Vol. 18, No. 20

Oct. 20 - Nov. 2,  2005


Guardsman Depicts Iraq Reality


The staff at Lehman College’s Institute for Literacy Studies had no idea that Christopher Perkins, the quiet guy who had worked there for a decade, was such a talented writer. They figured it out when he left.

For the past 10 months, since his National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq, Perkins has documented the stark realities of his existence there through frequent letters to the Literacy Studies staff, who have written back religiously. The flow of letters and cards is a riveting account of one Bronxite’s experience as he wrestles with — and sometimes bitterly laughs at — his experience of the war.

“She finally wrote that she loves me,” wrote Perkins, recounting a letter from his little cousin. “She couldn’t do before because I ‘was going to die and get shot,’ according to her on Thanksgiving.”

Perkins and the roughly 200 other members of the 145th Maintenance Company, based out of the Kingsbridge Armory, were called into active duty last winter. Now stationed in An Nasiriya, a city in the south, the unit repairs and armors vehicles bound for Baghdad. Their base rarely experiences active fighting and is relatively safe — meaning, they’ve only been attacked a few times.

Perkins, 32, is a company staff sergeant, overseeing a squad of 15 troops while repairing air conditioners. They toil away in a large base that amounts to roughly the space from Jerome to Webster avenues and Bedford Park Boulevard to Fordham Road, as Perkins describes it. The heat is brutal, and working with a blowtorch every day just adds to the misery.

“It was 120 degrees today and I spent most of it under the sun,” Perkins wrote. Later in the summer, the temperature climbed to 145 degrees.

The conditions are grueling, but boredom and loneliness are often more harrowing. Soldiers have few opportunities to leave the base, filling their time by reading books or watching DVDs. That’s when Perkins typically takes out a pen. “Whenever I have time, even during the day, I write,” he said.

Some of those letters are to family and friends, but it’s the Institute staff who have become some of his most devoted correspondents. He received letters from his co-workers nearly every day, along with packages of sci-fi books and homemade goodies, after he shipped out. “I’ve gained weight since I’ve been there,” joked Perkins, who is tall and fit.

In return, Perkins has sent a constant account of life there. He has depicted the dangers, like vehicles arriving with “shattered windows, bullet holes, and damage from explosives,” and the daily discomforts, such as substituting baby wipes for showers or avoiding ringworm and bedbugs.

Perkins’ writing particularly shines in his wry accounts of the complexities of life within and beyond the base. He gets frustrated when his unit members take their responsibilities too lightly, or act immaturely. Watching CNN gets him thinking about how little Americans know, or care, about news in other countries. And the pervasive poverty particularly disturbs him.

“The children that stand along the roads outside the gate are a heartbreaking sight and a downright shame as they beg for food in one of the world’s most oil rich nations,” wrote Perkins last February.

He felt particularly conflicted when Iraqis went to the polls last January. Part of him wondered if the Iraqis were as jubilant as the news depicted. (“Interestingly, in the classes I’ve sat through, giving the thumbs up [in Iraq] is akin to our middle finger.”) But he also didn’t wholeheartedly agree with the words he saw scrawled on a base bathroom:
“[Operation Iraqi Freedom] is the unwilling … doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.”

The Literacy Institute is a rapt audience for Perkins’ musings. When his letters arrive, they are photocopied and slipped into each staff member’s mailbox. Someone always responds promptly. “We’ve taken it as a personal mission,” said Julie Conason, an Institute teacher.

It’s been a particularly rewarding experience for staff, who have gained new insights on the war and their shy coworker. “It was a sudden window into him,” Conason said. “Many of us have known Chris for years, but we have a much deeper relationship with him now.”

Perkins, who grew up in Norwood and University Heights, works as an administrative assistant at the Institute, which conducts adult literacy classes and research. He’s taken a few college classes, but says he’s never been a good student. No one has ever complimented him on his writing. “It’s just venting,” he said.

But staff members see beyond his humbleness, especially when they read passages like the following:

“All the desert dust lifted up and remained airborne in a creepy brown haze,” Perkins wrote in one letter. “It looked very eerie, kind of like an eclipse without the moon.”

“He has such amazing insights,” said Anne Campos, the Institute’s assistant director. Marcie Wolf, the director, agreed. “We couldn’t be a more appreciative audience for good writing,” she said.

Staff opinions on the war vary, but they are unified in their support for Perkins. “We’ve all been worried about him,” Wolf said. “It’s been very emotional.”

The entire staff got to deliver their concern in person when Perkins, dressed in his beige fatigues, made a surprise visit to the Institute last month. His coworkers all leapt up to give him hugs, and Perkins presented plaques expressing his gratitude for their support. “It’s going to be harder to say goodbye this time,” said Perkins after the reunion.

Perkins returned to Iraq on Sept. 17, and is looking forward to coming home for good, hopefully in January. When he returns, his desk, and the Institute staff, will be waiting for him. “He was our guy to go,” Campos said emotionally. “We all took it very personally.”

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