and the efforts of the military to provide for them and their safety. But he also acknowledged that these are mostly young people who need outlets for their energies.
"There's only so much chess and cards you can play," he said.
Alcohol, for instance, is limited to R&R - rest and relaxation - passes, and then only two beers a day.
"You have to travel all the way on a C130 to get there," he said, referring to a very uncomfortable cargo plane.
Some entertainers do make it to Iraq, such as actor Gary Sinise, who played roles in such films as Forrest Gump.
Smith's brother, Mark - police director in Bayonne - played a small part with Sinise in the 1994 film Ransom. "Mark got a small speaking part in the film," Smith said. "So I mentioned Mark, and Gary remembered him."
Smith said musicians come over to perform as well, such as a Jimmy Buffet tribute band.
Yet even the environment tends to be afflicted, with respiratory problems a common ailment.
"There is no EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to make sure the air is clean," he said.
Like other soldiers, Smith said the air is thick with fumes from things burning and jet fuel from the takeoff of military aircraft.
"Even the military burns everything to keep personal information out of the enemy's hands," he said. "They do not want the enemy getting addresses through which they might terrorize families at home."
As with many of those currently serving in the United States Armed Forces, Smith joined the Army Reserve after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. He had worked doing triage at Ground Zero. But Smith felt he needed to do more, and later told his family he had taken a commission as a captain. After reporting to Fort Benning, Ga. for retraining in combat medicine, he was deployed to Afghanistan.
"I'm very proud of our young people over there," he said. "They are doing a great job under horrific conditions."