Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas 2003

Instead of spending Christmas in a combat zone thinking about home, I spent Christmas 2003 at home, thinking about Iraq and my imminent return. Along with tens of thousands of others, I was allowed two weeks of leave from Iraq. Some took advantage of the opportunity and went home. One fellow officer met his wife in Germany. Others, and there were more than a few, decided to save that leave (and the extra money it represented) and remain in Iraq.

I wasn't interested in the money - I wanted to be with my family. I had not seen them in over ten months. Although the pain of returning to Iraq would be great, the memories from those two weeks would be priceless. The sharp ache of a temporary loss of a loved one dulls with time. After a while I got used to living without my family. The quality of my life wasn't as good but I was able to focus on the task at hand. Coming home would open that wound and renew that ache, but I didn't care.

I was fortunate in that I was able to get two weeks of leave that encompassed Christmas and New Year's. So it was that on December 21, 2003, nine months to the day after I left the United State for the Middle East, I returned home. That day turned out to be the longest day of my life, and not just because I had a series of long plane flights to endure on the way to see my family after a long absence. The day was, literally, the longest day of my life. I departed a U.S. Air Force base in the country of Qatar at 12:30 A.M. on December 21 for Germany, then Baltimore, then Atlanta, and finally arrived at Tallahassee at 9:30 P.M. on the same day, 32 hours later.

Christmas 2003 was a wonderful experience for me, and filled with remarkable contrasts to the life that I had so recently been living. Yet, my mind was detached in many ways from the events around me. I felt guilty that I was at home for the holidays while so many of my comrades were still in Iraq. And the biggest feeling that stayed with me, one that I carried around like a heavily weighted rucksack, was the knowledge that I had to return to Iraq on January 5, 2004.

Yes, I know, one is supposed to live in the moment, but it was hard.

As Christmas 2008 approaches I think about all the service men and woman in harm's way around the world, away from home on the holidays. And I still feel a trace of guilt. I am at home with my family, and they aren't. Yes, I know, the guilt is not logical, but it's hard for me not to feel it. I have something in common with them, something that we shared and continue to share.

And right now, five years later, I still feel that bond with them. I truly hope that it never goes away. To all of you out there in uniform, doing a nasty, rotten job away from home and family during the holidays, I send you my very best wishes, and sincere hope that you will return home safe. God speed and God bless.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Wall of Shame

For a number of reasons no one from the the unit I served with in Iraq, the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade, out of Norristown, Pennsylvania, will contact me anytime soon about attending any reunion for the veterans who participated in their deployment to Kuwait and Iraq in 2003 and 2004. We weren't exactly the Band of Brothers.

And I don't mean that in a disparaging way. There were a lot of obstacles that stood in the way of our being a close knit unit. First, there was the rank structure. Of the 150 persons in the unit 12 were colonels, 28 were lieutenant colonels and 34 were majors. There were only a handful of of lieutenants and captains. The great majority of the rest of the unit were lower ranking sergeants and enlisted persons.

Secondly, the Norristown unit was filled to full strength by replacements brought in from other units in Pensacola, Florida and Lubbock, Texas. I was one of the officers brought in from Pensacola. Ultimately, less than half of those that deployed to the Middle East were originally from the Norristown unit.

How did this happen, you ask? The answer is controversial, complex, and was a source of conflict within the unit for the entire tour. As hard as it may be for everyone to believe, not everyone was thrilled at the prospect of being torn from home, job and family and thrown into a year (or longer) deployment to a real shooting war (unlike some of the previous peacekeeping missions some of us had participated in) to the Middle East. And despite all the secrecy involved in our ultimate destination, we could all read the papers and we knew that we were heading for Iraq.

Some of the people in the Norristown unit made a concerted effort to get out of the deployment and some succeeded in doing so. Some had good reasons for not wanting to go and others didn't. Unfortunately, personal hardship wasn't a good reason. The Army had spent a lot of money in training and salary for these people, in some cases for many years, and now was the time for the Army to collect on this investment.

Every person in the Norristown unit that was able to get out of the deployment (and like I said, almost half were able to do so) caused a double blow on the morale of the others. The original members of the unit saw their former comrades dropping, one by one, from the deployment roster. Some were jealous, while others were disappointed.

Every person that was dropped from the deployment roster had to be replaced, primarily with individuals from the Lubbock and Pensacola units. Most of these people didn't want their lives screwed up either. But they were soldiers and they did their duty. Still, they weren't happy at having to take up someone else's slack.

The net result was that we had a conglomeration of people from different units, from different parts of the country, and with different attitudes about why and how they were being sent into combat. When this amalgam of factions was placed into the crucible of the Iraqi desert heat, under way less than ideal living conditions, attached to a Marine unit that really (at first) didn't know what to do with us, the results were predictable.

More people tried to get sent home. Some succeeded. That's when things got ugly. The Operations Officer of the unit had to move out of the communal living quarters when a malcontent urinated in his sleeping bag. There were a lot of unhappy people there.

That is how, on the whitewashed wall of an office in a building on Camp Babylon, Iraq, the Wall of Shame was created. I will not glorify (or condemn, depending on your point of view) the perpetrators of this act by providing their names. Those of us who were there know who they are. Maybe if there was more work for these discontents to do then they would not have had the time or the energy to compile the list of names that made up the Wall. But there wasn't enough work for everyone, and that's a entire other story that I won't go into right now.

The list of names grew before my eyes. I outranked them all and could have stopped them if I wanted to (there were a number of senior officers who could have stopped them but didn't). At the time I remember feeling a strange sort of justice in the list. I knew all the names that were on there. The names were from all ranks, ages, races and religions. There was no discrimination and really only one criteria for having their name scrawled on the whitewash: they had either been in the original Norristown unit and not deployed, or deployed and been sent back home.

Some names generated heated discussions as to whether they should be added to the Wall. The basic defense argument was that the person didn't try to get out of going: they had no choice in their removal, or the reason for their return was reasonable. But no matter how spirited the defense, the facts remained that they were back home in the World and we were (still) stuck at the end of the world carrying loaded weapons because people there were trying to kill us.

As well as I remember, when we left Camp Babylon in September 2003, to be replaced by the 29 nation Multinational Division, the names were still intact on the Wall of Shame. I imagine some Poles or Hungarians entered the office and stared briefly at the scrawling on the wall. They probably ordered some private to paint over it. They didn't know what it was and didn't care.

I don't know if the Wall of Shame is still there, or even if the building is intact. When we got there, the Iraqis had been very busy trying to tear down as much of Saddam's palace complex as possible. But if that wall was still there, I would nominate another name to go on the list - at the very top. And no one would argue with me.

Former member of the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade, former Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve, convicted felon, for betraying her oath and her trust, for stealing from the Iraqi people and lying about it. I nominate Debra Harrison to the Wall of Shame.

Maybe someday this Band of Misfits may want to get together for a reunion. There are a number of them that I admired and would want to see again. A few of them are still my very good friends. Maybe time will heal the raw emotions. I sure hope so.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The collective good judgment

All of my life I have believed in the collective good judgment of the American people. One cannot believe in democracy without accepting this tenet. The original framers of the United States Constitution had some doubts about "mob rule" and therefore embedded in the endoskeleton of the document numerous impediments to rapid political change. The United States Senate is a prime example.

This is not to say that there are not numerous ignorant and stupid people in this country. The supply of the former is constantly changing, because that particular affliction can be cured, whereas the numbers of the latter are constant and and a drain on us all. Good judgment requires neither intelligence nor education. When the collective good judgment of the many, or in the case of November 4, 2008, the millions, are combined into one big decision, then the ignorance and stupidity and intellgence and education are balanced out. And there is no moral ambiguity here. The decision, whatever the outcome, is the right one. If one cannot accept that, then there is no belief in democracy.

Sadly, none of the people I voted for on the Big Election Day won, from the County Commisioner to the President. Fortunately, I was extremely disappointed in the outcomes. We are all fortunate in my disappointment, because I intensely cared who won. Imagine if I had not cared, or worse, not voted at all.

This is an important point. Because I voted, I participated in the decision, and thus must accept the outcome. Many people who had never voted before were drawn into the process. Regardless of who they voted for, we are all better off for their actions.

A clear majority of the country and a good portion of the people of the rest of the world approved of the selection of the new leader of the free world. In two months he will be our President. Regardless of whether we voted for him or not, he will still be our President. The collective good judgment of the American people have made it so.

Monday, October 20, 2008

On politics and political debates

I have been trying to ignore this election but I am surrounded and besieged by electronic devices and carbon based life forms that are vainly trying to influence a decision that I made eight months ago. I have not watched television news for years, and I had no interest in watching the spectacle of the debates. From my point of view, for the last year, the Presidential campaign has been a giant reality show. Obviously, many people like reality shows. I do not.

I am not condemning, or looking down upon, the political process. In a democracy, the public must be informed so that they can make proper choices. I do my best ti inform myself so that I can make the proper decisions. I get my information by reading the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker and the New York Times. I listen to National Public Radio. On a daily basis I collect, absorb, dissect and discard large amounts of information on a wide variety of current events topics. Thus, by this rational process, I was able to make my voting decision for the Presidential election eight months ago.

The millions of dollars raised and expended by both candidates to influence my vote were wasted on me. But I was never a target of their marketing campaigns. They focused their efforts on the elusive undecided voter. As always, the undecided voter will make the final decision.

The thought of the approaching election, for the first time in my life, fills me with resignation rather than excitement. I know that I will not be pleased with the result, regardless of the outcome. The question for me will be whether I am more unhappy or less with the new government.

The very real possibility that the Democratic Party will take control of the Presidency and the national Legislature by a decisive margin leads me to believe that I will have to give up reading or listening to any news, from whatever source, for the foreseeable future. At times, I close my eyes and see and hear unwanted, painful memories of the Carter Administration.

But the Republican Party has forfeited any right to manage the affairs of the country until they have served an appropriate probation. The length of the probation will depend on the actions of the Democratic Party and their elected leaders. Based on their performance the last two years, I do not expect the probation to be that long.

The only reason that John McCain still has a chance to win is that he is now and has not ever been a "true" Republican. Then again, I haven't seen many "true" Republicans anywhere lately. I wonder where they all went?

Thankfully, regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, the Republic will survive.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

In Louisiana for Gustav and Ike

On Tuesday, September 9, I drove from Tallahassee to Baton Rouge to assist the state of Louisiana with their response to Hurricane Gustav. I deployed in response to a state-to-state request for assistance by Louisiana for persons with mass care expertise. Since so many people from so many states volunteered to come to Florida's assistance in 2004 and 2005, I decided to repay the favor.

I did not have a lot of fun in Louisiana but I learned a lot. When I arrived in Baton Rouge I immediately saw the tell tale signs of a recent hurricane: debris lying in great piles on the side of the road; traffic lights askew and inoperable; and fallen trees leaning against houses, their exposed roots looking like so many gnarled hands.

The trip wasn't fun because the Louisiana Department of Social Services (DSS), which had submitted the request for assistance, did not really have a job for me when I arrived. In fact, when I got at the Louisiana State Emergency Operations Center (EOC), I couldn't get anyone in DSS to talk to me. As I found out later, DSS was immersed in a crisis that would ultimately result, a few days later, in the Governor removing the head of the Department.

The crisis was all about food stamps. Rather, the inability of the public to access their disaster food stamps, as promised. I heard about the problem on the radio as I was driving in. The ever helpful media found the obligatory little-old-lady-being-mistreated-in-a-disaster story. I heard the woman say, "They told me that I could get food stamps here today, and I stood in line for hours, but they said that they had no food stamps."

No Governor responds well to this kind of media coverage, but this was already strike two for DSS during the Gustav response. The week before DSS was late in getting showers into evacuation shelters in the northern part of the state. The Governor, handling his first disaster, had a low tolerance for mistakes and a great desire to show that his administration was accountable.

The morning after I arrived, and I had a chance to explain to DSS why I was there, they thanked me by throwing me into the middle of the food stamp crisis. I threw myself into the problem with my customary zeal, calling upon all my considerable emergency management experience. It didn't do any good. Whether it was to save me or them from embarrassment (I never did find out why, and I didn't ask) they politely asked me to work in another area the following day. Naturally, I said yes.

With that, I could have gone home but Ike was heading for Texas and there was a real possibility that it might curve and slam into Louisiana. I worked with my friend Eric Jones, who was the Red Cross State Liaison at the Louisiana EOC. We tried to help Texas by phone, passing along advice that may or may not have been used. By Sunday morning, after Ike had hit Texas, I listened to the morning conference calls with the southern parishes and realized that Ike's impact on Louisiana had not been that bad. I said good bye to Eric and my DSS hosts and headed for home.

What did I learn? The workers in Louisiana are just as smart as we are in Florida and work just as hard. The emergency management system and processes they use, however, require them to work twice as hard as we do in Florida to get the same level of results. Information, for example, is very hard to acquire in the Louisiana EOC. I saw no evidence of situation reports or Incident Action Plans, as required in the National Incident Management System. As a result, a lot of activity by the state in response to the two hurricanes was not coordinated or even visible within the EOC.

I was also fortunate in that I was able to visit the Joint Field Office in Baton Rouge, the state/federal headquarters that has been in existence and coordinating the recovery efforts in Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina. I was also able to visit the Red Cross Disaster Relief Organization in Baton Rouge. The Red Cross was doing their usual capable job of organizing large numbers of volunteers into productive activities.

The people of Louisiana were very courteous to me under difficult circumstances. And the food was good.

Monday, September 15, 2008

On writing a war novel - Part 2

After laboring for a year and a half on a novel about the war in Iraq I discovered that neither I nor anyone else could really capture in words what the experience was like. The problem, simply, is that for the reader to understand even the most common conversations that we had would require untold pages of explanation. Let me give some examples.

A lot of this was revealed to me when my friend edited the first draft of my novel. She had no experience with the military (which was good - I was writing for a general and not a military audience). The military is obviously a very hierarchical organization and for those familiar with military rank a colonel means something completely different than a sergeant in that a colonel is older, better paid and most likely better educated (although in the Reserves there are many more exceptions to the educational difference.) My editor friend missed this, plus the nuances that a captain outranked a lieutenant but not a major.

The military is a separate culture from the civilian world but not everyone knows the tremendous cultural differences that exist between the Army and the Marines, or that the Army has a subculture called the Reserves that is a strange amalgam of civilian soldiers. Take this sociological soup and drop us into the Middle East as an Army unit attached to a Marine organization and the fun begins.

The Marines had their own jargon and ways of doing business that was different from what we were accustomed. The U.S. military in Iraq invented new acronyms and code words that were critical to understanding everyday conversations. The reports we read were filled with confusing Iraqi geography, providing descriptions of events in a multitude of cities when our knowledge extended to a vague idea of the location of Baghdad and Basra.

Thus, our everyday work conversation was filled with terms and concepts that are alien to the average citizen. These alien terms had and still have an emotional impact for me whenever I hear them: Tampa, Anaconda, Cedar, Nasiriyah, and Highway 8. If I were to spend all my time explaining, the reader would lose interest.

The task that I set for myself in writing a novel about the war is translating the entire experience into English. As always in such cases, something is lost in the translatiion.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On writing a war novel - part 1

A lot of novels have been written about war and I have read a lot of those novels. My entire life I have had the desire to write a novel and in 1994-95 I wrote a 100,000 word novel called "Every Man was Free". As many of you know, writing a novel and getting it published are two completely separate tasks. The third part of this trilogy, promoting a book once it is published, is another task requiring knowledge and skills completly separate from the first two. Although I did not get that first novel published, I did learn a lot about what it takes to develop a story and then pound out the words until the manuscript was completed.

Spending a year in a combat zone was a very intense experience and the entire time that I was there I told myself and some close friends that I would write a novel about the experience. I returned home to Tallahassee in the Spring of 2004 and in June I started an electronic journal in a Word document. In this journal I wrote down my thoughts about what my novel would be about: the story, the characters, and the themes that I wanted to explore in the book. I found that this was a very effective way the "think out loud", ask myself questions and then try to answer them.

One mistake that I did not want to make, and that I had made in writing my first novel, was to labor two thirds of the way through the manuscript and realize that I had no idea how the novel was going to end. "Literary fiction" was once defined to me as starting a manuscript with a germ of an idea and then seeing where the characters and events lead. I yearned for more structure in my writing endeavors.

I found that structure in a technique called the Snowflake Method. Using that technique, I was able to complete a 90,000 word first draft of my novel, "The Lion of Babylon." I paid a friend to edit the mansuscript, and this gtave me plenty of suggestions to work on as I began a second draft. The most significant thing that I learned from her editing was that, no matter how well I wrote or how many words I produced, I could never really recreate the war or the Iraq that I had experienced for a year.

In my next post I will tell you why.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

On understanding the war - Part 3

Doug Feith, in his new book, "War and Decision," gives the best explanation that I have seen to date as to why the post invasion occupation of Iraq unfolded as it did. Feith, the former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy under Donald Rumsfeld, doesn't provide all the answers in his book. Nor does he, as my friend Bill McCusker asserted, blame everyone else for the problems. He does lay some blame on Colin Powell and Richard Armitage at the Department of State, on George Tenet and Company at the CIA, and finally, on the President himself. Nor does he leave the Defense Department and the American military blameless. Feith lays out the justification and rationale for some of his own decisions and lets history and the reader be their own judge as to how right, or wrong, those decisions were.

Most importantly, Feith asserts that many of the damming accusations made against the Bush Administration by the media were incorrect. Let me be clear here - he DID NOT say the the Bush Administration did not make any mistakes. They did, and he points out those mistakes. He does present compelling evidence, to include declassified U.S. government documents, that the following accusations made against Bush and his advisers were INCORRECT:

- "U.S. officials manipulated intelligence to induce the President to overthrow Saddam, and to persuade the public to support the war."

- "... that officials who made the case for regime change in Iraq did so for ideological or improper reasons - to spread democracy by the sword, or to serve Israel's interests rather than America's."

- "That President Bush and his hawkish advisers came into office intent on launching a war in Iraq and gave no serious consideration to means short of war to deal with the Iraqi problem."

- "That 'neocon' officials failed to plan for postwar Iraq, believing that both the war itself and the postwar transition to democracy would be easy."

- "That Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Department planned to 'anoint' Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile, as the leader of liberated Iraq."

- "That the State Department had a plan for post-war Iraq, and that Defense officials ignored or discarded the plan."

Mr Feith's efforts to counter these media assertions are extremely well documented. In fact, he has set up a web site that presents the web links to the documents, some of which were formerly classified, that he uses as a basis to substantiate his arguments. One may not agree with all of his conclusions, and I don't, but at least we are forming our judgments from the set of facts.

A discussion of charges and counter-charges against the Bush administration would fill volumes and already has. More volumes are waiting to be filled and I suspect that these arguments will be picked up by historians and continued for the next century. As always, every thing's about me, so let's get this discussion back to my big issue: During the preparations for the war, why wasn't there more and better post-invasion planning?

This is a good and solid question, one that I have been asking without an adequate answer for over five years. In fact, Feith lays out the "sensible questions [one might] raise about the Administration's pre-war work." These questions are:

- "In all the planning efforts, did the government fail to anticipate major problems that would emerge?"
- "Did it have good plans for the problems that it anticipated and encountered?"
- "Did it implement its plans well?"

For five years the Bush administration's critics have been saying that the answer to these questions are Yes, No and No. Feith contends, "The answers are not simple." As always in life reality is seldom black and white, and more often shades of gray.

In my next post I will talk about just how gray that I think the answers to these questions are.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Debra Harrison pleads guilty

Before I went to Iraq I never knew anyone who had been indicted in federal court, much less plead guilty. Debra Harrison, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve, 50 years old and a resident of Trenton, New Jersey, plead guilty this week to "wire fraud in connection with a scheme to defraud the Coalition Provisional Authority - South Central Region (CPA-SC) in Al-Hillah, Iraq." She will be sentenced in November and faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Not only do I know Debra Harrison but she worked for me during the five months that we were at the Coalition Provisional Authority South Central Office in Al-Hilla, Iraq. I was her direct supervisor. I wrote about this before in February 2007 when Debra was indicted ( see "A federal indictment hits home" and "Robert Stein goes to jail" in a previous post the same month). How very sad.

The really sad part about it was that she wasn't the only one. Fellow Army Reservists (although not from my unit) Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Hopfengardner, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Wheeler and Colonel Curt Whiteford were also indicted. Hopfengardner was sentenced to 21 months in prison in June 2007. Whiteford and Wheeler stand trial this September.

Curt Whiteford was the Chief of Staff to the Regional Coordinator, a Department of State Civilian named Mike Gfeller. Mike was a good man and a hard worker and I am sure that he is extremely disappointed that so many people under his authority turned out to be crooks. Mike spoke fluent Arabic and was instrumental in implementing a tribal policy four years before the U.S. Army figured out that this might be the best way to control the populace. When I last checked Mike was holding a senior position at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia. I would sure love to have another conversation with him.

I do not want to speak ill of Curt Whiteford because he has not been convicted of any crime. Nevertheless, even if he is not found guilty of the crimes to which he has been accused he is guilty of negligence in allowing so much criminal behavior on his watch. I liked Curt. He is a Mormon from Utah with a large family (the picture was on his desk in Hilla). During the five months that I spent in Hillah I met with him almost every day. When I left Iraq I thought Curt had done a good job in a difficult situation. And now this.

Bruce Hopfengardner and Mike Wheeler were a different story. When I first arrived at the CPA headquarters I had a Civil Affairs Team of five persons: (then) Major Debra Harrison, Lieutenant Alicia Galvany, Lieutenant Tamara Montgomery and Specialist (later Sergeant) Mike Green. Not much of an Army, but it was all I had. At first, Curt Whiteford assigned Hopfengardner to work for me. This lasted maybe two weeks and then Curt informed me that Bruce would be doing "special projects" for him relating to the Hilla police academy.

Then Mike Wheeler arrived under what I would consider suspicious circumstances. His civil affairs battalion was reassigned from Hilla to Al Anbar province to support the 82nd Airborne Division. Mike arranged with his battalion commander to be left behind at the CPA office in Hilla.

When Mike arrived Curt assigned him to work with me. After a few weeks, Curt told me that Mike was now working for Bruce on "special projects."

I didn't take offense at any of this. In fact, I was so damn glad to be sleeping alone in a room on a bed with a flush toilet that I said nary a word. I was quick to note, however, that Bruce and Mike left shortly after I gave them a speech on my expectations of their performance. If they were working for me then I was to write their officer efficiency report (which, for these two characters, would have been irrelevant anyhow). My main expectation of them was to supervise the other three officers and Specialist Green so that I wouldn't have to bother with it. I was a Colonel and I used my rank to delegate the more tiresome aspects of my wartime duties. When Bruce and Mike left I pushed the supervision task down to Debra and she did a good job of it.

Given the facts as stated above I don't have to stretch my imagination very far to imagine why these two officers left my supervision or how they did it. I am sure that they pleaded their case with Whiteford and he felt their pain. Later on I saw them both hanging out together like two soul mates, dressed like Delta Force operators, loaded down with grenades, a rifle, a pistol and plenty of ammunition for both weapons. The wanted to play Army in the war without having to worry about supervising three female officers and Specialist Green.

Obviously, I was unaware of any criminal wrongdoing during the time that I served with CPA in Hilla. Colonel Andy Fishman, from my unit, and Colonel Bede Strong, of Her Majesty's Royal Tank Regiment, were there with me at the same time and they didn't see any of this either. I saved all my emails from the time and after the indictments came out I reviewed them for possible clues. I found one that gives a hint of trouble, but I saw it just two weeks before I left, and Curt Whiteford reassures Mr. Gefflor that he's "all over this." For the record, here is the email.

At the bottom of the thread Peter Wilkinson, an Australian Air Force Colonel who was supervising the contract spending, receives an email from Major Robert Shelton, a contracting officer at Hilla. Maj Shelton raises a concern about Mr Bloom (a civilian, convicted conspirator, and source of all the dirty money) and how he seems to be getting an inordinate number of contracts. In the next part of the thread, Colonel Wilkinson raises his concerns to Curt and Mr Gefellor. The beginning of the thread, starting with "Boss" is Curt Whiteford reassuring Mr. Gfellor that he has it all under control. The story in a nutshell.

When the federal prosecutor called me earlier this year to discuss the case I passed this email to her, although I was sure she already it. Here is the text of the email:

[From Curt Whiteford (I was copied on this email)]


We are all over this. I met with Eric yesterday regarding this specific topic and will meet with the primary players after tonight’s staff meeting. With minimal effort, we should make short work of the ratification/paperwork for the subject projects. If you wish, I will get you a listing from Peter of all the projects currently open.


Colonel Curtis G. Whiteford
Deputy Regional Coordinator/Chief of Staff
CPA South Central Region

-----Original Message-----

From: []

Sent: Saturday, February 21, 2004 4:14 PM

To: Wilkinson, Peter (AUS); Whiteford, Curt (USA)

Cc: Shelton, Robert (USA)

Subject: Laying Down the Law on Unauthorized Commitments

Peter and Curt,

I agree fully with your points. This dangerous situation must be corrected immediately.

For the record, while I appreciate Phil Blum's work, that does not mean I wish to exempt him from our rules. I personally have never ordered him to do any work without it being properly bid. I would be happy to see him bid on future projects, such as the new building at Hilla University and the Karbala' Library, but I have not and will not grant him a contract without proper competition of the job. I do not want to play favorites.

I have also repeatedly told all of our colleagues in the West Wing that all contracts must be properly bid. I am astonished to learn that over 20 (!) requests for work have been made to Mr. Blum, without proper procedures being followed. This needs to stop, as you said.

Therefore, I ask that Curt please instruct all of our staff to cease and desist forthwith from these sloppy practices. Every major project must be properly bid. We must follow all the relevant regulations strictly. If one or more staff members cannot operate with that elementary discipline, then I will fire them.

I also ask that you and your staff refuse to pay out any unauthorized expenses.

Finally, please keep me fully informed of infractions, including the names of the malefactors.

Thanks, MG [Mike Gfellor].

"Wilkinson, Peter (AUS)" wrote:

We have a serious problem looming on the near horizon as explained in the email below. The number of ratifications required from unauthorised commitments is now over 20 projects that we know of, almost all of them involving Phil Bloom. Phil, however, is not the problem. We all know he does good quality, timely work albeit for a premium price.

The problem is CPA personnel telling Phil to do work without the authority to do so. We have spoken about this before but the problem continues. Bob Shelton is rightfully concerned that the effort needed to correct all of these unauthorised commitments actually jeopardises our ability to spend CPA-SC's current funding allocation.

With the $41m we have spent in the past, I deliberately left the contracting folks at the end of the whole process so that they could concentrate on writing the enormous number of contracts required. They achieved this with a minimum of fuss and a great deal of flexibility. However, the large scale projects we have been undertaking have been going off the rails from a contracting perspective which is one sure way of attracting unwanted attention from Baghdad auditors and others who may not want our programs to succeed.

We have proudly stated to Bremer in the past that we like the CPA rules and we can work easily within those rules. Well, we're breaking those rules now.

I can not stress enough that Bob Shelton and Eric are totally on board with the CPA-SC programme. Indeed they deserve a substantial amount of the credit for our success in achieving spending targets. I will continue to work with the West Wing group to bring them around and would appreciate it if you could impress the thrust of this email upon them when the pester you!

Peter Wilkinson
Group Captain
Director of Operations
Coalition Provisional Authority - South Central
Unclass: +1-703-343-9624
Pager: Pager # is 8816-314-72349

-----Original Message-----

From: Shelton,Robert (USA)

Sent: Saturday, February 21, 2004 11:17 AM

To: Wilkinson, Peter (AUS)Subject: Program Plans

Eric [a fellow contracting officer with Bob Shelton - I cannot remember Eric's last name] and I met with Phil Bloom and Fadi yesterday. Eric also met with Fern [Holland, a lawyer working for CPA who was killed in an Iraqi ambush a few weeks later, along with her interpretor, Salwa Oumashi, and Bob Zangas] just before her departure. On the positive side we now have a better picture of what is going on in the region regarding program plans (or lack of). I believe we have a mutual understanding with Phil that he is to not proceed with any work without a signed contract by Eric or myself. He understands that Mr. G or any of the program managers cannot obligate the CPA-SC. The downside is that there appears to be more unauthorized work performed by Phil and others that was directed by Mr. G, LTC Hopfengardner, Fadi, and Fern. Phil agreed to list out every job he is working. It’s unfortunate that we cannot get this information from our own people. Hopefully we can sort through the current mess and move on.

We have a potential problem in that Mr. G wants the dormitory [at the Religious University in Al Hilla} done by 30 May. I am also hearing from our folks that he wants Phil to do the job. That’s fine, but Phil will have to compete just like everyone else. Eric and I will seek sources for this project. If this project goes above $500K then we need to get Jesse Pruitt involved and get the PRB [project document] approved. We have a good working relationship with him which should help expedite the approval. Unfortunately we don’t have a SOW [Statement of Work], drawings, cost estimate or any other specifications. The method that was discussed behind closed doors to phase this project is unacceptable. Had Eric and myself been consulted earlier in the process the potential for success would have been greater. Part of my concern is that Mr. G wants a multi-million dollar facility designed and built within the next 90 days. According to Phil, he can’t even meet that timeframe without using pre-fabricated buildings.

The region currently has approx. 20 known unauthorized commitments that need to be ratified. I’ll have a better picture of all of the UAs when Phil provides me his list of jobs and who directed the work. Eric and I have reached a saturation point where we spend too much time cleaning up messes caused by several CPA-SC members taking shortcuts or bypassing the existing contracting process. We have $40 million to spend in the next two months, but current practices by Mr. G and the program managers will prevent the region from successfully executing this program budget. We are working with Fadi to develop his program plan. However, we need see the region’s overall plan. At this time no region plan exists. Need to know what other large-scale projects are in the works. I know there a several great ideas brewing, but we have to be realistic.

In order to best execute our budget and prepare the region for future success it is imperative that we have a meeting of the minds. Those minds include Mr. G, COL Whiteford, Group Captain Wilkinson, LTC Hopfengardner, Fadi, Fern, Adley, Bob Z. [Zangas, killed with Fern in an ambush several weeks later], LTC Wheeler, Bob Stein [the civilian finance officer for CPA and the first one of the bunch to go to jail] and the contracting team. Eric has briefly mentioned this to the chief. It is also important to know that we have entertained a few investigators regarding reports of wrongdoing or misconduct. I anticipate more to follow. Finally, we should not forget the future visits by the GAO, Army Audit Agency (AAA), and other audit teams. In our haste to execute our generous budget we could potentially take unnecessary shortcuts which could come with negative results.

As always, Eric and I are in full support of the region’s efforts. Our decisions to extend our tours hinge on whether we are actually supporting these efforts while in keeping with the prescribed rules established by Ambassador Bremer and the Head Contracting Authority. We hope to continue to provide value to this organization which has done so much in so little time.


[End of email]

I was sure that the prosecutor already had a copy of this email because much of her case was built on emails. Yes, these fools left a paper trail in the CPA servers a mile long.

In January 2004 Debra Harrison decided to extend her tour in Iraq and stay at CPA in Hilla until the Coalition Provisional Authority was dissolved in June 2004. She talked Tamara Montgomery, her roommate, into staying with her. Within six weeks of my departure at the end of February 2004 Tami Montogomery was wounded in a firefight in Baghdad, leaving Debra alone. I don't know if Debra knew about the money being handed out when she decided to stay. I have often wondered about that - if her decision was based on the opportunity to reap ill-gotten gains. Or did she slide down the slippery slope after I left? I don't know. I doubt that I'll get the opportunity to talk to Debra again to find out.

Friday, July 25, 2008

On understanding the war - Part 2

I am in a bit of a quandary.

On the one hand I finished Doug Feith's new book, "War and Decision," about his role as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy under Don Rumsfeld at the onset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr Feith's book was the most interesting and insightful account that I have read (after 4 years of waiting) about how decisions concerning the post invasion occupation of Iraq were made or not made in Washington.

On the other hand, General Tommy Franks, the Central Command Commander who planned the invasions of both countries, stated in his book, "American Soldier," that Doug Feith was "getting a reputation around here [at CENTCOM] as the dumbest fucking guy on the planet." While I have not yet finished Franks' book, and I have personally seen examples and heard stories about how prickly four star generals can be, I must conclude that Feith may have gotten on Franks' nerves a little bit.

I scanned several reviews of Feith's book and noticed that the negative reviewers frequently managed to work Franks comment into the opening paragraphs of their article. After scanning these reviews and reading the book I discovered that a lot of people are very angry at Mr. Feith for some of the actions that he took while in office. (One must remember that a good portion of the time that people were attacking Feith in the papers and magazines I was in Iraq, otherwise occupied). In his book, Mr. Feith spends a lot of time methodically documenting that the criticisms of his detractors were based on ignorance, misinformation or downright lies.

My quandary lies in reconciling the views of the two men. However, I believe that in the process of reconciliation some flashes of truth will emerge. And right now, at this point in history, flashes are all we will be able to get. Two important actors, Don Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, have yet to publish their side of the story.

I was very favorably impressed with Doug Feith's account primarily because he quoted from actual documents produced at the time and notes that he kept from the many meetings he attended. The book is meticulously footnoted and, where possible, he provides links to the source documents so that the reader can verify the authenticity of Feith's facts. He does not quote from unnamed sources. He was not a journalist peering from the outside of the process through a knothole into the inner workings of the Pentagon. He was one of the key players in that process.

One can disagree with Feith's conclusions, and I disagree with some. But he has enlightened me, more than any other author, about why the decisions of the U.S government turned out the way they did. Like I said, I have been waiting four years for this kind of information. I believe that a lot of people in this country and around the world have made up their mind about Iraq using incorrect information or without a full knowledge of the complexities of the issues. I still don't understand why a lot of things happened and I was there. I have been writing this blog for almost two years in an effort to understand. In subsequent posts I will explore the many very interesting issues that Doug Feith has raised.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Obama and his Iraq policy

Even George Packer in the July 7 & 14, 2008 "New Yorker" magazine concedes, begrudgingly, that Senator Obama, the presumptive Democratic candidate for President, will have to change his policy on Iraq. Since the beginning of his candidacy Senator Obama has had what I have called a take-my-ball-and-go-home Iraq policy. His policy, as stated to everyone who would listen, was to withdraw, and continue to withdraw, U.S. forces from Iraq regardless of the circumstances on the ground.

Obviously, this policy was politically popular with a portion of the Democratic Party electorate. Supporters of this policy irresponsibly disregarded the impact of a precipitous withdrawal on the poor, long suffering Iraqi populace. But the human rights of the Iraqi citizens never were a consideration in this policy. The Iraqis couldn't take their ball and go home - they were stuck there.

In an unprecedented move, Packer actually gave some credit to President Bush, but in the most off-handed manner imaginable. "The improved conditions [in Iraq] can be attributed, in increasing order of importance, to President Bush's surge, the change in military strategy under General David Petraeus, the turning of Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda, the Sadr militia's unilateral ceasefire, and the great historical luck that brought them all together at the same moment."

In 2006 I endured many a Packer essay on Iraq - full of vitriol toward Bush, disdain toward the U.S. government's Iraq policy and unrelentingly pessimistic about any kind of favorable outcome in that tormented country (I endure these essays, and others, so that my own beliefs may be challenged and thereby strengthened - or changed). That is why I see the paragraph above as an almost pathetic argument, undeserving of publication in a a great magazine like "The New Yorker" (almost like a fan walking out of Yankee Stadium bleating that the Red Sox only won because they were lucky). There is an old sports saying about luck (in my part of the world, anyway) - "You make your own breaks."

Let's address these five issues; in reverse order, that is, to the order that Packer presented them. First, to say that the vastly improving situation in Iraq is due to luck is to discount the hard work and effort of tens if not hundreds of thousands of individuals who have contributed months if not years to the success of this endeavor. As we shall see, luck had little to do with it. Packer calls it luck because he is unable to admit that he is wrong.

Secondly, the turning of the Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda was long overdue, and I have written about this before (see my May 2007 post). The Sunni are a minority population in an oil rich country, yet no oil lies in the Sunni dominated provinces. The only chance that the Sunnis have of enjoying any prosperity in the future is as a part of the country of Iraq. That they have been particularly stubborn about admitting this fact has always been a mystery to me. The introduction of Al Qaeda into their communities was the shock that startled the Sunni out of their coma and allowed them to see where their bests interests lay. But most importantly, luck was not the reason that alert military commanders on the ground recognized the change in attitudes among the Sunni tribesmen and moved quickly to capitalize on it.

To say that the unilateral ceasefire by the Sadr militia was a random act of kindness by the volatile firebrand is odd. Sadr had been sending his Legions into the Valley of Death since 2004 without effect. He has declared a "unilateral" ceasefire because he knew that he would be slapped down quickly, just like all the other times he had tried to assert any authority.

That leaves us to the final two points: the new strategy and the surge. That the U.S. military entered Iraq in 2003 without a robust plan for the occupation or an effective plan for the ensuing insurgency was certainly bad luck for President Bush, but very few pundits or critics characterized it that way. Consequently, luck played no part in the fact that the military learned from their mistakes, developed a new counterinsurgency strategy, and then implemented this strategy boldly and effectively.

I agree with George Packer's reasons for the current success in Iraq, although I strongly disagree with his order of priority. The current success begins and ends with President Bush's decision to surge U.S. combat brigades into Iraq. That was a tough decision, not only because the political reaction was so strong, but because the burden fell heavily on the lives of so many service men and women and their families.

A former commanding general of mine used to tell us, "We are at war, more is expected of soldiers." When I heard him speak that statement I had been in the military for twenty seven years without seeing combat. When the time came, his words signaled to me what I needed to do, and how I needed to act.

So too did President Bush's decision to launch the surge send a signal to friend and foe alike. The signal to General Petraeus and his soldiers was to move forward and get the job done. The signal to the Sunni tribesmen was to join the winning side. The signal to Sadr was that this was not a man to be messed with. The conveyance of these messages was not a matter of luck but of deliberate intent.

Senator Obama has to make a decision. Will he do as he has accused President Bush of doing, to continue despite all evidence to support a failed policy? Will he see Iraq through the eyes of George Packer, who says that"[t]here will be no such thing as victory in Iraq?" Will he stand up to the crowd (now that they have helped assure his election) and leave the U.S. troops in Iraq long enough to see the job through, or will he stuff the Iraqi people into a sturdy sack with a heavy stone and toss them into the river?

The Iraqi people could use a bit of luck. They deserve it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

On understanding the war - Part 1

There are a lot of things that I still don't understand about the war In iraq. A common theme for me in these posts, a recurring question that has pestered me since before the war was: Why wasn't there a plan for the occupation? Why did the same people who brilliantly planned the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq do such a miserable job of planning the occupation of Iraq? Why did the occupation go so badly? Why did the problems in the occupation look, initially, eerily the same as the problems encountered in Panama after Operation Just Cause?

There has been a lot of commentary about this question and I have actually read some of it. We have heard from General Tommy Franks, the Commander of Central Command during these operations. Until now, we have not heard from the top leaders in the Defense Department, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers, Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, and most importantly, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Secretary Rumsfeld was clearly in charge at the Defense Department and he took an active and detailed interest in the war plans for these two operations. Whatever was produced was done under his specific guidance and direction. Whatever the plans did or failed to do were his responsibility. When it comes to the occupation of Iraq, this is not a question of a good plan poorly executed. This is not even a bad plan badly executed. What happened in Iraq was that everyone, military and civilian, separately and in some case individually, in the absence of any guidance from above, examined the situation facing them and come up with their own plan.

Why did this happen? I really want to read Don Rumsfeld's account of the rationale in his mind during the planning for the war. Rumsfeld was not stupid. He was extremely bright, with considerable knowledge and experience, and had the benefit of brilliant people advising him. I hope Rumsfeld is busy writing his memoir of the war as we speak.

In the meantime I will have to make do with one of Rumsfeld's brilliant advisers: Douglas Feith. Mr. Feith was the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy from 2001 to 2005. He has written a book, "War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the dawn of the War on Terrorism." I have started reading this book, looking for answers. If I find any, I will let you know.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Memorial Day - remembering the fallen

I first met Bob Zangas in Kuwait at the start of the war. He was a Marine Corp Lieutenant Colonel, a Reservist, and part of the civil affairs contingent for the First Marine Division. He and I were waiting in Kuwait while the invading army sliced through the hapless Iraqi Army on the way to Baghdad. We worked on a project together and I got to know him. After I moved to Camp Babylon Bob moved to the provincial capital of Al Kut. I was able to see him a few more times before he rotated home in September 2003 with the rest of the Marines.

Bob Zangas (r), myself (c) and an Iraqi translator (l) in Iraq in January 2004.

I first met Fern Holland at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) South Central Office at the Hotel Babylon in Hilla in the fall of 2003. Fern, a lawyer from Oklahoma, was assigned to the office to promote women's rights in the south central region of Iraq. Fern came across to me as a very attractive, very intense young woman. We were going in different directions during the day so I rarely spoke more than a few words to her, and that was mostly in passing, in places like the dining facility. Such a woman, assigned to perform such a mission, caused some eye rolling among some of the men at the Office. But, since the promotion of women's rights in Iraq was a priority for Ambassador Bremer and the CPA, such editorial comments were limited.

Salwa Oumashi was an Iraqi translator who worked for Fern. According to a
New York Times article on these two women, Salwa had lived in the United States. One evening, during a social function on the third floor of the Hotel Babylon, I was able to have a nice, long discussion with Salwa. I took away the impression that she was very committed to her job.

Fern Holland (r), Salwa Oumashi (2nd from r) and myself (l) showing a picture of my family that I kept in my helmet to a group of women at the Karbala Women's Rights Center in Karbala, Iraq, in February 2004.
In December 2003 I was standing in the CPA compound when I saw Bob Zangas, dressed in civilian clothes. After Bob completed his initial tour and the Marine Corp Reserve returned him to civilian life, Bob volunteered to return to Iraq as a civilian employee of the CPA. He was assigned to our South Central Office with the task of building the capacity of the Iraqi media. Although I could not imagine volunteering to return to Iraq the act seemed to go along with the boundless enthusiasm Bob had for his new job and the unlimited optimism he had for the future of the Iraqi people.

The CPA South Central compound where I worked from October 2003 to February 2004 was comprised of primarily civilian employees of CPA or Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), the contractor responsible for providing our logistical support. Most of the cooks and servers in our dining facility were Pakistanis who lived right there in the compound. The men who protected our perimeter and guarded us while we slept were contracted Nepalese, former Gurkhas in the British Army.

Other than a small contingent of Military Police, my Team of five civil affairs soldiers were the only other soldiers on the compound. This became important because we were armed, and could provide our own protection, and we traveled frequently to the five provincial capitals in our area. KBR would often check our schedule and ask if we would escort truckloads of supplies to one of the outlying CPA offices. I didn't want my job to be escorting supply convoys, but I saw no reason that we couldn't occasionally lend a hand.

So it was that one day in January 2004 Bob Zangas came to me and asked if he could accompany us to Ad Diwaniyah and would we stop by a dairy in the area? The dairy was a beneficiary of a CPA project, and Bob wanted do a media story on the project. I thought the task supported the war effort and I agreed to help. In February 2004 Fern asked if she and Salwa could ride along with me on a trip to check on the progress of the construction at the Karbala Women's Rights Center. Later that month Ambassador Bremer came to Karbala to the inauguration of this center.

On February 28, 2004 I left CPA South Central to return to Kuwait and eventually an airplane ride home. With our departure Fern, Salwa and Bob were forced to decide whether they could do their jobs inside the compound or be forced to travel outside, unprotected. I had already observed by their actions that Fern and Bob were prepared to take more risks than I was. Any risks that I took, of course, subjected my soldiers to the same risk. Bob was responsible only to himself. Where ever Fern went she was accompanied by Salwa. I was not privy to any conversations that these women had about the risks that they were taking.

Some could argue that they were braver than I was, or more foolish. Others would say that both sides of the argument are correct. The net result was that on March 9, 2004, ten days after I left Iraq, while returning from a visit to the Karabala Women's Rights Center, Fern Holland, Salwa Oumashi and Robert Zangas were ambushed and killed in their vehicle by a hail of AK - 47 bullets.

I know that Memorial Day is to honor fallen American soldiers, but whenever I think of someone who was killed in Iraq Fern, Salwa and Bob come to mind. They and their families sacrificed for this war. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Iraqi attitudes about America

The Kurdish people of Iraq suffered under Saddam Hussein. And we fought and died alongside Americans to liberate our country. There is no ambiguity about the depth of gratitude that Kurds feel for America's sacrifices in Iraq. Americans who have been killed or wounded in Iraq are heroes to me and to all of Iraq's Kurds. We will never forget what you have done for us.

- NECHIRVAN BARZANI, Prime Minister of Kurdistan, in the Wall Street Journal

Reading this quote in the WSJ almost brought tears to my eyes. Cynics would say that the cynical and crafty Barzani was trying to manipulate American public opinion (as he manipulated mine). Politicians (and Barzani, whom I have never met or even seen, is a politician) will say a lot of things, true or untrue, for a lot of reasons. Whether Barzani personally believed these words or not, I am glad and grateful that he said them.

Unlike most Americans, who have never met an Iraqi, much less a grateful one, I had a number of Iraqis shake my hand, look me in the eye and thank me for helping to get rid of Saddam. I had a much better impression of Iraqis when I left Iraq, after ten months of closely observing their behavior, than when I arrived. I have been around the world and have visited dozens of countries, so I had some basis upon which I could make comparisons.

Yet, evaluating the Iraqis wasn't very hard. They were industrious. They had a work ethic and wanted to do well at their job. I could see that as I traveled through the cities and watched thousands of Iraqis diligently performing thousands of different, sometimes humble, tasks. They were religious, and publicly made great sacrifices for their faith. I passed many Iraqis walking through the desert on a pilgrimage to a holy site. The really interesting part was that other Iraqis in cities along their path were obligated by their faith to provide food and water to the pilgrims. Finally, they were family oriented. On holidays, the Iraqi family would parade in the park, the father holding the young daughter while the wife led the son by the hand.

There are many people in my country, great Americans, with great compassion for anyone and everyone, who would toss this Iraqi family over the side in their great haste to see the American military withdrawn from Iraq, immediately and regardless of the consequences. Or so it appears to me based on statements of certain popular American politicians. I call it the "Take my ball and go home policy." Or so it appears to me.

I respectfully disagree.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Governor's Hurricane Conference

I joined several thousand others in attending the Governor's Hurricane Conference in Ft. Lauderdale last week. For the second year in a row, those of us who are members of the State Emergency Response Team were forced to monitor wildfire outbreaks throughout the state while we attended the conference. Fortunately the counties and the state Division of Forestry were able to manage with very little additional state assistance.

The most interesting presentation was by Mike Womack from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, although very little of the information he presented made the media. He gave us all an update on the progress Mississippi is making in rebuilding two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina. At the beginning of his presentation he asked those of us in the room who had responded to Mississippi after Katrina to stand. I felt good that I had responded and was very interested in the progress that Mississippi had made.

His presentations made clear the difficulties in recovering from such a catastrophe. The delay in rebuilding is often attributed to FEMA bureaucracy and incompetence but the truth lies more in the staggering logistical difficulties of the task and the need for state and local officials to make difficult decisions that often alienate certain constituencies. Vast sums of federal dollars are made available for rebuilding but these dollars must be spent sequentially and not all at once. The buildings can't be constructed until the roads are repaired. The roads cannot be rebuilt until the utilities are laid. The utilities can't be installed until the debris is removed and the debris removal took almost two years.

Why so long for the debris? Just load it onto a truck and haul it away, right? But where? You can't just dump it all in the ocean. The local landfills cannot hold the staggering quantity of tonnage involved. Much of the area was contaminated by the storm surge with a toxic soup of petroleum, chemicals and sewage. The casino barges that were transported inland by the storm had to be cut into manageable pieces. Damaged structures had to be torn down. Automobiles and trucks had to be hauled away and stripped so that the steel could be salvaged.

Plus, local officials had to educate their communities about the rebuilding options. Should the communities be rebuilt as they were, to be destroyed again with the next storm? Or should the buildings be elevated, at much greater expense? Many of the public buildings, like schools, were rebuilt north of Interstate 10 so that they could be used as risk shelters. New land had to be found and in some cases purchased to accommodate these schools.

Many Floridians believe that the storms of 2004 and 2005 have prepared the citizens of our state for the hurricanes to come. Yet, none of those storms were as catastrophic as Katrina. The time may come when we will have to face the grim and difficult decisions faced by the people of Mississippi.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

National Hurricane Conference

The National Hurricane Conference was held the first week of April at the Rosen Center in Orlando. I attended as a part of my job as an emergency manager for the state of Florida. The Conference last year, which I also attended, was held in New Orleans, La.

What was remarkable about this year's conference was the contrasts, the simultaneous feeling that so much has been improved since Hurricane Katrina and yet so many problems remain unchanged. The unfortunate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was displayed on television and in numerous other media accounts as well as multiple after action reviews by the White House, the Congress, and other agencies. Congress thoroughly examined the mistakes that were made and attempted to correct them in the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which was passed by Congress and signed in law by President Bush on October 4, 2006.

The emergency management community at the local, state and federal levels has been extremely busy implementing this law since it was passed. We are still not finished. The reason we aren't finished is due to the breadth and complexity of the changes that were implemented. Secondly, FEMA had to develop, test and implement a lot of new programs to comply with this act. Once these programs were developed, the state and local emergency management had to modify their emergency plans to incorporate these new federal strategies. In the last year I have been extremely busy coordinating, updating and writing emergency plans.

In many ways we are better prepared to handle the next catastrophe. Unfortunately, in many areas we, as a nation, are not. As hard as it might be to forget the terrible images of Hurricane Katrina many of the public have been able to do so. Two straight hurricane seasons without a major impact on the United States has allowed complacency to reinstate itself as king of emergency management in many of our communities. One good example came from the insurance industry presentation. In Mississippi in 2006 the number of flood insurance policies writen in 2006, the year after Katrina, was up by 39%. By 2007, however, most of those new policies were allowed to lapse.

The emergency management community is much better prepared now that we were in 2003. We had a lot of practice in 2004 and 2005, and we've done a lot of written a lot of new plans in 2006 and 2007. But like any other industry, there has been a turnover in experienced people. The State Emergency Response Team in Florida that did such a great job of responding to Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi and then Hurricane Wilma in south Florida is taking the field this hurricane season with a lot of new faces.

Regardless of how prepared we are,if the citizens don't do their part to get a plan and be prepared, then the next big disaster could result in more needless suffering.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Iraq back on the front page

Five days ago the Iraqi government began a crackdown in Basra on the lawless militia followers of Moqtada al Sadr. The fighting quickly spread to Baghdad and other Shiite towns like Nasiriya, Ku, Hilla and Diwaniyah, all places that are familiar to me and that I visited many times. The reasons for this new outbreak of fighting is not very well understood by many Americans. I have even received an email asking, in essence, "I thought you said that the surge was working?"

The actions taken by the Iraqi government in the last few days are extremely important for the future of that government as well as for the Iraqi people. To be effective any government must have sole control on the use of force within the boundaries of the nation. Sadr's militia, the so-called Mahdi Army, have between 40 - 60,000 (estimates vary) followers operating from majority Shia areas throughout central and southern Iraq. Sadr has influence, but not necessarily control over these groups of what are essentially armed gangs. These gangs are heavily involved in criminal activity.

The Mahdi Army is nothing new. These gangs were just beginning to form when I was in Iraq in 2003 - 2004. I remember clearly one day when I was in An Najaf an Iraqi told me Sadr followers were stockpiling arms and ammunition in mosques in the city. In April 2004 Ambassador Bremer tried to crack down on Sadr but the result was an armed Shia uprising in south-central Iraq that the Coailtion Multi-National Division was unable to suppress. American forces moved in to do the job and restore order. In August 2004 Sadr tried to use force again in the city of Najaf. The Marines and the Iraqi Army were called in and the Mahdi Army suffered considerable casualties before a truce was brokered.

The military defeats of Sadr in 2004 caused him to change strategy. Sadr began to work the political arena, although he kept his Mahdi Army armed and ready. Sadr began to bide his time, waiting for the moment when the Americans would leave and he could renew his effort to turn Iraq into his own version of an Islamist, fascist state.

This week the Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki decided to take on Sadr and his Mahdi Army. This was not a sudden, impulsive decision but one taken after consultations with the Americans and his partners in the government. This dirty job needed to be done but the security situation and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces was never such as to be able to perform the task. I can only hope that the Iraqi Army is up to the task. Sadr is calling for a ceasefire so he must be worried that his military force will be chewed to pieces if they were to try to take on the Army.

This is a risky endeavor by Prime Minister Maliki. He can't fail. Should he fail in all likelihood he would lose his job. The consequences of failure are great, not only for the Iraqis but for the Americans and the Presidential election.

The New York Times is already saying the the Iraqi government operation has stalled. This is like calling the game as over after two minutes of the first quarter. I believe that the battle has just begun, and the outcome will not be known for weeks. We shall see.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The fifth anniversary of the war

Five years ago this week I was sitting in Ft. Bragg, N.C., wondering if the war would start before the Pentagon shipped me and my comrades to Kuwait to join the rest of the invasion force. My presence in Kuwait was not necessary for the successful initiation of the invasion but I wanted to be there anyway. For six months I had known that I would play a small part in history and this knowledge had consumed my life, almost to the exclusion of everything else.

I was one of thousands of civil affairs reservists that the Army had mobilized and assembled in Ft. Bragg in the middle of February. Before that, I had been living in Norristown, Pennsylvania helping to prepare the unit to go to war. I had been preparing for this moment for almost thirty years - a time when I could use the expensive training that the Army had invested in me.

When I flew back to Norristown after visiting my family over Thanksgiving I wasn't sure when I would see them again. In December four members of our unit, including my good friend Colonel Larry West, were mobilized as a planning team. Their mission was to go to Kuwait and link up with the unit that we were assigned to support, the First Marine Expeditionary Force. This seemed like one more sign that we were going to war. But our mobilization order didn't come in December and I returned home to my family for the holidays.

When I returned to Norristown in January I said good bye to my wife and children a second time not knowing when I would see them again. Almost every day in January the Pentagon issued mobilization orders for Army Reserve units throughout the nation. The newscast were full of diplomatic maneuvering and troops flowing into Kuwait. I had never lived through such tense, uncertain and exciting times. Yet, as the end of January arrived we had still not received any mobilization orders.

On February 8 I flew to Orlando for the weekend to see my family. When my wife dropped me off at the airport one more time we didn't really say good bye. Our emotions weren't able to take it anymore. On February 15 our unit was mobilized. We were to spend the next five weeks in Ft. Bragg waiting for an airplane ride that would not seem to come. During that time my 25th wedding anniversary on March 10 came and went. I was to spend our 26th wedding anniversary in Kuwait waiting to return home.

On a cold, rainy evening on March 19 in the drafty, wooden barracks where we had been living I listened to a radio broadcast of the President's speech announcing the beginning of the war. After all the work and preparation I was disappointed that we were not in Kuwait. In two days, though, I boarded a United Airlines Boeing 747 bound for Kuwait. For me, the war had begun.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Europeans

In less than two decades, there have been American campaigns of rescue in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Two of these American wars, the ones in the Balkans, were on behalf of Muslims stranded in a hostile European landscape. In its refusal to acknowledge the debt owed American power, Muslim society tells us a good deal about its modern condition, and about that false, mindless anti-Americanism on the loose in Muslim lands.

- Fouad Ajami, in the Wall Street Journal, February 29, 2008

In April 1996 I traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina as a part of NATO's Implementation Force or IFOR. I still have my IFOR identification card. When I was stationed in Germany from 1975-1978 I traveled throughout Europe and even Yugoslavia, but I had never before been to Bosnia. In 1978 I traveled along the Dalmatian coast through what is now Croatia, then around Albania and through Macedonia to get to Greece.

In April 1996 Bosnia was still very much a war torn country. This fragile nation was bisected by the Inter Entity Boundary Line (IEBL), a scar of fortifications, minefields and shattered buildings. The most remarkable part of my journey was seeing the Muslim minarets rising from the center of European towns. Bosnia had the misfortune to be at the geographic center of the battle between three religions: the Russian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and Islam. To this day I can't understand why such a conflict in the back yard of the European Union required the assistance of the United States military and my own precious time to resolve.

Fortunately, in 1999 the United States was able to lead the helpless Europeans to the assistance of the Kosovar Muslims with out my help. I would have gone if asked, but at that time I was busy assisting the Colombian military to fight a vicious thirty year insurgency.

Considering the Europeans could hardly handle the smaller Bosnian and Kosovo problems we are asking a lot that they travel half way around the world to save Afghanistan from Islamic extremism. They are providing troops for the effort, and we should be grateful for small favors. But their instructions to the troops that they offer are to avoid risk, which means no casualties and definitely very little fighting. Except in self defense, of course.

While Fouad Ajami rightly brings up the unreasoning attitudes of the Muslim lands to American accomplishments, I see plenty of "false, mindless anti-Americanism" in European lands that we have rescued on multiple occasions. But I shouldn't complain. The actions we took were not done to seek approval of the world, but because they were the right thing to do.

For this reason, I am not disturbed at the current unpopularity of the U.S. in the world. I am proud that we have the clear vision to be able to do what must be done.