From serene suburbs to tumultuous Iraqi desert

By Billy Joe Mills

Though American men and women our age are in Iraq, they live on a different planet and in a different time.

One such man is 22 year old Jake Pepper. He claims to have joined for “purely selfish reasons.”

“When most people reach 24 years old they will not have seen and experienced what I have,” Pepper said.

Pepper is not who you would expect. He comes from an upper-class family, his father is the Vice President of a major corporation and he was already attending DePaul University when he decided to enlist.

Last year, between January and May 2005, Pepper lived in Fallujah as a Navy Medic traveling with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines Corps – one of the most experienced and effective American units.

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    Pepper compares the anxiety he felt before leaving for Fallujah to “going from junior high to high school, only a lot more intense. It’s the fear of the unknown.” Pepper said that on leaving his family for Iraq it was “the first time I ever saw my dad cry.”

    Pepper said, “It is surreal when you first get there. But once you’re there for a couple of weeks you begin to forget what people look like. That becomes your home. It is like how you feel when on vacation. It slowly becomes normal.”

    Pepper’s unit found one of the largest weapons caches of the war – 20,000 pounds of armaments in a farm field. They also found a DVD inside a nearby house. Pepper understood the contents of the DVD as soon as it began to play. An insurgent in the video gave a long diatribe next to a guy kneeling down with a mask on and “then they kicked the guy over and sawed his head off. We possibly found the mask and pants that the guy wore.”

    When walking through city streets he sometimes heard mortars being fired, but said “you try not to think about it, because there’s nowhere to go to be safe from them.” One of Pepper’s most vivid moments came when he saw four soldiers “messed up real bad” at the base’s medical station, “I think one of them ended up dying.”

    At night Pepper’s unit usually slept in a soda factory.

    “We slept three to four hours a night. It’s not hard to sleep when you’re awake for 20 hours,” he said. “You just have to trust the lookout guys.”

    Since being home Pepper has a phantom limb of sorts.

    “I’ve had dreams that I’m back in Fallujah. The main reoccurring daydream is that I always try to reach down and find my pistol,” Pepper said.

    Pepper will be going to the Iraqi city of Al-Qa’im at nearly the same time we’ll be starting next semester. As we walk between classmates on the cool, green Quad, he’ll walk between people who want to kill him on the hot desert sand.

    War distills concerns to their raw core. As we worry about grades and money, Jake will worry about life and death.

    Billy Joe can be reached at [email protected].