Over a live video feed from Camp Taqaddum, west of Fallujah in Iraq, three soldiers—two male and one female—fielded questions Thursday on topics that ranged from the upcoming presidential election to stress-relieving recreational options in Iraq.
The event, held in Whittaker Lab on the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, marked the fourth time that Lehigh University has hosted a live videoconference with soldiers serving in Iraq. The event, which was organized by Lehigh’s Global Union, followed the format established in the 2006 and 2007 events and drew roughly 150 attendees for the 70-minute discussion.
University students, staff and faculty were joined in the conversation by students from the Lehigh Valley Academy and Nazareth High School.
Among the first to pose a question was Debbie Henritzy, a communications coordinator with Lehigh’s Library and Technology Services, whose son, Jonathan, will leave for Iraq in January after training in Mississippi.
After praising the soldiers for their service, Henritzy asked how she could prepare him for what he was about to face.
“Trust the unit and trust the people he’ll be working with,” said Capt. Matthew Benton of Kentucky, who fielded the majority of the questions. “He’ll be doing a tough job and when you’re young, you think you’re invincible. We all thought like that. But he’s going to have to be physically ready to be here, and he has to understand the big picture, what all this is for.”
When asked by another why so many troops were still stationed in Iraq and not in the hills of Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding, Benton responded:
“I agree with you. I don’t want to be here either
“It’s hot, it’s sandy, and I know my wife wishes I weren’t here, too, but I understand our cause and our profession,” he continued. “And whether I think Osama bin Laden is alive or not doesn’t really matter. That’s an issue for the intel people.”
He, like his fellow soldiers, noted throughout the conversation that the progress in Iraq was not being accurately represented by the American media.
“You don’t hear all the good stuff that is happening here on the ground,” Benton said. “There are some great things happening, and the news media isn’t telling you.”
All agreed that the situation in their region has improved dramatically over the past year. “It was called the Wild, Wild West for a reason,” one said. The soldiers said that relations with Iraqis were also moving in a positive direction.
When asked for specifics, they noted that curfews have been lifted, elections have been held and traffic flows freely on Iraqi roads.
While none of those questioned revealed favorite candidates in the upcoming election, they all said they stayed abreast of news through the Internet and Armed Forces Network, which also provides live telecasts of NFL games. Downtime was spent watching movies, playing video games and working out.
“We have a huge gym and we work out a lot,” said Staff Sgt. Chanel Martin, of Albany, N.Y. “I’m definitely in the best physical condition of my life.”
Thursday’s event, which was moderated by international relations major Lisa Boyd ’11, represented “the best interaction” of all the Iraq videoconferences organized by the Global Union, according to its director, Bill Hunter.
The videoconference launched a year-long series of Global Union events titled "Looking in the Mirror: A Global Perspective on America,” Hunter said. The next event will be a talk with Amal Hamada, an expert on Iran and lecturer at Cairo University, at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 17 in Maginnes Hall.
The videoconference was made possible through the Freedom Calls Foundation, which was created in 2004 with a mission to build a communications network independent of the military, employing state-of-the-art technology to allow for communications with American troops in the field.
Prior to the start of the videoconference, Freedom Calls founder John B. Harlow II chatted briefly with attendees, explaining that he was motivated to develop his foundation to prevent military families from being “commercially exploited” by telephone companies and to allow them to speak freely with sons and daughters serving around the world.
“We provide about one million minutes a month in free phone calls,” he said, “and we allow people to have unfiltered discussions—the straight story—from the people serving there.”