Steve Valley witnessed things most of us only have read about.
As a first sergeant with the Army National Guard, Valley spent the most intense year of Operation Iraqi Freedom on the front lines, where he led a unit of soldiers while coordinating media coverage of the war.
“Iraq was the biggest story in the world for all of 2004, and I was right in the middle of it,” Valley says. “The rise of (Muqtada al-Sadr), the battle of Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, the transfer of sovereignty from the coalition to Iraq. I was right in the middle of this. My job was to facilitate the media in Iraq while also trying to stay alive and keep my soldiers alive.”
The Country Creek resident has brought a first-hand account of his roughly yearlong stint in the Middle East to the public’s eye with his new book “Inside the Fortress: A Soldier’s Life in the Green Zone.” The book, published by American Book Publishing, was released Oct. 26 and now is available on www.amazon.com. Each page is filled with thoughts and stories from a personal journal Valley kept from the day his unit was notified of mobilization to the day he left the Middle East on Jan. 30, 2005.
“It’s a quick read, and it gives a pretty in-depth look at what happens when a mobilized soldier or a unit goes to war — the good, the bad, the ugly,” Valley says. “I’m not afraid to be critical of myself or anything the military was doing. This is life in Baghdad through my eyes.
“My intent wasn’t to be overly critical,” he says. “I wanted to show people what was going on in the green zone.”
The book is a major accomplishment for Valley, who has spent his career writing press releases to media outlets.
“Personally, it’s another benchmark in my life,” he says. “I had never wanted to write a book. Going from a one-page press release to a 284-page book — that’s not the normal progression for a writer, but I had the material.”
Valley, a native of Massachusetts, joined the Army National Guard in 1985 as a way to pay for his college education. And in 1990, about a year after marrying college sweetheart Lauren Trulson, Operation Desert Storm was brewing in the Middle East. Valley was eager to serve his country, but the conflict resolved and he was never mobilized.
“I was ready to go,” Valley remembers.
Valley transferred to the Florida Army National Guard in 2001 when he and his family moved to Bradenton and made the jump to the Army Reserve in 2002.
Twelve years after the Desert Storm conflict, his unit, the U.S. Army Reserve’s 287th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, was put on alert for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Valley knew it would only be a matter of time, and this time he would have to leave behind his wife and two sons. He began preparing binders of information for his family should he be mobilized.
And then, while at a weekly drill in Orlando, the news came.
“I still remember that phone call, as soon as we got the message,” Valley says. “It’s like you are in a complete haze. A million things are going through your head as you are trying to tell your family that you’re going, and it’s gong to be alright. There’s not enough time in the world to prepare for that.”
He left for training in Georgia in December 2003.
And from the time he arrived in Baghdad in early 2004, Valley was a soldier in the heart of a war. Valley and his unit braved a nonstop bullets and explosions while coordinating media efforts for coverage of wartime events.
He witnessed rebel uprisings and the rise of new political leaders such as al-Sadr, watched the battles of An Najaf and Fallujah, among others, and rubbed shoulders with dignitaries such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
“It was the most unbelievably, exciting, dangerous satisfying year that I’ve ever had professionally,” Valley says. “I was responsible for a whole unit of soldiers — young men and women — who looked to me to lead them through war.”
A day in Baghdad routinely consisted of waking up, showering, going to the office for an eight- to 16-hour workday, working out or watching a DVD before going to sleep.
Coverage of the war — at least for his first eight months there — focused on the battles themselves. But Valley worked hard to try to secure media coverage of more of the positive steps the military was taking, such as rebuilding infrastructure and taking care of other community needs.
“You can’t ignore the conflict and the battles, but that was one aspect of what we were doing,” Valley says. “Our job wasn’t to kill people first. Our job was to provide freedom to the Iraqis, implement a Western style democracy and rebuild the infrastructure of the nation.”
And despite the challenges he faced in Iraq, Valley has no regrets. In fact, he thinks it was one of the best decisions he ever made.
“If I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids to come back to, I probably would not have come back,” Valley says. “I loved being over there. I thought our cause was noble. The military has done so many wonderful things and never asked for anything in return. I was proud to do that, and I’ll be proud to do that until they kick me out.”
Valley now works at the U.S. Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].