Dan Barkin

Tar Heel makes a friend in Mideast

Staff WriterFebruary 2, 2008 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Capt. Jeffrey Donaldson, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate from Fayetteville, who is serving in Iraq. I heard about him because his boss e-mailed us a Christmas Day photo of Donaldson and his team, which is posted at share.triangle.com/node/12939.

Well, there's another photo of Capt. Donaldson, which he posted to share.triangle.com/node/13333. I am running it on this page, too.

This makes him probably the longest-distance photo-poster on triangle.com; he and his unit are in a little town a few miles from the Kurdish border in northern Iraq, a place called Makhmur. It sits between Kirkuk and Mosul, if that helps.

In the photo, Donaldson is doing something I don't recommend you try at home, which involves feeding a camel.

I had a couple of e-mail exchanges with the captain. The picture with the camel was taken while his unit was still in Kuwait, before they crossed into Iraq.

"I have seen some nasty, mean-spirited, grumpy old camels," Donaldson wrote. "But this white feller was as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as a puppy!"

Donaldson's unit is helping to train Iraqi soldiers in very trying conditions. Beyond the daily grind of life in a combat zone, there's the Iraqi summer, when the mercury hits 120; he is sort of prepared for that.

"I remember my first summer back in North Carolina, before I started fifth grade." Donaldson wrote me. "It was an education in heat. That education was revisited in the fall of '97 when I reported to my un-air-conditioned Ehringhaus room on UNC's South Campus. I was similarly undeserving of air conditioning my sophomore year ... in the same room, one floor up."

Donaldson's story is a familiar Fayetteville one.

He was born at Fort Bragg, the son of a career soldier with the 82nd Airborne, and his father's job took the family to the Middle East. When his father retired, Donaldson went to Fayetteville Academy, where he graduated in 1997, and then to Chapel Hill, where he earned a degree in economics in 2001. He and his wife have two young daughters. His wife is finishing her undergraduate degree in social work while taking care of the home front.

This is his second combat tour, and he has been in Iraq about seven weeks. His first deployment was to Baghdad from November 2005 to October 2006. He hopes to be home by Thanksgiving, in time for one of his daughter's birthdays, or, at least, home for Christmas.

In addition to his Iraq tours, he was deployed for a year in South Korea.

Not surprisingly, Donaldson is an intense fan of the Tar Heels. Time permitting, he surfs the Web for the latest news about his teams. His hope is that this spring, he'll wake up very early one morning and watch the UNC men play for the national championship, and "then get back to work."

So Coach Williams, here's a thought.

If you're looking for a way to get your guys up for Duke, tell them a story about one of their biggest fans, Captain Jeff, living out there in the middle of the desert, who checks on the Web a couple, three times a week to see how the team did, because he loves his Tar Heels. And how he then straps on his helmet, grabs his weapon and puts Chapel Hill out of his mind, because it's back to work in one of the most challenging coaching assignments you can imagine, in a place you never heard of, between Kirkuk and Mosul. Tell them to win one for Captain Jeff.

dan.barkin@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4562

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