Brian Belanger can quickly recount two very different yet equally emotional pictures of serving in Iraq.
The first was at noon on a Friday-a major prayer time on Islam's holiest day of the week-in Baghdad. The streets were clogged with 5,000 to 7,000 people as Staff Sgt. Belanger and his company of about 120 soldiers filed past. It was in March 2004 on Day Three of the logistical company's first convoy into the heart of the country, and they had unknowingly interrupted high prayers.
What are we doing here? We need to get out of here right away, he thought as some people waved, some threw rocks, some went about their prayers and some turned and fired weapons at the convoy. Mr. Belanger and his crew couldn't pinpoint those firing, and they couldn't fire back into the crowd.
``It was a lot of chaos,'' said the warehouse manager for City Tire Co. Inc. in Springfield. ``We were in the wrong place at the wrong time.''
The other incident was a couple months later in the 120-degree summer. Mr. Belanger's company had helped reconstruct a school in Tikrit that back in the States would have been condemned. Judging by its battle-scarred and rundown condition, it likely had been closed for about a year before his company arrived. The soldiers secured the structure and built trenches nearby so it wouldn't flood in the rainy season.
Like kids on Christmas, he said, children ranging in age from 7 to 12 were excited to return to school and claim the supplies and books sent from a military unit in the U.S. They asked the soldiers to visit again. In return, their parents started telling the unit where insurgents were holed up. The children reminded Mr. Belanger of his sons back home, now ages 11 and 15.
``It just seemed like they wanted to learn,'' he said of the Iraqi kids. ``They wanted to do something with themselves besides everything they've seen over the years, living in poverty and under a dictator. They wanted to be able to enjoy themselves and not be punished for what they were doing.''
The incidents only count for two out of Mr. Belanger's some 450 days in country, but together they are his most frightening and most rewarding memories of 15 months in Iraq.
Mr. Belanger joined the Army in 1985 right after graduating high school. He had also recently started working at City Tire, where his father and two brothers also had worked. He took off three years from City Tire for active duty, then another nine months for the first Gulf War in 1991 and then 15 months for his latest tour, returning home in March.
``I wanted to grow up,'' Mr. Belanger, 39, said of his decision to join the Army. ``I thought I knew everything, and the military let me know I didn't know everything. Very quickly.''
He specialized in logistics, supplying combat troops with the appropriate commodities and vehicle parts to support their operations. But while that position traditionally would have kept him relatively safe behind the lines, the new rules of the Iraq war made him and nearly every soldier an infantry soldier.
``It doesn't matter what you do for a job,'' he said. ``If you're out on the roads, they're doing a lot of one-on-one explosions.''
And while his military job meshed well with his civilian job, the daily experiences were nothing alike.
``It was crazy at first because the fact is you had to put your guard up at all times,'' he said. ``There was always something going on around you.''
Mr. Belanger's experiences also were different from the first Gulf War. That conflict, he said, was over and done with soon and didn't carry the ongoing tension of small ambushes. But with the current continuing occupation, he said, soldiers have to constantly watch their backs.
But he also said he found most Iraqi people supportive of the troops' presence, though he was frustrated that much of that good news doesn't reach the American people. It's instead being drowned out, he believes, by negative stories such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
``There's a lot of good things that are actually happening there,'' Mr. Belanger said. ``The people want us there.''
His tour took him through Tikrit, Mosul, Kirkuk and near the Syrian border. His unit suffered seven casualties and one fatality.
At the tire store, his boss, Jeff Martin, vice president of operations, was glad to get Mr. Belanger back.
``He came back all in one piece, so we're all very happy about that of course,'' he told Tire Business.
Mr. Martin said filling Mr. Belanger's shoes during his tour was difficult, but City Tire was determined to make its own transition-and his-as smooth as possible. ``It was important to me that when he came back he felt like he hadn't missed a beat and he was coming home again,'' Mr. Martin said. ``And we did achieve that.''
When Mr. Belanger left, nine-outlet City Tire recruited two people to handle his responsibilities. One took a manager's position and the other an assistant post, but both were told upfront that it was a temporary assignment. Mr. Martin said upon Mr. Belanger's return the person in the management post left for other opportunities but the second hire stayed on and now serves as Mr. Belanger's assistant. City Tire also instituted any raises and other benefits he would have received if he hadn't left.
``Not only did he come back to his original position,'' Mr. Martin said, ``...he actually came back to a situation that was better than when he left.''
But while Mr. Martin crosses his fingers that Mr. Belanger won't be activated again-already 15 members of his company were sent back to Iraq after only three months home-he has a new appreciation for his employee.
``When guys are gone you really realize how important they are,'' he said.
The prospect of being rotated back again is a point of stress for Mr. Belanger as well. He hopes a draft will be instituted to relieve some of the pressure on the reserves. He pointed out that the troops his company replaced in Iraq are now back over there as his replacements.
``In my opinion it's going to be an endless cycle unless they turn around and bring in the draft,'' he said. ``I hate to say it, but I'd like to see a draft come in. I think it will help everybody understand and get a little more meaning about responsibilities and learn how to grow up a little faster.''
His 15-year-old plans to join the military when he's old enough, and Mr. Belanger is pleased with that prospect.
``I think that will be a great learning experience for him, even if it's not in a wartime situation,'' he said.
In the end, Mr. Belanger said he appreciated support from City Tire, his family and others who remembered him during his tour. Regardless of people's positions on the war in Iraq, he said, he hopes Americans remember the men and women serving there.
The most important way to show that support, he added, is to write letters and send packages. He and other troops often passed on the personal hygiene items they received to Iraqis who sorely needed basic necessities.
``It wasn't going just to the troops,'' he said. ``It was actually going to the people that really needed it in country.''