Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Army Paralegal Offers a Look at Iraq Aid

In the 115-degree heat of the deserts of Iraq, U.S. Army Spc. F. Matthew Duras' mind wanders back to the things he misses the most about living in Gloucester County.

Being able to swim in a pool on a hot day. Taking drives to the Jersey shore or to Philadelphia.

Or stopping at Hollywood Diner for a sampler platter and a few beers with friends.

The 37-year-old West Deptford resident has been in Iraq for just about two months, working on a base as a paralegal specialist in foreign damage claims. It will be another 13 months before he returns home.

Like many of the brave Americans who are serving our country, Duras' daily life in the Headquarter and Headquarters Battery, 41st Fire Brigade is rather different than life at home and often comes with many challenges. He joined the Army three years ago out of the Woodbury recruiting station.

Duras, who is able to communicate with friends and family via e-mail or Web cams quite often, has agreed to share some of his experiences with the readers of the Times.

Living and working in one of the quietest provinces in Iraq, Duras uses his degrees in paralegal studies to serve as the point of contact for foreign claims.

"We intake claims from the local inhabitants two days a week," Duras wrote. "I was escorting the Iraqi from an entry point to our claims office on those days. I talked to a couple of them and they seemed happy that the Americans were here. My impression of them is that they are a nice group of people who have been put into a very bad situation. The only unfortunate thing is that we can't help most of them, because we can't pay out any claim that is over two years old and most of their claims are from 2004 and earlier."

Trailers make up Duras's living conditions. His room is in a trailer and its the size of a small college dorm. Another trailer has showers, and yet another serves as the bathroom.

Since he's been in Iraq, Duras said, he's had to get used to waking up early, working long hours 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week and two hours on Sunday and walking everywhere.

"I have to walk to take a shower and to go to the bathroom," Duras said. "I have to walk about 1/4 mile to go to the dining facility and to the laundry facility. When I drop off laundry, I get it back usually in 3 days. I walk about half a mile to get to the gym."

And since it's summer, the heat in Iraq is intense. Some days the temperature can reach 130 degrees, and the breeze that blows is dry and warm.

"It's like walking in an oven," Duras said.

The only time they get some relief is during a dust storm. And then the mercury drops to about 105.

"We haven't gotten a severe dust storm yet," Duras said. "When we do get dust storms, the sky looks overcast."

While there are no fast food favorites at his temporary dwelling in Iraq, there are some other comforts that remind him of home.

"The food in the dining facility is pretty good and there is a wide selection to choose from," Duras said." There is an MWR (Morale Wellness and Recreation) facility here. It has a big-screen TV, a room with a projection system that shows movies, pool tables, foosball tables, air hockey tables, a library, a couple of rooms that have video game systems in them and an Internet cafe."

But the cultural and language barriers are sometimes unavoidable.

Duras recalled a moment that occurred last week while on duty

"We were out intaking foreign claims and we had about 15 Iraqis out there, which is a lot for us," he wrote. "Just like in America, over here there are different education levels. I think our Claims intake form is rather simple to keep it from being confusing for the person filling it out. Even so, there are still some Iraqi that either can't read it or just get confused by it. When an Iraqi doesn't know how to fill out the Claims intake form, all of the other Iraqi will help him fill it out correctly. It is truly a group effort and I have seen one Iraqi help out 2 or 3 other Iraqis. I just thought that is neat to see, as I am not sure if I would see the same thing happen in America."

That same day, Duras was also bombarded with questions from the Iraqis who were waiting to speak to the lawyer.

They asked about American cheeseburgers, if he had a girlfriend, and how close he lived to New York City.

"Even though language is a barrier and most of them speak very little English at best, I am still able to have conversations with them," Duras said. "I have even had a couple of them shake my hand as they were leaving. That is always a good feeling. I just wanted to share that experience with you, as I think it provides an often not seen look into the Iraqi people."



(Source: NJ.com)

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