Sunday, May 25, 2008
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.
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.
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. If you want to see a photo of me with Fern and Salwa, and another photo of me with Bob, go to this link.