Darkness surrounded her as the helicopter lifted, whipping the air around her with a reverberating thump, thump, thump. A tall blonde in a war-torn Middle Eastern land, Debbie Lee felt a familiar ache in her heart.
She stood in a Western Iraqi city where her son, Marc Alan Lee, gave his life. He was the first Navy SEAL to die while fighting terrorists in Iraq.
As she stepped onto the sand where her son was killed, Debbie Lee became the first mother to visit the city where her son died for America in the Iraq War. She walked through Camp Marc Lee and saw where her son slept and ate.
“I feel very blessed,” Lee said. “It was a miracle to me to be where Marc was, to see what he saw and walk where he walked.”
Lee was part of a contingent from Move America Forward (MAF), the nation’s largest pro-troop nonprofit group. MAF’s mission was to deliver 226,000 Christmas and Hanukkah cards to American troops and to report on America’s successes inside Iraq. They spent days outside of the relatively safe Green Zone in Baghdad and other cities that, until the troop surge, were hotbeds of radical Muslims.
Melanie Morgan, chairman of Move America Forward Said, “Our troops know exactly what they are doing. They are surgically removing bad guys and giving hope to Iraqis while helping secure American security from radical Muslim jihad.”
The troops’ gains apparently aren’t news these days. All sides, including the white-flag brigade, admit Gen. David Petraeus’s Troop Surge has reduced violence and given breathing room to Iraqi politicians.
Iraq’s plummeting violence are a yawn for the mainstream media. During the first 10 months in 2007, 47 percent of the press coverage in Iraq focused on violence. Only 4.6 percent dealt with “optimistic themes,” according to a Pew Research Center study.
If terrorists fall in Iraq and nobody hears them, do they still make a sound? Only if you read new media who have the backbone to see the truth and report it.
Ignoring success in Iraq doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. MAF found children playing in new parks, built by the United States, and new stores open with a variety of goods. On one street alone, 150 new stores and businesses opened where only 11 previously operated.
MAF staffers witnessed soldiers visiting Iraqi homes, where they were welcomed with hot tea. Troops handed out soccer balls, school supplies and candy to children.
Battles are still waged. Body armor is still essential. But Gen. Petraeus and his troops are taking it to the enemy and making friends with the locals.
“They are making a difference now,” said Mary Pearson, MAF deputy executive director.
Pearson, MAF Communications Director Danny Gonzalez and Debbie Lee embedded with the Army’s 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry, or the 1/4 Cav. They worked out of a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Western Iraq, unnamed for security purposes, and traveled on daily missions where they spoke with Iraqi citizens and interviewed Iraqi and American soldiers.
They did not witness Iraqi citizens welcoming American troops with flowers and candy. It was much more personal. Iraqi mothers sent their children out to hug U.S. soldiers. Iraqi men invited soldiers into their homes for tea prepared by their wives and daughters.
MAF’s never feared for their lives. The long haul that American troops and our allies began on March 19, 2003, has changed the landscape of the Muslim country once ruled by a brutal dictator and sworn enemy of the United States, Saddam Hussein.
“I figured I was with the finest. There was no reason to worry,” Pearson said. “These faces were like my sons.”
The MAF staffers spent Christmas Day in Baghdad where they walked the streets and saw peaceful scenes that carried the message from 2,000 years ago when Christ was born in Bethlehem.
“We witnessed a large group of children playing on the new slide and park that had just been constructed 3 weeks before. It was amazing how packed the streets were with people,” Lee said. “I’ve never seen streets in America that had such a large percentage of people out in their neighborhoods. It was an amazing turnaround from the pictures we saw in the briefing when we first arrived.”
Pearson captured pictures of the children laughing and playing at the park. And she saw something else that will forever remain burned in her memory just like the photos she clicks with an artist’s eye.
“I saw men and women, couples, walking up and down the streets together,” Pearson said. “They were strolling, like in an old fashioned movie. They were enjoying the day. It was so beautiful.”
The Iraq trip was the last leg of MAF’s “Honoring Heroes for the Holidays” tour, which crossed the country and stopped in 40 cities. People came out to deliver the thousands of cards they made or bought for American troops. Cards are still pouring into MAF’s Sacramento, Calif., headquarters.
“The huge response to our trip by the American people, and the resulting smiles and hugs in Iraq, prove that most of America supports our troops and their mission,” Morgan said.
“I think we came close to passing out cards to most of the 8,000 troops stationed at this Forward Operating Base in Baghdad,” Lee said.
Pearson, Lee, and Gonzalez flew on a helicopter to Western Iraq in a town that was once overrun by terrorists, insurgents and outsiders from Iran whose welcome wagons included powerful bombs and other lethal arms.
This is where Lee’s son made his last stand and gave his life. This is where a camp was named after Marc Lee. This was an emotional stop.
Loss is a part of life, but it is not natural for a mother to lose her son. Parents should go first. In Iraq, violence still scars the countryside. But Pearson, Lee and Gonzalez witnessed the light that our troops have given the world with their sweat, professionalism, tenacity and their lives.
“These men and women, our sons and daughters in the Armed Forces, have shown a selflessness and grace — even after we have asked so much of them — that is truly remarkable,” Gonzalez said. “They have gone to war for their country and taken up arms in defense of a fledgling nation of people they have never known before, sacrificed time and time again, and sacrificed so much, and ask nothing in return. ”
We are winning in Iraq. But, more importantly, we are safer because children hold our soldiers’ hands. They play on new slides. They go to school. Shops are open. These children and their families will not forget the Americans who saved them first from Saddam Hussein, and then from the terrorists who came to steal their lives.