Postcards from Baghdad
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS-TIMES
DANBURY As the U.S. Armys 1st Armored Division rolled into Baghdad on May 28, the tanks and military vehicles passed under a giant monument of crossed swords, the entrance to Saddam Husseins parade ground.
Riding in a Humvee, 1st Lt. Dion Mancenido thought the huge swords that stood 10 stories high were a welcome arch, like the Arch of Triumph in Paris. That impression did not last very long.
"It felt like a welcome to the city, he wrote in his first letter from Baghdad. "It was a sight to see. I could not believe we were in Baghdad. Being in Baghdad still amazes me, he continued. "It was the cradle of civilization, the Fertile Crescent, perhaps, the birthplace of modern civilization.
Despite the history, Mancenido learned quickly that the city was very dangerous. The troops came under grenade attack within a couple of days.
Mancenidos parents came as immigrants from the Philippines. Their three children were born in the States. His mother, Aida, is a nurse at Danbury Hospital and his father, Danilo, is a retired Union Carbide employee.
The road to Baghdad for Dion Mancenido began years ago in Danbury. As a boy, he dreamed of attending West Point. But he never told anybody, including his parents, about his West Point ambition. He undertook the lengthy application process all by himself.
"I did not want mother to talk about it to her friends. It would be such a letdown if I didnt get accepted, Mancenido said.
It was only when he was called for an interview at the academy that he told his parents.
Mancenido enrolled in West Point in 1997 and graduated in 2001. He was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant and was sent to Germany.
The terrorist attacks of 9-11 gave pause to Mancenidos parents.
"When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, I was afraid that Dion would be sent there, said Aida Mancenido. "I prayed that he would not be sent there. But I knew it would just be a matter of time and he would surely be fighting in the war.
A few days before Mothers Day, Mancenido wrote from Germany that his battalion was on the move.
"By the time you get this card, Ill be in Kuwait. I heard its really hot there, 110-130 F. There is not much I can tell you we will be doing there. But I will be in Baghdad. The fighting has calmed down a lot, but anything can happen. Ill write a letter every two weeks or so. I wish I didnt have to go, but this is why I went to West Point in the first place.
Time hung heavy while the soldiers waited for the order to move into Iraq. It got on their nerves and homesickness set in.
"I always think of home when Im just sitting around. I think of the time when I can come home, Mancenido wrote his parents. "I expect to be here for one year. Then Ill go back to Germany with five months left. Keep watching the news.
His parents, of course, are avid news watchers. They knew that among the casualties in the first days of the war were Filipino-Americans.
Danilo Mancenido has doubts about the Iraq war, but he supports his sons sense of duty.
"He is a soldier first. Its not his place to question the war, he said.
Mancenidos convoy from Kuwait to Baghdad took 15 hours.
"The city is dirty, and sometimes crowded and not yet safe. There are many beautiful monuments, statues and buildings. It is actually a nice tourist city. However, many buildings were destroyed.
Mancenido said his mission is similar to that of a city engineer.
"We have the work cut out for us restoring basic services such as light, water, sewage and garbage, he wrote. "Its going to be tough in this kind of environment. We hire local Iraqis and give them a new start in life. They install lights, help out in the kitchen, clean and mop the floors, clean the Porta-Potties. They are paid $4 U.S. a day, which goes a long way since the rate of exchange is 1,600 Iraqi Dinars to a dollar.
"We hire translators and engineers. The engineers are very good. Some of them are U.S.-educated in such schools as the University of Michigan.
The soldiers took over a hotel where Saddam Hussein had stayed twice. "We cleaned it with the help of the local Iraqis. We now have air conditioners and fans, a real movie theater, an IMAX, an Iraqi gift shop, and a barbershop where an Iraqi charges $1 for a haircut. Still under construction is a swimming pool.
"So, life in general is not so bad, he observed, although he still lives in a tent where ants crawl under his cot and the temperature is sometimes very hot. He hopes to move into the hotel soon.
"The hardest is during the day," he said. "I drink a few bottles of water, warm water. Cold water is rare. Laundry is a luxury. I clean my clothes every three days."
And the war is never far in the background.
"Baghdad remains a hostile place. About seven soldiers in our brigade have been wounded."
When they arrived in Baghdad, their brigade commander gave them what 1st Lt. Mancenido described as a "Braveheart" speech: "Be ready to make a difference in the world. All eyes in the world will be on us. Soldiers will die, some may not make it home."
In spite of the continuing killing of U.S. soldiers at the rate of one or two a day, Mancenido remains optimistic.
"I will make this through," Mancenido said.
Here in Danbury, the sleepless nights continue for his parents.
"I worry about Dion day and night," Aida Mancenido said. "Every day we watch CNN and read the newspaper to keep abreast of the war. I pray for this war to be over so we can see our son again."Back