12 Months in Iraq: War, Miracles and Faith

Posted on April 27, 2013

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By David Ettinger

Caption: Josh and some of the men in his unit stand atop a tank in Iraq.

For First Orlando member Josh Pixomatis, fighting in the war in Iraq was an opportunity to serve his country. And though he faced life-and-death situations daily, he felt God walking with him every step of the way. “Knowing that God was in complete control kept me going,” said Josh, 29. “Even in all the chaos, He was there.”

It was an assurance Josh clung to since joining the Army on September 28, 2001. His first stop was Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training. “I was a multi-channel transmission systems operations maintainer,” he said. “That’s a really big title for a communications analyst. My job was to use computers and satellites to establish secure and nonsecure voice and data.”

Following basic training, Josh was sent to advanced training in Fort Gordon, Georgia, for eight months, then to Fort Riley, Kansas, where he was assigned to the 596th Signal Battalion and the 125th Forward Support Battalion.

Caption: Josh takes a break.

Then came the war in Iraq. “The orders came in November of ’02,” Josh recalled. “A guard was pounding on the door of the barracks, saying, ‘Everybody wake up. You’ve got one hour.’ We got dressed, got our rifles checked out of the arms room and went to our area.”

Once there, the commander gave them the news. “He said, ‘There is no easy way to put this. We’re going to war. We’ve been assigned to support the 3rd Brigade in Iraq and we’re leaving at the end of February.’ ”

It was quick and simple, but its impact was profound. “My reaction was, ‘I’m going to die in the desert,’ ” Josh said. “As soon as I got a break, I called my mom and told her. She said, ‘You knew when you went in that this was possible.’ She asked me if I was OK. I told her I was scared, and she told me that she understood.”

From that day, Josh and his company had three months to get ready. In late February 2003, they flew to Kuwait, where they spent two weeks unloading equipment and vehicles before heading north to Iraq. “We drove 36 hours through the desert in a convoy that was 12 miles long,” Josh said. “We drove to a compound in Baghdad that we were going to seize. When we went to take it, there were 150 Iraqi soldiers inside trying to defend it.”

It did not take long for Josh to get thrust into the war. “That was my first combat experience and it was frightening. There were tracer rounds and gunfire going over our heads and explosions all around. It was insane.”

The battle lasted about four hours. “Despite the fear, you keep going. Training and instinct kick in and you do your job without thinking. You know your duties so well that it becomes second nature.”

It was a startling introduction to the war in Iraq. “I can’t remember if I prayed at all during that battle,” Josh said, “but I knew that God was on my mind throughout it all.”

As it turned out, God would be on Josh’s mind often during his little more than a year in Iraq. “War never got easier; you never got used to it. In fact, the battles always seemed to get worse. Every night before we went out on patrol, our commander put us in a straight line and told us to reach into the left breast pocket of the man next to us and be sure he had a letter to his mom, dad, wife or someone else he loved. That letter basically said, ‘If you’re reading this, then I’m in a better place.’ ”

The danger was that real. “We knew going out every night that we could be killed,” Josh said. “Our commander would tell us, ‘There’s a chance the man next to you won’t be coming back, but we’ll cross that when we get to it.’ It’s the most trying challenge to your faith. Every day you wonder whether or not this is going to be your last day.”

And even when the troops weren’t in battle, simply patrolling the streets was an ordeal, especially when it came to Iraqi citizens. “About half liked us and half hated us,” Josh said. “Driving down the road we would see some people cheering and others throwing rocks and bottles. People ran in front of our trucks stop us. But if we stopped, we could be rushed and attacked, so we were under orders to never stop. We tried to avoid them, but if we couldn’t, they would get run over.”

But there were also good relations with the Iraqis, especially the children. “Kids would come up to us and ask for water because each soldier had 24 bottles,” Josh said. “We’d give them one and they’d have a smile from ear to ear. We would also give them candy and they’d be so excited. We gave them stuff all the time.”

For Josh, those times of interaction with the children were some of his most meaningful of the war. “That’s when we knew we were doing something good. When we saw those kids smile, it put everything into perspective. It made me say, ‘This is why I’m here. This little kid is going to grow up in freedom, and that’s what it’s all about.’ ”

But for the most part, living in Iraq meant constant danger. There were at least two occasions where he saw God work miraculously to preserve his life.

“We had been driving for seven or eight hours and pulled into a base to fuel up,” Josh said. “Our commander told us not to go anywhere because we’d be leaving in 10 minutes.” But Josh was thirsty and went to the PX to purchase a Diet Coke. “By the time I got back, the guy in the truck with me jumped in the driver’s seat [Josh had been driving]. I said, ‘Hey, get out of my seat.’ He said, ‘No, just get in.’ ”

So Josh sat in the passenger’s seat. “About a few miles outside the base, shots rang out. A bullet came through the driver’s side windshield where I had been sitting for hours. The driver was killed instantly. Had I not gone to get the Diet Coke, I would have gotten that bullet. I know that was God who protected me.”

Another miraculous occurrence took place in a shower trailer. “I was washing my hair and dropped the shampoo bottle,” Josh recalled. “When I bent down to pick it up, I heard a whistling sound outside coming right at me, so I stayed down. After the explosion, I looked up and there was an eight-inch piece of jagged steel that had imbedded itself in the wall right about chest high. The only thing I can say is that God has a purpose for me.”

And at least one of God’s purposes for Josh was that he would leave Iraq, which happened on Easter 2004. He completed his military commitment in late 2006.

Looking back, Josh knows that his time in Iraq has changed him for good. “It definitely made my faith stronger and improved my prayer life. I learned about the importance of the prayer of others and how those prayers can keep people going. I learned how important it is for people to tell others that they are thinking of them and praying for them. It was the prayers of so many others and my faith in the Lord that lifted me up during my time in Iraq.”

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