Anthony Smith and Chris Eaton didn’t give Iraq much thought when they were on the football team at Oak Park and River Forest High School in the late 1990s. Although Eaton and Smith didn’t know each other then, both men have been serving their country in Iraq and are close to finishing their military commitments. Their paths and experiences are different, but they express the same pride in service and dedication to country and their brothers-in-arms.

Independence Day might mean something different to every American, but for these men who fought in Iraq, it means more than it ever did before.

Smith remembers a time when he didn’t take great pride in his country or himself, but all that has changed since he enlisted in the Marines in January 2005 at age 23.

As a child growing up in Oak Park attending Mann School, Smith dreamed of attending college on a football scholarship or joining the army. He recalls learning about the Marines when he was 16 and immediately being attracted to their reputation as the “best of the best.”

Honest about his past, Smith says, “By the time I was 23, I realized my life wasn’t going in the direction I had planned.” Not seeing a future for himself while working a dead-end job, Smith started thinking seriously about joining the military. Despite the bad news coming from Iraq at that time, he spoke with a recruiter who convinced him the Marines could be his new home and would change his life. The Marines looked like one of the few options he had left to make his life and the lives of his future family members more secure.

“I was nervous about everything I heard about the war,” Smith said, but boot camp was the only thing he had time to think about, the training preparing him for what then seemed like a distant war.

Getting prepared

More than then physical challenges, Smith found the mental side of boot camp difficult during his first weeks.

“I kept questioning myself and wasn’t sure I made the right decision,” he recalled. “But at the same time I knew I couldn’t come home and look my friends and family in the eyes and tell them I quit.” Smith persevered and began preparing for an assignment in Iraq.

Eaton, meanwhile, a River Forest native, remembers being fascinated with the military after he saw the film Rambo as a boy. Eaton’s mother, Claudia, served as a chaplain for the Red Cross, and the family spent Christmas 2001 working at Ground Zero in New York City. Aiding recovery workers and firemen and listening to their stories renewed Eaton’s interest in serving his country. After graduating from OPRF in 2002, he attended the Virginia Military Institute and soon committed to the military. In December 2003, Eaton joined the Army through the Virginia National Guard.

His motivation was to better prepare himself to lead soldiers. Training to be an officer at VMI, Eaton realized that most Army officers don’t understand what most soldiers go through because they have never been “grunts” themselves. His experience made him feel ready when he graduated from VMI and was commissioned a Captain to lead soldiers into combat in May 2006.

Heading to Iraq

Shortly after boot camp, Anthony Smith was deployed to Al Asad Air Base in Bagdahdi, a province outside of Baghdad. Al Asad was a former base for Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard and among the U.S. planes and troops stood remains of former barracks and planes used by the Iraqis.

Far from much of the heavy fighting and large insurgent uprisings, Smith was part of the perimeter security unit at a base where hundreds of troops were located. Keeping the base safe was his responsibility and his unit conducted ID checks on the street and delivered suspicious individuals to the intelligence unit for more questioning.

While he felt prepared for war, Smith is thankful he didn’t see a lot of violence during his tour of duty in Iraq from February to September 2006, but the base was attacked several times by insurgents who shot rockets from a quarter mile away. Apprehending these insurgents was nearly impossible due to the surprise nature of the attacks and their distance.

The base was large, and no one Smith knew personally was killed, but the base did suffer losses for a variety of reasons, including roadside bombs. Smith admits he was worried about dying but stayed focused and did his best at his assigned jobs with the goal of keeping the base secure.

Like Smith, Chris Eaton felt ready to go to Iraq and finally put his years of training to work. He changed units in order to deployed to Iraq.

“When I arrived, I was expecting the Wild West but what I got was a nice plot of land and a peace-keeping mission” said Eaton. Training for the worst and hoping for the best is something Captain Eaton believes and teaches his men, but even he was surprised at their assignment.

Over his 15-month deployment, Eaton has served at three different bases and describes all of them as relatively comfortable; sometimes the bases even had air-conditioning and heat.

As a commander, Eaton said he doesn’t take his responsibility to his men and their families lightly. He learned a lot about decision-making, especially as his men patrolled and reacted to different situations.

“The key is staying calm, no matter what happens,” said Eaton. “Safety and security are two in one but can only be done with a clear and calm mind. Speed is a must, and making a decision is better than not making one. The more experience you have, the better decisions you make.”

Peace-keeping

Both Smith and Eaton were prepared for battle but are thankful they haven’t had to participate in much heavy action. Smith spoke to several Marines and remembers their powerful stories. “They said the hard part wasn’t pulling the trigger. … The hard part is living with that action for the rest of your life. I am so thankful I didn’t have to do that.”

Eaton says the majority of the physical war is over, due to the military’s success in breaking down large terror cells. Now Eaton and his men engage with their minds instead of their rifles. While in Iraq he spent time daily talking with sheiks and nationals to develop trusting relationships. After a lot of work in community development, including the delivery of clean water and clothes, Eaton was able to train nationals as informants.

Based on their experiences, Eaton and Smith believe the majority of Iraqis are glad the U.S. is working to implement democracy in their country.

But they also agree it’s tough to get a handle on Iraqi opinions about the war.

“The majority of Iraqi people love us,” said Eaton, “but the insurgents don’t want us there.”

The problem lies in determining who really is supportive of regime change, says Smith.

“They say they want us there. They seem to like us. But at the same time there were Iraqis who said they loved America and were also working as insurgents.”

Smith was skeptical when he met Iraqis who told him of their great love for America, but he enjoyed developing relationships with those who worked at the base as well as with neighborhood youth.

Based on the kindness and understanding of Iraqi children, both are hopeful about the future of the country. According to Eaton, kids swarm the streets when the soldiers conduct peace-keeping meetings, taking pictures and trying to talk to soldiers. At school, kids brag about playing soccer with soldiers and having the clothes and clean water that come courtesy of the U.S.

It’s easy for Smith to understand why not all Iraqis react with glee and admiration when a soldier walks by. He tries to put himself in their sandals to understand what the past several years have been like.

“I’m sure when we attacked them, some innocent people died. There are a lot of mixed emotions among the people, and I can understand that. After all, if another country dropped a bomb on my mother, I’m not sure I could ever forgive them or trust them in the future.”

Working with the Iraqi people has been an adventure, but Smith and Eaton say hailing from the Oak Park/River Forest area has been a huge asset. Eaton credits his success in developing relationships to his upbringing in the area and says that “growing up around different ethnic groups, the poor, the wealthy, the heterosexuals, the homosexuals, etc. really sharpened my ability to talk with anyone.” These skills, he said, have prepared him to better lead his men and gain the trust of the Iraqis.

Smith is glad that growing up in Oak Park exposed him to the best that different worlds had to offer. “In the Marines, there were some guys from the inner city and some guys from the sticks, and being from Oak Park, I knew how to handle both groups.” Smith, the son of a Ukrainian-American mother and an African-American father grew accustomed to other Marines’ confusion in regards to his origins, but he knew how to move between different groups, having grown up here.

Looking ahead

In November 2008, Smith returned to Oak Park following more than four years with the Marines. Some things in the area looked and felt different, but despite readjusting to the frigid winters, he was glad to be home. Presently he is working towards his associates degree in Applied Science and Technology and plans on transferring to Southern Illinois University to obtain a degree in Fire Management.

“I loved the military and would consider returning after school,” said Smith, “but I would want to do so as an officer.”

Eaton, already an officer, is also thinking about what he will do when his contract ends next year. Right now he is focused on completing his assignments at a base Germany and excited for his wife Ashley to visit him soon. His mother, Claudia, believes her son is following a divinely inspired path and trusts in God to give her son the tools he needs to complete his tour of duty.

“Serving as a leader in the military has given me a greater understanding of the value of the life we have in the United States,” said Eaton. “In America each person has the opportunity to become who he wants to be without the fear of death or oppression like I’ve seen in Iraq.”

As he considers the future, Eaton says military service has given him tools he’ll need in the future, and the past seven years have matured him. “I understand who I am and what life is about. I have a clearer vision of what is most important to me in life.”

After joining the Marines in search of better options, Smith now realizes how focused he has become on serving others. Now Smith gets animated when he talks about patriotism and the country he continues to serve.

“When I see the flag now, I realize how many people sacrificed so we as a country could survive. Who knows? We might be speaking German or Japanese now if people hadn’t laid their lives on the line to preserve our freedoms.”

This Fourth of July, Anthony Smith will be at home celebrating with his family for the first time in four years. For Captain Christopher Eaton, it will be just another day of work serving his country.

Abigail Cramton is reachable at abbycramton@yahoo.com.

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