The unlikely soldier - Page 3

This hippie musician turned helicopter pilot in Iraq just wants to come home
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Rice immediately landed the aircraft and performed an emergency shutdown. Someone in the other helicopter he was flying with radioed over to him, "You are a pussy. Fly that thing back."

Rice refused. "They wanted me to cut some corners," he said. "They resorted to name-calling, but with a name like Shurd, I am fairly immune to that sort of harassment."

Pilots, he said, are eager to fly missions and return to their rooms, where they shut out the war. But he was at a military base when he landed his leaking Black Hawk, and the safer option was to fix the helicopter rather than limp it back to base.

"I am not taking any extra chances," he told us. "I love my wife and plan on getting back to her."

The news that all active-duty soldiers would have to stay in Iraq three months longer had just been delivered that week, and none of the soldiers were accepting it easily.

"With the extension, the guys tend to lose their patience more than they did before," Rice said. "What a kick to the sack, you know. Thank you very much Uncle Sam."

But Rice isn't going to let his frustrations cloud his focus. In the end, everyone had to wait a few hours until the problem was solved and Rice was able to safely make the flight home.

First Sgt. Anthony Smoots, who manages all the soldiers in Charlie Company, said that Rice takes care of his guys and cares about his job, adding, "He really cares about his wife."

Even more traditional soldiers, such as Rice's captain, Trent Lythgoe, find the extended, back-to-back deployments excessively hard on the soldiers and their family life.

"I think you are going to see some attrition across the board as a result of the high OPTEMPO [Operations Tempo] that we are experiencing," Lythgoe told us. "Soldiers of all ages, ranks, and experience will make the decision to leave the Army."

OIL WAR

Rice's room, like those of other pilots, is a trailerlike tin box called a containerized housing unit (CHU). It has become his sanctuary, where he reads science fiction novels and plays EVE online. In the game he pilots a spaceship, goes on missions in faraway galaxies, and interacts with other players in this fantasy world. When he closes the door, he shuts out Iraq.

"We are not allowed to drink, frolic with members of the opposite sex, or look at pornography," Rice said. "I am sure somewhere in the rules it says we can't masturbate or look at our own genitals in the shower."

The Internet is wired into the CHUs, but often it goes out. Rice said that when his wife does not hear from him for a few days, she becomes very concerned about his safety, especially if a helicopter has been reported shot down.

His wife is not the typical pilot's wife, and he is not a supporter of the war on terror. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred while Rice was in flight school in Alabama. Even seeing the World Trade Center towers burn didn't inspire Rice to go to war.

"For the 30 terrorists that launched that attack? No," he said.

But he knew that the military would take action.

"I thought, oh man, here we go," he said. "Now we are all along for the ride."

Rice said he understands why the terrorists attacked the United States.

"What do you expect? We are the Rome of the modern world," he said. "A lot of people love us, and a lot more hate us because of the position we are in.... We are a target. We always will be."

Recently, Rice's wife wrote him that she got a ride from one of his old friends in San Francisco, who works as a cab driver. The old friend said that he doesn't know or understand Rice anymore since he enlisted and cut his hair. But Rice doesn't feel like he has changed and was taken aback by the comments.

"His whole life depends on what I do over here," Rice said.