Monday, June 29, 2009

A pistol in my hand

I have never owned a rifle or a pistol. The Army taught me how to use a rifle and a pistol and even lent me one or the other to use occasionally. I never carried a loaded weapon anywhere other than an Army firing range until I got to Iraq.

When I was a young Lieutenant an older officer gave me some advice that stayed with me throughout my career, "You can tell the Army is serious when they give you a flak vest and live ammunition." In March 2003 I was sitting on a cot in a hangar in Kuwait, waiting for the Word to go forward into Iraq, when the company supply sergeant issued me fifty rounds of 9 millimeter ammunition for the pistol I carried in a holster on my hip. I had already received my body armor in Ft Bragg, and it was lying on the cot beside me. As I loaded those rounds into a magazine I thought about the officer's advice and about how right he had been.

For the next 340 days I rarely, if ever, went anywhere without my pistol, usually unloaded. Whenever we went out to visit the local populace I locked the slide to the rear, inserted the magazine and then released the slide so that the spring could slam the slide forward with a distinctive, metallic sound and insert a round into the chamber of the weapon. Often, the metallic sound of my pistol chambering a round was echoed by many soldiers around me as they loaded their own weapons. Later, as Iraq grew more dangerous, I began to carry a rifle with me, so I had two weapons to load and twice as much ammunition to carry.

When we returned to the relative security of our base we unloaded our weapons. The military was very serious about exact procedures for loading and clearing weapons. A sawed off 55 gallon drum, filled with sand, was placed at the entrance to every military post in Iraq for use as a clearing barrel. The idea was to unload your weapon, point into the clearing barrel and then fire. Hopefully there would be no sound and the weapon would be confirmed as unloaded. Sometimes, that was not the case.

A young, Air Force Lieutenant remembered the part about taking the round out of the chamber but forgot the part about removing the magazine. Fortunately, he remembered the part about aiming into the clearing barrel before pulling the trigger. The sound of a gun shot is always unwelcome in a combat zone, especially inside the perimeter. The Lieutenant, horrified at his mistake, compounded it by repeating the error. He hastily pulled the slide of the pistol back, removing the round from the chamber. But without removing the magazine all he did was add another live round to the chamber. Once again he pointed the pistol into the clearing barrel and once again he buried another round in the sand. The Lieutenant was saved from further embarrassment by an Army sergeant who took the pistol from his hand and removed the magazine.

I understand that the Air Force is a suitable substitute for military service. The senior sergeant at my location gave the Lieutenant his pistol back, with one bullet. We took to calling him Barney Fife.

I never fired my weapon in Iraq except on a practice range. A few times I felt compelled to draw my pistol, but I never pointed it at anyone. On several occasions I got out of my vehicle and with a drawn weapon led my convoy of vehicles through a crowd of people. I can still see the faces of the Iraqis as they saw me, pistol drawn and pointed at the ground. I could see a barely perceptible shudder run through the crowd as pressed back away from me, reacting to the man with the gun in his hand.

Fortunately, I carried no terrible memories home with me from Iraq. Yet, to this day, like a tiny film in my head running on a loop, I will be walking innocently and alone across a parking lot, and then I will feel the pistol in my hand, and sense the fear of the Iraqis around me. The feeling that comes over me is always the same, like I have suddenly been possessed with a great and terrible power.

I have not had a pistol in my hand, loaded or otherwise, since February 28, 2004, when I returned to Kuwait from Iraq. I gave my pistol back to the Army and never saw it again. Sometimes, during those chance moments, I can still feel it in my hand again. I actually look at my hand to see if it is there. It never is.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Debra Harrison sentenced to 30 months in prison

I first met Debra Harrison in November 2002 in Norristown, PA where I was working with the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade to get them ready to go to Iraq. In March 2003 we deployed together with the unit to Kuwait, and then on to Iraq in April. A non-combat injury kept Debra in Kuwait for most of the summer, so I didn't get to see her very much.

In September 2003 General Sanchez decided that all Reservists were going to stay the full 365 days in Iraq, instead of heading home early like some of us were hoping. Our original mission with the Marines had ended (the Marines were sent home) and some of us assumed, incorrectly, that we were going to go home, too. Instead, the unit was split between Tikrit, Kuwait, Baghdad, southern Iraq and Al-Hilla, where we had been living the past five months.

I was assigned to Hilla with the mission to be the civil affairs liaison from the Baghdad Headquarters to the Multi-National Division in south central Iraq. To perform this critical function for the war effort I was given Major Debra Harrison, Lieutenant Tamara Montgomery, Lieutenant Alicia Galvany and Specialist Mike Green. Not much of an Army, but deemed adequate for the mission by our Commander, Colonel Rob Stall.

The five of us stayed in Al-Hilla from October 1, 2003 to February 28, 2004. Debra and Tamara volunteered to remain in Iraq so they returned to Hilal in March. Tamara's stay was short, as she was wounded in an ambush in Baghdad in April and medically evacuated home.

Sometime in the first three months of 2004 Debra Harrison became involved in a criminal enterprise operating in the Coalition Provisional Authority Headquarters there in Al Hilla. The conspirators, all of whom I knew very well, one of whom was the Chief of Staff and four of whom were field grade Army Reserve officer, were taking bribes from an American contractor in exchange for funneling lucrative projects to the contractor's company.

They weren't very good criminals, or Army officers for that matter, since they left a treasure trove of evidence for investigators in the CPA email system. Debra got a new car and three hundred thousand dollars in cash which she poured into improvements in her house. She was recently sentenced in federal court to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay $366,000 in restitution.

I haven't seen or talked to Debra since she said good-bye to me in Kuwait in March 2003 and then caught a ride with Tamara back to Hilla and Iraq. I was contacted by the lawyers, both prosecution and defense, about the case but I didn't have any information about whether Debra was guilty or innocent. The buds of the conspiracy sprouted when I was there but most of the criminal activity happened after I left.

I keep coming back to this sordid episode in my posts as new developments occur, vainly looking for a moral to the story. I am sure that emotions often cloud my vision of what happened. I am curious what rationalizations or self delusions went through Debra's and the other defendants minds as they rubbed their hands together and plotted to betray me and everyone else who served there during that period for something as base and meaningless as money.

I am sure that they, their family and friends have eloquent and long winded excuses for the actions that they took. The comments that Debra's family has posted to my blog are good examples of this. I never took sides for or against Debra in this episode until she was convicted by a court of law, even though I read the indictment and knew that she was in all probability guilty. All the prosecutors had to do was to read her emails.

Two more of the conspirators have yet to be sentenced, Colonel Curtis Whiteford and Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Wheeler. The final chapters of this story have yet to be written.