Back from Iraq: a local soldier’s tale |

Back from Iraq: a local soldier’s tale

Post Independent Photo/Ryan GraffCpl. Brian Chee, a 1996 graduate of Glenwood Springs High School, shown with father H.J. Chee, recently finished a second tour of duty in Iraq. He was awarded a National Defense Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation, and medals for serving overseas and in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A month ago and 10 miles from Fallujah, Iraq, Cpl. Brian Chee said a prayer.

MInutes before, Chee and a couple of Marine Corps friends had walked into the gym at Al Taqaddum Airbase, 40 miles southwest of Baghdad. The group heard a boom, a common occurrence at the base, and assumed that U.S. soldiers were firing at insurgents. A bang, boom or explosion at the base was nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, it was common. Sometimes the booms were friendly, but often ” as many as 16 times a day, said Chee ” the fire came from insurgents.

More explosions followed, and when the gym started shaking the Marines knew they were under attack, he said. Chee and 30 other soldiers took cover and waited.

“Dear God,” he prayed as he lay on the gym floor, “I got three days left, just get me outta here.”

Outside the gym a small living quarters had been hit and was burning, he said.

On Tuesday morning, Chee, a corporal in the Marines, talked about the attack from an armchair in his father’s office at the Pit Stop, in Glenwood Springs. He’s been back in the United States nearly a month, and on leave in Glenwood much of that time.

Chee glanced at the weather from the office window as he spoke. Dressed in khaki pants and a black polo shirt, Chee said he hoped for clear skies and a round of golf later in the day with his father, H.J.

Wearing regular clothes and playing golf feels weird, Chee said, but the change from working on water-purification systems and electric generators in Iraq to life in the United States isn’t entirely new to him. His most recent tour, from Aug. 22 to March 1, was his second, and was much easier than his first.

During his first tour, America was building up to the war, and sent Chee to Kuwait to wait on the Iraqi border for the war to start. Once U.S. troops invaded, Chee spent most of his time in the southern part of Iraq and endured threats of gas attacks and SCUD missiles, and had little communication with his family.

“We were constantly crying,” Chee’s mother, Carmen, said. “Just constantly crying.”

Chee’s second tour, with Internet cafes and phone access, was less difficult. But it was far from easy for anyone.

“It’s a life-changing experience having your son out there,” H.J. said.

H.J. was glued to CNN while Chee was in Iraq. When he’d seen enough fighting and had worried too much, he’d turn off the TV.

But, he said, “When I shut it off I felt guilty ” like I left my kid out there in harm’s way. Even though he’s a grown man.”

Chee’s parents said the 26-year-old has grown up a lot in his three years as a Marine.

At Chee’s 1996 graduation from Glenwood Springs High School, “I never, never would have thought that Brian would join the military,” H.J. said.

But after a few years at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Chee found himself considering the military.

“I wasn’t in the right mind-set to be in school,” Chee said. Too many parties, he said.

Then Sept. 11, happened and Chee wanted to do his part. He picked the Marines because, he thought, if anything would set him straight it was the Marine Corps.

“You learn a lot out there, all the way from boot camp to going to Iraq,” he said.

The memories ” of bombs dropping (a whistle sound that gets louder as it drops, then an explosion), and of five trails of blood leading away from the living quarters that were attacked while Chee and his friends were working out ” are still fresh.

But Chee is looking toward his future. Unlikely to redeploy to Iraq before his enlistment ends in 13 months, Chee spent Monday in Boulder talking to his CU adviser. He’s trying to decide between Boulder and schools in Southern California, where he spent part of his childhood. He said he thinks he’ll switch from architecture to major in economics and minor in business.

As for his family, they are just happy to have Chee home, but they remember the sacrifice other soldiers and their families are making.

“The best present I could ever wish was for my son coming back from war,” H.J. said, “but we can’t forget the other guys who are over there.”

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