Stories of honor, faith and courage'We're doing the right thing
When Army Reserve Maj. James Manzanares returned from a four-month
deployment in Iraq, he threw away his three pairs of khaki-colored
boots that were stained black with blood.
"I just wanted to forget," said the 38-year-old pediatric
orthopedic surgeon at Nemours Children's Clinic in Pensacola who
served with the Army's 629th Forward Surgical Team.
But he hasn't forgotten.
When he hears a loud noise, he braces for a mortar blast. When he
showers, he remembers the sides of his shower tent that once shook
from the force of a nearby explosion. He thinks of soldiers "who
didn't look old enough to shave" lying before him with serious
injuries, pleading with him to make them better.
But along with his painful recollections of the war's human toll,
Manzanares also holds a sense of pride in America's mission in Iraq
and a belief that the outcome will be a positive one.
"This is truly a war," he said. "There was nothing
nice or subtle about it, but I have to believe that we're doing the
right thing. I have to think that people are dying for a reason and
that eventually, Iraq is going to be more prosperous, more
self-sufficient and more free."
With Iraq's interim government set to assume sovereignty on
Wednesday, many of those who have risked their lives to help that
nation and its people say that progress is being made.
The steps might be small. The victories might be largely unseen by
But America's mission is a worthwhile one, furthered on a day-to-day
basis by men and women who serve with integrity, pride and
compassion, say many Pensacola Bay Area residents who have been
Capt. Peter O'Connor, the executive officer of Pensacola Naval
Hospital who headed operations at a combat hospital during the first
months of the war, recalls how excited Iraqi physicians and nurses
were to learn from people trained in current Western medicine.
Gary Bergosh of Pensacola, a major in the Marine Corps Reserves and
a Navy attorney, cherishes his memories of Kuwaitis who expressed
their gratitude to American military personnel.
Army Spc. Rolanda Murray of Milton, a hospital laboratory technician
in Baghdad's "Green Zone,'' speaks of the thankful words from
Iraqi civilians who had horrible stories about life under Saddam
Navy Lt. Maria Alberto, stationed at Pensacola Naval Hospital, fell
in love with a 4-year-old girl in Iraq.
Local residents in touch with loved ones in Iraq also recounted
stories sent home through e-mails and phone calls.
Marine Master Sgt. Scott Clanton, a resident of Lucedale, Miss., and
graduate of Pine Forest High School, is working with locals near the
Syrian border to set up a police force.
"He believes it's going to make a difference," said
Clanton's father, Henry, of Pensacola.
Gary Lowe, a Navy petty officer first class from Corry Field in
Pensacola and an electronics technician, is at a training facility in
KirKush, working with the new Iraqi Army to get an electrical system
up and running.
"When I talk to him, he's very upbeat and said they're getting
a lot of support and the Iraqis are working very hard," said a
close friend, Theresa Gonzalez of Milton.
Capt. Peter O'Connor: Building trust
O'Connor's unit became the Navy's first Expeditionary Medical
Facility to conduct operations in a combat zone, venturing into the
desert of southern Iraq to set up the 116-bed Fleet Hospital 3.
O'Connor and his staff provided around-the-clock care in 21
different medical and dental specialties to soldiers, enemy prisoners
of war and displaced Iraqi civilians who streamed in for treatment of
Initially, the reaction was one of distrust, O'Connor said.
"But that would dissipate quickly when they saw that we were
going to help them and care for them in the same way we would one of
our own," he said.
At one point during the first weeks of combat, a large dust storm in
the area grounded medical helicopters.
On the night the storm finally subsided, the 53-year-old O'Connor
"It must have been about 3 a.m.," he said. "The sky
was clear, the stars were bright, and there was a line of helicopters
above us waiting to come down."
As patients flooded into the hospital, surgeries began
simultaneously on four operating tables.
It was a moment that O'Connor remembers as the proudest of his stint
"Everyone just sort of fell in to their duties," he said.
"Everyone was doing exactly what they had been trained to do,
and it all seemed to be clicking."
O'Connor's staff also delivered $900,000 worth of medical supplies
to several Iraqi civilian hospitals.
They worked side-by-side with Iraqi physicians and nurses in
hospitals that had long lacked modern supplies and equipment.
"They were so excited to be learning," O'Connor said.
"They were starving for folks who were trained in current
In addition, O'Connor said, fleet hospital staff members conducted
three relief missions into local communities, providing food,
clothes, medical supplies and children's toys to residents.
"You'd be amazed at how far a smile and friendly face go toward
building trust," he said.
Maj. Gary Bergosh:Words of gratitude
Bergosh, 37, an Escambia County School Board member, joined the
Marine Reserve to back up his own words.
"A lot of people pay lip service to things like the
military," said the father of one. "But I didn't want to be
someone who just talked about it."
With a father who served in Vietnam and a grandfather who served in
World War II, Bergosh felt a sense of pride and duty when he was
deployed to Iraq in February 2003 before the war started.
Several weeks later, he was called to lead a team delivering 20
amphibious assault vehicles from Kuwait to the front lines north of
Al Nassariah in Iraq.
On the return trip, Bergosh helped escort three Kuwaiti interpreters
out of Iraq and back to their native country. The trio, who were
educated in the United States, had volunteered to assist the Marines
as they worked their way through Iraq.
Bergosh's conversations with the interpreters made him realize the
value of his work.
The interpreters had been living in Kuwait when Saddam's forces
invaded during the first Gulf War.
"It truly was a conquest," Bergosh said. "They raped
and murdered and pillaged and tried to destroy Kuwait."
The three men spoke in glowing terms about American efforts to
rebuild Kuwait's infrastructure after the war.
"Their hope was that the same thing might happen in Iraq,"
One of the interpreters was president of the Kuwaiti Harley-Davidson
club -- and gave Bergosh several Harley T-shirts.
"These guys just embraced the American culture," Bergosh
said. "You see them wearing blue jeans and riding around on
American motorcycles, and they loved it."
Bergosh said that any doubts or questions he has had about the war
always circle back to one question: "Am I my brother's
"I don't know if I am," he said. "But I do feel like
there is something good and noble about trying to free a people. You
see these ordinary people who live in such poor circumstances, and
for years they've been in fear of Saddam, afraid that he would do
something even worse than the things he has already done. And now
they have some hope. I like to believe that's what we're fighting
Spc. Rolanda Murray:Healing wounds
On Murray's first morning in Iraq, a car bomb exploded at a nearby
"I almost fell out of my cot," the 23-year-old said.
"The building we were sleeping in literally shook."
Since then, the laboratory technician has gotten accustomed to the
sound of explosions as well as Iraq's heat, the long hours and the
nightmares that sometimes come when she sleeps.
"She's called me crying a time or two," said Murray's
mother, Anita Moss of Milton. "But she's been so brave. I don't
think I could be more proud of her."
Murray, a 1999 Milton High School graduate, joined the Army because
nobody believed she would.
"Nobody took me seriously," she said. "That motivated
In the process of proving everyone wrong, she found a job that she
In the 31st Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, she treats American
soldiers, Iraqi civilians and enemy combatants with the same level of
care. Her job is to help those in need, regardless of wartime
allegiances or beliefs, she said.
"Maybe one of the 'bad guys' to whom we've administered care
will undergo a change of heart and maybe develop a different view of
Americans," she said. "Maybe not, but knowing that there
are people in our care who respect our presence in this country and
depend on us to help rehabilitate them is one thing that keeps me
motivated to do the right thing."
During trips into the Baghdad streets and nearby bazaars, women and
children often wave at her and thank her.
Though she realizes there are things she is missing at home, Murray
says those sacrifices are for a worthy cause.
"My belief is that if we are here pursuing terrorists and
people who want to harm our fellow Americans, I and other soldiers
just like me are doing all we can to ensure that our families can do
the things that we are missing out on," she said. "Knowing
that my little sister got to graduate from (Milton) High School last
month without the sounds of gunshot fire and mortar rounds landing
makes it all worthwhile."
Murray said she has cried over lost lives, but the lives saved
reinforce the purpose of the work she has done.
"About a year ago, I felt ambivalent about this war," she
said. "Now that I've witnessed 'war' firsthand, I feel it is
necessary to preserve freedom, not only for our people, but for those
who have never experienced freedom."
Lt. Maria Alberto:The joy of a child
Alberto probably will never know the name of the young girl who won
her heart in Iraq.
"We thought she was probably about 4, but no one really knew
for sure," Alberto said. "We didn't know who she was."
The young Iraqi girl was separated from her family after she was
struck in the foot with shrapnel and sent to Fleet Hospital 3 for
It didn't take long for staff members to fall for her smile and
sweet demeanor. They gave her candy, toys and stuffed animals.
"We had at least 10 or 12 people who said, 'If you can't find
her family, I'll adopt her,' " Alberto said. "We just loved
having her there."
Alberto is a mother of two who wrote to her own children every day.
She said she "grew very attached" to the young girl and to
"Seeing how much these people depend on you makes you realize
how important your job is," Alberto said. "You do get
attached and want to see everything work out for them.''
The girl, like many other injured children who were treated at the
fleet hospital, eventually was transferred to the USNS Comfort, a
hospital ship where children could receive more thorough care in less
Time and again, Alberto witnessed the joy of families who were
reunited when their children were returned from the USNS Comfort.
"It just reinforces how much we have in common," Alberto
said. "Seeing that always makes you feel like you're doing
something good for people."
Master Sgt. Scott Clanton:Working for children
From the time he was a boy, Clanton wanted to be a Marine.
"I guess we started it by buying him all those G.I. Joes,"
said his mother, Hilda Clanton of Pensacola. "It's all he's ever
wanted to do, and I guess he found his calling."
Since January, Clanton, 39, has been stationed in Al Qa'im, Iraq,
working to establish a true police force in the area.
"It has been a real cowboy land in the past," said his
father, Henry. "But he works very closely with the Iraqis to get
Clanton ventures often into nearby towns and sends home photos of
the children he meets. He told his mother that children seem in awe
as they flock to American soldiers.
"They want to get close to him," she said. "I think
the older people, their parents, sometimes aren't so sure and try to
pull their kids back. But who can blame them, with the kind of system
they've lived under all these years?"
Maybe it's the "gung-ho Marine" in him, but Clanton is
undaunted by the skepticism he encounters, his mother said.
"He thinks we're doing the right thing for the children and for
all the older people who have never known any freedom," she
Petty Officer Gary Lowe:A sense of optimism
A yellow ribbon hangs in the front of Lowe's house in Pensacola,
alongside a Texas state flag.
The big friendly Texan, who celebrated his 40th birthday in Iraq,
has been in the Navy for 11 years.
"He sometimes feels like a fish out of water being a sailor
stuck in the middle of the desert," said his friend, Theresa
Lowe, an electronics technician, is stationed in northeastern Iraq,
where he trains recruits for the new Iraqi Army.
When he writes home, Lowe is optimistic about the potential for the
country and its people, Gonzalez said.
"He is very positive about what they are doing and how hard the
Iraqis are working to better their country," she said.
"He's teaching them to lay power grids and get a real modern
power system set up."
The number of Iraqi troops in Lowe's classes continues to grow, and
the troops' performance during exercises has improved dramatically in
recent months, Lowe wrote to Gonzalez in May.
"From what he can tell, the Iraqis are very happy to have us
there," Gonzalez said. "And I think what he wants, more
than anything, is for the children there to be able to play like
children here, without having to worry about going outside."