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APSU alumna, Fort Campbell chief of protocol travels with troops to Iraq

For more than 25 years, Mary Regan Kohler (87, 89) has seen troops with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) leave their posts at Fort Campbell, Ky., for missions overseas.

As the installations chief of protocol, Kohler decided to take a first-hand look at what a soldiers deployed life is like – she traveled to Iraq with 101st troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Since October 2005, Kohler has lived with the troops, mostly male, despite a hostile environment of daily mortar attacks from Tikrit.
For more than 25 years, Mary Regan Kohler ('87, '89) has seen troops with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) leave their posts at Fort Campbell, Ky., for missions overseas.

As the installation's chief of protocol, Kohler decided to take a first-hand look at what a soldier's deployed life is like — she traveled to Iraq with 101st troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Since October 2005, Kohler has lived with the troops, mostly male, despite a hostile environment of daily mortar attacks from Tikrit.

“Most of the soldiers were young enough to be my children but despite my modesty of not getting undressed in front of them, I was one of them,” she wrote from Kuwait. “The soldiers were a diverse crowd … and gave me tips on how to survive in a combat environment.

“To them, I am eternally grateful.”

Still in Iraq, Kohler first was assigned as the liaison to the Joint Visitors Bureau in the 42nd Infantry Division, a National Guard unit located at Forward Operating Base Danger in the middle of Tikrit. There, amid gorgeous and elaborate palaces, she saw how former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's people sought survival.

“I could see poverty everywhere,” Kohler said. “Children played in the streets in front of ramshackle mud and stone structures. Women were carrying water from a well. The men were hanging around the street corners since there is nothing else to do.

“I have never seen a manufactured good from Iraq since I have been here. Saddam's people starved while he lived in unbelievable luxury with his three wives and various mistresses.”

At night, Kohler said Tikrit is haunted by the fear Saddam's people faced.

“I would walk by Saddam's main palace at night, that was bombed during the conflict, and could feel the ghosts of his victims that he tortured and murdered there for his amusement,” she recalled. “I heard tales of his cruelty daily. One tale that was told was that Saddam had kept alligators on his complex and threw his guests in the water to watch them swim for their lives.”

After the U.S. government turned Forward Operating Base Danger back to the Iraqis, Kohler moved to the middle of the desert to Speicher — where the better side of Iraq could be seen.

“Things are quieter here since we are in the middle of the desert,” Kohler said. “The sunrises and sunsets here are breathtaking. The colors are the most beautiful shades of oranges and blues.

“In this desolate desert, I can feel the power of the past,” Kohler continued. “Iraqis are proud to be from Iraq, and they love their country. And when I look at the sky at night, I can see why.”

Thanks to the U.S. Army, Kohler said she is in “the best shape of my life” because she has had to walk everywhere. But she has gained new perspectives on the war, America and herself.

“I have learned there are still unselfish people in the world who truly do things because it is the right thing to do,” said Kohler, who complimented the intelligence and dedication of the Army's leaders.

“Watching America from the outside, I am appalled at the materialistic, frivolous way of life Americans seem to admire,” she said. “But the last six months have been a true adventure, and I know now that I could never have made it in the Army.” — Melony Leazer