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Soldier back from Iraq

Roy O. Poper IV took part in the capture of Saddam

Roy O. Poper IV took part in the capture of Saddam

July 19, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - At 10:14 p.m. on Dec. 14, 2003, U.S. Army Spc. Roy O. Poper IV heard the words that he said he will never forget, "We have captured Jim Morrison."

That was the code name for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and Poper, then halfway through the final year of his military commitment, was among the soldiers in Iraq taking part in his capture.

The 22-year-old Hagerstown native said it was an honor to be part of history, something he hopes to bring to a high school classroom in a few years.

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Poper arrived home in Hagerstown last week following a car ride of more than 20 hours from Fort Hood, Texas, where he was stationed. Poper, a 2000 North Hagerstown High School graduate, said that while he was proud to serve in the military and enjoyed his experience overall, he was happy to be a civilian again.

"I started cheering when I saw the sign that said Hagerstown was 60 miles away," Poper said.

Poper, a third-generation Army member, signed up while he was a junior in high school and before the increased military activity that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. He said being in the military was something he always wanted to pursue and something he does not regret, despite being sent to war.

"It made me a better person, made me a lot of money and made me realize what I wanted to do with my life," Poper said. "It's probably the smartest decision I've ever made."

Poper was among a group present during the capture of Hussein on Dec. 14. Serving with the 4th Infantry Division near Tikrit, Iraq, he said about 120 soldiers were involved in the mission, and he was one of many securing a perimeter around the "spider hole" in which Hussein was found hiding.

In the tense moments before receiving their orders for the mission, Poper said he knew it was not a drill.

"Once we saw who and how many were there, we knew that it was the real deal," Poper said. "They really had the best of the best the military had to offer."

Poper said the soldiers were expected to be greeted with a huge firefight that never materialized. Poper said it was an "awesome" feeling when the soldiers were informed by a radio transmission of the capture.

"We were all just looking at each other like, 'oh my God, we got him,'" Poper recalled.

Poper said he felt lucky to even be alive for it after an incident on July 15, 2003. Poper was part of a two-vehicle operation that was ambushed in the dark, though the six soldiers in the group did not suffer serious injuries. Poper said all that could be seen were faint sparks from automatic weapons and the sound of bullets whizzing closely by.

"I'll never forget that night, ever," Poper said.

Within hours of that incident, U.S. troops detained 154 people and killed three Iraqis believed to be involved.

Along the way, Poper said there were plenty of hardships to deal with, including a lack of toilet paper, unavailability of showers, many Iraqis who were originally against the efforts and temperatures that reached 140 degrees.

"That's something you can't train for," he said of the heat. "You just have to suck it up and keep thinking that you're going home eventually."

Poper returned to the United States on May 14 for the first time since being sent overseas in February 2003. Poper said he and others at Fort Hood began celebrating their arrival home but had mixed emotions about the end of their experience together.

"Those are guys you've shared a year with, fighting next to, forging a brotherhood with," he said. "It's like leaving your family all over again."

Poper is now part of a reserve unit, which he reports to for the first time in about three weeks. He is required to be with the unit for one weekend a month and two weeks a year.

As a result of his previous service and his status as a reservist, Poper said he is scheduled to be exempt from war service for one year. However, he said there are no guarantees that he will not be back in Iraq sooner.

Poper said he is not bothered by the possibility of going back to Iraq, in part because he believes U.S. forces should be there to help "protect us from terrorist organizations and help the Iraqi people."

"The people that don't want us over there don't know the kind of squalor they've had to live in," he said.

He said his stint in the military earned him $50,000 toward college. Poper, who hopes to become a high school history teacher, said he plans to attend Hagerstown Community College in the fall and study at the University of Maryland's College Park campus by next year.

Poper said he is confident going into his college stint.

"People complain about college being hard. That's too easy compared to being at war," he said.

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