DISPATCH FROM HOME: Iraq storyteller continues to share his experiences even while on leave
It wasn’t until his young daughters jumped into his arms last Sunday that Carson City Sheriff’s Deputy and National Guard Staff Sgt. Gary Underhill knew he was home – even if only for a little while.
Four days after being back in Northern Nevada on leave from a tour in Iraq, he still couldn’t believe it.
“I’ll be driving down the street and look around and realize where I am,” he said Wednesday. “It’s so surreal.”
Since his deployment to Iraq with the 1864th Transportation Company out of Las Vegas, Underhill has been writing about his experiences as a gun truck commander escorting military convoys throughout Iraq.
His column, “Dispatch from Iraq,” runs in the Nevada Appeal on Sundays and has garnered him an impressive following.
“It’s completely unexpected. I had no idea that it was going to be as big as it is. I get e-mail from complete strangers, thanking me for bringing them closer to the whole experience. They say my column makes it more real for them as opposed to what they see and hear on Fox,” he said.
Underhill credits his son, Mark, 20, with inspiring him to write.
“The last time that I wrote creatively was in high school,” he said. “My son’s talent inspired me to start my own blog and it just turned into an opportunity to keep an electronic record of all my experiences.”
He said his 23 years of writing arrest reports has helped him to put his thoughts in order.
“A crime report is not just a series of paragraphs and cold facts. You have to be able to paint this picture for the jury so they could taste and see and feel. So the jury believes what is going on in that report. It was just a natural progression for me to start writing and I found that I really enjoy doing it,” he said.
It seems he’s ready to give his take on most everything he’s seen thus far, both in conversation and story.
Like that fact that Iraq wasn’t as he’d imagined.
“I wasn’t prepared for it. It was like stepping into an alien planet. Iraq is still a very dangerous place. I never knew how I would handle the possibility of dying over there. But after a while that trepidation kind of goes away,” he said. “What’s worse than actually getting hit is the anticipation of getting hit. It’s driving past that piece of guardrail and just puckering, waiting for that IED to hit and it doesn’t happen.”
Or that his return home wasn’t as expected either.
“I thought it would seem different. But it’s like time stood still. My girls are a little taller, but they haven’t aged a bit. I’m back in my truck. It smells the same as it did when I left. Everything is the same,” he said.
But after a trip to Disneyland next week with his daughters Alyssa, 8, and Olivia, 5, Underhill will return to Iraq on Jan. 19 and continue chronicling the events of a Nevada Army Guard unit.
The unit is scheduled to return stateside sometime in the spring.
Underhill said that upon his return, he’ll pick up where he left off with an even greater appreciation of what he has at home.
“I was not prepared for the human element of this war,” he said. “I didn’t expect as much poverty and desolation as I’ve seen over there.”
“That government cares nothing for their people. They live in absolute squalor. We drive down some of these roads and these little kids come out and beg for excess rations and bottles of water,” said Underhill. “But I see my girls’ faces in every child I see out there, and it makes you realize how blessed we really are.”
Watch for Staff Sgt. Underhill’s column in the Nevada Appeal after his return to Iraq at the end of January.