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.