Soldier on leave sounds an upbeat note about Iraq

Army Spc.

Mike Keller is on leave from Iraq visiting parents, grandparents, relatives and friends in Kingman.

Keller said he is positive about what U.S.

forces are doing to preserve the Iraqis' recently acquired freedom - though like thousands of other past and present soldiers, he complains about military food.

He said he feels especially good about the Americans helping Iraqi children.

"The kids still treat our convoys like a parade," Keller said.

"They still cheer and wave every time we go by.

Most really love us and we cannot help but react with the kids."

He described how the youngsters would run their fingers across their throats like they were cutting off a head and stomp the imaginary head on the ground in disgust, yelling "Saddam bad, Bush good."

"The more we get to know the Iraqi people the more they seem just like us," Keller said.

"They love the new freedom, the hope and a chance to live a better life."

Don and Debbie Keller found out last week that their son was coming to visit when he called them from Detroit.

He also is visiting family in Las Vegas and several other places during his two-week leave.

"We did not expect to see him for another year," Debbie Keller said.

"The visit is great but he will go back soon.

It is difficult to see him go back knowing he will get shot at."

Keller drives a truck for the HET 257, a unit that transports heavy equipment such as armored vehicles and road graders all over Iraq with frequent trips to and through Baghdad.

He described a trip to Najaf, site of an Iraqi National Congress meeting guarded by Iraqis trained by U.S.

and Coalition forces.

When the U.S.

soldiers stopped to take pictures, the Iraqis saw it as an opportunity to pose for the cameras.

Keller, who is based in Kuwait, said he has seen more and more of the country and a variety of situations.

His unit delivered equipment to Polish and Czech troops without incident and the area was attacked by mortar fire the next day.

He said his first incident of live fire occurred when the convoy stopped along a road.

Some soldiers fired at something in the distance and found themselves under return fire from another U.S.

unit.

"That was our fault," Keller said.

He said small crowds have demonstrated or even rioted against the terrorist attacks on Iraqis.

He said most Iraqis are fed up with the attacks, prize their new freedom and appreciate what U.S.

soldiers are doing to preserve it.

Kids would tell him and his fellow soldiers how Saddam's forces killed their fathers soon after they made some comments on the telephone.

Security forces would come to homes and take the fathers away.

Warlords, out of power when Saddam ruled, still live in the wealthy areas of Baghdad and want to regain power and fight coalition forces to regain power, Keller said.

They toss $5,000 in the street for any Iraqi willing to bomb U.S.

troops, he added.

"They are getting fewer and fewer volunteers," he said.

"People do not want to give up their freedom."

He said much of the unrest has been caused by people from outside Iraq who want to prevent the country from having democratic rule.

"Al-Qaida swarm everywhere," he said.

"They have safe houses in territory that was Saddam's strongest areas."

He said he and his fellow soldiers read the papers and see the news on CNN.

"CNN paints a horrible picture.

We don't want to lose anyone but less than 5 percent of the attacks injure anyone," Keller said.

"More people are hurt from dumb actions.

One soldier ws killed when he brought a land mine to camp and it exploded and injured his friend."

Debbie Keller asked her son to tell about the heat in Iraq.

"I will need a coat in Las Vegas when I return," Keller said.

"We put a thermometer out that read 150 degrees."

He said his unit, a reserve unit from Las Vegas, adjusted to the heat better than most troops.

Many units now have air conditioning in barracks and tents that ease the impact of the heat.

His base in Kuwait is becoming a permanent base but his unit is housed in tents in an area the troops call "Camp Truckville."

He described the condition of the electric system, water pipelines and oil-producing equipment as "horrible." He said Saddam must not have done any repair or maintenance during the 10 years since the Gulf War.

He has been in Iraq since April on a one-year deployment and that he expects to see his tour of duty extended a year beyond that.

It would give him time to see more of the ancient history of the region.

Keller said he toured ancient Babylon ruins and found the art interesting as well as the canals and irrigation systems between the rivers.

"The Iraqi people are merchant capitalists building a new economy," he said.

"Income has increased from near $300 a month to $1,500.

The women are wearing more normal clothing.

Like us, they are motivated by freedom, money to buy what they want and being free to do what they want without being killed."

Keller comes from a family that has served in the military for several generations.

Maternal grandmother Grace Agee served as a nurse in the 31st General Hospital Unit during World War II.

She was in the South Pacific three years from New Caledonia to Manila.

Paternal grandfather Grover Keller served in Italy with the 88th Infantry Division during World War II and was the subject of a Miner story in November 2002 after he received a Bronze Star and other medals long after they were earned.

Mike Keller's uncle Lee Hayward served aboard the USS Ernest G.

Small from1960 to 1966.

Debbie Keller's brother served in Viet Nam.

Mike's brother-in-law Hans Christensen served during the Gulf War after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Mike Keller said little is said among troops about the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction but that other things are hidden all over Iraq.

They see tail tips of Russian-made MiG fighters protruding from the sand in places where no airport is visible.

Some that were uncovered had fake plastic bombs attached to the wings.

"It is obvious things were there and could be hidden anywhere," he said.

"We did keep our chemical suits close at hand for the first few days."

For Keller the real task is humanitarian, which will result in more food, freedom and a better life for Iraqis.