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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI graduate returns from Iraq, speaks to ROTC cadets

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KINGSTON, R.I. -- March 28, 2005 -- He’s a week shy of 25, dressed in desert fatigues, and fresh from spending the last eight months in Iraq.

U.S. Army Lt. Nathan Seidell talks, like most young New Englanders, at a machine gun pace. He slows down, however, to emphasize.

“Always wear your protective glasses,” he stresses in the midst of his PowerPoint presentation. “You’ll need them if your vehicle gets hit by a roadside bomb.”

He’s talking to a dozen or so Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets sitting in a gymnasium conference room at the University of Rhode Island. They are listening intently. Some will be headed to Iraq or Afghanistan after graduation.

Seidell is Ranger-qualified airborne infantry officer with the 2nd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division. That’s probably why he was given command of a platoon of 35 soldiers and leading patrols within three days of stepping foot on Iraqi soil.

His assignment, in part, was to help train members of the Iraqi Army, some of whom were formerly in the Iraqi Republican Guard. One seasoned soldier could often be heard grousing: “We never used to do it that way under Saddam.”

Training the Iraqis could be painstakingly slow because instructions had to be translated. And the results were mixed. For example, in Kirkuk, the lieutenant found the Kurds to be skilled fighters and brave ones, too: they would eagerly find and extract bombs buried in the road. Other trainees were less committed and more unsure.

Seidell never knew when a call would come with orders for the platoon to go on patrol or help quell a fight. He said after street battles, a financial officer would appear, quickly total up the damages, and then pay the residents with U.S. dollars for the loss of their cars or holes in their houses.

The platoon came under fire numerous times. Two of the soldiers under Seidell’s command were wounded in the arm. Fortunately, the wounds proved minor and both soldiers were able to return to duty within days.

A low point came when the platoon’s deployment was extended so that it could help provide security for the elections in Mosul, a city built upon a city with a labyrinth of perplexing alleyways favored by the insurgents. Feeling the city was too dangerous, the Iraqi interpreters refused to go.

For three days leading up to the elections, the platoon came under constant harassment fire. No vehicles were allowed on the roads, but that did not stop the insurgents who pedaled bicycles around the city threatening potential voters or bribing them with cans of fuel oil. Despite the intimidation, there was a large turnout. “When the election came, I was amazed to see how voters stood in line while the insurgents were popping rounds off the roof,” says the lieutenant who studied history and education at URI.

Seidell employed his URI ROTC training. As the new kid on the block in Iraq, he said he wasn’t afraid to ask others for suggestions, regardless of their rank. He would alter his plans if, for example, someone with more knowledge of the area could convince him that he or she had a less risky route to travel.

The Trumbull, Conn. native will soon leave for his next assignment in Hawaii where he will probably be stationed for a couple of years.

The lieutenant says he’s not having a problem readjusting, but one of his Ranger friends is having nightmares. And he just learned that another buddy was killed.

The seasoned soldier says he thinks the war is turning, especially since the elections. “But,” he adds, “an assessment of the war depends where you are in Iraq.”

“One big thing I would like to add is that I am confident that without my soldiers’ professionalism and courage I would not be home in one piece,” the youthful war veteran says. “They are the heroes who get the jobs done in the cities. It is not the high-ranking officers or NCOs, but the 18-year old privates who are kicking in doors on raids and the young sergeants maneuvering their men while taking enemy fire.”