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Letters sustained soldier far from home

Sweltering heat, sand flies, mosquitoes, fatigue and several close calls.

A year in Iraq taught Army Sgt. Isaac Day that he could endure much more than he ever thought possible.

What kept him going, he said, were two things: believing in his mission and support from home.

Day, 28, who grew up in Tarpon Springs, was a medic with the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit, Iraq. He returned to the United States in March. Though he now makes his home in Texas, he recently spent some time in Pinellas County.

As a teenager, Day was the first black student body president at Tarpon Springs High School. By the time he graduated in 1995, he had been active in community affairs and organized a teen summit. Teachers predicted he would do big things someday.

After graduation, Day joined the Army, where he has served for nine years.

After his experience in the Middle East, he said that no matter what people feel about the war, if they know someone over there, they should take time to correspond with them by regular mail or e-mail. Packages are also appreciated. Even little things like candy, wet wipes and canned goods mean a lot, he said.

Moreover, he said, individuals, churches and civic groups with no personal connections to soldiers in Iraq should find the names of military personnel there and get involved.

"It's important to let our soldiers know that "Pinellas County misses you,' " he said.

While in Iraq, Day received hundreds of supportive e-mails from Pinellas residents who kept him informed of local events and encouraged him with inspirational messages.

Even when things were very bad in Iraq, "nothing mattered" when a letter or package arrived from home, he said.

As a medic, Day was part of a team that was first on the scene for medical emergencies. Often fighting was still going on and bombs were exploding around him while he was trying to assess patients' injuries and get soldiers transported. Other than a temporary loss of hearing, Day says he miraculously was not hurt.

Other hazards revolved around the danger that comes with travel. Once on a convoy that he had to miss, the seat he would have been sitting in was "totally blown up," he said. Another mission involved taking a prisoner of war to a hospital 9 miles away through hostile territory. "There was gunfire all around," he said, "but nobody even got hurt."

Besides having several close calls, Day said he worried a lot about his wife, Kwanischa, 29, and his children, Zoe, 6, Isaac III, 3, and Jaidyn, 1. They live in Killeen, Texas, where he is stationed at Fort Hood.

"It sounds funny, but I worried about my family worrying about me," he said. "And I worried that I might never meet my youngest daughter, who was born while I was in Iraq."

Day is very optimistic about America's efforts in Iraq. He now sees more choices for Iraqis where at first he saw a vast difference in income level, from those who lived in opulent palaces to those who had barely enough to eat.

"Saddam (Hussein) is no longer in power," he said. "The dictatorship is over and the people are liberated. We've done a very good job. We got our man."

For his part in the war, Day received the Bronze Star in recognition of his leadership, technical knowledge and skills.

Day is proud of his accomplishments with the Army. He just finished two months of advanced noncommissioned officer academy training in San Antonio, Texas, and has been promoted to the rank of sergeant first class. Now in Cocoa Beach for additional training as an equal opportunity adviser, Day looks forward to continued training and promotions until his retirement 11 years from now.

When he first signed up for the Army, Day said people were somewhat disappointed with his decision to enlist.

At Tarpon Springs High School, he was active in student government, earned good grades, scored well on the SAT and had scholarship offers.

People expected he would "do better" and go straight to college. But he said he didn't want to burden his grandparents, Pauline and Willie Cason of Tarpon Springs. They had raised him and his three sisters after his mother died when he was 7.

Day didn't want his grandparents to have to take on any college expenses not covered by scholarships. He had watched them struggle to help his older sisters with those kinds of expenses. He felt they had enough financial strain.

He thinks it all worked out well. In addition to getting trained as an emergency medical technician, he is a certified orthopedic technician and has most of the credits needed for a degree in business and political science.

When he does retire, he plans to return to Tarpon Springs. He would like to write a book about his life. And he wants to get involved in politics.

In the meantime, he said he did the right thing by enlisting.

"It was a great experience," he said.