It was not the conventional flight. Yet it was on a regular-looking commercial aircraft. Perhaps the most notable difference was the stewardess's welcome aboard announcement. Void from the announcement was the routine lecture on storing food trays and turning off electronics.
Instead, "The stewardess said, keep your gun barrels pointed in the down position and make sure your grenade pins are in," said Specialist Sebastian DiGiovanni. "I thought, as a civilian, I can't even bring a pocket knife on a flight."
Sam, a National Guardsman, was on an Army chartered flight for a 15-month deployment in Iraq. When he returned in October of last year after being honorably discharged, he would have some hearing loss and have witnessed more violence than many could comprehend. But he would be alive and, perhaps most importantly, he would be able to spend time with his wife, whom he had married three months before being ordered to the war-torn Middle East.
Over time, marriage before deployment or enlistment has not been uncommon. Some know they will be leaving. Such was the case in the '60s when soldiers married after being drafted. Others, already in the military, marry without knowledge of how the remainder of their duty will play out. This was the case with Sam.
He had already been in the military for eight years before he married Cecilia Garcia-DiGiovanni. He had spent a year prior to the marriage falling in love with her.
"So after we got married, about a month later, we found out he was going to have to go to Bosnia," Cecilia said. "I thought Sam was joking with me. I couldn't believe it. We had just got married. I thought, worst-case scenario nine months. We had just gone to a friend's coming-home party who spent 10 months in Bosnia. He said don't worry he'll be OK.
"So we went on a two week vacation. Everything was ready to go. We said we would write and everything. We were very prepared. He called to confirm his orders and they said the plans have changed. His place of deployment had been changed to Iraq, and it was not going to be a nine-month trip, but a minimum of a year. It ended up being 15 months. I thought I was in a nightmare."
When Sam landed in Baghdad from Riverside, Calif., he noticed many insurgent spies scoping out the fresh meat that had landed. Sam said this is a usual procedure to get a feel for how tough the new guys are.
"There were a lot of them armed to the teeth, taking pictures," Sam said. "After about a week, they stopped with the pictures and started with the bullets."
Sam was attacked around two to three times per week. His mission was versatile. He was based out of Baghdad, but every day he went to a different area of Iraq, including Fallujah, Bakuba, about 35 miles north of the capital of Iraq, and the southern city of Al Hilla, near where the decisive battle of the Arabian-Persian War was fought in 637 A.D.
Sam was a gunner on a Humvee. He did patrols, convoys and other infantry assignments. Roadside bombings were a regular occurrence, as were sniper fire and mortars. Sam endured the occasional rocket attack as well. Such was the case when a rocket nearly crew cut the Humvee and plowed into a vacant building just behind Sam's convoy.
"Of course, we took care of that guy," Sam said. "One time when we were in Fallujah, we were escorting a truck full of Iraqi police cars. While we were driving, we drove through complete anarchy bullets flying everywhere. The Marines were already dug in. The insurgents saw what we were escorting and that was like a red flag. They lit us up. Our Humvees looked like Swiss cheese. We called in for fire, an air strike. It blew the building up, all three stories. The insurgents were not only escaping the building, but continuing to fire at us. They are very well trained, especially the Iranians. They get about $1,000 for every one of us they kill. I don't know how they keep track. I think through video cameras on their scopes. They are very well trained."
Sam and his unit lived in a parking structure of a bombed-out palace. It was in the Baghdad Green Zone, a "heavily guarded diplomatic, government area of closed-off streets in central Baghdad, where U.S. occupation authorities live and work," according to GlobalSecurity.org. "The Green Zone in the central city includes the main palaces of former President Saddam Hussein."
Sam said it was relatively safe there, "Unless you had to take a shower or use the latrine, then you risked getting hit by a mortar, because we had no plumbing [in the parking structure]."
The green zone is the opposite of the insecure Red Zone, where Sam said civilians walk around with AK-47s "and you don't know who's bad. We'd drop off supplies, money or food to the good side and have to wait sometimes for a while. All kinds of things would happen."
Sam said he would be waiting across from a building and, all the sudden, the building would get hit and "go up." The Red Zone is where Sam did all of his missions.
Sam said the Bible verse that got him through was Proverbs 3:5, "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding."
"Seeing bodies burned and riddled with holes doesn't ever leave a person, and there are times when the walls close in on me."
Possibly the most gruesome thing Sam witnessed in Iraq were dead bodies stuffed with explosives on the side of the road. He said the insurgents started doing this because the American military checks the condition of every dead body.
Sam admits that checking bodies became "chancy, but that's what sets us apart," he said in regards to America's humanitarian policies.
Sam's wife and family know about his experiences now, but for Sam's mother, like many generations of mothers with children in the military, it was not knowing that got her through dealing with her son in danger in a war zone.
"I got through it all because Sam would always convince me that he was safe in the Green Zone, protecting one of Saddam's palaces," said Jacquelyn Riehl, Sam's mother. "But, deep down, I knew he was in danger. After he got home and I heard about the missions, I was glad I didn't know. I'm very supportive to all the troops. And I'm glad my son came home safe Š I got through it because I pretended."
Sam purposely held information of the dangers he was in to comfort his family. He had his family's full support. Sam said his father Sal was very supportive and used to send care packages. Cecilia and Sam wrote more than 300 letters to each other while he was in Iraq, but Sam did not even tell Cecilia of his full danger in the area.
One thing Sam's mother draws a comparison to between the situation in the Middle East and the Vietnam War is the way the soldiers were and are received. She said it is "ugly" to see an unwelcome coming home by protesters and other people who do not support what the U.S. is doing. Her husband, Alan, was a gunner's mate on a Navy vessel in Vietnam. She believes he, as well as Sam, should have received a hero's welcome like many did coming home during World War II.
For Sam's mother and many others, Sam is a hero. The love from his family is expressed, and he, in turn expresses his love for them.
"The support of my wife has been extraordinary," said Sam. "During that time and now. We have a great relationship I truly believe we are sole mates Š without her and her prayers I don't know if I would have made it back. While I was away she worked very hard to keep herself busy without having me around. And she was able to clear up my debt with the money I sent. She's just a real blessing of a wife."
Cecilia, who owned a skin care business in Santa Ana, Calif., where the couple lived before relocating to Sedona in June, worked up to four jobs while Sam was in Iraq. She tried to keep herself busy so she would not think about what Sam was going through.
"I got really connected with my family, my support group and church; and kept plenty of people around me so I wouldn't get lonely," she said.
Sam and Cecilia purchased a home in Sedona and plan to stay for a while. Sam is currently pursuing a communications education at Yavapai Community College, while Cecilia, for the first time in her life is enjoying "playing the domestic role." However, she does take photographs to supplement some of Sam's freelance writing. She is also interested in writing children's books and is hopeful that she will get a job at the skin care clinic Complexions in Sedona.
The couple is also interested in adopting a child.
As for Sam, he is taking his time merging into civilian life. A mortar went off right beside him while in Iraq and has caused some hearing loss in one of his ears. He said three-fourths of his "buddies got hit with something" in Iraq.
"Looking back, lots of things still haunt me. The battles between good and evil I have no regrets about what I did. But it's the gray areas."
He will never recover some of his hearing. He will never forget what he has seen. He currently is living with posttraumatic stress from his time in Iraq. Yet Sam believes it is his duty to serve and does not hesitate to say that he would go back.
"If I was called to go back, I would. I hated it over there, but I would go back. Our country has been so good to us."