Battle Mountain grad home from Iraq
Martin Polido is home, but he isn’t quite back yet.
Polido, 19, came home last week from nearly a year in Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserve’s 244th Construction Battalion, a unit that specializes in building roads as well as civilian and military structures. While the engineers aren’t technically a front-line combat unit, in a war zone with no front lines and no rear areas, “Everybody’s an infantryman,” Polido said.
While calm and composed, spending a year as a target has had an effect. Putting out balloons on the deck of his parents’ home in Edwards for a welcome-home party, Polido admitted he ducked when one of the balloons popped. “I looked around and then said, ‘I’m all right,'” he said.
Polido, a 2002 Battle Mountain High School graduate, was working on the engineering staff at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Beaver Creek when he decided to enlist in the reserves last year.
“Two weekends a month, two weeks a year sounded great at the time,” he said. When he enlisted Polido knew he could be called to active duty at virtually any time. “Any time” turned into “get ready” while Polido was in basic training at Fort Carson near Colorado Springs in March of last year, the same month U.S. tanks and troops rumbled into Iraq.
“I was home for about a month and then we left,” Polido said.
Bounties and buildings
Straight out of basic training, Polido and his unit were sent almost straight into the heart of the insurgency, to a place called Forward Operating Base Striker just outside Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit.
“The majority of people didn’t seem to mind us,” Polido said. “A few didn’t like us, and they’d start shooting at us, but not for very long. It makes you mad when somebody’s shooting at you.”
Life at Striker soon settled into a watchful routine. Even on base, soldiers routinely slept in their flack vests, helmets, part of about 50 pounds of protective gear.
“It was tense most of the time,” Polido said. “But convoys is when it really heated up.”
Iraqi insurgents rarely strike in force, instead preferring to fire small arms or rocket-propelled grenades from cover, or planting roadside bombs to detonate as American convoys roll past.
“You expect something to happen,” he said.
Polido said the tension cranked up a bit more when he read in the “Stars and Stripes” newspaper about a $5,000 bounty insurgents offered for any Iraqi who killed an American soldier.
“That’s a lot of money for them,” he said.
Despite the insurgents and the triple-digit summer heat, the 244th kept doing its job. “We built roads, bridges, schools for the people,” Polido said. “Then (insurgents) would try to destroy it when we were done.”
While the U.S.-led coalition is an occupying force, Polido said he and the other soldiers on the ground were under orders to respect Iraq’s culture. Liquor is discouraged in the Muslim country, and lonely soldiers are limited to magazines such as Maxim, which feature scantily-clad – but clad – young women. The soldiers are also under strict orders to keep those magazines away from Iraqis.
And some soldiers have to learn the hard way that staring at Iraqi women is a good way to raise the ire of local men.
But soldiers adapt.
The engineers of the 244th were also asked to participate in that oldest of military traditions – improvising solutions to questions the brass hasn’t yet addressed. Reserves often know how to do both military and civilian jobs, so the engineers in Polido’s unit could often be found welding quarter-inch-thick steel plating to Humvees, the better to protect the occupants.
The steel will stop most small-arms fire, Polido said, but can’t stop a rocket-propelled grenade, a particularly dangerous and easily transported weapon.
“One of those will go through that steel like nothing,” Polido said.
Fortunately, the grenades aren’t always deadly. One colleague of Polido’s was driving a Humvee when it was hit by a grenade. The projectile pierced the vehicle’s side, rattled around the interior, whacked the soldier in the helmet, then flew out the roof.
“Somebody had his hand on him that day,” Polido said.
Others weren’t so lucky. During nearly a year in Iraq, the 244th suffered many wounded and one fatality, a soldier Polido served closely with for six months.
Ana Bailey, Polido’s mom, hasn’t seen the dangers of Iraq firsthand, but knows enough. It’s hard for her to pass her son without laying a hand on his shoulder or giving his hand a squeeze. She frowns a bit when she looks at her son’s new tattoo, but mostly, she’s relieved.
“Joining (the reserves) was the best thing for Martin at the time,” Bailey said. But, “God answered my prayers,” she said of her son’s safe return.
Polido has talked to the folks at the Ritz-Carlton about coming back to work. They’ve saved his position.
“It’ll be nice to go to work without wearing 50 pounds of gear,” he said – and make no mistake, it’s good to be home.
But Polido says he’s ready to go back, if that’s what duty requires. And he’s considering transferring to the regular Army. He’s planning to talk to the local recruiting office about joining the 25th Light Infantry. That unit is currently deployed to Iraq, but its home base is in Hawaii. “You’ve got to look at the big picture,” he said with a smile.
For now, though, Polido is glad to be home, but probably not as glad as his mother.
“We’re so happy to have him here,” she said.