Sunday, October 29, 2006

Specialist X

"The reconstruction failures in Iraq, which has been plagued by poor management, corruption, attacks on contractors and lack of oversight, have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. There have been reports of irregularities such as millions of reconstruction dollars stuffed into footlockers and filing cabinets, an American solider in the Philippines who gambled away cash belonging to Iraq, and three Iraqis who plunged to their deaths in a rebuilt hospital elevator that had been improperly certified as safe."

- The New York Times, Sunday, October 29, 2006.

Someone, I think an old soldier, taught me a saying when I was a mere lad that I have used the rest of my life: There are two kinds of stories - "This is no shit" stories and "Once upon a time" stories. Well, this is no shit.

I knew the American soldier mentioned in the New York Times quote above (I don't want to mention his name because he was a a young kid and I'm not really sure if he acted out of malice or stupidity). This American soldier, according to the NYT, "gambled away" Iraqi money in the Philippines. In fact, this soldier was in my unit and worked for me at the time of the incident. Was I then responsible for or did I contribute to this outrage? No, I didn't, and this is a good example of how the New York Times and others misinterpret the news from Iraq.

The quote, from something called the World View Podcast in the Week in Review, was written by Calvin Sims, who is a clear detriment to the quality image of the NYT, and kept making comments like "Wow", "Unbelievable", and "Right," to what ever the guy he was interviewing had to say. The editor of the Week in Review must have had a bad weekend, because he/she also allowed an article on the end of the hurricane season which stated that the season ended on October 31 instead of, correctly, on November 30.

If the Times can't get a simple, uncontroversial thing like the dates of the hurricane season correct, how can they possibly figure out what is going on in Iraq?

But, I digress. How in the world did one of my soldiers end up in the Philippines with thousands of dollars of Iraqi money? The answer is Termite Watkins.

Who? That's what I said when someone in the Al Hilla Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters told me who he was. Then the guy told me to Google his name and I did. Termite had been a professional fighter, in a light weight category, and had done really well in the fight world during the eighties. When I got the chance to talk to him, he explained that he had sought and received a job from KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root) at a time when the company was offering astronomical salaries to go and work in Iraq. His first job was when they were in Um Qasr and he was assigned to be the insect exterminator for the compound. When the CPA team moved from Um Qasr to the Babylon Hotel in Al Hill, Termite went with them.

MIke Gfeller, the Regional Coordinator for the CPA South Central office in Al Hilla, found out about Termite's background as a fighter and hired him to work for CPA. Termite's new job: assemble and train an Iraqi boxing team for the 2004 Olympics. Termite received his new job assignment about the time that I arrived with my civil affairs team at the Babylon Hotel on October 1, 2003.

With Mike Gfeller providing the funds from the pot of Iraqi dollars supplied to him by Paul Bremer, Termite was able to establish a training center in Al Hilla and assemble a group of Iraqi fighters to begin the process of preparing them to be Olympic athletes. Termite had less than nine months to not only get them ready but to somehow get them qualified to even participate in the Games.

Termite was quite a character. He was Mr. Can Do. Mr. Positive. The fact that he had been given Mission Impossible didn't intimidate him but rather motivated him. The man was constantly full of energy and ideas, and was real popular with everyone in the compound. To put Termite somewhere in the organizational chart the Chief of Staff assigned him to me and he moved into the large office where my team worked. Termite and my soldier (let's call him Soldier X) got along well (everyone got along with Termite) and soon Termite came to me with a proposal.

When I heard the proposal I agreed to it because it made a lot of sense. Termite wanted Soldier X to work as a combination body guard and administrative assistant. Termite was clueless on a computer and Soldier X knew what buttons to push on the computer to spit out the paper necessary to keep their little beehive operation humming. Additionally, Termite had to go from the hotel each morning to the training facility to supervise his fighters and he couldn't go by himself. He needed Soldier X and his rifle to go with him.

This part of the deal gave me pause. I didn't like the prospect of sending my soldier out in this situation. But then again, this was Hilla and not Fallujah: the threat was a lot lower than further north in the Sunni Triangle. And there was risk every time we left the compound. The only way to be risk free was to stay in our room with the covers over our heads and there was risk even in doing that.

I wasn't entirely comfortable with the entire situation but I said yes. Soldier X was a young, enlisted man who didn't have a lot to offer to the greater scheme of things in the south-central area of CPA. Here was a useful job for him to do, a way that he could contribute to the war effort, and a chance to do a job where he was wanted. So Termite and Soldier X became a Team and moved forward in their quest for Iraqi Olympic glory.

And for the next two months everything went along blissfully. In my periodic discussions with Termite about the progress of his project, I discerned that Termite wasn't very concerned with the details of any task that he accomplished. It seemed that details were impediments to whatever Big Idea he had in his head at the moment. Soldier X was a big help to Termite because he was able to absorb some of the details of the operation that were a distraction to Termite.

One of these annoying details was money. The only way to pay for items in Iraq at that time (and maybe now, for all I know) was by cash or barter. There was no banking system, and thus no credit cards, debit cards, personal checks or cashiers checks. Most transactions were in cash, frequently American dollars. The American military spent a lot of time and effort hauling truckload's and C-130 airplane loads full of stacked pallets of cash. The money was all in Baghdad and had to be moved out to the provinces to pay the Iraqi employees and the contractors that we were busy hiring to fix the growing list of things that were broken.

It was common to overhear people mention that they were carrying tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in their rucksacks. Consequently, in this environment, I didn't think anything of it when I heard that Soldier X was helping Termite by carrying around hundreds or maybe a thousand dollars from the hotel to where ever the money had to be paid.

Most of this money was to pay for the living expenses and equipment of the fighters that he had assembled at his training facility in Hilla. Once he got this part of the task completed, he started emailing and calling people around the world to find out how he could get his fighters qualified for the Olympics. The answer: they had to compete and place well in regional games. Iraq was in the Asian region, and Termite discovered that the next regional games in Asia were in January 2004 and hosted by the Philippines.

You can see where all this is going. In December Termite came to me, announced that he was taking his fighters to Manila in January and requested that I permit Soldier X to accompany him.

"Manila, as in the Philippines?" I asked. Termite nodded affirmatively, looking at me earnestly, with his ever present smile and bubbly attitude.

Isn't this story beginning to sound a little bit ludicrous? I admit a lot of crazy things happened to me in Iraq and this was one of the crazier ones. So much of what went on in Iraq had an air of unreality to me that this whole episode fit right in perfectly with the environment. The place was unreal. There were always people everywhere carrying guns. I don't even own a gun (I never have) and here I was carrying a rifle and a pistol (loaded!) everywhere I went. The whole thing was like some kind of Epcot exhibit: the desert, Arabic, camels. So why shouldn't someone come up to me and ask me if he could take one of my soldiers from Iraq to the Philippines for a fight competition?

I wasn't immediately warm to the idea, but I didn't reject his request outright. Rather, I knew that there were some administrative obstacles, some I hadn't even thought of, that would prevent Soldier X from accompanying Termite to the Philippines. The biggest obstacle, and the one that I was sure could not be overcome in the four or so weeks left until they had to depart, was that Soldier X did not have a passport. This news took Termite aback, and I could see the wheels turning behind his furrowed brow as he walked away.

The second obstacle was that we needed to run this whole enterprise past our commander, who was in Kuwait. I sent the commander a email outlining the situation, and explaining the passport problem. I was not very definitive in my email, and my commander's response was also noncommittal.

And that was how we left it when I departed on Dec 19, 2003 for the United States and two weeks of leave with my family, who I had not seen in ten months. When I returned, somewhat dejectedly, to my bed in Hilla on January 8, 2004, I found out that Soldier X and Termite were in the Philippines. Evidently, in the two weeks that I was gone, Termite had taken Soldier X to Kuwait, gotten him a passport and a plane ticket, and flown with him to Manila. By the way, he also had to get passports and probably visas for the Iraqis, and bought all the plane tickets, round trip, in cash, plus he was carrying enough cash with him to pay for every one's hotel rooms and food for the duration of the trip.

The story gets a little fuzzy here because I don't have direct knowledge of what actually happened in the Philippines. I do know that I was approached about a week after I returned by Bob Stein (a CPA employee who is now serving prison time for embezzling CPA funds while he was there -but that's another story) about a problem. Evidently, he had just gotten a frantic phone call from Termite in the Philippines. Termite was frantic because he had given Soldier X ALL of the forty thousand or so dollars in cash that they had brought along for expenses and now Soldier X said that he did not have the money. I believe that I am on pretty firm ground here when I say that Soldier X no longer had the money.

I took the news calmly. I mean, what could he want me to do, go to the Philippines and get it back? I hadn't really approved any of this entire operation. I felt like this wasn't really my problem. Rather, in clear hindsight I can see now, I had let it happen through inaction. Yes, there is a twinge of guilt here. I could have told Termite, "What? Are you crazy? Forget it." But I didn't. I dramatically underestimated Termite. I didn't make a decision that got anyone killed in Iraq but I did, through my inaction, allow this kid to be put into a situation that he wasn't equipped to handle. And I think that Termite contributed in his own way to this sorry episode.

I really don't know what happened to the money. The story we got over the phone from Termite was that X met a girl, who introduced him to a guy, who had this really great scam job, and all he needed was some money and he could double it in 48 hours. Or maybe X gambled it all away in the casino. I don't know.

If you want to know how millions of dollars in Iraqi funds got wasted here's part of a story of how 40 grand was lost. There is a moral in this story somewhere. I am still looking for it.

When I got back home to the U.S. I got an email from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction about this incident. I replied that I did not have any direct knowledge about what happened to the money or why. And I still don't. I never spoke to Soldier X about this incident. He was talking to a lawyer and wasn't saying much.

I did see Termite again. The week before I left Iraq, in the last week of February 2004, I was involved in a basketball tournament. 5 on 5 half court. I was the only armed referee for the tournament. The first and last time I refereed a bball game wearing a loaded pistol.

The tournament had three Nepalese Gurkha teams, a Navy team, an Army Military Police Team, a KBR team and two Iraqi teams: one team who worked on the compound and another team comprised of Iraqi Olympic basketball players who participated at my request to Termite. Their fighters may not have known much about basketball, but they, like Termite, were enthusiastic. I actually refereed a basketball game between Nepalese and Iraqis. It was all quite an experience. The KBR team won.

I read in the paper after I returned home that Termite's Iraqi fighters never qualified in the regional games for the Olympics, but Termite was able to get a waiver from the International Olympic Committee and they all made it to the games. I wonder what Termite is doing now?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Visiting the Brits in Basra

I spent my first night in Iraq in Um Qasr on April 10, 2003. Um Qasr is Iraq's only port and at that time was being managed by Her Majesty's Armed Forces. The local news of interest was that packs of dogs roaming the port had gotten too aggressive and had even attacked and killed an Iraqi child. Consequently, the local commander had put the Brit Special Forces unit assigned to him on doggie detail, and they had begun summarily executing the dogs.

A U.S. Army female civil affairs captain and veterinarian had adopted a local pooch and came home from work to find her dog was dead. She objected to the Brit commander's canine policy by walking to the commander's office and dumping her dog's bloodied carcass on his desk. This wasn't nearly as colorful as the Army civil affairs Major, assigned to support a British Army infantry battalion, who made the front page of several British newspapers by accusing the battlion commander of war crimes. Or the Army (civil affairs once again) officer who got drunk with some Coalition force (country unspecified) brethern and decided to visit the Baghdad zoo. In the middle of the night. Our drunk friend decided to play with a rare tiger and accidentially got his arm in the tiger's mouth. He solved the conflict by shooting and killing the rare tiger with a war souvenir pistol that he wasn't supposed to have.

These stories are all true. I can't make this stuff up.

Um Qasr seemed like a fun place, and the British Army served a great breakfast with stewed tomatoes and eggs and bacon and sweet tea with milk but I had to get to Basra to meet with the civil-military officer for the British First Armored Division who had requested my presence. There were a lot of dead/abandoned Iraqi armored vehicles on the road, and LTC Murphy did a good job of navigating through the streets of Basra to the Armored Division headquarters on the grounds of "Chemical" Ali's palace.

I brought along some good officers with me: fellow Army Reservists who had excellent skills from their civilian jobs and who might be able to provide some real assistance to the Brits in their new task of running a large metropolis like Basra. This was a strange interview and I have thought back on it often. After I found him, he ushered me and my officers into this cavernous room in one of the buildings on the Palace grounds. The buildings all looked brand new and were in impeccable condition, except for one of the smaller ones on the compound which had taken a direct hit from a bomb dropped by a Harrier. The buildings looked so new that I thought at the time that the furnishings had not yet been installed. Later, after seeing the ruthless efficiency with which the Iraqi populace had stripped other buildings, I wasn't so sure.

The Brit officer was very polite. He sat us all down, said that they had basically just arrived, and asked us what we had to offer. The First Marine Expeditionary Force (or MEF) was technically the higher headquarters for the British First Armored Division, but they had a direct line open to Downing Street, and paid a little more attention to Tony Blair than they did to General Conway, the Marine MEF Commander. My civil affairs unit's responsibility was to support the MEF and General Conway. Thus, when the Brits asked for civil affairs support I and my team was sent.

I wonder what this Brit officer was expecting to get from us. He obviously was expecting something or he wouldn't have asked. What we had to offer wasn't what he wanted because he heard us out, thanked us politely, ushered us on our way and never called again. I thought that he wanted technical expertise in the gritty business of running a city. Thinking back on it now, I believe he wanted to hear what kind of guidance had been issued on the occupation of the country. He was looking for a plan. I didn't have one to give him, so he sent me on my way.

When you think about it, the task of occupying this large, Muslim country was formidable and as military officers, this Brit was curious about what the civilian leadership had in mind. As I was. Maybe he thought that the Americans had a plan for the occupation of the country. Maybe we had thought this thing out, and considered all the issues that would arise when the invasion ended and the occupation began. But I had nothing like that to offer. Instead, I had a few guys who might help him get the trains to run on time.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

My first visit to Iraq

After a week in Camp Commando, Kuwait in late March, early April 2003, Dale Foster, the Operations officer for my unit, pulled me aside and gave me a mission to go into Iraq in response to a request by the British First Armored Division for civil affairs support. This was a very significant moment in my life. For the first time in my military career I was being asked to lead men (and women) into combat and I immediately recognized the significance and importance of the task that I had been given.

While I admit the mission was significant to me, and was the first of dozens of siimilar missions that I was to perform over the next ten months, in the range of possible military leadership tasks this one was not very high on the scale of difficulty. For an untrained civilian this would have been an overwhelming and frightening prospect, but I was a Colonel and the Army had invested a considerable amount of money in training me to do what was, in this instance, essentially a squad leader's task. In spite of the fact that I was trained and confident that I could perform this mission, I was fully aware that I had never before in my life been responsible for so many lives in so perilous a situation.

From Camp Commando to the Iraqi border was an hour and a half, depending on the traffic, and the traffic was heavy, consisting mostly of military vehicles hauling supplies north to Iraq and empty vehicles heading south for more. The date was April 10, 2003 and there were twelve of us in four vehicles. The Brits had just seized Basra but the inteligence briefing I had received that morning was not reassuring: several of the smaller towns that we had to pass through on our way to Basra were still not totally pacified.

We were instructed to report to a Military Police checkpoint at a refueling site in Kuwait just inside the border. When we arrived the scene was reminiscent of the second Mad Max movie. There were hundreds of military vehicles battling for fuel in a lunar landscape. The dust was thick and pervasive. We were supposed to meet a British Army officer there and he was going to escort us to a meeting of tribal leaders in Safwan, a town directly across the border. The populace of Safwan resembled Dodge City right after a crew of hungry and horny cowboys arrived with a fresh herd of beef. The main supply route for all of Iraq (not the alternate, not the secondary, not even the tertiary supply route, but the MAIN) went through Safwan and the locals wanted a piece of the action even if it meant thrusting their children in front of convoy vehicles. This problem was only solved by building a bypass road around the town.

The Kuwaitis had built a giant berm along their border with Iraq to aid in keeping out Saddam's hordes and for those of us in Kuwait going to Iraq meant going "across the berm." I still had not crossed the berm, but settled down to wait for my British Army guide. Entertainment was availble from dogs and children, which were provided in abundance. The weather was warm, hinting at the furnace to come, and the dogs were in a constant state of pant. Some soldier sentries gave them some water in a dish.

After a hour and no contact with my guide, I pulled out my satellite phone and started making some phone calls. After two more hours I had my answer: my guide had been stricken with diarrea and vomiting and had been rushed to a hospital. We were too late in the day to make it to Basra and we certainly didn't want to return to Commando so I requested and received permission to go to the town of Um Qasr. Um Qasr was Iraq's only port and was now held by the British and had a large contingent of U.S. civil affairs soldiers. I decided to head there to spend the night and go to Basra the next day.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Unplugged from the Global Village

I arrived in Camp Commando, Kuwait with my unit on March 26, 2003. Our job as a civil affairs unit was to assist the First Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) in dealing with the Iraqi civilians. When I got to Commando I found very few Iraqi civilians and, anyway, the MEF was long gone, having already entered Iraq in pursuit of the First Marine Division (MARDIV). So we settled in to read about the war through classified reports from the units in contact in Iraq.

This wasn't as exciting as it sounds. Reading Marine Fagementation Orders is not as thrilling as hearing and watching a breathless reporter on TV from the front lines. We were unplugged from the Global Village and really knew very little about what was going on other than the very narrow situation we were focused on: the status of the Iraqi civil population. We had some reports but they were fragmentary and maddeningly incomplete. For example, we received civil affairs reports on several small villages, but the report writers failed to supply a grid coordinate for the town or even the province in which it resided. Consequently, I remember spending many minutes in front of a LARGE map looking for the small town of Nowhere, Iraq. The Marine had spent a lot of time writing a detailed report about the mayor and the police chief and the school but failed in the simple business of identifying even where the town was in relation to a big city. As with everyting, context is important.

Even though we had weapons and ammunition and body armor and helmets we were still in Kuwait and this rankled some of us. We had been torn from our civilian lives and hauled half way around the world (that's actually an exxageration, we were one third of the way around the world) to help deal with the problems of Iraqi civilians and the Marines told us to read about them from Kuwait. I could have read about them from home, in better conditions. We finally started getting requests for civil affairs support from, of all people, the British.

The Britiish First Armored Division was subordinated under the MEF. While the MARDIV was racing the Army's Third Infantry Division for Baghdad the Brits were manuevering, a la the movie "A Bridge too Far", to invest Basra, a short, very short, distance from the Kuwaiti border. I could drive there in two hours from Commando. But first they captured Um Qasr, Iraq's only seaport, and assumed the responsibility for the civilians of the town. The Brits had a lot of experience occupying a country (read: Northern Ireland) so they didn't need a lot of help from us. We did have a few of members of our unit get sent to Um Qasr and we eagerly sought them out to find out what Iraq was like.

Right after the Brits captured Basra in early April the Civil Affairs officer for the British First Armored Division sent a request to the MEF for civil affairs support in the task of dealing with the sizeable metropolis of Basra. This request was forwarded to my unit and then assigned to me. I assembled a team of ten soldiers and four vehicles and departed for Iraq and Basra the following morning.

When I arrived at the Brit headquarters in Basra I discovered that the Brit civil affairs officer who had made the request was looking for some idea of the plan for the occupation of the country.

I had no plan to give him. There was none.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The debate on Iraq

In my September posts I introduced a lot of the themes that I want to discuss in this blog - at least at the beginning. The debate over Iraq has not even approached the hostility and animosity that we saw during the war in Viet Nam. The current war in Iraq is an extrememly complicated issue that is generally translated by the national media into a series of 6 P.M. local news car crashes and apartment fires. I know more about the war in Iraq than 99% of the people in this country - which is an indication of the severity of the problem.

But I am a great believer in democracy and the good judgement of the American people as reflected every two years in their votes. The politicians will receive the judgement of the American people next month and we all will accept it - some more pleasantly than others - and continue with our lives.

I also believe in the collective good judgement of the Iraqi people. A few short months ago they got the opportunity, for the first time in many decades, to express their will at the ballot box. This election was considered fair by all international observers. Their new government is struggling now under very difficult circumstances. Those who look beyond the IED explosions on TV and the body count can see that they are trying to make this work.

But I don't want to talk about this now. I'm ready to talk about what happened during the first year of the war, when I was there. I published a book that was essentially a collection of the emails that I sent home when I was there. The book is mentioned elsewhere on this site. Those emails have the immediacy of when I wrote them. A reviewer said that this book doesn't have the warriors selective memory. But there was a lot that I didn't put in that book - for various reasons. Some of the omissions were dure to normal military operational security reasons. Others were due to the fact that I was sending these missives home to my family and I didn't want to overly alarm them. The fact that I was in a war zone was alarming enough.

What I really want to talk about is the plan for the occupation of Iraq. Or lack thereof. And that is what I plan to do.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Getting the blog published

After 2 weeks of steady labor I was able to create this blog page on my site. As you can see, it is still a work in progress. In between watching the baseball playoffs and college football on TV, I hope to make steady improvements in the performance of this blog and continue my rumuinations on the war.