For most of people, the war in Iraq is only as close as their television sets allow. Lt. Col. Robbie Robbins, a former assistant principal at West Lincoln High School, however, is living it.
The Forest City native, a reservist in the 108th Division based in Charlotte, has been in Iraq since last February and is currently stationed at An Numaniyah training base.
Robbins, who has called Lincolnton home since marrying wife Phyllis 20 years ago, is part of the Civilian Police Assistance Transition Teams.
â€œWeâ€™re training police to secure the country,â€ said Robbins.
A 24-year veteran of the Reserves, Robbins lives on a compound with a group of Australians contracted by the United States to train the National Police, a force that serves as a bridge between the Iraqi Police and their military.
â€œIâ€™m the American making sure they do what the contract says,â€ Robbins said. â€œIâ€™m the governmentâ€™s eyes and ears.â€
Part of Robbinsâ€™ job is to observe training classes, which he says is similar to being an assistant principal. Living and working with the guys from Down Under has taught this educator one very important lesson.
â€œI can speak Australian now,â€ Robbins said.
All joking aside, Robbins sees progress in the National Police and says that soldiers on the ground in Baghdad have noted the difference in Iraqi officers who have been through CPATTâ€™s program.
He believes that United States forces are in the process of turning things over to the Iraqis.
â€œThings can get crazy sometimes,â€ said Robbins. â€œBut itâ€™s working.â€
As debate about whether to withdraw or increase forces in Iraq rages on at home, Robbins just keeps working.
â€œI have good days and bad days,â€ Robbins said. â€œI do better when I focus on my job and not the big picture.â€
Yet Robbins is fully aware of the situation and, just like most of us here on the home front, he has an opinion.
â€œIf we pull out now, it would be a disaster,â€ said Robbins. â€œIâ€™m not saying what weâ€™re doing now is the right thing, but leaving would be a disaster. Of two evils, this is the best thing right now.â€
No matter peopleâ€™s opinions on the president or the war, Robbins wants people to remember that the men and women serving in Iraq are always deserving of support.
â€œItâ€™s important that the American people support the soldiers,â€ Robbins said. â€œI know how it feels to have support from my family and my church. These 18, 19-year-old kids here need to know the American people are behind them.â€
For his own part, Robbins has plenty of people behind him. In addition to wife Phyllis, Robbins has two children, son Jarrett and daughter Charli, both students at North Lincoln High School.
Since being deployed, Robbins has kept in touch with teachers and the principal at West Lincoln High School, as well as people from Boger City Methodist Church. E-mail has proven a godsend.
Third grade students at Claremont Elementary School have adopted Robbins and the 108th Division through Project Create A Smile, sponsored by Lenior-Rhyne College. The children have had numerous fund-raisers and have used the money to send supplies to Robbins and his division in Iraq.
While support from home makes the days in Iraq easier, nothing can keep Robbins from missing his loved ones.
â€œThe hardest part was leaving my family,â€ said Robbins.
Robbins has had a few glimpses of his children while overseas. In addition to actually being home for two games, Robbins got to see son Jarrett play in his senior year of football and daughter Charli, a junior cheerleader, via live feeds of the games.
Of course nothing is a substitute for being home, and Robbins is looking forward to seeing his family in person. He is hoping to be home in time to see Jarrett graduate in June. In the meantime, Robbins says he is not worried about his kids.
â€œIâ€™ve asked them to behave,â€ Robbins said. â€œSo far, itâ€™s been great.â€
According to Robbins, wife Phyllis has been a rock for the family, handling all the finances, taking care of the house and yard and getting Jarrett ready for college. Knowing she is taking care of business in his stead gives Robbins some peace of mind, as well as an appreciation of what he has.
â€œIâ€™m lucky,â€ said Robbins.
Phyllis Robbins is holding her own while her husband is away, although she admits not having him around has been difficult.
â€œWeâ€™ve been married 20 years, so itâ€™s hard to be away from someone that long,â€ Phyllis said. â€œI know I have to do it. Iâ€™ve always tried to be a strong person. When you have kids you canâ€™t just sit around and cry all the time.â€
Being in Iraq has given Robbins a great appreciation for America and all the comforts of home that we take for granted.
â€œThereâ€™s nothing here,â€ said Robbins. â€œItâ€™s almost like being in prison. The little things in life mean so much. I try to tell my kids how good they have it.â€
Robbins has seen firsthand how little the kids in Iraq have. He once gave a bottle of lotion to a 16 year old who had very dry hands and had never had any lotion to help them heal. Robbins says the boy still thanks him for the gift every time he sees him.
Little Debbie snack cakes have also proven popular among the Iraqis, who had never before seen the treats.
â€œThey are appreciative of the little things in life,â€ Robbins said. â€œYouâ€™d have to come here to understand it.â€
Although Robbins plans to stay in the Army Reserve for at least another six years, he is looking forward to coming home in June. Yet Robbins says the chances are good that he will have to return to Iraq for a second deployment, something he hopes will not happen.
â€œI wonâ€™t be disappointed if I donâ€™t go back,â€ said Robbins.
Upon returning, Robbins says a family beach trip is first on the agenda. He also plans to go back to working as an assistant principal, although he will most likely be at a different school.
When he gets back, Robbins will also take on a new challenge. He has been selected for battalion command and will begin spending one weekend a month in Orlando, Fla., where he will do basic training at Fort Jackson. After his time in Iraq, Robbins says he is looking forward to a change of scenery.
â€œIâ€™ll enjoy going to Orlando for the next two or three years,â€ Robbins said.
Robbins is also anticipating returning to work as an assistant principal, something for which his experience in Iraq has made him ready.
â€œThis has prepared me to go back to being a principal,â€ said Robbins.
Interestingly, the influence of one job on another has gone both ways for Robbins. While overseas, Robbins has allowed his time behind the principalâ€™s desk to inform the way he handles things in a more intense setting.
â€œI donâ€™t let things bother me that happen here,â€ Robbins said. â€œI deal with it as I did when I was a principal.â€
Soon, Robbinsâ€™ time in Iraq will draw to a close, and he will return to normalcy, to his family and career. Undoubtedly, Robbins will return to this country with stories and memories, both good and bad. He will also come home with a greater sense of appreciation for all he is coming home to.
â€œBeing over there makes you appreciate America,â€ said Robbins.
by Allyson Levine