| Home From Iraq
TWO ALUMNI SEEK A SENSE OF
PEACE IN THE WAKE OF WAR
STEVE CAMPBELL ’03 CAN’T SPEND A DAY at the beach without flashing
back to the sandstorms that ravaged his tent and made life miserable
in the deserts of Iraq.
When Anne Marie Olney Sterling ’00 makes dinner in her Fayetteville,
North Carolina, home, she sometimes hears staged explosions from
the military base a few miles away. Even though she’s not in danger,
and months have passed since she was in Baghdad, her heart still
skips a beat. That’s the thing about war, both say: It changes
Campbell and Sterling don’t know each other, but if they
met they’d have plenty to talk about — the harshness of desert
living, the threat of chemical weapons, the loneliness, and the
challenges to their faith while in a hostile environment far from
LIFE IN THE DESERT
Steve Campbell was a senior at Seattle
Pacific University when his Marine unit was called up for war.
With only a quarter to go until graduation, Campbell, who signed
up as a reservist in his sophomore year, had every reason to want
to stay behind. He had a great job as a peer advisor on campus,
and he was in a committed relationship heading toward marriage.
had the choice to stay,” says Campbell, who might have been granted
a special higher-education exemption. But he didn’t choose that. “I
put a lot of thought and prayer into it, and I knew that God would
use me out there.”
With only a few days’ notice, the electrical
engineering major packed up, said goodbye and went to war like
any other soldier in the First Marine Division’s Sixth Engineer
Then a corporal, Campbell likens his first night
in the desert to a fireworks show. “There were loud booms, and
we could see incoming missiles,” he says. “We were prepared for
But the “worst” came in the form of sandstorms, not
chemical weapons. “They were brutal,” says Campbell. “You can’t
see your hand in front of your face, and it feels like thousands
of needles hitting your body.”
Even still, there was a job to do. “Our
mission was to lay fuel lines from Kuwait into Iraq,” he says.
Think of a gigantic spool of thread unraveling through the desert — that
was Campbell’s morning, noon and night.
“As we were moving into
Iraq, we arrived at the first water purification point, and we
needed to get to the other side of the Euphrates River,” he recalls.
So two soldiers from Campbell’s battalion were sent ahead.
both drowned,” says Campbell quietly.
“We all knew people were
going to die in this war. You just had to let it roll off your
back. That’s the way you had to face death out there.
fuel lines may have been his official job, but Campbell’s duties
went far beyond that. “Our unit really didn’t have a lay leader — the
person who is the religious point of contact for the platoon,” says
Campbell. So he filled that role.
“I had quite a few opportunities
to talk about God, and I took hold of them. One of the guys was
an atheist, but he took the time to read the Bible cover to cover
and was working on the Koran. At the time, I was reading a book,
The Flight of Peter Fromm, for my UCOR 3000 class, and when I was
done reading it, he read it too.” There, in the middle of the desert,
the atheist and the Christian held theological debates.
soldiers passed the time playing card games, Campbell was writing
papers for his classes at SPU. “I was getting as much work done
as possible. I wanted to graduate.”
As fate would have it, though,
Campbell didn’t make it home until the week after Seattle Pacific’s
Commencement. “It didn’t really hit me until the war was over that
I had missed my graduation. That was really hard.”
While in Iraq,
he also missed his SPU friends and Jessica Mitchell Campbell ’02,
now his wife. Theirs was a love story that unfolded through letters. “We
wrote each other every day,” he says. “Through our letters, we realized
how much we loved each other.”
Throughout his deployment, there was
a Bible verse, Ephesians 4:13, that strengthened Campbell. “Jessica
sent it to me when I was in boot camp, and it’s been in my wallet
ever since,” he says. “It reminds me that if I put my faith in the
Lord and trust in him, he’ll get me through.”
He pauses. “No matter
FROM BOSNIA TO BAGHDAD
Sterling says her life after graduation
from Seattle Pacific was pretty well planned out. “I graduated,
I got commissioned in the Army and I got married in the same week.”
was soon stationed in Bosnia for six months. “That was a great
first deployment to learn how to do things at a slower pace before
doing them in Iraq. Things were really calm there.”
“Calm” to Sterling
meant providing medical support for raids of Al Qaeda cells by
U.S. soldiers in Bosnia and coordinating the medical response for
injuries caused by everything from automobile accidents to friendly
fire. As a platoon leader in the Army’s Medical Service Corps,
Sterling was the contact for all administrative duties required
by the health-care professionals in her unit.
When Sterling’s service
in Bosnia was complete, rumors began to spread about possible deployment
to Iraq. Her unit, the 28th Combat Support Hospital, supports the
18th Airborne Corps, which includes the Army’s most elite: Airborne
and Air Assault troopers. “When they go, we know we’re going,” she
So she said goodbye to her husband, Rob Sterling ’00,
and arrived in Kuwait in March 2003 just before the war’s first
round of bombing. “Every
couple of hours we’d have to put on our chemical protection gear
and our masks and sit in a bunker,” she remembers. “That was probably
the most afraid a lot of us had ever been, but somehow we knew
the worst was yet to come." As Sterling crossed the border into
Iraq, the real work began.
“I took care of the medical personnel so they could worry about
the patients,” she says. Along the way she saw tragedy: two Iraqi boys
who picked up a mine before it exploded, an ambulance hit by a
rocket-propelled grenade and sick Iraqi infants left at the military camp gates.
In Baghdad, Sterling was assigned to the Ibn Sina Hospital, the
former personal hospital of Saddam Hussein and the country’s
Ba’ath party elite. “It was just a few blocks down the road from his big palace in the city,” she says.
Before the 72-bed hospital was operational, however, there was
housekeeping to do. “We took down all of the huge, framed photos of
Saddam,” notes Sterling. They also found medical records for top members
of the Ba’ath party. These were handed over to U.S. officials.
The most painful memory of Baghdad, says Sterling, was the day
an American Chinook helicopter crashed. “It was full of soldiers
who were going on leave,” she says. “It was really hard to know that their
families were expecting them home in a day and a half, and they weren’t
Sterling says she relied on strength from God to get her through,
but it wasn’t easy. “I struggle with my relationship with the Lord
when I’m deployed,” she says. “It’s hard to find Christian friends,
and it becomes an inner-strength battle for me.
“I got a little bit depressed in Iraq, but I just toughed it out.
The Army warrior ethos is to be strong. And that’s what you do.”
So when explosions sounded across Baghdad, she didn’t panic. “I’d
get on Instant Messenger and talk to my sister at SPU. I’d type, ‘Hey,
does it say anything on CNN? What’s going on?’”
Through it all, one thing motivated her, says Sterling: “I knew
that I was making it possible for doctors and nurses to save the lives
of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. So many Iraqis said, ‘Thank
you. We didn’t know that you guys would do this for us.’”
Sterling returned home in January of this year, and she says her
family loves to talk about her adventures. “My dad’s so funny; he
tells tall stories about me, and he usually gets it wrong. If you
ask him, I’d be a Ranger with a machine gun — you know, like
Rambo. He exaggerates just a little, but that’s OK,” she says.
LIFE AFTER WAR
Even if their paths didn’t cross in the desert, Sterling and Campbell
have more in common today than just SPU and Iraq. Both young veterans
have the aftermath of war to face, and they are honest about what that means.
“Unless you’ve been to war, you don’t understand how it changes you,”
says Campbell. Sterling agrees. “For instance, anyone
who says that being away from your spouse doesn’t affect your marriage
is in denial or lying,” she says.
Part of the healing process is moving on with life. Sterling
plans to start a one-year lab officer training course in Washington,
D.C. And since returning from Iraq, Campbell has graduated,
married, received an officer’s commission and completed a cross-country
move to Quantico, Virginia, for officer training.
The two soldiers say they believe in the justness of the war in
Iraq and aren’t upset by protestors. “That’s one of the things this
nation is all about — speaking your mind,” Campbell says.
“It’s the military’s job to fight for every citizen’s freedom.”
And in some ways, Sterling and Campbell are still fighting, but
for a much more personal cause: the sense of normalcy and peace
that characterized their lives before deployment. Now that they’re
home, both veterans say it’s a battle they intend to win.
— BY SARAH JIO
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