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?

2 comments:

  1. That was a very relevant story. From it, you can see that there was no evil character or one defining moment but a series of events unfolding in highly unusual circumstances. But they all add up to one nightmare PR job. It's an interesting experiment - ordinary people thrust into a world without passport controls, exchanging thousands of dollars in cash, all while wearing loaded guns. Not even mentioning license to kill. It's scary to think how many people can't deal with that lawlessness. Unfortunately for everyone.

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  2. Unfortunately, there were some bad characters there, and some were on our side. Fortunately, the bad characters on our side are going to jail. I will talk about that incident in the future.

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