Back from Iraq, Callaway not a visitor anymore|[08/20/07]

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 20, 2007

For the first time in more than two years, Laura Callaway can lounge, amble or busy herself around her home without &#8220feeling like a visitor,” as she put it.

For Callaway, a fifth-generation resident of Vicksburg and third-generation employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, duties in Iraq have come to an end. She’s had five furloughs during the past 27 months, but this trip back to Mississippi was different.

&#8220It’s great to be home and actually feel like I live here,” Callaway said. &#8220That was one of the most difficult things about being away; having to be just a visitor when I came home.”

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&#8220But that was something stressed to us when we made our trips home,” Callaway continued. &#8220We weren’t supposed to get overly involved with our everyday routines back home. Our families, as well as ourselves, needed to know we were just visiting.”

Suzanne Fournier of the Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington said thousands of civilian employees of the Army’s civil works agency have been recruited for six-month or 1-year deployments to work on reconstruction or myriad other capacities. It’s rare for anyone to stay as long as Callaway did, first reporting to Baghdad in May 2005.

Her early-August return home was greeted with some changes, including the addition of her first grandchild, Parker.

Callaway went to the headquarters of the Gulf Region Division to take charge as deputy chief of G-6, and, during her last four months of duty, was promoted to G-6. Her job, along with a staff of more than 60 worldwide, was to keep computers, telephones and other electronic gear up and running.

Her office for 23 months was a basement room of an administrative building adjacent to a museum that Saddam Hussein had created to preserve his legacy. For a month, she was in an office on the seventh floor of the Freedom Towers building across the street, so-named by coalition forces when it was liberated from its former use by Saddam’s secret police.

Callaway is the daughter of Jack Fowler and Medley Melsheimer Fowler, both of Vicksburg, and the mother of Jessica, 22, and Robin, 21. She went to high school at St. Aloysius and, after graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi in computer studies in 1982, she worked as a contractor for the Vicksburg-based Mississippi Valley Division and then, in 1991, signed on full time.

For Callaway, the decision to lend her services to the efforts in Iraq was an informed career move. Federal employees know this can be an impressive addition to their service records. So when her daughters graduated from Vicksburg High School, she applied.

While reminiscing about her time spent in Iraq, Callaway only discussed briefly the incidents of nearby combat and the echoes of explosions. She instead focused more on the people she met and became close to during her tours, &#8220her family away from family,” which she said, along with running, roller blading and country-western dancing in her free time, helped her &#8220maintain sanity.”

That which tested Callaway’s sanity was a working schedule of mostly 12-hour days, seven days a week.

&#8220We had over a thousand people depending on us in order to operate,” Callaway said. &#8220A lot was on our shoulders and it could be very stressful at times.”

Callaway also noted that a personal frustration of being away was &#8220having to depend on people to do the everyday things back home. Doing things around the house, watching after my daughters. My mother had to do those things for me.”

Another was missing the Run Thru History in Vicksburg in 2006 and 2007, an event which she had participated in for more than a decade before her departure to Iraq.

But despite hardships and frustrations, the work came with rewards, Callaway said.

&#8220This was without a doubt a working experience I couldn’t have received anywhere else,” she said. &#8220It’s something I feel, and will always feel, very fortunate to have done.”

And although Callaway at times questions the timing and execution of the U.S.’s military efforts, and is &#8220befuddled” by the politics of it all, she feels that the U.S.’ presence in Iraq is necessary and that she was proud to be a part of it.

&#8220Overall, I think it’s a very good thing,” Callaway said. &#8220I agree with the principle of taking someone like Saddam Hussein out of power. He’s the Hitler of our time and we’ll probably never know the extent of the atrocities he committed. The children of this country can now have schools, clean water and have the potential for a better quality of life.”

Now that Callaway is back in Vicksburg, she will return to work at the Mississippi Valley Division in early September. In what Callaway said would be a new position for her, she will be leading a team of software engineers.

Aside from work, Callaway said she plans to re-establish her involvement in the family and community she has missed for the last 27 months.

&#8220Basically, I’m ready for life to be back to normal.”