Saturday, August 29, 2009

Something To Chew On

If you were at home one evening in the states, and a man came to your door and told you had twenty-four hours to leave or he would kill you and all your family, he probably wouldn’t live long enough to reach the end of your sidewalk. Such threats are generally poorly received in America. For the sake of this scenario, however, let us presume that he escapes with his life.

Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, you may call the police. Many, particularly in the southern states, will not bother, instead preferring to sandbag all their windows, call friends and relatives with guns, and then assemble to make a final stand in the house. It is, after all, your house, your land, and nobody is going to remove you from it, forcibly or otherwise. Generally speaking, we as a nation and as individuals are willing to fight for things. It’s how we "earned" our country.

Now let us propose the same scenario takes place in an Iraqi household. From innumerable conversations, personal observations, and speaking with leadership in both Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces, this is the outcome: they simply leave. And this is not a generalization. Ask nearly any Iraqi, and he or she will quickly agree.

Some will immediately argue that the Iraqis are fearful police will punish them for firing weapons, but this is a remarkably flaccid rebuttal. Police forces in the past have been either slow or absolutely apathetic about responding to gunfire in their areas of responsibility. In the past, the night sky was often lit with tracers. Not from sustained firefights between US or Iraqi Security Forces and insurgents, but neighbors shooting at each other. It was, at least at time, incredibly common. Ask any US veteran of Iraq who has done his or her fair share of night patrols. The police are hard to find.

Others will say that there is a lack of ASSISTANCE of the local constabulary, but in reality the Iraqis don’t need their help. Since nearly the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraqis have been permitted one rifle (and this can include an AK-47 automatic rifle) per military-aged male. I, and thousands of other US military personnel, have searched homes, inspected their weapons, complimented them on how well they’ve cleaned and cared for them, and promptly handed them back to their rightful owners. Every population deserves the right to defend itself against tyranny, whether governmental or not. It is also fairly safe to assume that for every one weapon I was voluntarily shown, at least two or three remained will concealed. In reality, this population is armed to the teeth. Rightfully, we have allowed it.

A few will contend that the "threatened parties" lack sufficient numbers to successfully repulse an attack, but this is inaccurate. Iraq is a tribal country, where most hamlets and sections of villages are populated by one tribe. They are all related, and all family. They are frequently led by sheiks from their own tribe, too. Family and tribal ties have always been important in this culture. Given this, an Iraqi should never be without an ally. Armed family members, under their own cultural philosophy, should flock to the aid of their kin.

Having thus explained away the most common reasons why an Iraqi would be unable to defend himself and his land, we are left wondering one thing: why? Here I venture away from rhetorical argument and present a few ideas of my own. Well, actually only one idea: Fear.

Three days ago, I stood, unarmed, without body armor, out in the open, speaking with a Christian Iraqi in an exclusively Christian village near Kurdistan. The area was incredibly peaceful, though such things are always tenuous in Iraq. The man, in English, was explaining to me how fearful he was.

While the neighborhood was safe, a Muslim Iraqi police officer had been recently stationed in their town, and this Iraqi man told me repeatedly that, "he is making trouble for all of us." Just what exactly that meant he never articulated, but he spoke with fear. Naturally, I inquired why somebody had not gone to this police officer’s superior and filed a complaint.

"The major helps him, or maybe he is afraid of him."

Did he have neighbors that felt the same as he? Yes, he told me, but they were all afraid to speak up, and so was he. They, individually, collectively, and as an entire community, are terrified for their lives. He told me this. He fears he will be killed if he speaks with any Iraqi police superiors about this matter. I cannot confirm if these fears are legitimate.

What I find absolutely baffling is that an entire community can be paralyzed by the presence of but two opponents or threats, but it is commonplace in Iraq. Nobody comes forward in a community of thousands and identifies the one person "making trouble" in their community, because they fear death. When they are threatened and told to leave (as is a common tactic of Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups in Iraq), they simply pack their belongings and depart. Some don’t even pack at all. Many interpreters, as a matter of fact, have simply fled, leaving behind everything: cars, money, possessions, etc. They are trapped in a pattern of survival, not self-defense.

At one time, I thought this was strictly an affliction of Iraq proper, where sectarian violence has run rampant for some time, and everybody seems to have a good reason (in their minds, at least), to hate or fear everybody else. I am discouraged to see this same impotent behavior in Kurdish territories, since I have been hopeful that Kurdistan is today is what Iraq as a whole may be in fifteen years time. This optimism, however, may be misplaced. Apparently, people in Kurdistan are still governed by fear, not a strong desire for self-determination.

And this matter as a whole is perhaps the biggest hurdle Iraqis face: not an inability, but a DISINTEREST in standing up for themselves. I have spoken with hundreds, if not thousands of US personnel stationed in Iraq, and many have stated this problem in their own ways A refusal to take ownership of their own lives. A lack of national pride. A lack of personal pride. A lack of tenacity to stand up for something worth preserving. Apathy. Lack of dignity, and so forth. I can’t say I disagree, either. Iraqis would rather subscribe to fear, ignoring the obvious fact that they possess the ability to band together and transform their country into something hegemonic, safe, and free. They are content to look to the US for help.

Yet while the US and other countries continue to pour billions into this country in the hopes of creating sustainable enterprise, wealth, and longevity, the one thing Iraqis need is the one thing we cannot buy them: heart – an ambiguous character trait that nobody can offer them, but they must find within themselves. Yes, there are legitimate reasons to be fearful, but refusing to confront those who they fear permits the cycle to continue.

I bring this up not to crush whatever hopes Americans may have about a free Iraq, but to illustrate the sharp contrast between our country and the country of Iraq. Where we will quickly fight, they will quickly run – and live. Where we find certain freedoms and rights so inherent to our lives that we are willing to jeopardize personal safety to secure or maintain them, Iraqis are often more concerned with self-preservation. Nor is this a trait limited to strictly one ethnicity or religious group. All feel this way here, including Kurds, Turkomen, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Yazidis, and other ethnic minority groups. It is truly a national, if not international affliction. Most find very little about their lives worth fighting to preserve, and thus they flee the smallest of threats.

Still, I do not believe that all hope is lost, because one of the finest aspects of joint missions, bases, and operations is that the Iraqis are seeing first-hand how Americans will ferociously battle to preserve something that they deem important. In short, US forces are demonstrating character traits which have begun to rub off onto their Iraqi counterparts. But such things take time, which unfortunately is the one thing the Iraqis do not have.

The US continues its "responsible drawdown" throughout Iraq in the hopes that the indigenous forces and local populations have received ample training in self-governance and self-determination to continue unaided in the future. But I would argue that more time is needed to revolutionize a culture. Not eradicate it, "westernize" it, or purify it, but encourage it to become better. These things will take time. Until they are fearless before the small numbers of insurgents in this country, they will remain prisoners of them. The one thing we need them to have, alas, is the one thing we cannot purchase for them: heart. We can only hope they summon the courage on their own. Very shortly, we won’t be here to help.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved 

A Proud Soldier (by Ben Shaw)

Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission.

When I got back from my first tour, I was sort of surprised at how many people came up and shook my hand and thanked me for my service. I guess it shouldn’t have been a big shock, since I wore my dress uniform fairly often. I was proud to be a veteran. Not exactly proud of what I had done individually, but proud of us. Proud that we went through something challenging, potentially deadly, and we performed unflinchingly. In retrospect, though, I’m sort of humbled to be called a vet. Many more did far more. I just did a little. But I don’t think the term “veteran” is quantifiable. There’s no magic number of battles you have to participate in; one is enough. What makes you a vet is your willingness to serve – not how much you served.

Sometimes I chuckle to myself when people thank me, because when it comes down to it, I didn’t do it for them. None of us did. That’s just not how it works. The thoughts of noble service to country and whatnot begin when we consider joining, peak when we’re sitting in a recruiter’s office signing the papers, and then pretty much fizzle out after we take the oath. No, we don’t renege on what we’re doing, but other thoughts occupy us, like, “my God, what am I doing?” That horror lasts through boot camp, and then it’s replaced by other convictions.

You see, none of us sits around waiting to head in thinking about country, patriotism and all that. Those are the beliefs that encouraged us to join, not ideas that sustain us through a deployment. We’re thinking about how we don’t know a whole lot about the future, but we’re confident it’s going to be tough. We’re thinking about the mission: kill the enemy, and bring each other home alive. That’s what occupies us.

Whenever there‘s a lull in a firefight, the first thing everybody does is holler out to the closest man and make sure he’s okay. When I was a driver, I’d yell up at my gunner and see if he was alright. When I was on the ground, I’d run back to the truck to make sure he was okay. Nobody’s thinking about how what we’re doing is benefiting America; we’re thinking about each other. It might sound somewhat strange, going into a fight to keep each other alive, but that’s what we do. We’re there to make sure we all come home, and make sure the enemy doesn’t.

I guess that after a time we don’t even think about the war itself. It’s not ours to manipulate or control. But we do think about our small part in it. One mission at a time, one firefight at a time. We concentrate on making sure each other is safe, that we have one another’s backs, and that we do our very best regardless of our circumstances. The rest is God’s business. So when people thank me for my service, I think to myself, “I wasn’t for you, man, it was for my brothers; my dysfunctional little family.”

We always had a few guys in our unit who I didn’t really like. In fact, I detested a couple of them. I never wished them any harm, though. During combat, it didn’t matter at all. We all wore the same uniform and fought the same enemy. But during my first tour, these guys were the ones that didn’t make it home, or at least didn’t make it home in one piece. I know it’s not my fault, but I still felt badly. After that, I checked my emotions. I focused on what was more important: making sure they were okay.

People used ask me my opinion of the war a lot. Well, actually, more often than not they’d tell me their opinions. But either way, I’d try to give them a lengthy explanation about how one aspect is going well while another area needs work. Or I’d talk about how I think it’s important that we be here or how Iraq is more stable, or even how a US presence in the Middle East was perhaps inevitable. Now, though, I don’t do that. There’s no real way I can know all that. My part in everything was small. We rode around a lot, got blown up a lot, and did our best to complete the mission. I didn’t observe the war as a whole, so I can’t speak about it with any sort of intelligence. My take is myopic. I really don’t think asking a veteran his or her opinion of the war is even a particularly good idea, anyway. We don’t have an opinion on it; we’re just sent to fight it. Any opinion we do have is rooted in ignorance.

If people ask me about the war now, I have a different answer than I used to. I don’t go into the long diatribe about my opinions on US foreign policy. The truth is I don’t know much about it. Instead, I speak from my own experiences. I tell them that there are a few things I know. I’ve seen the enemy, and I know he’s real. I’ve seen what he does to us and civilians alike if given the opportunity. And, I know that he needs to be stopped. That doesn’t come through trying to make a friend of him, because he will murder you. It comes from killing him. I know it doesn’t really answer their question, and it sounds awful, but it makes an important statement: wars exist because evil people exist, and they need to be stopped before they carry out that evil on others. So, if the war is intended to stop those evil people, I guess it’s a good thing. Aside from that, I hold no opinion. My part was small.

But when you get out there, your mind is remarkably clear. You’re not even really worried. You might be edgy, but that’s because you’re expecting something to go wrong. You know what you have to do, how to do it, and you just pray you don’t lose any friends in the process. Backing down isn’t ever an option; you just get it done. It’s not fear of consequences if we don’t, or mindless obedience to orders, but because we know it has to be done, and we’re the ones that volunteered to do it. I think that’s what I’m most proud of, too. Not what we accomplished or how big the operation was, and certainly not how many of the enemy we killed. That’s something we only do because it’s necessary, not because it’s fun. No, I’m proud that we know what we’re doing is dangerous, that we may not all come home, that we may never see our families again, and the only thing we’re worried about is the man next to us. I think that’s what makes us good. It’s not about us; it’s about somebody else.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, August 27, 2009


*Retold with permission.

When the raid went wrong that time, a man died in my arms and I lost a friend. Now, months later, I’m stuck thinking about it still, and knowing it was completely preventable. It was the consequence of bad leadership.

This particular frag-o [emergency mission receiving only a “fragmentary operations order”] was to bring in a high value target (HVT) who intelligence reports had just learned was hiding in a house in Mosul. We had to act swiftly, since once we received intel, it was usually on a short time until THEY somehow found out, too. Without much preparation, we threw together a joint mission of US and Iraqi Police personnel and headed to the raid site.

Since US forces are shifting from the forefront of operations to instead assisting and enabling Iraqi forces, we would provide the secure cordon [perimeter] for the raid while Iraqi Police actually entered the building and apprehended or eliminated the target. This man would, after all, go directly into Iraqi custody – not ours.

We went out there with a sizeable force – more than enough to completely surround this man’s home with heavy firepower – and the Iraqi Police came similarly prepared with a number of officers to conduct the raid itself. As we raced to get into position around his house, I got on the loudspeaker and made my announcement.

I told the guy that it was over, that he was completely surrounded, and that the best solution for him was to surrender and come out of the house with his hands up. If he did not, we would come in and get him, and he would probably die. It was over for him. There was no way to escape.

He responded that he was going to send out the women and children first, for their safety, and he would come out after them. When we agreed to this, the door opened and about seven women of various ages filed out, along with one boy. After we moved them out of harm’s way, I found the man’s wife and asked her if he was armed. She said yes, he was wearing a suicide vest, carrying several grenades, an RPG [rocket propelled grenade launcher], and a pistol. Great. It looked like he wasn’t going to give up at all.

As if on cue, the guy started shooting at us from the house, so while the Iraqi Police took cover, we fired on the house with the 25s from the Bradleys [25mm main gun – which fires high explosive rounds]. Each Bradley put a short volley into the house before stopping. After a few moments of silence, the guy starts shooting at us again. Once more, the Bradleys fire into the house, and once more, he starts shooting back.

After the third time, the guy didn’t fire back. Presumed he’d been killed or wounded, the Iraqi Police got ready to kick in the door and grab him. But, my captain intervened. He wanted US to move in, not the police, even though that was neither the plan nor Coalition Force policy. No, he felt that it would be better if we did it, not the Iraqis. Though they protested, they eventually agreed to stand by while we pushed in onto the target.

The captain had ordered my sergeant to take the lead, and I was close behind. We would enter and clear the building room by room. Kicking in the door, he rushed in. He wasn’t three feet inside the door when I heard gunfire and watched him fall. Behind him, everybody took cover, including the captain.

As I reached into the doorway and grabbed his ankles to drag out my sergeant, the man inside starting shoot at me, too, but we somehow managed to pull him back outside. When we looked him over, I could see the bullet went straight into the center of his forehead. I sat on the ground and cradled his head in my arms. He was still alive – barely.

“Gillum,” he muttered weakly, and then he died. I knew what he meant: “kill him.”

And we did kill him. Backing away from the house, we radioed for helicopters to demolish it completely. Sifting through the ruins later, we discovered that the guy’s wife had lied to us. There was no RPG, suicide vest or grenades. There was only a pistol; the weapon he’d used to kill my sergeant.

If the captain had let the Iraqi Police do their job like they had wanted to and he was supposed to do, my sergeant would still be alive. I still don’t know why he made this call, but I personally think he wanted to be part of the action. But, he made is sergeant go in first – who paid for his commander’s ambition with his own life.

The Soldiers all knew what happened, and so did the Iraqi Police. And they knew it was the result of our captain’s mistake. He’d taken their job from them, needlessly endangered his men, and his decision resulted in one’s death. His mistake was obvious to all of us – even to me as an Iraqi interpreter.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Some Other Time

*Retold with permission.

When I flew home for R&R [mid-deployment “Rest & Relaxation”], I had a layover in a stateside airport for a few hours, so I settled down inside the terminal, put in some headphones, and tried to unwind a bit. I was eager to get home and get my mind off of Iraq for a couple weeks.

No sooner had I found a good spot and kicked up my feet when a guy and girl approach and start asking me questions – obvious questions.

“Are you in the military?” I was wearing my uniform, so yes, obviously. I politely respond that I am.

What followed next was a barrage of questions about what was “war life” like. What’s it like to be in Iraq? What’s it like to be hit by an IED? What’s it like to arrest or shoot somebody? Have you ever been shot at? And then, without waiting for an answer, they launch into a tag team of, “…because this is what I heard in the news...” In other words, they didn’t want to hear my opinion, they wanted to tell me theirs – based on a new reports which, in my opinion, very poorly depict the conflict over here. Nobody ever has a “boots on the ground” perspective, and few seem to be interested in hearing it either.

I always try to politely answer these questions, since I know many of them are asked out of genuine curiosity, but the reality is that I don’t want to talk about it. R&R, after all, is my time to get AWAY from Iraq and relax – not dwell on where I was and what I think of it.

To worsen matters, these two weren’t the only ones who approached me. It happened repeatedly while I was in the airport, and other airports, too. The audience was often college-aged people, but by no means limited to them only. As for me, all I wanted to do was not think about it, but people kept bringing me back to it, and sharing their uninformed opinions on it.

Here’s a thought: if a guy in the states loses his dog, people will carefully avoid the subject out of respect. Same if somebody loses a relative. They’re considerate of it. Why, then cannot people do the same thing for us?

The most frustrating are the college kids that have taken one course in political science or military history and now consider themselves experts. They are extremely arrogant, often condescending, and attempt to talk down on me or AT me, giving the impression that they know what I’m seeing out there, and are fully versed in international diplomacy and current events. Few, if any, talk WITH me.

The reality is this: few of these people really want to hear what I have to say about it. They’re far more concerned with telling me what THEY think of it – under the very weak guise of approaching to ask my thoughts on the subject. Usually, their opinions are very negative, too, and the product of being fed (or deliberately pursuing) misinformation.

Only once did I hear something positive and polite; when an older man wearing a USMC had with some medals came up, shook my hand, and said, “I know you’re on vacation, but I wanted to say thank you.” And then he kept walking. He knew I didn’t want to talk about it, but wanted to express solidarity all the same – without trying to initiate an unwanted conversation. War, he knew, had unpleasant factors, and neither of us really wished to talk about them.

Out of respect to these people, and out of respect to the military and my uniform, I always answer as patiently and politely as I can. Usually, though, there’s a point when it’s easier to just tell them I don’t want to talk about it, as dismissive as it sounds. I’m really on the verge of blowing up, but I refrain. But, every now and then I just get weary of listening to them and make up a horror story (completely fake), to convey that I don’t want to talk about it. It’s only when they’re disturbed that they get the message. I really don’t want to talk about it. I often find myself just trying to run away from them. And run to get out of uniform to hide from the public as a whole.

When I tell them that I’m actually on “stop-loss,” they immediately want to talk about the movie “Stop Loss,” which is a terrible representation of the military and an enormous deviation from fact. No, we’re not all nuts. No, the feds do not send black helicopters after guys who go AWOL. And no, we are not all trying to sleep with our best friend’s girlfriend. In fact, not all of us are unhappy to be here. It’s part of the contract, so if we don’t know about it, it’s our own fault for not reading the details of the paperwork. I volunteered to serve, and this is what they’re asking of me. So, I’ll do it, and I’ll do my best at it. Eventually I’ll get out and move on to other things. There’s nothing to be gained in complaining about it.

I’m often torn when people approach me. Part of me really has no interest in talking about what’s going on, because it’s not the sort of thing you simply discuss with strangers, or even friends and family. Part of me wishes they’d stop talking to me. Another part of me wants to correct all their misassumptions about Iraq and combat. But ALL of me wants some peace and quiet. We wouldn’t have R&R in the Army unless we needed to unwind and get some rest. When I’m trying to get home, that’s what I want to think about – not continue dwelling on my time in Iraq. R&R means “rest and relaxation,” not “go home and listen to the public tell me what they think about Iraq.” When I want to talk about it, I will. Some other time.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Choose Your Own Adventure

*Retold with permission.

When the Army released their latest suicide prevention program several months ago, I and other chaplains throughout the Army were sent out to ensure that all personnel received exposure to the new material. Frankly, it’s the best program I’ve ever seen, and it really helps Soldiers (myself included) identify potential concerns and address them before they develop into something more dire. It also gave me an unexpected glimpse into the different mindsets between various MOSs [military occupational specialties] in the military. They view things through very different lenses.

This particular suicide prevention program is unique in that it’s essentially a “choose your own adventure.” Soldiers watch a video introducing characters and situations, and as the plot progresses, they are asked at what point they would consider the Soldier’s behavior concerning, and how they would respond to it (if at all). Depending on their choices, they are shown one scenario or another. Ideally, Soldiers quickly identify the characters in need of counseling, and make an informed, careful choice to best help them. The intent is to prevent conditions that could encourage a Soldier to consider suicide, and quickly intervene when a problem is spotted. For the most part, they do quite well.

From my observation, support units are very savvy in promptly identifying problems and working to rectify them. When we went through the videos, in fact, that wanted to intervene before the program even offered it as an option. They were sharp, and after running through the whole course with them, I was confident that a troubled or unduly stressed Soldier would not escape rapid discovery in their units. It was relieving.

Artillery units also performed similarly well, though admittedly they weren’t as insistent on early intervention as were the support units. Still, however, I left confident that they would quickly handle any situations within their ranks. Like the support Soldiers, they had an eye to recognize a potential danger.

But then there were the infantry guys. Only one platoon was bluntly honest with me, while the rest told me “what I wanted to hear,” no doubt to get the presentation over with as soon as possible. But the honest platoon’s responses were surprising, and not something I’m entirely certain I understand just yet.

As they watched the videos and were presented with options for the next step, they told me what they believed OUGHT to happen, but then also told me would happen in reality. The two were radically different, too. I remember even giving them a chance to change their minds. “Are you SURE this is what would realistically happen in this situation?” Yes, they said, so we proceeded with the less-than-preferred option. They usually chose to ignore the problem.

To make a long story short, the end result was that their character did not receive any of the treatment he needed, and wound up brain dead and wheelchair bound from a failed suicide attempt. They universally agreed that this would be the most likely outcome. The guy wasn’t going to get help from his peers or leaders.

I’ve put a great deal of thought into why this is, and also why their responses varied so drastically from those of the support and artillery Soldiers. The conclusions I’ve reached are only tentative, at best.

Unlike the rest of the Army, infantry troops are relatively unforgiving of their peers, their subordinates, and themselves. It is well-known, and often stated, that their job is to kill people and break things. In their own minds, this requires a high level of fortitude, toughness, and immunity to stress and personal problems. Those who whine too much are told simply to “suck it up.” After all, it was they who selected infantry. Nobody strong-armed them into doing it.

While better judgment may suggest that a Soldier needs to get some help, he is often told to deal with it. To admit overwhelming stress is to admit weakness – a trait that has no place in the ranks of infantry. It is, above all over areas of the Army, a machismo culture. They aren’t susceptible to emotion; it’s simply not part of their job description. They may know how to best help a Soldier, but they are more likely to tell him to grow up, stop complaining, stop acting weak, and do his job. Tough guys aren’t supposed to shatter.

The next question is how I can best reach these men, or how anybody can reach them, for that matter. Considering their decreased likelihood to identify troubled Soldiers, they deserve more attention. Especially since they, perhaps above all over MOSs, face exposure to greater stress, tragedy, and carnage. Thankfully, I have a few ideas.

The company commander here has joked about what he refers to as my “cigarette ministry,” which is little more than approaching a lone, unspeaking Soldier and asking to bum a smoke from him. He quickly hands me one, and I sit with him. Somehow, in their minds, I’m not actually counseling them if we’re both smoking. I don’t claim to understand it, but I know it works.

The best response distills to this: build a personal relationship with these men. Talk to them and present myself as approachable, which begins with the personal relationship. I also work to overcome the assumption that they’re hard infantry Soldiers and I’m a soft chaplain who will never understand them. It means face time, joining in their activities, smoking a cigarette or two, and developing a level of immunity to their infamous profanity.

And in truth, it doesn’t bother me. I’m developing a thick skin. These men are my charges, obviously, and I enjoy my time out there with them. They’re by all means a rare breed. It is my hope that, in time, they will understand that getting help isn’t weakness, but a demonstration of boldness and strength. It is also unnatural to NOT have some degree of struggle with what they do and see out here. Until this happens, though, I’ll just keep choking down cigarettes. The Soldiers are far more important to me, to the Army, and to the country.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, August 24, 2009

An Evolution

*Retold with permission.

We sustained a grenade attack back in May that, in my opinion, had a very unusual outcome. Foremost, we sustained no injuries, for which I’m quite thankful. Also unusual to random small attacks in Iraq, we saw it coming and were ready for it. Lastly, we got the guy. But even that doesn’t accurately explain what happened. There’s a lot more to the story.

In and around Mosul, the biggest threat we face is from grenade and RKG3 (stick grenade-style shape charge) attacks. They run the full gamut in terms of lethality, but the RKG3s are among the few weapons that can penetrate an MRAP vehicle (mine-resistant ambush protected) and cause catastrophic damage. In this situation we were lucky. The device was a homemade, crush-wire grenade loaded with ball bearings.

As we were driving, my gunner (in the second vehicle) noticed a man who, unlike most other Iraqis when we roll through, was walking towards the curb and towards us. He also had one hand concealed behind his back. My gunner, already tracking him on the 240 (7.62 machine gun), waited to see what he would do as we passed. Nothing.

But as the third and final vehicle neared where the man stood, he reared back his concealed hand to reveal a device. As he threw it, my gunner engaged, and the rear vehicle – also watching him, slammed on the brakes in an effort to not drive into the device’s detonation. They were halfway successful.

The improvised grenade exploded on the unarmored hood of their vehicle, clipping antennas, peppering armor, and blowing off a large piece of the hood itself. It also disabled the vehicle as the ball bearings tore through the engine block and associated cables. The thrower, now dragging himself around a corner and down an alley, was clearly wounded.

We quickly dropped the ramp on my truck and ran out to find this guy, who we found hiding unarmed behind a vehicle in the alley. He’d been shot through the upper thigh, so Doc immediately applied a tourniquet and stabilized him as best he could. The Iraqi, in perfect English, was frantically apologizing for what he’d just done. “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! This is the first time I’ve done this.” I believed him, too. He’d done a horrible job of it – thankfully for us.

We quickly contacted local elements of the Iraqi Army and explained that we’d just captured and injured an Iraqi man and they needed to come pick him up. He was going to need medical attention, too. By the time they arrived, the suspect was medically stable, on a stretcher, and still going on about how sorry he was. He also begged that we would take him; not the Iraqis. That wouldn’t happen, however. He just broke an Iraqi law. Onsite, IA commenced questioning, and prepared to book him under guard in an Iraqi hospital. So far, the chain of custody was working superbly.

Over the next couple weeks, every one of the key players, to include the Soldiers in my truck, my gunner, and the occupants from the one behind us, all wrote sworn statements describing the event in full detail. These were turned into the Investigating Judge for review. Based upon our written and verbal statements, and those from the suspect, the judge would determine if the case would go to trial. He determined very quickly that it would.

Here is where we were helped by our battalion Law Enforcement Professional (LEP). Each battalion has one; a civilian contractor (almost always with extensive US law enforcement experience) who is an expert in the complexities and intricacies of Iraqi Rule of Law. He also helped with statement preparation, but the bulk of his work was to prepare us for testimony under oath in court, to answer questions to the satisfaction of the judge, and also maintain the chain of evidence to the standards of Iraqi Rule of Law. As far as I’m concerned, he’s an absolute expert, and he provided invaluable assistance.

Due largely to a lack of training in forensics, Iraqi courts rely predominantly on witness testimony, ensuring that they corroborate the scenario beyond all shadow of a doubt. Our LEP prepared us for detailed questions about the suspects’ clothing, actions, height, identity, and our various roles in the incident. It went flawlessly, the case went to trail, and the suspect was convicted. At present, he is in Iraqi prison awaiting a sentencing trial.

This is my third tour over here, so it’s been truly amazing to watch the evolution from what once happened to what happens now. Rather than arresting the guy, putting him in a US hospital and allowing him to wait, without charges, in a US detention facility, we’re doing far better. We detained the man, provide lifesaving medical care on site, relinquished custody to our host nation security forces. Rather than being freed on a bribe or a threat, he remained in custody following his medical care, went to trial with a lawyer of his own (a female lawyer, interestingly), was tried, found guilty based upon our sworn testimony in court, and will soon be sentenced. And we have had the privilege of observing this from the point of capture, throughout the trial, and to the present where he awaits sentencing.

I’m pleased our part was small in all this. Iraqi Rule of Law may be complex, but it’s straightforward. Chain of evidence and custody were maintained, the man received fair trial, and we are not stuck housing him indefinitely in some detention facility. I’m also pleased that none of my Soldiers were injured. Many commanders have not been so lucky. And equally pleasing is this: everything worked; we just stood back and watched. I’d say this is a very overt step in the right direction.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Number of Hats

Not long ago, a National Guardsman joked with me that he believed it requisite that a Guardsman never function in the MOS (military occupational specialty) for which he or she was trained. As an infantryman, he was currently serving as a military policeman. Nor is his situation unique.

I also remember speaking with a Soldier in a quartermaster unit whose job in laundry services had been dissolved, so now she and her Soldiers would be manning machine guns for convoy escort. Just yesterday I spoke with a man who, after nineteen years as an artillery officer, now found himself overseeing public sanitation operations for a large sector of a major Iraqi city. He seems to be doing well. In fact, they ALL seem to be doing well.

Rumors abound about the military’s rigid adherence to by-the-book doctrine; yet while there are probably situations where there is a lack of necessary compromise, I’m not seeing it out here. More clearly, I’m seeing astounding flexibility to a different mission. Such is the nature of counterinsurgency operations (COINOPS). There are a lot of “hats” the military leadership must wear.

On COB Brassfield-Mora, an entire infantry company is dedicated to reconstruction project planning, micro-grants, and facilitating communication and collaboration between various Iraqi security elements. On FOB Marez, a brigade does nearly the same thing. None of the projects, clearly, involve any sort of combat operations. Instead, they pertain to school reconstruction, medical service improvement, utilities, and encouraging the tourism industry. Additionally, they oversee road paving, street cleanup, parking lot construction, and a myriad of other non-military projects. The micro-grants are even more non-military; they’re intended to jumpstart local economies with sustainable, local business ventures. Frequently, they’re orchestrating the construction of greenhouses.

Wait, aren’t these infantry Soldiers? Yes, and just as many are military police and artillery. Moreover, they have received little to no training in the mission they now find themselves fulfilling. And on top of this new mission, they also maintain MOS proficiency – even though the likelihood of them needing it has diminished.

Many will probably ask why the US military is assuming responsibilities for which they received little preparation, and in some regards, this is a legitimate question. I think there are three primary explanations.

First, while the State Department Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) also conduct parallel (and overlapping) operations in these regions, the fact still remains that they are understaffed. Yet, there are more than 130,000 US military personnel in-country. They recently found themselves with a lot more free time. Second, these roles are relatively new (at least in their current complexity) for the military. Prior to June 30th (the date of US pullouts from Iraqi cities), these units were operating in capacities more aligned with their training. With the June 30th drawdown from the cities, these units are freed from the heavy burden of city security (which demanded the vast majority of their forces). Third, and perhaps most important, combat operations (and security threats) still persist – just on a reduced level.

A State Department element may have the personnel necessary to oversee micro-grants, but they lack the logistics and “bodies” necessary to maintain their own security and move about the country. The military remains vital to that aspect of the mission. US troops are still attacked, and they still respond with the ferocity befitting their basic combat training. Until Iraqi Security Forces demonstrate an ability to fully control their own battlespace, the US military will be needed to augment their efforts.

I find it humorous when I see an infantry officer soothing ruffled feathers between Iraqi Police and Army commanders, and funnier still when they inspect building projects. I can only imagine what’s running through their minds. Probably something to the effect of, “this isn’t what I signed up to do.” But that is never articulated. They have their orders, the mission needs completing, and they devote themselves fully to it.

In time, I imagine the mission will evolve into something different, requiring further “hats” be donned by combat troops – probably even further from combat arms. But I remain confident that they will do quite well. And should the artillery officer-cum-statesman be redeployed somewhere like Afghanistan, he will quickly return to his role as an actual artillery officer. The infantry officers, naturally, will be back out in the sand, humping a rucksack, and patrolling. That’s a mission they know thoroughly.

But it doesn’t seem to matter what their actual training and MOS designation may be. They seem uniformly equipped and ready to serve in whatever capacity is required of them. Call them rigid if you wish, but clearly they are not. They are creative, they are flexible, and they’re among the most capable achievers the United States has to offer. I don’t think there’s much they can’t do. To my knowledge, no other military force in the world is this adaptive. I wonder what “hat” we’ll have them wearing next.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved