He felt some jet lag his first day there, but not too much to keep him from sitting down at a computer and e-mailing his mother. Twenty-six-year-old Sgt. Vincent Thomas Clay made himself stay awake for his first 24 hours in the country, to get his sleep pattern fixed, as he put it. Camp Beuhring, Kuwait, would be home for awhile, until he headed for Iraq.
Clay joined the Mississippi National Guard in August 2001 because he wanted to do something good and respectable with his life. He wanted some adventure, to do some things that most people will never get to do. Once he joined, Clay decided to become a medic so that he could help the injured.
He was deployed to the Middle East Jan. 9 with the 155th Brigade Combat Team, one of 4,000—3,500 of them Mississippians—who left their families and their employment to fulfill the commitment they made when they joined the National Guard. Besides his mother, Vanessa Barlow, Clay left behind his wife of six months, Michelle; his dad, David Barlow; his brother, Forrest Cotten and his sister, Tiffany Barlow; as well as grandparents Rachel Thompson, Kyrous and Ray Brown and Clayton and Florence Barlow, not to mention numerous aunts, uncles and cousins.
Subject: I Love You, Mom Fri. Jan. 14, 2005
It is ok here; it is just a little cold but not as bad as California. I wanted you to know that I have been reading my 91st Psalm. I am fine, and so are my buddies. At least the ones that are already here. Tell everyone I love them and miss them. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH MOM, AND I MISS YOU SO MUCH, TOO.
Love Your Son,
I first met Vincent Clay one weekday afternoon when his dad gave Leland, my youngest, a ride home from soccer practice—the boys were seventh-graders at Peeples Middle School—smooth-faced and not yet grown into the muscular young men they would become all too quickly.
That was the beginning of a great friendship between the two of them, a bond as strong as a brotherhood born of blood. For practically 15 years now, Vincent and Leland have been quite a pair of on-the-same-wave-length, laugh-at-the-same-silly-stuff, play-soccer-as-if-possessed friends—the kind that the lucky are blessed to have.
Subject: Hey! Wed. Jan 26, 2005
I've been thinking, and I think I may want you to send some roses to Michelle for me for Valentine's Day along with a card. A sweet card that says With Love from your husband, Vincent. And then maybe some roses. What do you think? Do you think you could do that for me?
Subject: I LOVE YOU!!! Fri. Jan 28, 2005
Hey Mom! Yeah, a dozen red roses would be perfect. As far as the card, get one that is really sweet and possibly says something about how much I love her even though I am so far away. And just write "from your loving husband, Vincent" at the bottom for me. Thank you so much, Mom. This really means a lot to me. As far as what would be a good time, you may need to call her and just casually find out when she will be home. Well, Mama, I wish I had more time, but I am about out for now. Just remember don't get worried if you don't here from me for a while.
Not once in a million years would it have ever crossed Clay's mind the day he enlisted in the National Guard in Aug. 2001 that he'd be e-mailing his mama from Iraq, asking her to take care of his first Valentine's Day as a married man. He had no inkling that an event as horrific as 9/11 would happen and that by August 2004, he'd be mobilized, married and training in preparation for deployment any where, much less that we'd be involved in a war in Iraq.
I can remember being afraid for him the last time I saw him, though. He walked boldly into my office in the library at Forest Hill one afternoon, not too long after his guard training was over. So glad to see him, tears running down my cheeks, I hugged him for all he was worth. I must have taken a step back and re-hugged him three or four times before I could get myself to stop. I looked over his shoulder at his girlfriend, Michelle. One look at her as she looked at him was all it took to convince me that he had found someone who really loved him.
Subject: For Michelle's card Thu. Feb. 10, 2005
Hey Baby! I know this isn't the same as a card that I have hand written, but it comes with just as much love. I wish I could be there with you on this special day, but know that you are in my heart and mind always. I wish the best for you, and I can't help but sit around and think of how great it will be when I get back home and get to hug and kiss you. Enjoy this day and remember you are always with me. HAPPY VALENTINES DAY, BEAUTIFUL!!!!! LOVE ALWAYS AND FOREVER YOUR LOVING HUSBAND,
On Valentine's Day, the 155th Brigade Combat Team officially reported for duty with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. They were to go to Babil, Karbala and Najaf provinces, to continue ongoing projects in conjunction with Iraqi security forces.
In Mississippi, his family sat in front of a Web cam, and Clay saw their familiar faces 8,000 miles away. He e-mailed: "It was the highlight of my day." Then the word came.
Subject: Re: I LOVE YOU!!! Wed. Mar. 02, 2005
Hey, I am finally in Iraq. As of right now I am not sure if we are going somewhere else or if we are gonna stay here. Sgt. Floyd is here, and he is trying to see what they are going to do with us. I am fine and so is Justin. (Justin Sikes, Clay's friend and a fellow medic.) So you will know, I am fairly close to Baghdad. I can't really say where.
Subject: Re: GOD BE WITH YOU Thu. Mar. 03, 2005
Yeah, it is definitely a lot more dangerous here. We are still doing fine, though. I am glad everyone is doing fine there. … I can't talk near as much or near as long here, but I did want to let you know that Justin and I both are good.
Subject: Re: I LOVE YOU!!!! Sat. Mar. 5, 2005
Sorry I couldn't talk longer in my last one, but I was short on time. … Justin and I talked with a colonel today to see if he could get it to where we could stay here. We think we can do more and help out more here than in the other camp that they want us at. This camp is far more dangerous, but we have the opportunity to do more good here, I believe. We are gonna try to go out on a patrol tomorrow with the same colonel that we talked to today. I will let you know how things go tomorrow after our patrol mission. Don't worry about me, though; I will be with some really good soldiers tomorrow. I will be fine. I still don't know when I will be able to take my leave yet, but I will let you know when I do.
It's a military policy that soldiers earn leave while on active duty—usually 15 days per year. The 155th's leave period wouldn't start until April, but already Clay and untold others were anxious to see if they would be among the ones who were able to get home sometime before the leave period ends in November.
Subject: Re: I LOVE YOU BUNCHES!! Sun. Mar. 06, 2005
Hey, Mama, I am doing just fine. I don't know if Justin has a copy of the 91st Psalm or not, but if you made him one and sent it to him, I am sure he would use quite often. We went out on a foot patrol through this farming village this morning. It was pretty cool. It is kinda sad to see how some of the people here live. I got some pictures while we were out. There were so many kids out there. Whenever we walked by, they all came running up to us. I gave some of them candy, and I gave some of the other ones pens for school. They really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the whole experience. I am gonna try to see if I can go out on another one. Things are really different here.
Subject: Re: MISS YOU!!! Tue. Mar. 08, 2005
Good to hear from you, Mama. I hope everything is going well there. We are still doing fine. Yeah, if we do leave here, we will end up where they had originally said we would be. (The troops are not allowed to give their exact location to family members.) Yeah, it is safer there … if God wants me to go there, then I know it is for the best, and I am not going to complain. I will do what I have to do and then go home. Everything will be fine, I hope. … I did forget to tell you before now, but there is a puppy that wandered into the camp and some of us have kinda adopted him. We call him Shaft. We feed him; some of the guys have even bathed him, and we all play with him. We even let him sleep in our tents; it is pretty cool.
Subject: Re: I LOVE YOU!! Fri. Mar. 11, 2005
It rained really bad yesterday, and everything is flooded and muddy. The mud here sucks. I guarantee you have never seen mud like this. It sticks to everything so bad, and it is as slippery as anything I have ever seen. It is really hard to walk around in. People fall down a lot in this stuff because it is so bad.
Subject: Hey Mom Fri. Mar. 11, 2005
I sure can't wait to get my leave. I am ready to see some American soil again. It's not that I am homesick. I just like to talk and see my friends and family face to face as opposed to always talking over the Internet or the phone.
Subject: Re: Hey Mom Sat. Mar. 12, 2005
I did get to go out on a vehicle patrol today and I got to see a lot of the country. It isn't anything like what you would think. There was a lot of grass, trees and farming everywhere. It was really cool. This could be a really beautiful country if we could only get it under control, and they work on it and take care of it here.
Subject: Hey Mama Tue. Mar. 15, 2005
I went out on another patrol today. I actually got to go into one of the cities. It was so much different there. We went to a couple of schools that are being rebuilt. We went to check on the progress of them. It is so sad to see how these people live and how they let their kids live. At the school, the bathroom is a small brick building with no toilets of any kind, and it isn't even open. We went behind the building, and you could see where the kids had been going out behind the building to use the bathroom. Like wild animals. There was human feces everywhere. It was so sad. Then, in the city, it was just as bad. We went to an Iraqi police station, and they have to burn their feces, and when they have to pee, there is a pole in the ground that you have to pee into. The pole is just out in the middle of the station area. The city was real cool, though, as far as being able to see some cool stuff. I got some real cool pictures. We were able to get on top of the school, so I was able to get some good pictures from up there. Being here in this place really helps to put things in perspective. The longer I am here, the more I am really beginning to understand why we are here. At first I didn't understand, but now I have a better understanding of our purpose here. I really hope things get fixed here soon because it really saddens me to see the way things are here.
Vincent always enjoyed doing things with younger kids back home. He coached his sister Tiffany's league soccer team for two-and-a-half years before he joined the National Guard. For Time Warner Cable, he dressed up as Scooby Doo and threw out the first ball of the season at Smith-Wills. One time he was Sylvester the Cat at the Ag Museum.
When Leland and Vincent were still just boys, one of their favorite things to do was dress up, sometimes in camo so they could play army. They'd stuff their pockets with flashlights and duct tape and string and who knows what else. They'd promise to stay in the back yard, hiding in the bushes, tearing buds from the camellias and shooting them with slingshots.
Boys just seem to naturally gravitate towards this sort of thing, starting with crashing toy cars over and over, evolving into blowing things up with firecrackers and such. And mothers watch, sometimes peeking out of the window, sometimes stepping out onto the back porch.
Subject: Hey Mom Fri. Mar. 18, 2005
Today was so awesome. I got to go out with some demolition guys and I helped them blow up 1,500 lbs. of explosives. I got to use some C-4 and some TNT. It was so great. You talk about a big boom. I also got some cool pictures. I can't wait to show you guys all the cool pictures I have taken. As dangerous as the stuff I am doing is, I would rather do it than anything else here. I feel like I am at home going out with these guys. It also makes me feel better knowing that I am there to help if the worst happens and they need a medic. Right now, Justin and I are the only medics in this camp that are going out on missions with these guys. They are American soldiers, too, and they deserve to have quick medical attention if something happens. But as much as I love doing this, I have a feeling we are going to be cut short here and stuck in a hospital somewhere else for the rest of our tour. I know that would be an answered prayer for you and a few other people, but I just feel like I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. You just don't know how good it feels to have a bunch of guys looking up to you for things and counting on you when they need help the most. These guys treat us so good and protect us so well because they know that of all the things we could be doing, we are volunteering to go help them when no one else will. It's so great. They all even call me "doc." I love it.
P. S. Don't forget to tell daddy about the explosives!!!!
Subject: Re: Hey Mama Sat. Mar. 19, 2005
I went on another mission today, and it went very well. We did some civil affairs stuff. I got to hand out candy to the kids and stuff. We walked into one of the towns and went through their market place, It was cool. I got some more good pictures. I have been going on a lot of missions lately. I really enjoy it. … Anyway, I know if Michelle and I move (to Florida when he returns to the States for good), you and the rest of the family will miss us, but we will miss you just as much. As far as starting a family is concerned, we did talk about that, and we decided that we are not gonna plan to have kids anytime in particular, but we are gonna have them when we feel it is time. We are gonna try to enjoy at least a couple of more years of our life before we start having kids because when we do have them our lives are gonna change forever. We are just trying to enjoy our youth together as much as possible. … Just think, though, if we move to Florida, then you and daddy could afford to go to the beach every summer. Never have to get a hotel again :).
Mississippians woke up March 31 to find out that more members of the 155th guardsmen had been injured in Iraq—the driver lost his legs and three others were injured when their vehicle hit an improvised electronic device. Hours before the morning news, Clay's mother Vanessa knew something was wrong. Sound asleep, she heard a voice, loud, inside her head—"Mama!" yelled one of her sons, Forrest or Vincent. Her heart racing, she started to pray.
Those prayers were answered when she heard the morning news with no mention of Vincent's name. Then came an e-mailed explanation from her son. Often, Clay told her, he and his friend Justin rode in that particular vehicle. Prior to the convoy's pulling out, they changed to another vehicle to provide support at a different point in the line. Otherwise, Vanessa knew instantly, Clay could have been hurt. Now she knew whose voice she had heard in the night.
Subject: Hey Mama Thurs. Mar. 31, 2005
I am doing fine. I am actually working in the main office here for the next double of days taking Sgt. Floyd's spot. (One of the injured was Clay's sergeant, Wyman Floyd, 54, from Hattiesburg and a part of Company C, 106th Support Battalion, out of Crystal Springs.) I don't know how long that will be for, though. Sgt. Floyd is doing well also. He is still sore, and his collarbone is keeping him from doing a lot of stuff, but he is well and so grateful to be here.
On Wed, 20 Apr, Clay e-mailed me: Tell everyone that I said hey and that I am doing fine. Yeah, it was kinda crazy about the accident. I thought about it a lot after it happened, but I don't really think about it as much anymore. There is so much bad stuff that happens over here. Some of the bad stuff happens to people I know, and there is just no way that I can sit here and dwell on it because I have a job to do. If I were to dwell on it, not only would it eat me alive, but it would hinder me doing my job to the point that I would end up getting hurt myself. I just do my best to not let it get to me.
Subject: Hey Mama Sun. Apr. 03, 2005
My address here is:
Sgt. Vincent Clay
HHC 155 BCT S-1-section
APO-AE-09325 FOB Kalsu
So you can give it to whoever wants it. Oh, yeah, in the address it is AP and the letter O then AE and the number 0. I just didn't want you to get confused. It feels good to have a permanent address. I just can't wait to get a package from you. It will be like having Christmas.
Subject: Hey, Mama!! Wed. Apr. 13, 2005
I am really excited about my package. I can't wait to get it. I am sure I will love everything in it. If you want to send Justin something, just send it to SPC Justin Sikes. It is the same address as mine.
Subject: Love you, Mama!! Mon. Apr. 25, 2005
Yeah, I was so excited about my packages. I am actually eating some of the jerky right now. Good breakfast! :). I also finally got the rest of my bags and my box that has been at the other camp. Yesterday was a good day. I was so happy to get everything. Especially since I got it all in one day. … There really hasn't been much going on here in the office for me to talk about. Sorry, no exciting news today.
In e-mails to me, Clay shared some of his thoughts since he'd been deployed to Iraq: I had one of my good buddies I had known for a few years to be killed shortly after we arrived here. I have also had an even closer friend who was in an explosion who was blessed enough to only have his collarbone broken. I have also has a couple of other friends who were injured in the line of duty. There are a few guys that I have talked to one day and then the very next day they are either gone forever, or they are forever crippled or something really horrific like that. I think people should know how it is over here on all of these soldiers. It really is hard on some of these guys mentally and emotionally. I see it everyday, and I really hate seeing it.
I wake up in the morning with an alarm clock. Everyone pretty much gets up that way. The entire time I have been in this part of the world, the food has been pretty much the same thing. It is kinda like eating in the lunchroom at school. Every once in a while we will have shrimp, lobster and steak. That is like a once-a-month thing, though. My days usually go by pretty fast. We do a lot of things trying to help improve things for these people. We are trying to get the schools fixed, and the neighborhoods cleaned up.
Yeah, we all wear the body armor. It alone is about 45 or 50 lbs. As far as the temperature is concerned, it is pretty hot. It has gotten up to 125 and 130 a couple of times already.
I have used some of my (medic) skills but not very much, which I pray to God every single day that I won't have to. I hope I don't have to work on anyone the rest of the time I am here. I just want all of us to make it home safely. I am still doing ok. I am just trying to get from one day to the next in one piece.
Subject: MY LEAVE DATE! Tue. May 03, 2005
OK. I finally have my leave date. I should be leaving here around the 19th of this month. I am just so excited to be going home. I still want to have a good cookout when I get back. I am drooling, just thinking about some good food. I am so ready for a break from all this. I am ready to see all of you. I am ready to go now.
Subject: HEY Sun. May 08, 2005
I know that I am about an hour early, but I wanted to be the first to tell you HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY MAMA! I Love You and I hope you have a wonderful day! Love your son, Vincent
Last week, Clay e-mailed me: Yeah, it is nice that we get the whole two weeks at the house. I would be pretty ticked off if we didn't. No, I haven't had to eat any MREs since we have been here. Thank goodness, because those things suck. I did have to eat them at Camp Shelby during our training though. As far as what the different soldiers want in their packages, Pringles and M&Ms do seem to be a bit popular. My bunk was a cot except for the wooden legs. Mine had aluminum legs. I now have a bunk bed set up. Most of the soldiers here do have regular beds. It is much better than a cot. I will just be glad when I can get to my real bed at home and sleep in it. Well, I am going to go for now but I can't wait to hear from you again. Take care."
May 19, the day Clay is due to board a plane for Mississippi, is just a few days before the country observes Armed Forces Day, a celebration in honor of the men and women of this country who protect it for us.
Clay's celebration will span a full two weeks, at home, under the watchful eyes of his family.
Vincent got home today around 12:30 p.m. That young man has his priorities straightófirst he hugged his wife, then his mama, then me!
He was one of five soldiers who got off the American flight from Dallasómemories of flying commercial during the Vietnam War came flooding back.
- Lynette Hanson