Rodney Plamondon, 38, says he doesn't like to be stuck in traffic. He's not a worn-out commuter and he's not impatient, he just can't forget the affects of car bombs exploding in thick Baghdad traffic or the car bombs that went off within sight of the checkpoint he manned in the city.
Plamondon also still thinks about the suicide attack that struck his checkpoint in October and killed a soldier in his unit from Vacaville.
An employee of the city of Lodi Public Works Department, Plamondon is now back to working on city streets. Just a few months ago, however, he was patrolling the streets of Baghdad.
It's a city where violence has become woven into the fabric of daily life; where children visit the corner ice cream shop, but where one can regularly find among the trash collected on the banks of the Tigris River the dead bodies of Iraqis.
Plamondon said Iraqis are struggling to bring a sense of normalcy to their country and while many have dedicated themselves to violence, others are struggling to rebuild their nation.
"If they stopped for every little thing, their lives would grind to a halt," Plamondon said. "It's explosions, mortars and gunfire everyday." Plamondon, a soft-spoken man with short-cropped hair and an intense gaze, is a member of Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion 184th Infantry Regiment of the California National Guard.
His company was attached to an armored unit in Baghdad that provided security patrols, as well as did checkpoint duty to secure access into the "International" or "Green" zone in the heart of Baghdad.
A 18-year veteran of the Army, Plamondon was in Baghdad from January 2005 to January of this year. While he expects another tour of duty at some point, Plamondon is now back in his civilian job as a maintenance worker for Lodi's street division.
Boredom punctuated with violence
Plamondon's unit split its time between patrols and working checkpoint duty. Even after spending six months at Fort Bliss, Texas training for his deployment, Plamondon said he quickly learned that he and his soldiers would have to adapt to Baghdad.
Language and cultural training proved insufficient, so they had to develop relationships with translators assigned to the unit to build sources in the Iraqi community.
Patrol duty offered younger soldiers than Plamondon the feeling of accomplishment and soldiering they had expected, but he said he knew checkpoint duty was their crucial responsibility.
Behind their checkpoint lay the relative peace of the international zone; the hub of the United States' mission in Iraq and the fledgling Iraqi government. In front of their checkpoint, lay the daily violence of Baghdad: car bombs, suicide attacks and mass executions.
"If the checkpoints collapse, so does all the of the U.S. policy in the country," Plamondon said.
A few car bombs blew up near Plamondon's checkpoint, and one even exploded in a traffic que waiting to access the international zone.
Still, he described manning checkpoints as "long and boring" but that's what Plamondon said he wanted - and for 274 days it remained that way.
"A boring day on the checkpoint is a good day," he said.
But one day, the boredom evaporated.
On Oct. 10, Plamondon was off duty when he heard the explosion. He ran from the unit's base to the checkpoint to find only the aftermath of violence.
Staff Sgt. Jerry Bonifacio, 28, of Vacaville had died in the suicide car bomber attack.
Months later, in Lodi, Plamondon said he still thinks about Bonifacio and the day when checkpoint duty turned deadly, but he doesn't like to talk about it.
When asked about the loss, Bonifacio's eyes close, and he turns his head away.
"I don't want to go into all that," he said.
A people working for peace
After a year in Baghdad, Plamondon said he is hopeful for the future of the city and the nation because of what he learned from the people.
He said he got to know translators and other Iraqis who worked as sources.
Some of those Iraqis still occasionally call or write him e-mails. Others, he doesn't hear from because they were shot, abducted or just simply disappeared.
Yet Plamondon said he believes only one percent of the total population is bent on violence - the rest of the nation wants peace.
Despite the dangers of working with the U.S. military, Iraqis keep signing up because the pay - around $1,100 a month - is two or three times the standard wage, Plamondon said.
Iraqi casualties were a near-daily occurrence for the solider. From bodies in the river, to bombing victims and shootings; Iraqis bear the brunt of the violence.
On Christmas morning, Plamondon recalled an Iraqi who was dropped off at the checkpoint. The man had been shot and would later die.
Because most of the violence stems from Iraqis either being recruited by foreign terrorists or settling scores between rival fractions, Plamondon sees success lying in the next generation of Iraqis.
He said the children in Baghdad were often smiling and gleefully posed for pictures with American soldiers.
One young Iraqi, nicknamed "Monkey," would often run into town and pick up kabobs or sodas for soldiers pulling checkpoint duty, Plamondon said.
Iraqi woman are also, for the most part, willing to embrace Western culture. He said he thinks they may be the most receptive to change and could bring the nation forward.
"That country is going to survive by how strong the woman are."
Soldiers got to know Iraqis by patrolling through the city. Plamondon said units would often be invited into homes for tea and would get to know regular citizens.
To help encourage Iraqis toward peace, Plamondon said the United States will win the war through civil affairs projects, by essentially building a better country.
"We're never going to run out of bad guys trying to kill us or us trying to kill them," he said. "That's how we're going to win that war."
Plamondon said his year in Baghdad went by quicker than his six months of training at Fort Bliss. He said working 12 to 16 hours a day gave him an intense focus that helped him finish the mission and helped earn him a Bronze Star for his duty overseas.
A cell phone he purchased in Baghdad also kept him in touch with his wife Pamm and teenage children back home in the states, as well as e-mails and with Web cam broadcasts when their schedules matched, Baghdad time being 11 hours ahead of the United States.
From the very first moment Plamondon received his orders for deployment to Iraq, he said he began looking forward to the day when he would be reunited with his family.
"As for how I felt when I got off the plane, it was like the weight of the world had been lifted," he said.
"This was the day that was the first thought that went through my mind when I first heard we were going to be deployed. … But mostly what I felt was a sadness that it was not the case, that we all had come but we had come home one man short."
First published: Saturday, April 1, 2006