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Kevin Kosiak in front of a huge mosaic of Saddam Hussein, all made of tiny mosaic tiles.1 / 3
Perham educator and National Guardsman Kevin Kosiak, center, aboard a C-17 plane, taking him out of Iraq on his way home.2 / 3
With a mosque in the background at the base, Kosiak plays guitar for a church service, in Iraq.3 / 3

A Perham civilian music educator and a "weekend warrior" Army National Guard musician spent an unexpected year in one of the world's least harmonious places.

That is, until the "troop surge" began to have a positive impact.

Perham High School choir director Kevin Kosiak, who has played with the Fargo-based 188th Army Guard band for 12 years, missed the entire 2007-08 school year when he was called to duty in Iraq. An early arrival in the "troop surge" strategy, Kosiak witnessed improvement in daily life --at least in his area of Iraq.

"As the surge happened, week by week, month by month, things were getting more calm, more civil," said Kosiak.

"You had random acts of violence, just like you would have in Detroit or inner city Chicago or other urban areas, but it was less each week."

The trombone and guitar Kosiak played in the band were shelved for a desk job--screening nearly 1,000 civilian employees per day for jobs at the Victory Base Complex, about eight miles from Baghdad.

He was attached, in an administrative rather than musical capacity, to the 164th Engineer Battalion from Minot, North Dakota.

"I wasn't the guy in the field, kicking down doors, but I was a witness to incredible brutality and acts of violence by Islamic extremists. It was infrequent, but it did happen."

He served at the headquarters company for a larger task force comprising units from ND, MN, IA, and CA. There were 70,000 civilians and military people working on the base.

"I worked at an entry control point (ECP) to the base and my job was to screen civilian workers that wanted to work on the base," said Kosiak. "This included around 300 Iraqis per day and upwards of 500 workers from other nations. More than 40 nations had workers on the base. I fingerprinted, took photos, did Iris scans and pretty much did my best to make sure no bad people were being allowed to work on the base."

The surge was a huge operation, with more than 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

As far as Kosiak is concerned, the surge has been a success.

"When you hear the criticism, it sounds like we're going to hades in a handbasket--but it's not true," said Kosiak.

From a soldier's perspective, Kosiak said that outside of the extreme minority of radicals, the developing world still looks to the United States as an example to strive for. "We're still the great hope for the world," he added.

"They want our technology; they want our industry, our education system," said Kosiak, adding that this was not only the view of the Iraqis, but also the thousands of other international workers at the base.

"If they could all come to the U.S., they would," said Kosiak.

"Most of what I saw were people who were thrilled with getting work...people who wanted to rebuild their country."

America has a "fast food" mentality, said Kosiak, adding that we want to "win in three days."

Kosiak is baffled by the mentality, when he thinks back on the World War II generation, and the massive American commitment necessary to succeed during that global conflict.

"We want to press the 'easy button,' and that makes me angry," said Kosiak. "It is not easy to pull 160,000 troops from a combat zone...If we don't pull out in a sensible manner, we're putting lives at risk."

"I say the same thing Bush has said: The decision of when it is time to leave should be made by the military leaders on the ground, not by the politicians."

"I was especially proud of what I did last year, because it was hard work," said Kosiak. "We all do jobs and have careers in areas that we are comfortable with, and we have some gifts and skills. But at age 51, to be suddenly sent into a combat zone, it was tough. Rewarding...but it wasn't easy."

Was his service "worth it?"

That is one of the most common questions he gets when talking to people about his tour in Iraq.

"It is worth it. What we're trying to do is make our country safer by making the world safer. And it is getting better over there," he said.

"The time to come home should be up to the military leaders...not to politicians during an election year."