One image cemented into Sgt. Michael Steck's memory is the sight of about 200 Iraqis, shackled, blindfolded, wearing yellow jumpsuits and strapped to the floor of a C-17 transport plane, on their way to join about 20,000 other detainees at Camp Bucca.
"It was kind of strange ... totally unforgettable," says Steck, 26.
The flight was a break from the usually mundane confines of Camp Bucca, where Steck and about 350 other soldiers, most members of the Utah National Guard, had been stationed since last September.
He had a family emergency, which brought him home to Sandy and his wife a little early. The rest of his group, 1st Battalion, 145th Field Artillery, is expected back at the Utah Air National Guard Base on Monday afternoon Memorial Day. The battalion includes batteries and detachments from Logan, Brigham City, Manti, Spanish Fork, Fillmore and Camp Williams.
Steck, who plans to study law, normally carried a pistol in Iraq as a chaplain's assistant. He was essentially a bodyguard for a fellow Utahn, Maj. Clay Anstead, who was unarmed in his role as chaplain. Sometimes they'd visit with detainees, with Anstead using the Arabic tongue he once used as an interrogator.
"That's the job I enlisted for," Steck said about following Anstead around. "It's an actual job in the Army, believe it or not. It sounded like a real, people-person kind of job serving those who are serving." He was at times Anstead's fly on the wall or a conduit between a troubled soldier and the man Anstead who could help.
"I'm hearing things the chaplain needs to hear," Steck said. "You just couldn't begin to imagine." Most of it he can't talk about in detail.
Some men needed financial help, an extra job on base or just help with budgeting because of troubles back home. Others struggled with morale or marital problems, which Steck said become amplified by being so far away from spouses.
Something as simple as missing a hot meal because a soldier gets stuck on guard duty in a tower can be a real downer.
"You'd be surprised how important food is," Steck said. Like when there's a bad meal. "It can really kill their morale."
When it was hot at Camp Bucca, located about 50 miles south of Basra, the thermometer read 110 degrees. But it was cold from about November to February. On top of that, it's isolated, surrounded by sand just over the crest of a 30-foot high berm all around the camp.
"It just blew sand and dirt all the time," Steck said. "You watched dirt and people. You have to understand, we lived in a sandbox."
Boring is one word Steck uses to describe a deployment to Camp Bucca. He said some men who joined the military for an "up-tempo" adventure had a different experience with this deployment.
"A lot of soldiers felt as if they were prisoners, like they were detained," he added. "You don't really ever leave."
Steck did leave Camp Bucca a few times. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Steck traveled just over the border into Kuwait to hear a talk by an LDS Church leader. He went to Germany to help out with a soldier having psychological issues.
And he went to Baghdad with Anstead to visit with some members of the 145th who were there at the time. It was the flight back on the C-17 that stuck with him.
As the plane took off, it banked left and right on purpose, countermeasures to avoid enemy fire from the ground. When he described the scene inside, he was wondering what that plane ride must have been like for the detainees, most of whom he assumed had never flown. He wondered how scary it must have been for them, the "quote-unquote bad guys," as he put it.
Steck's concern for those detainees was reflected in his comments about the 145th's time at Camp Bucca. "They excelled at everything they did," he said about his fellow Utah soldiers. And when those soldiers treated the detainees with respect, conditions improved, he said.
Still, there were riots if detainees felt they were being mistreated. There were escapes and thwarted attempts, a tunnel discovered in one case while Steck was there.
The soldiers lived in tents at first, then small trailers called "pods." There was a gym, places from which to call home or to e-mail a loved one. With a lot of LDS "boys" around, church became a release for many Utah soldiers, prompting the need for one LDS service on Sunday and two more the next day. Two men at Camp Bucca were baptized into the LDS Church during Steck's stay.
But mostly, it was boring. Too much time to think or dwell on things. Too much dust. Too tempting for some to let anger or apathy set in, or to slip up and lean on drugs, alcohol or fighting to fill a void. Too little time to manage lifelines between Iraq and home.
"I don't recommend being at Camp Bucca for more than nine months," Steck said. "Nine months is pushing it guys burn out at six months." For some, Camp Bucca just wasn't what they had signed on for. The long hours, working six days a week, watching, waiting.
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