Home for good

Steamboat resident returns to town after almost 1 year in Iraq

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— When the plane hit the runway, Sam Rush exhaled.

A long rush of air poured out of her and a weight lifted from her shoulders. Her husband was alive. Her husband no longer was in danger. Her husband was home.

"I finally had that full breath that I hadn't taken in a year," Rush said. "Suddenly, I realized how much I had been on edge."

Rush's husband, Steamboat Springs Police detective and Colorado National Guardsman Dave Kleiber, left Colorado for Iraq on Sept. 28, 2003. He came home for good Sept. 12, almost one year later.

Rush is taking this year off from her job as a third grade teacher at Strawberry Park Elementary School, and Kleiber won't be returning to his job on the police force until after Thanksgiving. After a stressful year apart, the couple has a full schedule of mountain biking and backpacking, beginning with a trip to Moab, Utah, to celebrate their 12th wedding anniversary. Rush spent her 11th wedding anniversary alone.

"I feel like Sam and I could make it through anything now," Kleiber said. "Except another deployment."

According to National Guard policy, Kleiber can't be reactivated for another 36 months after serving a year of deployment, but this war isn't turning out the way anyone expected.

"Policies can change," he said.

While he was in Iraq, Kleiber and Rush kept in touch through daily e-mails.

"This really was the first war that people could do that," Kleiber said. "The military made a real big push to set up Internet cafes for the soldiers. I also tried to call every 10 days or so, but you didn't have a private moment."

Kleiber was stationed at Radwenayih, one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces near the Baghdad airport. The palace complex held more than 100 buildings.

Kleiber commanded the Iraqi security teams who protected the base and guarded convoys from increasingly more frequent ambushes.

After 20 years in the National Guard, this was Kleiber's first time at war.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "We stepped off the plane into an oven. We got on a bus and drove to the compound 15 minutes away. They showed us to our tents, and that was home."

Kleiber arrived to temperatures that hung at about 130 degrees. He arrived to buildings that had been looted and infrastructure that had been destroyed in the fighting. Contractors had yet to arrive to restore plumbing and electricity to the area.

"Looters took light fixtures and door knobs," Kleiber said. Water was infrequent ,and soldiers were given cut-off 55-gallon drums to use as toilets.

Portable toilets and showers arrived with the contractors. Decent food arrived in the mail from Kleiber's wife, his parents and the many packages sent to him and the other soldiers by local Realtor Marci Valicenti's "Support our troops" drive.

"I can't count how many care packages she sent," he said.

Kleiber and the other soldiers worked 16- and 18-hour days, seven days a week.

At first, the fighting was minimal.

"By Christmas things were stabilizing. We were pretty laissez-faire about driving into Baghdad. We'd just hop into a Toyota pickup and go," he said. "But things blew up around Easter."

President Bush declared in May 2003 that the war in Iraq was over. But suggest the war is over to Kleiber, and he laughs.

There is more fighting than ever, he said.

"If we had done a better job figuring out what was going to happen at the end of the war, then this probably wouldn't have happened," Kleiber said. "But the turmoil had gone on for so long. If there is a car bomb going off in your neighborhood every day, you're going to start blaming someone."

While in Iraq, Kleiber's bed was near the outer wall of the compound. Whenever there was mortar fire outside, he would hear it.

"They would fire half a dozen rounds and then scurry away," he said. "You would hear the fire before it hit. It was like a bass drum in the distance, and in three or four seconds something would blow up." The men would sit up in bed and wait.

Kleiber describes the fighting with more frustration than fear. Fighters would attack from the back yards of homes or from mosques and U.S. soldiers were not allowed to retaliate.

Fighters would stage ambushes for the benefit of Al Jazeera news network in a way that U.S. soldiers would look bad no matter what, Kleiber said.

"My police training really helped me over there," he said. "But no one can train you to deal with the frustration."

As the violence escalated, many of the soldiers who were due to go home had their deployments extended by four to six months, Kleiber said.

Morale was going down, and "there was grumbling," he said. "But all those guys still went out and did their jobs, most of which were undesirable.

"I know how hard it was for them. As I got closer and closer to come home, I didn't want to go out anymore. I didn't want to go out on any more patrols, but I didn't see anyone who refused to do their missions."

Kleiber was scheduled to come home in July. He and several other soldiers traveled to Balad to be flown out, but their flight was canceled. The military had other priorities for the aircraft, Kleiber said.

"We sat and sat, day after day. Every day we were told we would fly out the next day." The temperature was 110 degrees, and the soldiers waited in their tents for the flight home. They waited for nine days.

"I was walking back from the gym where I'd been lifting and this guy came up to me and said, 'Get your crap. We're going.'" Kleiber said. "I didn't believe him."

The plane took the soldiers to Frankfurt, Germany.

"We ran to the bar and pounded three beers." (They weren't allowed to drink in Iraq.) The next flight got them to Newfoundland and then to Buckley Airforce Base in Aurora.

"They wouldn't let family onto the base," Kleiber said. "We landed at 5:30 a.m., and no one was there." Family was given a meeting place and told to arrive at 8 a.m.

"We were just standing there," he said. "It wasn't what I expected."

Rush drove Kleiber home, and as they came over Rabbit Ears pass he whispered, "This place is beautiful." They descended into the valley and a police escort was waiting on Lincoln Avenue by the post office to take them home.

The whole road leading up to their home was lined with flags and neighbors, friends and fellow police officers.

Since coming home, many people ask Kleiber what they can do to support the troops.

"My cynical response is 'go enlist' or 'have your son enlist'," Kleiber said. "But a better answer is 'drive less.' Reduce our dependency on foreign oil.

"People tell you this isn't about oil, but it has everything to do with stabilizing this portion of the Middle East for oil."

Kleiber said he is not anti-war. "I believe in finding your enemy and destroying them."

When he left for Iraq, he fully believed that attacking Iraq was the right thing.

"Based on the knowledge I got over there, we never should have gone in there," he said. He agrees with President Bush that the world is a better place without Saddam, "but we left Afghanistan to al Qaida to grow and diversify while we put our resources in Iraq.

"Iraq was never a threat to us. There were never any weapons of mass destruction. Iraq had no links to al Qaida.

"Now that we're there, I don't know how we'll get out of it."

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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