Safe at home &mdash for now

When j. last caught up with Andrew Sosnick, he was in the midst of the Sunni Triangle, fighting in Iraq, and writing back to his high school newspaper that “war sucks.”

Now, he returned to the Bay Area. But that didn’t last long.

Four weeks in Burlingame don’t compare to a year in a war zone.

The well-spoken 19-year-old enjoyed himself at his family’s home in October, before heading back to his base, Fort Riley, Kansas. He’s been told to plan on being back in the streets of Iraq within six months to a year.

It’s something he thinks about every day.

The unimposing blond, blue-eyed Jewish soldier saw plenty of things he doesn’t want to talk about, and he probably will encounter them again. Still, he laughs easily and eagerly pulls his small photo albums from his back pocket.

There’s a snapshot of Lucky the dog. U.S. troops in combat zones aren’t supposed to adopt local animals but, hey, no one was looking when they slipped him an occasional tidbit.

There’s a bunch of guys in brown Army T-shirts playing video games or watching DVDs. There’s a dead rat the soldiers dispatched in one of their rooms (“not with a gun — with a chair leg”). Some joker has humorously chalked a police-style outline around the deceased varmint.

But not every picture conjures a pleasant memory. More than a few depict mangled Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles slowly rusting in what Sosnick calls “the graveyard.” Those tanks hit land mines or roadside bombs, a fate Sosnick avoided.

Glancing at a snapshot of a fellow Bradley driver who was not so fortunate, Sosnick casually notes. “He got blown up a lot.” Another soldier, craning his head at an odd angle, yet managing a smile, “got shrapnel in his neck. But he’s OK.” Several more young men laugh and wave in photos snapped before life-altering, disfiguring wounds.

And that, says Sosnick, is what you’re missing. More than 1,000 American troops have lost their lives in Iraq, but roughly 10 times that number have been seriously wounded.

“You don’t see them on the news coming home on their crutches,” he says. “That’s at least 10,000 Purple Hearts.”

Recent media reports have noted that Iraqi citizens derisively refer to occupying American troops as “the Jews.” That was a new one on Sosnick, but he wasn’t surprised. Hamid, one of his base’s translators, told him that if the people of Kalidiyah saw a Jew walking down the street, they’d “stone me, beat me up, try to kill me.”

Of course, Sosnick has been subjected to projectiles far worse than stones. As recounted in the Sept. 24 j. cover story, he’s lucky to be alive after his Bradley was struck by rocket-propelled grenades, forcing him to get out and run.

Morale among the troops, Sosnick answers candidly, is very low. But, contrary to popular belief, he says it was never very high.

The short and solidly built young man feels he’s risked his life for the good of the Iraqi people, and he’s grown disillusioned with the popularity of the insurgents who have killed and maimed his friends.

His own “We had to destroy this village in order to save it” moment came when he and his fellow soldiers were forced to shower an Iraqi school with bullets after attackers began using it as a sniper tower. The soldiers had previously showered the school with money in order to help it along.

“That felt bad. That really erased all the progress we’d made,” he says.

Not only are the insurgents well-liked, they also seem to be communicative with the general population about their attack schedule.

Whenever the city streets began to look like a ghost town, Sosnick joked with the passengers in his Bradley that they were about to be attacked. And, on at least one occasion, the words were hardly off his lips when a mortar round struck the vehicle and knocked him out of his chair.

Sosnick’s convoy responded by pouring heavy machine gun fire into the area the mortar emanated from.

So, did they get the guy?

“Most of the time, we don’t know,” he says, shaking his head.

Sometimes, however, they do. The U.S. Army base he was stationed at — a stone’s throw from Fallujah — is surrounded by flat desert and shrubbery not unfamiliar to anyone who’s cruised up or down Interstate 5. Would-be attackers are not in short supply, but they’re often not easy to spot. Many attempt to bum-rush the base during sandstorms, thinking the swirling winds render them invisible.

“But we can still see them with the thermals,” says Sosnick.

One lone attacker attempted to breach the base during a sandstorm, armed only with a bayonet and a couple of grenades.

Sosnick doesn’t go into details, but suffice to say the attacker didn’t succeed and won’t get a second chance.

Through it all, Sosnick says, he’s become a bit more religious in Iraq — “you kind of have to.” There are, after all, no atheists in the foxholes, or, it seems, taking mortar fire behind the wheel of a Bradley.

Sosnick is still able to laugh and joke, and his parents and two brothers have fallen right back into their old grooves. But he’s seen some things he doesn’t want to talk about, and says he deals with it by compartmentalizing his life.

“Being in California is one way to live. Iraq is a whole little world. For me, I have three places I’ll be in the next two years: California, Kansas and Iraq.”

Sosnick registered excellent grades at Mills High School, and plans on going to college when his hitch is up in a little less than three years. So far, he’s narrowed his career goals down to politics, teaching or community service.

“But I’ve got a lot of time to think about it,” he says with a smile.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.