A Dispatch from Iraq

By John Gagnon | Published

Lt. Col. Otha Thornton  serving in Iraq
Lt. Col. Otha Thornton serving in Iraq

Lt. Col. Otha Thornton is stationed in Iraq at Camp Victory in north Baghdad.

The Michigan Tech alumnus and former leader of the Army ROTC program, who also was our Commencement speaker in May of 2009, is helping facilitate the drawdown of troops, but his biggest and most challenging job is what he calls "casualty operations," which involves taking care of the wounded and the deceased.

We spoke with him briefly on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010.

"This is probably one of the toughest jobs I've had," he says. "We track the fallen from the time they go down until they get back to the US. To perform these duties--from the front of the spear--truly reinforces the gravity of our business."

How is he treated by locals?

"Very well. I deal with both civilians and military. They're appreciative of what we're doing."

The war is divisive on the home front. What's the mood among the soldiers?

"The morale is pretty good. They're highly disciplined. They understand why they're here and what they're doing. In the military, you pray for peace but prepare for war."

Are you in harm's way?


Are you scared?

"No. I believe when it's a person’s time to go, it's time to go. I wake up and take care of my profession for the day. Then the next day I get up and do it all over again."

Is the American public well-informed or misinformed about the war?

"Generally pretty well informed. They realize that Iraq can be a regional model of democracy."

Where is your family?

"My wife and son are in Maryland. I talk to them at least once a week. The technology to do that from the battlefield is wonderful."

Do you miss Houghton?

"Oh, yeah. I'm coming home in April, and I'll be up to visit in the spring or fall. I'm counting the days."

Over 20 years in the military, Thornton has served in 22 countries but never traveled far from his values. "I am extremely proud to be an American," he says.

He was stationed at Michigan Tech from 1999 to 2002, serving as a recruiter, public affairs officer and assistant professor of military science. While here, he earned a master's degree in rhetoric and technical communication. He received the Outstanding Alumni Award in 2003.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.