July 12, 2004 12:00 PM

What’s special about Levi Lohnes? Nothing much, as he likes to point out. Others take more fire, save more lives. But after he enlisted with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division in August 2000, Lohnes, 25, from Onarga, Ill., began to chronicle his life in wartime in a web log (http://leviraq.blogspot.com). The result is a rare insight into the experience of thousands of soldiers like him.

Levi was not the first of Sheri and Mark Lohnes’s five children to join up. Amber, 22, is in the Navy. Jessie, 21, is a Marine stationed in Hawaii. Ian, 20, also a Marine, is based near Ramadi, Iraq. Mandy, 23, a mother of two, is married to an Army private. Dad Mark, a Lutheran pastor, is a former reservist. Levi, says Sheri, “was a bit of a rebel.” Then something changed. An art student at Kentucky’s Murray State University, he suddenly dropped out as a sophomore and joined up. “I was self-absorbed, young and foolish,” he writes. “I was in need of a little discipline.”

March 15: Deployed

I’m in a plane somewhere over the great expanse of the Atlantic. Today was/is long. Hundreds of sleepy soldiers partook in another bureaucratic ritual of deployment. Long lines of waiting, weighing, swiping, and checking. They bussed us to one facility to bid our goodbyes with friends and family. It was a buffet of tear-soaked hugs and kisses. You can’t help but choke up a little seeing these Rambo guys turn to putty in their family’s arms.

So they ship all these sniffling soldiers to a morale-boosting center. This place was so cheese. Someone with too much rank had the bright idea of hiring the worst DJ they could find, some schmuck berating us with a mixture of booty-call music and good-ol’-boy “boot-in-yer-azz!” country twang. It missed the moment by a long shot, but the food was a nice apology. Spirits were lifted and minds more at ease.

March 18: Kuwait

SAND!!!! Nothing but. The first few days feel like one long mess. The jet lag has us sleeping sporadically through lunch and playing cards or watching movies on our portable DVD players at 2 a.m. We’ve been issued another duffel bag full of urban combat gear, to include our body armor. I should clean my weapon again. The sand gets everywhere. I miss grass.

April 2: Baghdad

I can hear the evening prayers booming from the loudspeakers as I write. I’m here [at Camp War Eagle in Baghdad] and doing fine. Yesterday was the most interesting day of my life: our first patrol on the streets of Sadr City, the Shia ghetto of Baghdad. Its 15 square miles house almost 10 percent of Iraq’s population: over two million people. I rolled out with first platoon in the back of an LMTV (Truck: big). At first we rolled by a scrap yard and the adults were rolling their eyes with heavy breaths as if saying to themselves, “Oh great, here we go again.” Some waved while others glared. We turned off into a residential area, streets covered in raw sewage. The smell punched me in the face and I was doing everything I could to hide my gagging. Kids, women and men start waving and screaming “Thank you!” and “Hello!” Our platoon had a serious tint of uncertainty at first, scanning the roof tops, looking for suspicion on the streets. People stopped to take in the spectacle. Did they know we were nervous? Did they know we were virgins to occupation?

We rolled a few more blocks down the road and dismounted to talk to a neighborhood representative. We exchanged greetings with him and some elders, soft handshakes and hands touching our hearts with “Assalam Alaikum.” What you won’t read about or see on the news is our humanitarian efforts. We let them know that we had sewage-sucking trucks on the way to clear up the mess from a street close by. It’s hard to see barefoot kids run around in this; you want to tell them not to step in that but where are they going to step?

April 2

On Patrol in Sadr City

Kids started coming from the woodwork.

“Meesta, meesta…money?”

“No.”

“Meesta, Meesta…pencil?”

“Sorry.”

“Meesta, Meesta…chocolate?”

“Uh uh.”

“Meesta, meesta…whiskey?”

“Ha, ha…nope.”

June 9

Game of Life

I was playing a new PlayStation game with Loza [left, on June 20] when we heard what sounded like a [gunshot] from the hall. An RPG had hit [just outside]. Probably just a lucky shot. We went back to playing our game.

April 10: Biting the hand that frees you

The attacks happened to us as soon as we officially replaced the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the unit before us. We started receiving reports that two Iraqi police stations had been taken over, then three, then four, then a civil affairs building. Some of our convoys were ambushed minutes after that. I could hear the gunfire close by. Everyone dropped what they were doing to help the wounded. Our camp then fought one of the worst battles in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad a year ago. We lost eight superb men, two of whom I knew personally. Almost all of them were married with children.

April 13: More attacks

I was interrupted the other night while typing this. A nervous specialist running the internet café rushed into the room, telling us in his squeaky voice communications were to be cut off due to an attack that had taken casualties. The next day I was told those casualties were friends from my platoon. One almost lost his arm and the other unfortunately did not make it.

It’s hard to describe this feeling of subtraction. The loss of a friend or acquaintance floods the mind with every single memory you have of them, all of them newly minted as profound moments. Our trip to Mexico, the $10 buckets of beer we binged on at the Black Cat bar in Matamoros, the señoritas we met, our buzzed conversation about the beauty of this world while we lounged on bodyboards in the waters of the Gulf.

We are bruised with the losses but not in poor spirits. I know in my platoon we still laugh, we still joke and we still berate each other like we did in Fort Hood. We make it as “normal” as can be.

April 14: Pulling guard

I should make it clear that I wasn’t in the heavier part of the fighting the first two days. All the E-5 [lower-ranked] sergeants in my platoon had to stay in the camp and work with the translators. We felt robbed in a way, forced to neglect our guys, fulfilling our new tasks instead of fighting. I was able to link up with them by the third day to pull guard on one of the police stations. We took small-arms fire and an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] attack, little in comparison to previous nights.

When times were uneasy this past week, we had these moments before night fell into uncertainty, when the radios started buzzing with reports of barricades on fire in the streets to our left and right, and people disappearing from the busy markets and areas around the police stations. That’s when my roommate Loza and I would start singing cheesy tunes from the early ’90s like Vanilla Ice to Salt-N-Pepa to MC Hammer. We’re quite good. “I need ice, ice baby…”

April 24

The Iraqi Translators

The translators [with Lohnes June 20] are the unsung heroes of this struggle. Many have earned Ph.D’s. All of their lives have been threatened. Some have been killed. [Hence, the masks.] These are my new friends, some of the bravest people I will ever know.

May 2: Life Sometimes

Life here has its perks. I love my job. I love talking with the translators about our cultures, the similarities of our religions, the hopes we have for this country. I love the moments at night when I’m outside pondering the whatnot with a cigarette between the distant and not-so-distant sounds of gunfire and the mortar attacks. The nights are the most violent part of the day but the weather and stars always have some promise in them. I love it most when my watch alarm goes off. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing; it starts beeping and I instantly teleport to my parents’ living room. It’s 5:30 a.m. and Dad’s about to wake up. So I imagine I put on a pot of coffee and plop on the couch and watch CNN until Dad and Mom stumble out of their room with their hair all wacky. We say good morning to each other, and my Dad looks at me with this odd smirk asking why I’m up so early. We drink coffee and joke around. It’ll be nice when this moment in my mind becomes a reality again.

May 3: Death of a translator

“Nonsense is commonplace around here.” One of our translators (Martin) would tell me this sometimes. He hacked a good deal on a TV for me at the local market this past week. The TV remote refused to cooperate though. He promised to bring one in the next day. I’ll never see him again in this life. Martin and three others related to him were kidnapped and executed by insurgents. Our office has felt cold and empty this week. Martin was such a kind person. Some days I truly despise this place.

May 4: Boom-Booms

My first phone call to Mom was a reassuring one: our camp had only one mortar attack that hit outside the walls in the past year. A few days later and all hell breaks loose. At least 80 mortars have come our way since April 4. One night I was outside taking a break when I saw the rounds come in and burst. The first one was outside the camp wall and I remember kind of being impressed with the sight of it and thinking “That’s a bit off the…BOOOOOOM!!! Oh sh—!” This was a semi-truck-sized ball of smoke and fire demanding my respect from 55 yards away. My boots felt like they were glued to the stairs at first as I forced myself to move for cover. Another explosion farther off. I felt like I was 6 in South Dakota again trudging through the snow with the effort I put into simply going up some stairs. I made it inside and some people had that “deer in headlights” look. More explosions as our hearts pounded. So close. The bark is worse than the bite, though. Damage has remained close to minimal so far.

May 7: Prisoners of Consequence

I don’t like these soldiers. The MPs who physically and sexually abused the prisoners of Abu Ghraib have probably soiled whatever kind of good reputation we have left over here. These events could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for true progress, definitely a new reason for the insurgents and terrorists to garner support and recruits. It’s frustrating to think about how many lives this might cost on both sides because of their actions.

May 23: Sadr City

Today started off with a warm welcome. I came to from some good sleep and crawled out of my bunk and into the shower a few doors down from my room. “Aaaaah”…hot water actually gurgled out when I squeaked the red knob this time! It’s been almost two months since I’ve had a warm shower, so it went from my usual two minute shivering in and out to a 20-minute soaking. I jumped into a clean uniform and strolled down to the chow hall. Today I was to go on a patrol.

I drove our Bradley. This type of mission is known as Movement to Contact, kind of like fishing. Our Colonel casts us (the bait) into a cesspool of the city as we drive up and down the streets until we get attacked. Our convoy soon turned into dark streets that make your evening news. Everything looked deserted and too quiet, the telltale sign of an ambush. Our first salutation from the insurgents was an IED [improvised explosive device] that exploded by the track in front of me. It didn’t look as traumatic as I’d imagined, just a loud thud and a six-ft. stack of white heat and sparks. Moments later and there was another thud that felt like it hit us. I looked back and saw a trail of dissipating smoke. Our conversations were as calm as could be while we confirmed targets and engaged them. I had no part in the actual “engaging,” just the driving.

As soon as I began wondering if there was going to be any more, our vehicle was hit hard with a flash of light to my right and a concussion running through my body. Dust swirled around our compartments. We spent what seemed like hours up and down these streets taking IEDs and RPGs missing us but destroying property or the road. One of the gunners communicated with us through the headsets:

“There’s a couple guys behind us hiding, looking at us behind a car…can’t tell if they got weapons…looks like one of them’s holding something, still can’t tell…he’s running across the road—RPG! Engaging!”

Before he finished, the Bradley was gyrating from the anger of our 7.62 coaxial machine gun. Ribbons of dust rhythmically swam down from the hatch into my sweat. The mission ended with no injuries. This is only a fraction of the action that other soldiers and Marines (like my little bro Ian) have experienced.

May 28

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast isn’t the most important meal of the day for me, but it tastes the best. Too bad I usually miss it. I did, however, happen to enjoy some pancakes, real eggs, rancid sausage and some grits this morning. (Right: Lohnes with Spc. Jerry Mahfouz in the mess, June 20.)

June 5: Thought in the dark

I’m sitting in my office annoyed by the stale warmth and lack of electricity. I can truly sympathize with the Iraqi people on this. Every day the power goes off, the power comes back on, the power goes off, the power comes back on.

On some occasions we’ve been without power for hours at a time. There are moments in this time when I find myself alone in thought. I wonder about my brother Ian. What’s he doing right now? What has he experienced? What kind of stories are we going to share when we’re home? I would be lying if I said I didn’t worry about him. However, I’m optimistic for the most part. I keep the faith and dream about the directions we’ll take in our lives. I hate the fact that he’s here, but if he has to be here, there’s no place I’d rather be than in this headache with him.

I also think about the occupation and wonder if it will get any better. Will the handover solve some problems or will it create more? I don’t know and I don’t feel very optimistic about this topic right now. I think about the soldiers who’ve died. How their footsteps on this short path have come to a standstill too soon. Some of them will never know what it’s like to hold their own child. Others won’t see their children grow up. And then I’m reminded how often I neglect to see what all of this is: That life is precious and short.

I’m patiently waiting for a light to turn on.

June 28

Happy Handover

Staff Sergeant Clark casually told me the news after I woke up:

“We changed over our batteries from the Bradley and our power to the Iraqis.”

“Yawn. That’s nice…wait a minute. What was that last part?”

“They did the handover this morning.”

Everyone was excited. It’s going to take some time for the gears of the new Iraqi government to start turning, but this is at least a start. In my efforts to dork up the moment, I greeted all the translators: “Happy Handover!”

June 28

Happy Handover

Staff Sergeant Clark casually told me the news after I woke up:

“We changed over our batteries from the Bradley and our power to the Iraqis.”

“Yawn. That’s nice…wait a minute. What was that last part?”

“They did the handover this morning.”

Everyone was excited. It’s going to take some time for the gears of the new Iraqi government to start turning, but this is at least a start. In my efforts to dork up the moment, I greeted all the translators: “Happy Handover!”

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