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 72-hour trip brings soldier from Iraq to mom's bedside

Thursday, October 27, 2005

ThisWeek Staff Writer

By Jonathan Quilter/ThisWeek

Army Spec. Yousef M. El-Yousseph was able to leave Iraq to visit his mother, Susan Pack, while she was in the hospital recently. El-Yousseph will return to duty soon, but this time he is headed to Alaska.

When Yousef M. El-Yousseph found out his mom had been life-flighted from Grady Memorial Hospital in Delaware to The Ohio State University Medical Center after suffering a stroke, he didn't waste any time.

The Army specialist stationed in Iraq went straight to the first sergent's office and told him: "Hey, I have to go home right now."

"I freaked out, pretty much," El-Yousseph, 25, said from his father's Westerville home Oct. 20, two days after arriving back in the country.

Within 48 hours of finding out about his mom, the 1998 Westerville North High School graduate was on a plane to Kuwait, and five hours later, he was on his way to the States, he said. He'd been given two weeks of emergency leave.

"I went straight (to the hospital) from the airport," he said. "I didn't even call Dad."

He arrived at OSU in a crumpled uniform he'd worn for more than 70 hours. Visiting hours were over.

"I told them -- I was like, 'I just flew 72 hours from Iraq, I haven't slept, I'm hungry and I want to see my mom,'" he said.

They let him.

His arrival was a surprise to his mom, Susan Pack, whose daughter had told her El-Yousseph had sent an e-mail saying he was in Kuwait.

"And then the next day, he came walking into my room," Pack said. "I said, 'Oh, my goodness ... There's my son from Kuwait.' "

Pack said she's relieved El-Yousseph won't be retruning to Iraq, since his unit will soon come home. Instead, he'll go back to Alaska, where he was stationed before being deployed.

El-Yousseph's arrival also was a surprise to most of his friends.

Since Pack was released from the hospital on Saturday, he's seen "a couple buddies," El-Yousseph said, but the reason he's home is to see his mom.

"That's pretty much the only thing I've been doing," he said.

Since she returned home, the challenge has been getting her to stay still and heal, he said.

Teasing, but no discrimination

El-Yousseph's story as an Army helicopter repairman is a bit different than some; he is Arab-American and a Muslim. Yet he's quick to point out that he's not looking for attention.

The son of a retired U.S. Air Force technical sergeant, El-Yousseph didn't meet any real discrimination while stationed north of Bagdad, he said. "Sometimes they'd (the soldiers in his unit) make jokes, and I'd be like, 'Hey, that's not funny,'" he said, and the teasing would stop.

El-Yousseph speaks easily, and laughs often, about his time in the desert of Iraq.

When he first arrived back home, he said, "The biggest thing I noticed was all the colors are so vibrant ... Where I was it was all flat and sand and dust and gravel ... (It) blew me away."

El-Yousseph, a licensed flight instructor, said he wasn't on the front lines, which left him with some downtime despite the long work days.

"I'm surprised to what extent soldiers in battle go to to entertain themselves," his father, Mahmoud El-Yousseph, said in his home as he played with 2-year-old Chafique, one of Yousef's five siblings.

One e-mail from his son, Mahmoud said, told how he'd caught a scorpion -- which the soldiers called a camel spider -- then named it Hubert and made an aquarium from old airplane parts.

There were other humorous situations, El-Yousseph said. One soldier in a unit attached to his had the last name of Suttles.

Suttles had written his name on all his belongings; he later got sick and couldn't leave with his unit, so his fellow soldiers decided to write his name on all their equipment.

It "got out of control," El-Yousseph said. Suttles' name appeared on 14-foot barriers, and on the side of a truck far from the post.

"He's the most popular guy in Iraq," he said.

He plans to carry out the prank even further, writing "Suttles" on everything at the Fairbanks post so his fellow soldiers see it when they arrive from Iraq.

Dust storms and

long work days

El-Yousseph didn't come in close contact with the Iraqi people, although he said he often waved to children over the fence that separated his post from the outside.

"The people on the other side of the fence ... they're just farmers. They live in mud huts," he said.

Other soldiers would make fun of them, he said, but El-Yousseph took a different view: "They want the same things everybody else does," he said.

While in Iraq, El-Yousseph's day began at 4:30 a.m. with a workout, followed by breakfast and a 30-minute walk to work wearing 25 to 30 pounds of combat gear.

The work day lasted from about 7:45 a.m. to 6 p.m., he said.

El-Yousseph's unit was constantly under indirect mortar and rocket attacks, but he said they were more of a nuisance than a danger.

The dust storms likely provided more danger, he said. He described one storm as "a wave of sand and dust coming at me."

During the storm, El-Yousseph, dodging shelves that blew by, helped push helicopters out of a canvas and aluminum hangar that looked ready to collapse.

When an 800-pound aluminum beam fell from the ceiling, El-Youseph decided it was time to get out of the hangar.

Even when there wasn't a storm, the air was heavy with dust.

"Walking back from chow, by the time you get back, you're the same color as dust," he said.

An easier time than some

El-Yousseph knows his experience in Iraq wasn't nearly as difficult as those of many others.

His post was where soldiers with four-day passes came to relax, he said.

"There were guys that did a whole lot harder work than I did."

He also often saw members of the Iraqi National Defense, who he said handled security for the special forces.

"In a country where almost everybody's against the United States, they're working with us," he said.

He is scheduled for another four and a half years of duty; he said he hopes to stay in Alaska.

"When you wake up in the morning and look out the window, you can see Mt. McKinley," he said.

He continues to spend time with his mom while packing other activities

into his short stay. Her release from the hospital was a relief, he said: "I was worried sick about her in the hospital."

Pack said she has no side effects from the stroke, "other than maybe a litle bit of (a) balance problem and forgetfulness."

El-Yousseph, meanwhile, is scheduled to go to Alaska sometime this week.

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