Interview with Padriac Finnerty (2004)
Kim: How did you first get interested in the military? (What were your reasons for joining, what did you hope to gain from it, etc.)
Padriac: Sophomore year of college at JCU, my roommate was involved in ROTC. He recommended taking some ROTC classes to see if I liked it. I took one the next semester, loved it and ended up joining. I joined primarily to get quality leadership experience… leading men in combat is the most rewarding thing in the world.
K: Are any of your family members also in the military?
P: Not at this time, but my dad was in the Army during the Vietnam War.
K: When did you first learn that you would be stationed in Iraq?
P: I first found out in December of 2003, while I was still in my Armor (tanks) Officer Basic Course at Fort Knox, Kentucky. It was pretty difficult that Christmas to have to go home and tell my family that I would be deploying in just a couple of months.
K: How did you feel at that time? How did your family and friends feel?
P: I personally was very excited to go to Iraq. I had several friends that were already over here and couldn’t bear the thought of them having to go if I wasn’t able to go. My family was just very concerned about anything bad that could happen to me during the course of the deployment.
K: What was your first experience after having arrived in Iraq?
P: Well, let’s back that up a little bit. While we were flying INTO Iraq, the plane I was on was shot at. What a welcome that was.
K: What places have you seen in Iraq?
P: I’ve now lived on four bases in Iraq, as I have changed positions, etc. I was in the Samarra fight in October, which was rather exciting, but haven’t been to Fallujah or Baghdad as those are other unit’s areas.
K: Did you find it easy or important to make friends with your fellow soldiers?
P: Yes, I found it rather easy as most of us have the same type of mentality and although the Army has all kinds of people, most of them are very similar.
K: Do the other soldiers and you help to support each other (mentally, spiritually, emotionally) in any way?
P: Yes, I’m the platoon leader of a 16-man platoon and do sensing sessions and consistently talk to my soldiers to ensure they are doing well.
K: What has been your happiest moment in Iraq?
P: That would definitely be anytime I come back from a successful mission where none of my guys have been hurt.
K: What are your feelings towards the people of Iraq?
P: I find myself to be rather sympathetic toward the people as a whole. There are several bad apples that ruin it for the bunch though. You never know who’s an insurgent and who isn’t, so you have to be skeptical about all of them.
K: What has been the scariest moment for you?
P: Whenever I have been shot at probably. Twice there were rockets that landed within 100 meters of my position and that definitely will shake you up a bit.
K: Have you experienced any injuries (mentally, physically, emotionally)?
P: No, luckily I’ve kept up good spirits while being deployed. I attribute most of that to the continued support of my family and friends. And no, I haven’t gotten any purple hearts so far.
K: How do you feel about the war in Iraq now, as opposed to how you felt before you left?
P: I am not as happy to be here as before, that is for sure. I really wanted to come, but now that I see how it is, it’s not a fun place to be, at all. I think we do need to be here to help them in re-establishing their own form of governance, but we should be getting more help from the UN. We’ve had almost 1200 hundred deaths from the war so far, compared to about 20 from the country with the second highest amount of casualties. It’s a difficult situation as we are here now to support their government, yet we are constantly being shot at from cowards that don’t wear uniforms and flee almost immediately.
K: How would you define war?
P: I think that war is any type of conflict that involves a decision from more than one party to stick to what they believe in. In the military, it’s as simple as having one army fight another.
K: What would you want other people to know about the war in Iraq?
P: I want people to know that the media has misconstrued nearly everything about this war. They continually make the U.S. Army out to be the aggressors, when in fact we are the pacifists here. We do not fire unless we are fired upon or have positively identified enemy. Yet every day, the media will say “20 Iraqis dies in Baghdad” and the American public thinks that WE killed 20 innocent civilians. They never tell the whole story and are never accurate whatsoever.
K: Do you ever struggle with ethical questions – whether the war is just, whether the decisions you made were right or wrong, etc.?
P: Yes, from time to time. No further comment.
K: Has your experience of war born any resemblance to television and film portrayals of war that you have seen?
P: Yes, much like Blackhawk Down. There was also a firefight that I was in during the first week of November where we have tanks, HMMWV’s (humvees), and helicopters all returning fire at the same time on a couple of insurgents that had shot at us. That looked like something out of a movie. But generally, everything in movies is always over-dramatized compared to how things really work out in combat.
K: How do you think your war experience has changed you?
P: I am still the same person that I was, except for a few minor changes. I don’t take things for granted anymore and have learned to appreciate the little pleasures in life much more. I must say I have been de-sensitized a little bit with all of the things that I have seen.
K: What are your hopes for the future of Iraq and its people?
P: I hope that they experience a smooth transition to a strong government shortly after the elections so that all of us can go home asap.
K: Can you give me a short synopsis of all the things you do on a regular day?
P: Well, I don’t wake up at a regular time each day. Since we’re always on some sort of mission, we go through a cycle and do missions at different hours. But basically, on a regular day with a mission: I get up early and eat breakfast, shave, and shower (if available). I talk to my commander about the upcoming mission, give my platoon a brief on the day’s mission. We go out and conduct the mission. We come back and I do post-mission checks to make sure my soldiers did not lose any equipment during the mission, etc. Do our personal business, then wake up the following day for the next mission. I also have 1-2 meetings a day to attend, but they’re at various times. There’s more to it, but it’s very detailed… that’s the easiest way to explain it.
K: What do you do for fun and are there restrictions placed on this?
P: My platoon and I have our own bunker. Thankfully, we were able to purchase and TV at the makeshift PX close to our base, and we were able to purchase an XBOX, games, and movies through Amazon.com. We spend most of our personal time either sleeping, playing video games, watching movies, studying, or working out at a gym on base. The only restrictions here are that if your are outside you have to wear all your gear (Kevlar helmet, body armor vest, ballistic eyewear, and carry your weapon), and no porn or alcohol in Iraq.
K: Where do you live?
P: We live in a bunker that was an old Iraqi Army bunker (The Republican Guard). Military contractors have renovated it a bit to ensure we have working electricity and we had some air conditioning during the summer months. Because it is one large room, we have sectioned off our own personal areas with sheets of wood. We don’t have much privacy but its something.
K: Can you tell me more about what you called in your last e-mail “sense sessions”?
P: Yes, a sensing sessions is when a leader will call a group of soldiers together and encourage them to talk openly about stuff. Generally, it is geared toward a specific topic and is a way to see how the soldiers are doing and how they feel. I hope that explains it well.
K: What do you miss the most about home that you can’t have there?
P: Alcohol, my girlfriend, and family. I’ve been here for seven months, and I have come to relish the small pleasures in life (Chipotle, chicken wings, etc.)
K: When did you graduate Carroll and what did you study?
P: I graduated in ’03 with a double major in political science and Spanish.
K: When do you get to come home?
P: We’re scheduled to move back to Germany in mid-February, which is where I am stationed. (I and stationed in Schweinfurt, Germay, but deployed with the 1st Infantry Division to Iraq, specifically Balad which is about 30-45 minutes directly north of Baghdad.) We will have one week reintegration time period, and after that will have a 30 day block of time in which we are able to leave (vacation) and go wherever we want. I am going back to Cleveland and should be back at the end of February/ beginning of March.
There is a great deal of information that I received in Padriac’s responses that resemble the things we have talked about extensively within this course. Most of this has to do with the language that he uses to tell me about his experiences. Like we have read in Zinn and O’Brien about how the military uses certain language to desensitize the nature of war for soldiers, Padriac uses this language with me. And while in his first email his introduction said “I don’t mind telling people what is really going on here” unfortunately, it seems as though he has used some of his military tactics to keep from doing just that. For instance, instead of saying that he is going to war, he calls it “course of deployment”, instead of talking about their feelings they have “sensing sessions”, instead of saying that he did not get killed or hurt he says “no, I don’t have any purple hearts yet”, and instead of enemy it is “insurgent.” Besides this he has a certain amount of the hero elements that we learned about from reading Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and that satirized in Wilfred Owens’ Dulce et Decorum Est. I can tell this from the things he says about going to war and why he has chosen to do so. When I asked him why he wanted to join the military, rather than simply answering the question he added the editorial comment that “leading men in combat is the most rewarding thing in the world”, and while I understand that this is true for him, I don’t necessarily understand why he was so “excited” to go over to Iraq and why he gave a simple answer for when he was the most scared. I would speculate that he has some doubts and fears about the war that he is keeping from me and maybe himself, I saw this in the way he refrained from answering my question about ethics of the war, how he calls the enemy “cowards” and how he answered the question about how his feelings have changed since he has been there.
Another thing that I found interesting that I think relates to what we have talked about in class are what he (and the Army for that matter) call “sensing sessions.” While I think that this required interaction between soldiers is a good and necessary exercise, it seems so intentionally de-personalized to me that I feel they need more support than they are getting. Especially taking into account all of the articles we have read (Hemingway and Zinn) that discuss the inadequacies of the military to address psychological conditions among soldiers.
The one thing about this interview that has revealed to me the differences between what we have studied and the way it is now in Iraq were the responses about what they do in their free time. Never before have active soldiers been able to play video games or order things off-line from any where in the world. Even the dynamics of the interview amaze me about the nature of this war. The first time that I wrote to Padriac I had received an e-mail in response in less than six hours, hence the communication possibilities have brought this war closer to the main land than it has ever been and at the same time made the circumstances of it so relaxed that it is hard to think of it as actual war, the kind where people lose their lives. I think that what makes the technology aspect of the war more unbelievable is the stark contrast between XBOX’s and the bunker that they live in where they have sheets of wood for walls and unreliable access to showers. It is these paradoxes about this war that I think I have not learned about in this class so far and that I think will be hard for people to understand and rationalize for many years to come.
Because of the dynamics of this interview, meaning via e-mail in such a way that I cannot reach him as often as I want, I feel that there were a lot more things that I could have learned from Padriac. I also think that because he is still in Iraq and very much an active part of the war that the things he says now will change drastically after he comes home. I attribute this to the restrictions placed on what he is allowed to tell me and his own efforts to maintain strong mental convictions that will help him through his daily activities and to help sustain the mentality of the men he leads into battle. But I think that I learned a number of important things from our correspondence.
One of these things is the similarities between my friends and I and Padriac and his friends. They play video games the same as we do, and where this struck me the most was in his answer to the question “what do you miss the most?” when he said Chipotle, because as a John Carroll student I understand the Chipotle craze that we all share. When I read that I became very sad for the sudden and turbulent changes that people are sometimes asked to endure, and how much they are potentially giving up for the sake of statistics and seemingly inefficient war. Another story that I think needs to be retold is the way the soldier (as opposed to the average citizen) views the media’s involvement in this war. If someone in the middle of it feels that the media has done him a personal injustice then there has to be something there worth communicating to the public. And along with this I thought that Padriac’s own response to what war looks like and if Hollywood portrays it accurately in the movies was quite interesting. I myself have always been skeptical about combat scenes, especially modern ones, being true to life. Now that I know they are at times I am terrified about what these young men have to live through and witness for the sake of “a couple of insurgents.”
In the end, this assignment has given me an unforgettable experience with war. I have overstepped the miraculous history of war, thanks to technology and the internet, in a way that has put war so close to me that I can’t help but worry even more than normal about the fate of our country and the lives of people who are less fortunate than me. And while I feel that I spent a great deal of time fretting over who to interview and almost waited to long to do the assignment properly, I was lucky to have found an opening into Padriac’s life, perspective, and personal war story. The thing that troubles me the most after having completed this assignment is they way Padriac seems militarized in his thoughts and language. He says himself that he “must say I have been de-sensitized a little bit” and I worry that this will only get more severe for him and for the other men and women as they return to their real lives. This makes me think too that maybe I am the one who knows nothing about real life, and that Padriac, his fellow soldiers and the Iraqi citizens know more about reality than I ever will.