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Duluth woman finds her calling years after combat

Diana Oestreich of Duluth stands near Lake Superior at the McQuade Safe Harbor near her home recently. Oestreich was a combat medic during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and now she works with Preemptive Love Coalition an organization the builds peace across enemy lines. Clint Austin / Forum News Service1 / 5
Diana Oestreich stands in the home of Ihsan, a colleague at Preemptive Love Coalition, in Iraq in November. "He was a teenager at 17 when I invaded his country at 23 years old," Oestreich said. "Fifteen years later, I’m being welcomed into someone I was told was my enemy, eating a meal with his family and holding his new baby Muhammad." Photo courtesy of Diana Oestreich2 / 5
Women and children stand in a Syrian refugee camp in northern Iraq. "This family is reclaiming their lives from violence by creating small businesses with the help of Preemptive Love Coalition," Diana Oestreich said. "I spent the day in their home getting to see the life change that has happened as they’ve been able to support themselves, provide for their children through these businesses and create a future for themselves. No matter how long the war in Syria happens." Photo courtesy of Diana Oestreich3 / 5
Diana Oestreich holds a baby named Muhammad in the village of Al-Awaidjia during the Iraq War. "I went door to door and offered medical care and friendship," Oestreich said. Photo courtesy of Diana Oestreich4 / 5
Diana Oestreich hugs an Iraqi woman in 2003 during her deployment near An Nasiriyah, in the southern province of Iraq. "The tent camp my battalion the 724th Engineer group from Superior WI built was called Tallil and was located next to the City of Ur where Abraham was born," Oestreich said. "I volunteered to do a medical clinic in a nearby village with a Civil Affairs army unit. They gave away medical care to build trust with the Iraqis." Photo courtesy of Diana Oestreich5 / 5

DULUTH — There was a time Diana Oestreich could have never imagined going back to Iraq.

But standing by her kitchen island outside Duluth last week, Oestreich was a month removed from visiting Iraq for the first time since she soldiered there in 2003-04.

This time, she’d gone as a peacemaker to visit tent villages in northern Iraq, where Syrian refugees were gaining self-sufficiency by starting micro-businesses in pursuits such as soap-making and crocheting.

A married mother of two young sons, Oestreich, 38, works full time as a stateside representative for the Preemptive Love Coalition based in Iraq.

The small but growing band of peacemakers serves refugees and those displaced from their homes by war. Within camps and bombed out villages, they do things such as teach people to grow mushrooms in places where gardens have been decimated, create fun and safe places for children to relearn how to play, and introduce sheep and other farm animals into families, because nothing facilitates healing like bringing an animal into the fold, Oestreich said.

Inside refugee camps, she’s seen conflicting tribes of people learn to live together.

“They’re just tired of being bombed, having bullets flying at them and being hungry,” she said.

Her transformation from combat soldier to peacemaker now complete, Oestreich is using her story to gain stateside support for Preemptive Love Coalition, while at the same time sharing insights through blogging and public speaking she hopes will allow people everywhere to let down the walls built up between them.

“Diana is a natural storyteller, open and honest about the messiness of the human experience,” said Whitney Kimball Coe, a director for the Tennessee and Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies, who met Oestreich at a California retreat earlier this year. “Her decision to walk away from the violence of war into militant love was radical.”

But it hasn’t been easy. For more than 10 years, Oestreich wrestled with the aftermath of combat and lived with a secret she didn’t dare tell anyone — fearing retribution from a family full of soldiers, and others whose patriotism might cause them to judge her unkindly.

Oestreich has no problem sharing her secret now: At a point during her service in Iraq, she removed the ammunition and kept her service weapon unloaded at her side. She fought in Iraq with no bullets.

“I didn’t kill anyone,” she said. “I was going to, but God told me not to.”

‘Changed my life forever’

Oestreich grew up northwest of Duluth in Grand Rapids, where she became third-generation military as a way to put herself through school. Military service runs so prevalent in her family that when she was leaving Iraq after more than a year in country, she met up with three cousins who had arrived to begin their tours.

“That should tell you a little bit about how serious we are in my family about the military,” she said.

A member of the 724th Engineer Battalion of the Wisconsin National Guard based in Superior, Oestreich was 23 years old and studying to become a nurse when she learned of her activation just weeks before her commitment was set to be fulfilled.

She was under no illusions about what her military training had prepared her for. Her first two weeks of basic training at Fort McCoy in Tomah, Wis., were dedicated to marksmanship training. Those who couldn’t hit their targets were sent packing. She was a killer first and everything else secondary, she said.

She’d also been braced to expect the use of chemical weapons against the Americans.

“They had weapons of mass destruction they were going to use on us,” she said. “I knew enough to know how horrible and futile that was.”

The U.S. invaded Iraq post-9/11 based on intelligence that President Saddam Hussein was manufacturing chemical weapons. It would turn out to be false, but Hussein was captured and the U.S. declared victory.

Oestreich was stationed in southern Iraq, 10 miles from Nasiriyah, where Jessica Lynch had become the conflict’s first American prisoner of war.

A combat medic, Oestreich was charged with treating anybody — friend, foe and civilian — thanks to international rules of war. Along the way, things changed for her. The faces of her encounters were all precious to her. In her public talks, she has spoken about sitting with an Iraqi man on Christmas Eve in 2003 as he was dying in her arms.

One day, she’d taken a fellow soldier who’d attempted suicide into a medical facility. While she waited, she fell into a deep conversation with another soldier, a trucker. He could never take a life, he told her, because he would never want to take away someone else’s chance to know God.

“I didn’t even know his name,” Oestreich said. “But he changed my life and my children’s lives forever.”

The man’s words allowed her own thoughts about the fighting she was a part of to coalesce. From that point on, she removed the ammunition from her service weapon, intent on never using it. She would sacrifice her own life, she reasoned, and risk military prison if she were found out, but she would not fire on another person.

“It’s crazy,” she told a crowd of 200 last May at the National Rural Assembly in Durham, N.C., where she’d been invited to speak by Kimball Coe. “But I had found a new freedom — sacrifice instead of bullets. I would see the person in front of me as fully human instead of my enemy.”

‘An inch at a time’

The refugee experience is one that’s consumed news cycles throughout 2018 and the Donald Trump presidency, in general. Last week, the president announced his plan to withdraw American troops from Syria, where civil war and heinous leadership has led to genocidal atrocities, the displacement of tens of millions of people from their homes, and more than 5 million Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

Oestreich found Preemptive Love Coalition three years ago while researching on the internet. Its aim to “unmake the violence of war,” spoke to her at a time she was ready to speak her own truth.

“Diana is the real deal,” said Nyasha Spears, who has known Oestreich for almost 20 years, housing her after the war and meeting her weekly over the last three years to develop and share ideas on the work of peacemaking. “She has dedicated her life to standing up for refugees, the downtrodden and the marginalized.”

Since she began speaking out, Oestreich says things with family haven’t been as bad as she once anticipated.

“I feel the tension,” she said.

But she also holds the ultimate card: she was a combat troop. She rode into danger. She took fire in Humvees.

“I’m not some hippie-dippie,” she said.

Instead, she looked into the face of war and was moved by the faces looking back. And now, she’s at peace with her truths and her work.

“We can unmake violence,” Oestreich said. “I believe that. I’m also not about people believing what I believe. But I am about moving people along — even if it’s one inch at a time.”

Online

To learn more about Preemptive Love Coalition, go to preemptivelove.org.