A rmy veteran Raymond Basacker discovered his affinity for taking care of birds during his second tour of Iraq in 2008.

Basacker was a staff sergeant in a field artillery unit that was going through a house recently cleared of insurgents on the outskirts of Baghdad when he saw a cage that contained two neglected-looking golden macaws.

“They were all skin and bone,” he said. “They wanted to shoot them, but I said, ‘No, I’ll take care of them.’ I don’t like people being cruel to animals.”

Basacker put the two birds in a box and took them back to the forward operating base he was stationed at south of the Iraqi capital city, where he fed them vegetables and bread to nurse them back to health.

He chose to work the evening shift at the base because that gave him two to three hours a day to spend with the macaws.

“I got to sit with them and they would get on my shoulders,” Basacker said.

The birds were healthy again after about four months, and Basacker donated them to the zoo in Baghdad that was looking for animals. He never gave them names because he didn’t want to become attached.

When Basacker was medically discharged in 2015 after a 26-year Army career, he said it felt like his whole world had come to an abrupt and unexpected end.

“It’s something you don’t plan for,” he said.

However, Basacker now finds comfort in the seven birds he’s acquired since his military career ended.

He’s currently studying culinary arts at Columbia College, but his dream is to one day open a nonprofit bird rescue.

“They’re more like therapy for me,” he said of caring for birds. “They cuddle on my neck, and I like the sound when they’re all chirping together.”

The birds also help Basacker cope with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and lingering effects from a traumatic brain injury that he suffered in 2005 while serving in Iraq.

Basacker enlisted in the Army National Guard right after graduating from Sonora High School in 1989 because he wanted a challenge.

“It was something I didn’t think I could do,” he said. “I did it to prove a point to myself.”

Basacker spent the first 10 years of his military career stateside in the National Guard, mostly assisting with emergencies like floods and fires.

He switched over to active duty in 1999, two years before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“When I transferred to active duty, I never thought I would go to war,” Basacker said. “That was never in my mind.”

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, happened while Basacker was at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Basacker recalled having to work three or four days straight without any sleep to help secure the base.

Basacker then spent two years at Camp Casey in South Korea, where he was constantly running drills intended to prepare for a conflict with North Korea.

Sirens at the base would go off randomly at all hours of the day and night, Basacker said, and he would have to immediately get all of his gear and equipment ready as if going into battle.

In late 2003, Basacker was sent to Iraq as part of the second rotation of soldiers to serve in the war that began in March of that year.

“I was excited to support the country,” Basacker said of his feelings about going to war for the first time. “I wasn’t really scared or anything.”

Basacker spent much of his first 18-month tour in Iraq running checkpoints and helping to train the new Iraqi National Guard.

The five-man squad that Basacker led got into several firefights after car bombs went off at their checkpoint.

“I never lost any soldiers, thank God, but the Iraqis took casualties,” he said.

Late in Basacker’s first tour, he suffered the head injury that would forever change his life.

Basacker said he was in the passenger seat of a Palletized Load System, a large truck-based vehicle used to transport supplies, when it was hit by a small improvised explosive device.

The driver, startled by the IED, slammed on the brakes and sent Basacker head first into the windshield of the vehicle.

“If I hadn’t had my helmet on it probably would’ve killed me,” Basacker said of the impact that busted out the windshield.

The IED was small and only caused minor damage to the vehicle, so they were able to carry on with their mission.

Basacker said he didn’t know just how bad his head injury was until he started to get migraines five years later.

To this day, Basacker suffers from headaches and also seizures from time to time as a result of the injury but receives medical care through the VA that reduces the frequency of the episodes.

Even after sacrificing so much, Basacker said he would return to the Army if he could. Though much has been said about the Iraq War since it formally ended in 2011, he keeps his views on the conflict to himself.

Basacker said the Iraqi people were divided in how they viewed the U.S. during his two tours in the country. He compared the division to the current state of American politics.

“Some Iraqi people were nice and some didn’t want us there. Some said they had it better when Saddam (Hussein) was in power, some were happy he was gone,” Basacker said. “It’s kind of like us and our politics. Some say it would better if this person was president, while some say it would be better if that person was president.”

Since returning home, Basacker has created a new world for himself with the help of his feathered companions.

Basacker attends college on the post-9/11 G.I. Bill and works in the school’s office helping out other veterans with getting the resources they’ve earned.

He sometimes brings his favorite bird, Ozzy, an African grey parrot, to school with him in a special backpack that has a perch and dispensers for water and food.

“Everybody’s taking their little dogs to school, so I’m going to take my bird to school,” Basacker said. “He loves it.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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