Using simple prose, Ryan Smithson shares with readers his experience of serving a one-year tour as an engineer in the Army in Iraq in 2005. He starts by recounting his experience of 9/11 as a 14-year-old in Albany New York, and how that persuaded him to join the army reserves years later upon finishing high school. He continues through the ups and downs of boot camp before bringing readers along as he traveled through Iraq.
Smithson didn’t serve on the front lines, and he is clear in the fact that he spent most of his time using large equipment to move landscape. At the same time, that did not mean that he was out of danger. He shares the heartbreaking experience of dealing with the loss of a colleague he served with but can barely remember when his platoon is reassigned elsewhere in Iraq. He talks about the edge of his seat experiences in avoiding IEDs, some real and some fake. He also talks of the difficult living conditions.
The real strength of the book is in the personal details. He talks about how he and the guys he served with changed through their experiences. Not only did they grow up, but they became brothers as a result of their shared fears, boredom, and weariness.
He talks of seeing the poor Iraqi children and their families and not being able to follow the rules about not giving food to them. He also talks about the kind words and gestures he received from many Iraqis in the course of his travels throughout the country.
It is a story of war, and the horrors men can cause each other. But it is also the story of the little touches of kindness he receives in care packages from homes and cards and letters from children he never had or will meet.