Getting the most-asked question out of the way first -- Lt. Steve Ninesling, of Brazil, a 17-year Army veteran, is glad to be home from his tour of duty in Iraq and Kuwait. He spoke to, and took questions from, the Clay County Optimists Saturday morning. Ninesling was platoon leader of the 152nd Infantry Battalion, a combat medical platoon.
That is the question most often asked by reporters, he said. Then he made a face, drawing laughter. "Of course, I'm glad to be home."
Stressing that everything he had to say during the meeting was his own opinion, not necessarily that of the U.S. military, he seemed to have mixed emotions about the war in Iraq.
Should the United States be in Iraq?
"Ask that question of soldiers in World War II or Vietnam," he said. "Should we have been there?
"I like to believe there's a bigger picture, one I don't have access to."
Ninesling now works for the federal prison in Terre Haute. But, he realizes "there is a very good chance" he will have to return to the Middle East, should the war continue for a long time.
Ninesling thinks that is a distinct possibility.
"It's going to take a while," he said. "I don't see a quick end to the fighting. I am looking to see what happens in June" when the United States is scheduled to return sovereignty to Iraq.
The biggest frustration and impediment to soldiers' morale is the uncertainty -- when they will be rotated home -- for the schedule repeatedly changes.
Another problem is the wait-and-see combat situation.
"Our soldiers there want to fight," Ninesling said. "We've never been turned loose, in my opinion. If we were, it would be awesome."
Is the media accurately reporting the war?
Ninesling pointed to the Fox cable news network as a good example of fairness.
Fox showed the ability of the armed forces to "shoot a missile down a street and only take out the building we were aiming at and not touch buildings on either side," he said.
The other TV networks tend to report the things the military is doing wrong rather than what the forces are doing right. Ninesling is glad reporters can report on the war, but he hopes they will tell what is being done correctly as well as the mistakes.
Ninesling's unit was stationed along the main supply route in Kuwait and in Camp Doja, near Baghdad, Iraq. His unit helped establish two battalion aid stations while in Iraq.
Dealing with the heat and possibility of chemical warfare were problems for the unit.
At Camp Doja, American medics treated more than 500 patients a day, many burn victims, including children, and the soldiers worked closely with the Iraqi police.
Doctors treated many infections in the Iraqi people, infections that were due to poor sanitation.
Threats of chemical warfare were a problem for the first month of the war.
"Every time a missile was launched at us -- and I can't tell you how many there were -- we had to put on our chemical gear," he said.
While in the Middle East, Ninesling dealt with temperatures of 140-145 degrees during the summer months and 45-65 degrees during the winter.
At 10 a.m. temperatures were typically 115 degrees. A short walk to the latrine trailer would cause the soles of his footwear to begin to soften and begin to melt.
The poverty was overpowering to him.
"When you see how they live, it makes you proud of what we have here," he said.
After the meeting, he told The Times that farming, herding and salt mining are important to the people of the Middle East. The farther one gets from Baghdad, the better farming is, he said.
Salt mining is also a source of income for the people.
"I saw people skimming salt from pools of water and harvesting it," he said.
Ninesling offered this advice to families with soldiers overseas: Be honest when they come home.
"At times, I get angry. When my wife asks why I'm angry, I don't know."
So, they talk it over, and they manage to work through it, he said.
If people want to send packages to the troops overseas, they should first contact the post office and find out what is permissible and what is not allowed, the soldier's wife, Tammi, said. Liquids and many photographs are not allowed. For example, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue would be considered pornography in Iraq. Packages will be open and inspected, but they will get through, he said.
Ninesling looks forward to the day when all his friends return home safe, as he did.
"On a personal note, I kept my goal to keep all my guys alive," he said. "Everybody returned safe."
Though there were casualties, no one was killed on Ninesling's watch and he is grateful. At times, such as when he is in his Brazil back yard, barbecuing for his family, he thinks of his friends in the Middle East and hopes they, too, will return home safely.