Postcards from Iraq

March 16, 2009

By Michael L. Sangren

National Guardsman corresponds from streets of Baghdad

Command Sgt. Michael Sangren says hello to an Iraqi youngster during a school visit in February. Contributed

Command Sgt. Michael Sangren says hello to an Iraqi youngster during a school visit in February. Contributed

When I volunteered to come to Iraq with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a mobilized Army reservist, I was wondering what I would be doing.

Being an Army Corps civilian, I knew my civilian job; however, I was coming to Iraq as a command sergeant major. Stateside district offices have no enlisted soldiers; however, in Iraq, districts do have soldiers. So, I was faced with the same question as many people who come to Iraq: What the heck am I getting into?

In a military unit, I am the senior enlisted person and my task is to take care of soldiers. However, here in Gulf Region South, only 25 percent of the district personnel are military, and of that, only 30 percent are enlisted.

It is far from a piece of cake, but is without doubt the most exciting and important job I have had in 37 years of military service. The civilians are volunteers, who have nice comfortable jobs in the States, but have given up the comforts of home to come halfway around the world, into an environment totally unfamiliar to them.

They’re also the friendliest and most outgoing group of people I’ve ever worked or lived with — always upbeat and willing to help with anything. They’re also extremely professional and mission focused — we only have about 100 civilians and our workload is about 139 active projects, so everybody has to do his or her job, plus.

The military is a minority here in Gulf Region South. With only about 32 assigned, they come from a wide variety of backgrounds — active duty, reserve, Army, Air Force and Navy — they’re all here to support their country, many serving their second or third war zone deployment. With a few exceptions, they’re doing jobs that are only remotely related to their normal military functions. However, this has not slowed them down — they’ve learned from their predecessor and continue to support the mission in an exceptional manner.

Everyone wants to be here — the spirit of cooperation is so thick I feel I could cut it, box it and sell it on eBay. However, there are reminders that this is a combat zone and a dangerous place. We work long hours and living quarters are tight, so I have made everyone in Gulf Region South my soldier.

To help relieve the stress, we do a lot of fun stuff — karaoke, barbecues, volleyball, softball, pingpong, movie night on the patio, even cigar nights by the fire pit. Moreover, everyone pitches in to help wherever he or she can. With the end effect, we become a family away from our own families. We say goodbye a lot, and there is an occasional teary eye, but we also say hello and welcome to our newcomers, and it is truly heartfelt.

I now know what a great assignment this has proven to be, and the old Army adage “never volunteer for anything” could not be more wrong. We’re overseeing a ton of meaningful and historic work, and some of the greatest people in the world are here on our team making a difference.

Michael L. Sangren is with the Gulf Region Division South District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Reach him at

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