A Soldier’s Tale
Complete Text of Interviews with Paul Rieckhoff '98
Below is the complete text of the interviews with Paul Rieckhoff ’98, conducted by Dick Hubert ’60 and Rob Longsworth ’99 in April 2004.
Paul, walk us through how and why you volunteered to go into the military.
My family, at least two generations since we’ve been in this country, has served in the military. My grandfather was drafted during World War II and served in the Pacific, and my father was drafted during the Vietnam time. So, I had been familiar with the service. It’s something that my father and grandfather never really touted but it was always obviously a part of their development, and it’s something that I admired in them and that I kind of longed for myself.
So, when I graduated college I was looking for what I felt would be an extreme challenge. Something that would develop me as a person and wasn’t necessarily a conventional resume builder.
I had been given an offer from J.P. Morgan and was committed to them, but still had this yearning to do the military. I figured that was the time to do it. When I got out of college, either do it now, or you’ll never do it. So I decided to defer my job on Wall Street for a year and I enlisted in the Army Reserves. It was primarily, I think, so I could get what I call tangible leadership skills. Actually moving people, influencing people, directing people, understanding the relationships that were necessary to achieve a common goal. I just felt that I wasn’t going to get that in a business environment, I wasn’t going to get that in an academic environment. The military gave me the ultimate in personal-development challenge and leadership.
Let’s put this in a time context. This is pre 9/11.
Right, this is ’98.
Right, exactly. When I was in basic training, AIT (Advanced Individual Training), Kosovo was going on, and they pretty much prepared us. They said “Get ready. When this is ready, you’re probably going to go to Kosovo or to Yugoslavia or somewhere in that region.” I remember when we were actually finishing up toward the end of AIT, so you’re talking about, like, week 20, they rolled a TV out into the middle of the common area where we do our physical training and weapons maintenance and things like that; they rolled the TV out and CNN was live, showing firefights and all that, and they said basically “OK, guys, this is where you’re going, so get ready for it.” It was immediate, there was a threat, it wasn’t quite the 9/11 and post 9/11 environment, but there was the possibility of being deployed in a combat theater.
Coming out of Amherst in ’98, that was pretty much not thought of. People had no idea why in the heck I would ever conceive of joining the military after coming out of a place like Amherst. My father and I had quite a few arguments over it. ’Cause he had been drafted, my grandfather had been drafted, and their theory was, basically, they had to serve, and I’m the first generation that doesn’t have to serve, so why in the hell would I subject myself to so much torture? Especially because I was the first in my family to go to college, and my father kind of wanted me to see a different path. Now, in retrospect, he understands why I did it. But it was difficult convincing the family that I was going to go rolling around in the mud with a bunch of guys who weren’t “Amherst fellows,” carrying guns in the wilderness; they were mostly guys from the South. My father said: “You’re going to go to the South, so be ready for that. It’s a different world entirely.” He said, “Coming from New York, they’re going to love you. (Laughter). He said, “Enjoy Alabama”.
I had a conversation with (Amherst College) President (Tom) Gerety at the time, and he was really interested in seeing why I had chosen to do that. And that it wasn’t concrete yet. I was still kind of vacillating back and forth.
I remember an Army recruiter came to meet me at the Campus Center at Amherst. You know, when this guy walked in, in full military uniform through the Campus Center, it was like an alien had been beamed down from Mars! Amherst students couldn’t even comprehend that someone in uniform was coming on the campus.
Ultimately people were supportive of what I was trying to do, but it wasn’t like now. Now everybody sees the honor and the integrity and the importance of the military, but in 1998 when you joined the military coming out of Amherst, it seemed like it was a path for someone who didn’t know what they wanted to do. Or it was some kind of a grandiose vision of what you wanted to achieve. But people didn’t really understand or appreciate or relate to what the military was. We had only one guy in my class who was ROTC, and he had to go to UMass—Mike Anderson—he joined the Air Force.
What did the other student officers think of their SGO (Student Government Organization) President doing this?
Well, I hadn’t formally committed until after I graduated, although it was pretty much where I was leaning. So there was curiosity more than anything else. But this was pretty much throughout America. I don’t think in the upper socioeconomic classes there is a familiarity in the current younger generations as to what military life is like or what to expect. They get a lot of what they understand about the military through movies or a few select books, but my age group, post-Vietnam era, there was never a draft across the country, so they don’t know. Their experiences are based upon their parents or their grandparents. So, just a lot of curiosity at the outset as to what it actually entails: Do you have to go, what are you going to wear, when can you get out, can you run to Canada if you don’t agree? You know, very good Amherst questions that are probing questions.
So, here you are, in the Army Reserves, 9/11 hits, what was your first reaction?
I was in the Reserves, continued to drill, went through Officer Candidates School, got my commission, and then had transferred over to the infantry unit in New York. I quit my job on Wall Street three days before 9/11 and was planning on taking a vacation and chilling out for a while, because the grind on Wall Street was a pretty exhausting two years. Around 9:00 a.m. or so in the morning I got a call from a friend who said, “Have you seen what’s going on on TV”? I had slept late for the first time in two years. I wandered out onto 24th Street and then walked over to Broadway and looked down Broadway and saw the second plane hit. And then by the time the second plane had hit a friend of mine with whom I was in the Reserves called me, and a cop friend of mine who was downtown called me, and said, “Let’s go down there and see if we can help out.”
At that point, it was really a vast scale. I had a feeling our unit was going to be activated anyway, in support of this (the 9/11 terrorist attack), once we understood the scope, and, so myself and two or three other guys linked up and got on whatever military equipment we could and just made our way south before the towers fell. My unit was activated, I guess, formally around 10:00 p.m. that night. Guys just sort of came trickling in from all over the city. Anyone who had ever been associated with the military kind of understood that there was a way they could help, and people flocked downtown. Cops, fireman, military, ex-military, guys on leave.
When we were walking through the streets we had our uniforms on and a couple of people thought the 82nd Airborne had been dropped into Manhattan! They said: “Where the heck are you guys from?” I said, “24th Street!” They said: “We didn’t see any planes overhead. Where are the helicopters?” And we said: “We live in the city!”
People in New York, they didn’t understand it. Now they do. They didn’t understand that there were people among them who were in the military. I think people in the South and the West maybe are more familiar with the fact that there are these people who serve in a civilian and military capacity. But in Manhattan, they just never really thought it existed. So, to see those two worlds collide was surreal. You know, walking through in a military column through Manhattan was something out of a movie. It was like Bruce Willis in Under Siege or whatever the movie was. To see the F-14s flying in pattern over the towers after they fell, it was a really strange and chaotic time.
What had to be most strange about it was that you were among the very few people there who knew that one way or the other you were going to be in the position to fight back.
Yeah, that’s another thing. As soon as we were working downtown, we’d go spend maybe a day or two down there and then I’d take a couple of guys up to my apartment and we’d shower and get some food and go back down again just to get out of the chaos. Relax a little bit.
I went to my former place of employment, 60 Wall Street, and took about six or seven guys and some firemen and we went up and showered in the J.P. Morgan bathrooms, which was another surreal environment. Walking into the trading floor of J.P. Morgan covered with soot, with two firemen and some National Guard and Reserve guys, and there was a Marine who was on leave; a random bunch of guys. But it was unique, because when we were walking downtown people kind of said to us, “Well, go get those sons of bitches,” or “Go get ‘em back for us. It’s your turn now!” They felt like there was going to be an immediate punch back and we were going to be the people to do it and they understood that there was going to be some form of military retaliation.
But the thing that was most surreal about it was that I always knew that there might be a time when I would serve in a combat environment or something like a combat environment. I just never possibly comprehended it would be in Manhattan. To have those two worlds collide and to be considering military options and security issues in downtown Manhattan was just not even in my realm of possibility. It took a little while to sink in.
But then there was the immediacy of it. We found out pretty soon it was going to be Afghanistan and guys who were down there with me—some went to Afghanistan, most of them are now in Iraq. They went on the second part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. That unit deployed about a month ago. So you’ve got quite a number of guys who were either firemen or officers in the National Guard serving downtown who are now in Iraq. Some served in Afghanistan as well, so they have seen all three stages of this evolving conflict.
What happened after 9/11?
My infantry unit was activated that night, our entire battalion was activated that night. And my unit is out of Camp Smith, upstate, West Point. They couldn’t get guys from that unit into the city because of the traffic issues. Logistically there were so many nightmare scenarios going on. There was another unit on 24th Street that became the staging point, and that’s pretty much where we ran operations.
It was kind of a makeshift effort, because you were just working with whoever could trickle in and whoever could get in the city and whoever was within walking distance and taking bits and pieces of an infantry company and just trying to make it work downtown. Primarily, it was just assessing the situation, and then it was so chaotic that there was no chain of command: Fireman thought they were in charge, cops thought they were in charge, but everybody was united and focused on the effort to get people out. So there was incredible cooperation considering how many people from different backgrounds there were, and how many people there were period. Just trying to coordinate that. There was some binding force, and that was to help the people out who were trapped or dead.
That binding force really allowed some of the petty stuff to melt away, which was really miraculous. It will always stick with me that you had a bucket brigade with a guy who was an MTA engine worker, and then next to him was a steel worker, and next to him was a nurse, and next to her was a fireman, and then you had mass amounts of doctors coming down from Sinai and every hospital in the city just coming down to do whatever they could. So to see all those different worlds converge in a common effort was amazing. It was nothing I ever thought I would see from my generation.
What were the orders following 9/11 for you and your unit?
It was pretty much “hurry up and wait.” We just stood by and waited. We thought we were going to go to Afghanistan. And that was put on the back burner. I went during the meantime and did an infantry officer basic course and pre-Ranger course down at Fort Benning, Ga., for about six months. The entire time that was going on was from about February 2002 to June or July 2002. I spent that six or seven months at Fort Benning in training, and at that point it was pretty clear that the war with Iraq was coming at some point. We didn’t know how soon or how far, but all the guys were focused and understanding that within a few months we would all be leading platoons somewhere. Probably in the Middle East, and probably in a combat environment. We finished in July and a good percentage of guys went directly to Afghanistan. A lot of Ranger slots were moved around because they didn’t want to send guys to Ranger School for 65 days when they could have them for 65 days executing missions in Afghanistan at the time. The guys were sped to theater and the rest were sped to their units so they could train up for preparation for the war in the Spring of 2003.
Now, just as a backdrop, even then you all knew that you were going to Iraq. I suppose there are some people who would say, “Well, how did you know you were going to Iraq that early on?”
It was clear. I mean, anybody who had any kind of association with the military understood that Iraq was the focus. We listened to the chatter, we followed the news, we listened to the political dialogue. I’m kind of a news junkie, and I’m definitely a political junkie, and I listened to the tone. It was clear that the Bush Administration was intent on invading Iraq. It was just a matter of when. There was scuttlebutt—we call it scuttlebutt, rumors— throughout the military saying when it was actually going to come. This military analyst says this, my buddy in this unit talked to a general who said we were going now, we were going in March, we were going in February, and as it got toward the summer and fall of 2002 it was clear that it was going to be late winter, early spring, that was when the war was going to come. And so we figured it was going to be February or March, which was pretty close.
Where were you when the U.S military crossed the border (of Iraq)?
We originally were intended to come down through Turkey. My unit was consolidated in Fort Stewart, Ga., in December. We got there and started to train up in preparation to go as early as two weeks. So from the moment we got to Fort Stewart we had two weeks to be ready to go overseas. Smallpox shots, dental records, all this multitude of things you have to get done before your unit is prepared to deploy, which the Army says are absolutely mandatory. If the Army says it has to speed them up, they’ll send you over with a cavity. They don’t care so much if your teeth are in order; if they need you over there, they’ll send you.
My battalion, actually my company, was scheduled to come down through Turkey. Part of the original plan was...it would have been Task Force Iron Horse, the 4th Infantry Division, to come down through Turkey, come from the North down to Baghdad. Come through Tikrit and Mosul.
We spent a lot of time during those few months waiting to hear what the Turkish Parliament was going to do. Our company specifically, our 120-something guys, we knew that that was our part in this war, and when the Turkish Parliament said “no,” we were redirected through Kuwait. So we actually got there late…we ended up getting to Kuwait, I think, the last week of March, beginning of April. So we were behind. We pretty much followed the original invading force up, and from that point we were attached to First Brigade, Third Infantry Division, which was one of the first Brigades into Baghdad. The Marines came up there one side, and the Third I.D. came up through the other side.
We were infantry grunts, so we do any kind of security mission. They call us shooters. Everyone always needs more shooters. So anytime you want to move anything from one point to another, you need shooters to guard it, or to take out any opposition or enemy forces along the way. And our company was specifically tasked to guard a Patriot battery, which were the anti-missile missile technology knock-down missile batteries, so we would go in and secure an area, make sure there were no enemy forces when the Patriots would come in and set up. It’s unusual because the Patriots have tremendous range, yet they have absolutely no security. So their security was basically dependent upon a squad or two of my guys, sometimes a platoon. So, at the outset of the war, our combat phase missions were limited; just a lot of security escorts. We had a couple of limited encounters, not heavy intense conflict, on the way up.
But there was stuff here and there. Scattered contact. Once we rolled into Baghdad, it was pretty much right after the city was in the process of falling. We came into the airport road first and then elements of our battalion were in the original invading force, pretty much the first forces into Baghdad and Baghdad Airport. Pieces of our battalion were there throughout the whole combat phase. It was really unusual. We were split up to the four winds, in small elements. That had never really been done before. They usually don’t break up infantry battalions into small elements. There were times that we had two squads five, 10 kilometers away from the rest of the units, totally acting independently. We were designed as a light infantry air-assault battalion, which means we are foot soldiers, grunts, traditional—they call them doughboys—we are the guys who take ground. We have probably the most immediate and direct contact with the enemy. So, our infantry battalion is designed to be penetrated into the enemy or into the battlefield through helicopters, just like the 101st Airborne, so we were originally designed to do that, but our jobs throughout the entire war were across the entire gamut.
The combat was over, at least in a lot of American minds, in an anniversary that has just happened the last couple of days since we are doing this taping, and that is the fall of the Saddam statue in Baghdad. When, for you, did you ever feel that combat was over, if at all?
It ebbed and flowed. I remember being in Baghdad in May and it had settled down tremendously. The fires had been put out, the looting had been for the most part squashed.
The damage from the looting was tremendous. People ask me about the infrastructure and how much buildings were damaged during the bombings. The bombing campaign by the U.S. was tremendously effective and also incredibly surgical. They could take out one building, and preserve all the surrounding buildings with limited damage. What was most destructive on the infrastructure and the building and the people in Baghdad was the subsequent looting. There wasn’t a plan in place to control it, and there were certainly not enough forces in place to control it, so it became what the guys used to call “the Wild West.” It was the Wild West and the guys used to write on the back of their shirts “Baghdad P.D.” (Police Department), because there was no law, there was no order. We were the closest thing to a force trying to maintain order.
So it was chaos, especially in May and into June, but it wasn’t conventional war, it felt like a security mission, it felt like a peacekeeping mission. It didn’t feel like direct combat. The enemy didn’t really engage us at all, and when they did it was sporadic engagements, and it wasn’t head on. It’d be pot shots; we got shot at all the time. But it was never an organized, coordinated attack.
Those organized attacks really didn’t start to come until the fall. That was October, and November was the worst month for us, where we started to see IED attacks, which are Improvised Explosive Devices. They started to take mortar shells, or artillery shells, wrap them up with some detonation cord, and attach it to either a doorbell ringer or cell phone or any kind of remote detonation device. They’d wait for either a dismounted walking patrol or mounted patrol vehicles and they’d detonate it. That’s where the bulk of the casualties have come in the year after the official end to combat operations, it’s been through IED attacks. And those are difficult because when you are hit, it’s pretty much like a booby trap. You’re hit, and there’s no one to really retaliate against, and if you do, that’s what the guerrilla forces want. They want you to come in and punish the civilians who don’t know what the heck happened.
You’ve got an isolated group of people who are conducting these attacks that are militarily, in the overall scheme of things, insignificant. Combat operations were tremendously effective and the resistance by the Iraqis was never really effective, even once we had taken the city, the tolls have been consistent and people have been chipped away, American soldiers have been killed, but the overall military significance on the ground is very small. It has political significance back home, social significance, and of course significance to the families. But casualties were never high enough to make a combat unit ineffective, to make us unable to complete whatever it was our mission was going to do.
Can you tell us what your best day was in Iraq, and then, after that, your worst day?
Well, I know my guys would say the best day was the day we left [laughs]. If I had to pick one day, oh, we did a lot of work with the local schools. In my sector we were responsible for three ministry buildings: the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Labor, and the Ministry of Finance. There were two colleges, the Dental College, the largest medical complex in Iraq, I think maybe six elementary schools, three nursery schools, and I think three high schools. So there were a lot of different types of things going on in our sector, and we were able to have a really strong impact on repairing and reconstructing a lot of those facilities and a lot of those buildings, and the way they operated.
The thing that I took most pride in and that my guys took the most pride in was the schools. There was one school in particular that had been pretty much devastated, not so much by the war but by the looting and by the years of neglect from Saddam. We saw a pretty large class difference in Baghdad. The poor schools are very poor. I’m talking raw sewage, no electricity, no power, no equipment, no chalk boards, no books, no security. The kids there did not feel safe; their parents did not feel safe sending them.
My best day was maybe one of the days where we had some friends from New York and from J.P. Morgan who put together 50 or 60 boxes of school supplies. We had already established a relationship with the headmistress at one of the local elementary schools, and my platoon took all these boxes and went down to the school and were able to deliver them, and the reaction amongst the kids was just incredible. They already treated us, the kids especially, like rock stars everywhere we went. There was enough equipment and enough supplies to really fuel these guys and fuel the education at this school for a long time.
It was on a level that they had never even seen. I told them stuff was coming, and I don’t think they ever really believed me until I showed up with a couple of Humvees full of pencils and crayons and paper and everything else. The kids just went crazy. It was a lot of fun and it was a good way to build a relationship and to have them understand that there were some real intentions there to help them develop their educational system.
These were guys who often took money out of their own pocket when we first got there. In my platoon, each guy contributed, I don’t know how much money, to pay the salaries of the teachers in our sector the first month or so we were there. The teachers hadn’t been paid in three months, they couldn’t afford to teach any more, and my guys pulled together money to help one school and we said we want to help these teachers keep on teaching. Days like that really fueled my fire there and made it worthwhile. I know at the same time allowed us to extend beyond the role of traditional soldiering.
And I guess the next question is: What was the worst day?
The worst day? I think the worst day was probably the night before Christmas Eve or Christmas Eve. Christmas was a tough time for us already because …the thing they don’t train you for as a young officer is the million and one personal and what we call “Joe” issues that come up. (We always refer to our guys as “Joe,” especially in the infantry.) The things they don’t train you for are dealing with the divorces, dealing with the children being born, dealing with the emotional problems that your soldiers are going to have, dealing with the financial problems the soldiers are going to have. We had I don’t know how many divorces. In our platoon, out of 39 guys we had, oh I venture to say six or seven divorces, a bunch of girl friends that broke up, maybe five babies born, two fathers that died, things like that that really weigh on your guys and are real leadership challenges.
But our worst day was probably Christmas Eve 2003. We had been caught in an ambush the night before. We were doing a raid on a building to the west of our sector that had been a problem, and we were conducting a raid on two buildings. As we were getting ready to enter the buildings we pretty much got caught in a rain of AK-47 fire and three or our guys were hit. One was miraculously enough shot in the face and survived. Sgt. Jason Crawford was shot with a .38-caliber revolver at about point blank range, but at the time we didn’t know how bad he was. Sgt. Dustin Tuller was hit multiple times in the legs and back, and then we had another guy who caught some shrapnel in the face. It was very chaotic. We didn’t know if Sgt. Tuller was going to make it. Being there, it was Christmas time, I think it made it that much harder.
And the following night, to exacerbate this situation and make it that much tougher, we lost our command sergeant major, Eric Cooke, while we were executing a raid in another part of Baghdad. So those two raids were probably the toughest time, the worst time, for us. But the unit really came together, and the guys bonded, in ways that I think only soldiers can understand. We pulled together, and took care of each other, and got through it.
Did you lose any additional men in your own unit?
We lost Specialist. Robert A. Wise of Tallahassee, Fla. He was killed in an IED attack on Veterans Day in Baghdad. He was doing escort duty for, strangely enough, the EOD team, which is the Explosives Ordinance Disposal unit. They are the bomb squad, so they would get called into Baghdad. Civilian or military personnel call us up and say, “Hey, we have a bomb, we think we have a car bomb here, we think we think we’ve got an IED here, a kid saw some wires,” and these EOD people would show up and send in a little robot or their bomb detonation experts and dismantle it.
But, like I said earlier, everybody needs security, so we were their shooter escorts, take them around. If they got hit anywhere they were going, we were responsible for eliminating that threat, or at least insuring that they got out OK. So we were responsible for escorting the EOD team throughout Baghdad. It rotated throughout different units in the city, and Specialist Wise was part of the unit that was a three-vehicle convoy escorting the EOD guys across a bridge about, not even a click—a kilometer—from our main base, call it a FOB, a Forward Operating Base: our compound, if you will. Right down the street we heard the boom, early in the morning, and in November you heard a boom every morning. The attacks usually come between 6 and 9 in the morning, or 6 and 9 at night.
Why was that?
I think most of them happen in the morning because you have a downturn on foot traffic and patrols. We would keep a pretty steady level of patrols throughout the night, but the civilians go in and go home and go to sleep. So you don’t have the visibility. So the best time to set up an ambush is at night when nobody’s looking, so over the night they would set out these bombs and they were less likely to be discovered. Usually at first morning light we would send out our first patrol, and that’s when they’d hit us, because more often than any other way, we discovered bombs and IED’s from Iraqi civilians. Iraqis would come up to us and say, “We know there is a bomb; we saw a bomb; we heard a rumor there might be a bomb.” Even up until the time I left at the end of January, beginning of February, there was tremendous support from the Iraqi people.
What percentage of the bombs they told you about would you say were out of the whole percentage of bombs placed. Did they tell you about half, did they tell you about three quarters?
It’s hard to tell because a lot of them were false alarms. They thought it might be a bomb and it ends up being a piece of trash or a piece of concrete that looks like a bomb, an old smoke grenade, something like that. One of the other problems is that there is a tremendous amount of unexploded ordinance: bombs that didn’t go off. From us, from their own military, even from the Iran-Iraq war on the fringes of Baghdad, there’s just tremendous amount of ordinance throughout the city, so they never knew whether it was a bomb or maybe just a leftover artillery shell, or a leftover tank round. But they would inform us daily. I mean literally every day, one or two people would come up to the gate and say, “Hey, we know there’s a bomb.”
You may have read in the in the news there was an incident with three donkey carts. They have these donkey carts that shuttle petrol or gas throughout the city. Well, they pulled them up in front of some of the compounds, loaded them up with rockets, and started firing the rockets. They hit one of the hotels and we got three of them in our sector. That was because of an Iraqi tip.
We are foot soldiers, so our relationship with the people was unique. The only other light infantry in Baghdad was the 82nd Airborne. The 82nd Airborne and our battalion were the only walking infantry in Baghdad up until this spring, which meant we were the only people out there walking and looking face to face. That meant we had very personal relationships. We didn’t ride in tanks, we didn’t ride in Bradley armored vehicles, we rode in Humvees sometimes, but predominantly what we did was walk. Ninety percent of the time we would walk through the villages and walk through the towns like a beat cop, so we were able to cultivate relationships, we were able to build trust, and we were able to build a personal relationship that you couldn’t get in any other way.
So, the people trusted us and we trusted them. We did a tremendous amount of infrastructure work, humanitarian-type work. And those relationships really paid huge dividends on the intelligence side. Ninety to 95 percent of our intelligence came from Iraqis.
Paul, as we are doing this interview, it’s Saturday, April 10, and we are right in the middle of the Sunni battle for Fallujah, and the uprising in Baghdad led by a 30-year old radical Muslim Shi’a cleric. Did you have a sense before you left that some of this might be coming?
We knew who Sadr [Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr] was. The cleric you’re talking about, Sadr, is relatively young, 30 or so, his father was a martyr, essentially. The area that he comes from is called Sadr City, named after his father who was killed, I believe, by Saddam or someone in the Saddam regime. Prior to the war, it was called Saddam City, and it’s the worst slum in Baghdad. That’s an area that we knew every time we went out there we were going to get shot at. Every time. It’s the poorest part of the city; it’s the dirtiest, pretty much the worst part of the city on all levels. He had tremendous support through the Shi’as there, the uneducated Shi’as, people who want power back. The Imans over there have tremendous influence over the people there, and they have the ability to really dictate what large masses of the population do. He was on our radar from the time we got to Baghdad. We knew who he was, we knew where he worked, we knew what his people did, and we had constant intel reports.
To be honest with you, I’m surprised they didn’t kill him sooner. We used to say the CIA is going to take this guy out. He’s a problem, he’s a fire starter, and I’m surprised it got to this level. Now, pretty much as soon as we left, the problems began to escalate in Saddam City, or Sadr City, and Fallujah. Fallujah was always a problem. But Sadr is somebody we knew about way back when. I mean from the outset. The public is just learning about Sadr, but anybody who was over there read intel reports and knew about him.
Do you know why he wasn’t taken out?
I don’t know, those are levels above me. It was a political decision. If he had been taken out by us in an obvious way, there would have been a tremendous backlash from the public. They would have known it. We had a very delicate relationship with the local clerics. We were incredibly respectful. I mean I was in a mosque once during the entire time I was in Iraq, and that was because I was invited by a cleric. We were personal friends, and he had me come in to his mosque, and he wanted to teach me about Islam and about what a mosque looked like inside. Our interpreter arranged for it. He said, “These guys are American, they would like to see what a mosque looks like.” He brought me and a few other guys from my platoon and he gave us a tour. But outside of that we never stepped inside of a mosque out of respect to their religion and out of respect for the holiness of the sanctuary of the buildings.
When we were shot at, if it was from a mosque, our rules of engagement were extremely restrictive. You basically need higher-level clearance before you can ever engage anything near a mosque. So the extent to which the military was respectful of the mosques was almost to the extent that it was jeopardizing the safety of the soldiers. I understand the reason behind it, but the soldiers were very uncomfortable with the fact that they were not allowed to search mosques. It took a very high level of clearance to go into a mosque and check it out. We tried to use the Iraqi police to do that; we tried to use the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, which is kind of their newly established Army; to have Iraqis searching mosques rather than Americans searching mosques. Basically, the only time we were free to either engage the enemy or enter a mosque was if you were engaged by the enemy from a mosque. At that time they are basically compromising the sanctuary that a religious building would offer.
Did you kill anyone, and how did you feel about it if you did?
[Long pause.] I have got to admit I hate that question. I get it a lot, and… my guys killed...nobody likes it. It’s a strange question. And I don’t really know why it is. “How does it feel?” It’s something that’s more reactionary. If somebody tried to attack your family, or attack one of your children, it’d almost be an instinctive reaction for you to react. If someone wanted to hurt your family or your children, it wouldn’t be so unnatural for you to react in defense of them. That’s how I feel.
Soldiers don’t go over there in reality…when they’re over there they are not fighting for the country, they are not fighting for George Bush, they are not fighting for whatever the cause is, whether it’s Vietnam or World War I. They are fighting for each other. The bond that we have is really immeasurable. When guys kill somebody they understand they had to do it to protect each other. Mistakes are made at times, I mean war is very chaotic, but in the end, guys understand that we have to do some things that are going to insure that everybody gets home. So at times that’s what we get paid to do. Kill the guys who want to endanger us and want to endanger our country.
I think there’s a degree of acceptance that’s that what we’re there to do, but it’s always unfortunate. I think the hard part of this war was that there were times where it felt like they were so vastly overmatched when they did decide to take us head on. Our technology was so superior that sometimes guys felt like they were shooting fish in a barrel. The guys would shake their head and say, “How stupid of these guys.” They don’t have any armored vehicles, they have antiquated equipment, horrible training, and yet they were loading up seven guys in the back of a civilian pickup truck and trying to drive into a Bradley.
When they tried to fight us head on, it was easy for us. It was still dangerous, but the losses on their side were so much greater than ours. I think that causes some guys a little bit of anxiety, but at the same time there was the problem that many of our guys were hit with these roadside bombs, and there’s no one to punch back at, there’s no one to reciprocate violence, there’s nobody to return fire to. You just have to treat the casualties that you’re with and get the hell out of there.
What was a typical day like for you from getting up to going to bed.
There really wasn’t a typical day. But what I probably could do is give you an idea of what we were trying to do and what our mission usually is. As an infantry rifle platoon, what we’re supposed to do is basically close with and destroy the enemy through the utilization of basically ground troops. We’re foot soldiers, like I mentioned earlier. So we are what they call “dismounted,” which means we walk everywhere. These are infantry missions we did. We do raids, we do ambushes, we do searching and clearing—clearing of buildings and rooms. And when I say “clearing,” it’s usually various levels of intensity; anything from what we used to call cordon and knock—literally surround an era and knock on the doors and wait for the Iraqis to open it, and after being granted permission, searching, voluntarily, through these people’s houses for weapons, explosives and other things. And then there are more intense missions, where we blow the doors and go in and either kill or capture whoever’s inside and whatever they have. We did some mounted missions that included escorts, patrols, but we did a thousand patrols—my platoon did—over the time that we were there.
Most of our time was spent patrolling, which is basically canvassing an area, looking for any enemy threats, and at the same time in this environment, gathering human intelligence, talking with people on the street, finding out where the threats were, finding out if threats existed. The Iraqis were our best source of human intelligence, and as we walked around throughout our area, which was called Sector 17, it was not unusual for them to come up to us and give us information about weapons, about explosives, about people who were organizing to attack Americans, or to do other things. So, patrolling made up a lot of what we did, and then, I guess, depending on how active a sector was, we had these kind of additional missions that were anywhere from brigade level to squad, if they had actionable intelligence that we got, they’d give us maybe an hour notification or two hours notification to get together and formulate a plan to execute.
An example would be a Syrian or an Iranian who’d come across the border. They’d have pretty good intelligence on who he is: He lives in this apartment, he’s got tons of bomb-making equipment, and he’s been conducting attacks against Americans. My platoon is going to go in and blow the door and capture or kill him and investigate to find out what kind of bomb-making equipment he’s got there. Then we may search the rest of the building for collaborators and then, depending on whether or not we’re engaged by the enemy, it may flow over into surrounding buildings, or it may end there, and we go about our daily business.
You mentioned Syrians. How often did you actually surround, look for, get intel on, go after, foreign Arab nationals whom you felt were there to do damage?
It’s difficult to tell how often they were foreign. Baghdad was pretty chaotic, and you have populations from throughout Iraq coming and going, and you have foreign nationals coming and going. It’s really a difficult world to try to really identify who these people were, so I really couldn’t. Intelligence is often wrong, or is often off, so if I had to pull out a number, maybe somewhere like 15 to 20 percent, and that might be high.
The intel can’t always identify who a person is, or what he’s done, but they may have gotten intelligence from a paid informant, he may have been somebody who just happened to be walking by, it may have been from an American sniper, or they may not even tell us where they got the intelligence from a higher level—the CIA or FBI or somewhere else. It’s not really important to us where they got it from, it’s just that they got it. So it sounds to me like the number of foreign people involved in the insurgency and the attacks seems to be escalating now.
Paul, you went into Iraq with 39 members of your platoon, including yourself. And you never got any reinforcements, you never got any fresh people to come in and relieve you when your guys were wounded or killed.
That was one of the big knocks on the war from the Reserve-component side. You have a natural loss progression. Guys are going to get hurt, guys are going to get sick, and guys are going to have family issues, and you are going to lose a percentage of your guys over time. As we continued to get extended, especially toward the end when we were extended for the third or fourth time, we had guys who were gone for various reasons: injuries, all the reasons I told about earlier.
But we never got any replacements because there was not a system in place to backfill Reserve-component units. So, once we got over there, it was basically, “OK, you’ve got what you got, and that’s it!” That may have changed since, but, there were two problems with it. One, the obvious one: Our guys were exhausted and used up and could have used some fresh relief and could have used some help. But beyond that, there were young soldiers that were sitting back in the States who had finished basic training and AIT [Advanced Infantry Training] and the Army and the administration didn’t really have a plan to get them into theater. I think they thought it was probably too expensive to bring them over and there wasn’t a network in place to do it. So, those soldiers didn’t really gain any experience from being over there, even if it was for only a week or a month. They would have gained an invaluable professional and personal development from having been on the ground over there and learned from the guys who had been there for 10 months or nine months. So, there was a bit of frustration.
Because we were a Reserve component attached to an active-duty unit, there was a lot of misunderstanding. There were often times when we were the only Reserve unit in three brigades. So, we were essentially an active-duty unit—we were experiencing things that the active-duty couldn’t understand because we were kind of a different animal. The support is better now. They’re deploying Reserve units on the brigade level or above. So they’ve got a better network or infrastructure above them.
But, for us it was just chaotic. Even down to getting paid. My guys’ pay issues were constantly screwed up. It’s kind of frustrating when you call home for the first time in three months and find out you haven’t been getting paid properly.
Now, was your Reserve unit of 39 men, were you the only Reserves in your brigade?
We were a Reserve battalion, but we were attached to an active-duty brigade in that division for the entire time. We were the only Reserve unit of our kind, really. We were the first Reserve-component infantry unit to be awarded the Combat Infantry Badge since Korea. We were the first ones in theater to be awarded it and the first time since Korea. And we were pretty much the only true Reserve. You had pieces, you had slices, you had medics from here, or you had a couple of civil affairs guys who would augment the unit, but as a whole we were pretty much the only ones you saw.
The active duty couldn’t believe it. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe that a Reserve unit was that involved, but it’s also not a traditional Reserve unit. They call it an “enhanced brigade.” I think it’s 15 enhanced infantry brigades throughout the country, and they are considered the best of the Reserve components. You’ve got guys who were formerly Ranger battalion, 82nd Airborne, 101st Airborne, just a lot of active-duty experience that comes right off active duty and goes right into the Reserves, because they want to pursue their civilian career. So we have a high level of competency among our soldiers. They’re better than the average soldiers, so I guess our responsibilities reflect that.
Did you have any women in your platoon?
No. We’re an infantry unit so we have no girls.
That’s a law? That’s a rule?
Yeah, that’s right. There’s three what they call “combat arms units” in the Army right now, save for the Marine Corps. The armor or tankers, the infantry—that’s the foot soldier, the artillery—the big cannon pullers; those three units in the military right now are off limits to women. Those are considered the most front line in the military.
Do you think that’s a good thing?
Whew. This is a long, complex question. I think right now it’s what needs to be done, because I don’t think the American public would be terribly comfortable with women on the front lines, and I think that’s the main reason why they haven’t switched it over. I don’t think they’d be comfortable with large numbers of female soldiers being potentially taken prisoner.
Beyond that, what about just the physical demands?
As long as the standards aren’t lowered. As long as the standards are equal. Personally, if a woman can make the cut on all the physical and mental demands, I don’t mind. But there are a lot of other factors involved that might erode its [the unit’s] integrity, and we’d start to get into mixed-sex units. I mean there a lot of other units that are. The military police units are usually coed. But for an infantry unit, there’s a different level of intensity, and there’s usually a different level of suffering that’s involved, and it would take a lot to really change the culture that exists there.
Did you get any insights while you were there about Iraqis or Iraqi culture?
Of course [laughs]. Yeah! We had an exceptional amount of contact with Iraqis and Iraqi culture. We walked the streets every day. We’d go into peoples’ houses. It’s a very intense experience. We walk in their stores; we meet their kids, we help them if someone gets shot and they don’t have a doctor available they come up to us. We saw the entire gamut of human emotions in and of the culture. And we had three interpreters who were incredibly well educated and who were Iraqi interpreters, two of which were educated in the West, and they were kind of like our little social professors. They would give us background into Iraqi culture, language classes, teach us what things meant, help us to relate to the people. And we ate Iraqi food, we listened to Iraqi music, we were immersed in the culture almost entirely. My unit, especially, was very isolated in Baghdad, so it was hard not to be influenced in the understanding of Iraqi culture.
Then, later in the summer [of 2003] we started training the new Iraqi army and Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, so we were working side by side and patrolling side by side with new Iraqi soldiers, probably the last six months we were there. And that was a one-on-one relationship. We walked one on one with Iraqi guys and they taught us and we taught them. That was really incredible, and a lot of the guys on both sides really got incredible satisfaction from those relationships.
Paul for a lot of us in the safety and distance of the U.S. mainland, seeing an Amherst guy on “60 Minutes II,” identified as a student government organization president, which is how they identified you, must have come as a shock to a lot of us, pleasant surprise I hope. How did they find you, and how did this whole Amherst thing come about with “60 Minutes II?”
The “60 Minutes” piece started with a reporter who had originally come to our compound to do a story on one of my soldiers who married an Iraqi woman. A guy in my platoon named Sgt. Blackwell married a woman who was a doctor and local anesthesiologist, and it was big story and it got a lot of coverage. They originally came to cover that story, and the Army at that time was not comfortable with really allowing a lot of press coverage on this story. It was still going through adjudication. There was some—not trials—but investigations going on to see how it had occurred, so they were a little bit reluctant to allow that story.
So, in the process, the “60 Minutes” guys spent some time with my guys and with me, and wanted to understand what was going on in Baghdad, and said they were looking for positive things that were coming out of Baghdad, what is good that is going on in Baghdad, and the producer asked me, “Do you get the impression that the American people really understand what’s going on on the ground here in Baghdad?” And I said, “Absolutely not.”
I don’t think that it’s sensational to show the progress that we’re making in the infrastructure, on the humanitarian side, in establishing democratic foundations for the country; you don’t really see that much. And what we saw on a day-to-day basis was incredible. The amount of influence that the everyday soldier has on the Iraqi people is tremendous.
I have a 19-year-old from northwest Florida who has probably never left his state in his life, but he can change a family’s life if he brings over water on a weekly basis or if he has his grandmother from home send some supplies over—you know, school supplies, or toiletry kits, things like that. I mean it gave a 19-year-old kid tremendous opportunity to really impact the world on a grander scale and to understand how unique their position was. American soldiers are incredibly generous, and I think the “60 Minutes” guys saw that with us, because we had that unique relationship that I talked about where we walked around and we understood the people better, I think, better than most other American or coalition units in the area. They asked me, you know, “What’s good that’s going on in Baghdad, what can we talk about on ‘60 Minutes’ that’s positive?” And I said, “Let me show you what life is like for us, and I can show you the positive and the negative and you can report on it how you see fit.”
The thing that was unique about it was our relationship with the people and the strides that we had made, and the intimacy of the contact that we had with the people I think was unique. Baghdad at that time was still very dangerous. It was not safe like in the north, in parts of Kurdish controlled Iraq, which were very stable. I mean we were still engaged regularly with the enemy, guys were still getting hit, guys were dying, and the war at that time was not over. I think “60 Minutes” wanted to show that there were many different faces to the war and different levels of danger, if you will, in the combat environment.
Did you ever ask them why they identified your college and your rank as a class officer?
I didn’t actually ask them that but I know that he was—the producer—was incredibly shocked to learn that I went to Amherst and I was in the military, serving in Baghdad. He basically said to me, “What the hell are you doing here? How do you go from Amherst to Iraq? How does that happen?” You don’t meet people from the top schools in the Army, very seldom. It’s not a traditional job track coming out of a liberal arts college, coming out of an Ivy League school in America. It’s not something that people have looked to as an area of opportunity.
I think that may change now in the post-9/11 era. I think there’s kind of a rebirth of military service and I think people understand the profession of arms, as a profession. I think there’s a great deal of respect coming back to the profession of arms that may have been lost in the last 20 years or so. But it was a unique situation. I didn’t meet too many people from top schools in Baghdad. I mean, the enlisted guys are from a largely similar background: lower socio-economic class, large parts of them are from the South, disproportionately minority. You’ve got a low end of the socio-economic class shouldering an overwhelming large burden of the responsibility of military service in this country.
Does that trouble you?
Oh, it troubles me tremendously. Honestly. It troubles me tremendously. Because I think that the people who are enjoying so many of the benefits in this country are usually the ones who are difficult to convince to sacrifice in order to preserve the way they exist. The military offers tremendous opportunity for someone of lower socio-economic class. People of higher socio-economic class don’t view the military as a place that offers them anything. You still have people who want to serve and see it as an honorable profession—the tradition may change now, but the way it’s viewed has not been favorable. It does bother me. I think it may change. I hope it changes. Because I think the military has a tremendous amount to offer someone from anywhere.
If it were up to me, military service would be mandatory. Some sort of service would be mandatory. The military is a great experience, because there are no class barriers. There are no age barriers, gender barriers, you’re all fighting for a common cause, you’re all working toward a common cause. You have people from all over the country, from all different backgrounds, forced to work together. And that creates a tremendous amount of awareness and understanding, and it makes for better people. It’s really unique in that respect.
I can’t think of many other places in the world where all your baggage, all your personal history, really doesn’t matter. Of course it comes into play, and I’m not naïve enough to think that it isn’t ever thought about or talked about or considered. It obviously influences the people who are there, but it’s something that’s been lost. A generation of Americans has never been drafted since Vietnam. There was World War II and World War I, there was a sense of service, there was a sense of understanding, that what we have here is not free, and that there is something that needs to be sacrificed to preserve our way of life.
A lot of people reading this will be surprised to learn that you intend to continue to put your neck out. You’ve volunteered for Special Forces.
I transferred this week to the 19th Special Forces Group, which is a Reservist Special Forces group out of Rhode Island. I’d like to continue to be involved in the military, and Special Forces is, I guess, the next challenge. It’s unique and I think allows me to experience the things that I enjoy most about the military, which are nontraditional operations, being able to work with, across the spectrum, everything from the most intense combat operations to the most benevolent, humanitarian missions. You get that entire scope in the Special Forces. You’re also around the best-trained soldiers in the world. And it’s a tremendous challenge and a tremendous opportunity and I’m hoping that it’s something I’ll be able to do at least for the next few years.
On a personal note, how do your parents feel about this? It’s probably been a tough year-and-a-half or two for them.
My mother sold her television when I left for Baghdad. She still hasn’t bought a new one yet. So, they worry, but now they understand that I really have a thirst for adventure, and the military is an incredible adventure, and it’s allowed me to meet incredible people from all over the country, all over the world. And I really dig it. It’s a rush for me; it’s fun. I get a lot out of it, and when I stop getting something out of it, and when I feel like I don’t have much more to give, then I’ll do something else. My family worries like crazy, yeah. My father thinks I’m crazy. My mother is a nervous wreck, and my brother just shakes his head all the time, and says, “You left Wall Street to go to Baghdad and get shot at? What the hell are you doing? You were making six figures on Wall Street and you left to go in the sandbox and get shot at. You’re crazy!”
But they understand: I mean, I was happier in my year in Baghdad than I was in two years on Wall Street. I was doing something that I believed in around people that I loved, and I felt I was in a place that was the center of the world’s attention, and I had a unique opportunity to make a positive impact in the world, which you really don’t necessarily associate with soldiering. Usually it’s envisioned as someone who closes and kills the enemy. But in this type of conflict, we had a really unique experience, in that as proactive as we were, we would determine how much we would do.
If we wanted to fix a school, it was on us. We could get four or five guys together, and say, “We had this plan and we’re going to go in, and we’re going to fix this school, because no one else is doing it.” There were no humanitarian organizations, the Red Cross wasn’t there, Bechtel was overrun, and if you wanted to do something, if you showed some initiative, you could get it done quickly and dramatically. So, we had a great opportunity to really do some amazing things: fix up schools, create local governments, the neighborhood advisory councils and local advisory councils, which were these fledgling democratic groups. Trying to teach Iraqis the principals of equality and the principals of democracy...it was the stuff that we learned in civics class when we were in fourth grade and seventh grade. These people had never been exposed to it. So, we tried to see democracy grow and spawn. It’s really amazing.
In a few days you’re going to speak to students at Amherst. Any idea what you want to say to them?
I would like to just give them what I feel is a real understanding of what life is like there for soldiers and for Iraqis and how it affects their lives. But most importantly, just give them perspective on what it was really like from someone who was there. And I think that’s the most important thing I can do.
I’m not there to recruit, I’m not there to push politics, I’m there to give people perspective, and that’s what Amherst is all about. It’s about dialogue and curiosity, and I hope that I can bring a perspective that is valuable. I know it’s valuable. And I hope the Amherst community is welcoming of that. I think they will be. But also understand that the military is not what they conceive of it traditionally. I mean, I wish more people from Amherst would consider the military as an option, post graduation. But it’s not why I’m going there. I’m going there to give them a soldier’s perspective on Iraq. And to answer questions. Because I think a lot of people have a lot of questions, especially in the Amherst world, they don’t know somebody over there. They don’t know anybody who’s in the military; if they do, it’s someone who is pretty removed from their environment, their world, so I hope to give them the opportunity to ask the questions that they’d like to ask somebody, if they could.
Are you worried about this disconnect as far as the future of this republic? The disconnect between the elite schools and the work of keeping this country safe?
Absolutely. The times that we live in now are much more trying than any in recent history, and the stakes are much higher, and I think that we as a country have been forced to re-evaluate what it is that we are standing for, what it is we hold dear to us, and if we are going to progress and develop as a nation, I think there is going to have to be a greater degree of sacrifice necessary. That will have to happen on all levels.
The burden cannot continue to be shouldered by the lower classes. It’s time for the schools like Amherst and their alums and their graduates and their students to understand that this is not a place just for the poor people to live and I guess not die, but to live and breath. It’s our part too. We have to play our part, too. And it’s not just giving money. It’s very important that people within the elite communities understand what’s going on there, and make an effort to relate to people. If sons and daughters are going to die in a foreign land, it’s going to have to be sons and daughters from every socioeconomic class, and not just the poor ones. Otherwise you’re going to have serious class issues in this country in the future. And that will erode some of the basic foundations of our country, I think. There needs to be equality of service. I think we’re moving toward that, but there needs to be a little bit more impetus for that.
You were talking about what you wanted to do with friends, and what their reaction was, particularly socially on the campus. Were there any reverberations?
No, there weren’t reverberations. It’s such a different time now, especially with regard to the way they view the military. People understood that I was looking for a challenge, and the military presented it. I think athletes look specifically to the physical nature of the military. But I don’t think Amherst has an understanding of quite how cognitive, or how intellectual, a military career, a military experience, can be. It’s still kind of considered like grunt work. The reaction was generally positive. At that time , the economy was booming, everyone was going to Wall Street or business school or law school, the traditional avenues of Amherst graduates. At that time large numbers were going to Wall Street, and the Wall Street firms were recruiting pretty heavily. People were curious to see that I would turn down a lot of money to go do that [join the military]. Back then I don’t think it was considered so much of a service as it is now. People always understood that it was the Peace Corps, Americorps, Teach for America or these other programs that Amherst graduates are traditionally interested in. They understood them more then than they did the military. Now they understand that the military has a lot of similar things to offer.
But back in ’98, before 9/11, people didn’t really get it. Now, they get it. It takes a war for people to appreciate that there are guys who have to stand on the line with a gun and conduct that war, and whether or not the war is right or whether or not the war is just, having somebody you know, or having your sons and daughters on that line, forces your hand into making a decision as to how important those things are. So, I think it’s all tied together now. In ’98, no one knew what I was doing or why. Now, they all get it. And now they are like: “Well, OK, we get it, now we understand!” Ninety-eight was like, “What the hell are you doing, man?” You know. Now I feel like... "See, now you guys understand!” Now you get it."
Do you have any stories you want to tell, or anything you’d like to mention that we haven’t had the curiosity or the ability to bring up?
The one that was most difficult for people to understand and accept among my Amherst friends, specifically, is, “How can you be against the war but still fighting the war?” That was the big question, because I’m pretty vocal about how I feel on most political issues. From my student government time, and just my personality in general, people couldn’t understand how I could be against the war but still have to go. And they tried to understand if that was some kind of irreconcilable battle going on internally with me.
I wasn’t comfortable with the administration’s justification for the war. I felt like it changed a few times, and I felt like it was never clearly expressed to the American public, honestly, what the intentions for the war were. And they needed to throw the WMD reasoning behind it in order to rally the support of the American people behind it. I never felt after Vietnam we would ever wage a war that didn’t have overwhelming public support.
I was concerned about a lot of issues pre-war, but at the same time I was pretty much aware that the war at that time was pretty much inevitable. The Bush Administration was going to war. And as a member of the military I was going to war. I had the foresight to understand there would be a time where peacemaking roles would become the bulk of what the soldiers would be doing over there. I didn’t know to what extent the combat was going to last, but I knew that, honestly, sitting in New York and protesting and raising hell was not going to stop the war. The war was going to happen anyway.
I felt like, as a platoon leader with 39 soldiers on the ground in Baghdad, or in Iraq, I could make more of a profound impact on the way the world viewed America, and on the war, than I could by sitting home and grinding my teeth and writing letters. I really believe in the power of each individual to determine a large part of how that overall mission, the overall endeavor, is viewed. Even Iraqis who are against the occupation, when they meet a generous American soldier, their views dramatically change. I knew that I could mold 39 guys into a positive view of America: a generous group and a kind group and a group that of course kicks ass when we have to. We tried to achieve the role of being the best friend you could ever have, and the worst enemy you could ever have over there.
In large part, when we left Baghdad we all agreed that we had given the Iraqi people more than they had had before, and given them control over their own destiny, and at the same time had given them a positive view of who we are as a people, as a nation.
Do you think that despite the administration’s reasoning that the reasons you have just given were enough to go to war?
I think if the administration had come out at the outset and said we are going to war to topple Saddam Hussein and overthrow a ruthless dictator and free an enterprising people, that would have been enough for me.
Do you think that would have been enough for the rest of this country?
No, no, I don’t think so at all. I think that they tried that, they tried that dialogue, they tried to create a link between Saddam and 9/11, they tried a number of political tactics in order to rally public support, and none of them stuck. The only time they got enough public support was when they scared the people when they said they had WMD.
Did you ever see evidence of WMD?
No, never. Never. I was there for a year, and we looked every day, and we would get reports that, “Hey, they might have WMD sites over here” or “Hey, they might have chem weapons over there.”
We were in a area called Sector 17, which was on the eastern side of the Tigris River, just west of Sadr City, and just north of a place called Medical City, so we were pretty much smack dab in the middle of northeastern Baghdad. There was a scud factory in our sector, and we looked. Believe me we looked. And higher-ups wanted us to look. We kept looking, and looking, and looking, and we didn’t find anything. Nobody found anything over there. And that’s what come out. I mean, the highest levels will tell you we haven’t found anything. Was there something there at some point? I don’t know. But I didn’t see anything there in a year.
Didn’t they find suits and stuff?
Every military, any well-equipped military, has chemical suits and protection from somebody else who might drop chemicals on them. We’ve got chemical suits. We had them on our hips as soon as we walked across the border, and we kept them on us. Because they had chemical suits isn’t necessarily an indication that they had WMD. A few cases of mortar rounds with gas may have been found, but that’s such a small minute fact. Gas was never employed during the war. If they had it, they would have used it. I don’t think they would have saved it up.
Militarily, the battle was fought by Saddam in a million-and-one flawed ways. Militarily, for him it was a disaster. Strategically, it was a disaster. But, in the time I was there we never saw it. And it frustrated a lot of people. It frustrated a lot of my guys. They sent us 7,000 miles around the world to get shot at on what I figure—and I believe—is a lie. If it’s not a lie, it’s insufficient evidence, in large part. One of my guys uses this analogy: He said he felt like he was a cop who was in a dark alley who shot a guy and killed him, and he thought he had a gun. And he walked over to the body and he realized he had his wallet in his hand. Or he realized he had a stick in his hand. A lot of the guys feel like if we were going over there, ultimately we were happy with what we had done over there, and we know that it was for the betterment of Iraq. But a lot of the soldiers are incredibly educated and sophisticated and they understand politics, and the American public in general is more educated than it was 50 years ago, and they understand the potential damage that this war could have on our global image. On how Americans are viewed.
Do you think eventually, though, what points you made will come out, maybe not this year or next year or sometime in the future, when the rest of the world starts to see that Iraq is healing itself and establishing a democracy?
I think the world has to understand that it will take time. This country has been around over 200 years and our democracy is not perfect. So to assume that the Iraqi democracy is going to be perfect in a year is ridiculous. It’s going to take generations to change the way people think about things.
We’re still trying to change the way people think about things. I mean, we’re still trying to change the way people feel about slavery in this country. It takes time, and I don’t think that the world has patience for that right now, and they need to reevaluate and have patience and make time for it. The Iraqi people are better off. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in more or less danger right now, exactly. But in the end, I think, generations from now, they will be better off.
But at the same time, I don’t know that our country is better off. Our military is overextended in a ridiculously vulnerable fashion at this point. What I worry about is the impact on the military. It’s overextended beyond belief. Guys are what they call “stop lost.” Say you’ve got a five-year contract or a 20-year contract in the military, and your contract ends on December 31. Your unit gets activated to go to Baghdad and it’s December 30, and they are gone for a year-and-a-half. You are involuntarily extended for a year-and-a-half. It’s essentially a draft. You have to go. Otherwise you go to jail.
Because they send you off during your contract.
Right, right. Or they’ve gotten you ready to go before your contract was over. They put a stop loss in effect and your contract is null and void, essentially. They can send you over there as long as they want.
The Reserves are being ridiculously extended and weakened. I can tell you first-hand that when we were in Baghdad, we didn’t have enough water. We didn’t have enough ammo. We didn’t have enough vehicle parts. We didn’t have enough batteries. And these are things that could have been remedied if the war was fought differently, if the war wasn’t fought so quickly, if they waited a few more weeks. Now, I’m not a general and I’m not the secretary of state, secretary of defense, but from my perspective the soldiers weren’t taken care of as well as they should have been. Every soldier probably says that in every war, but I think the American public isn’t familiar with how many elements of the military were not ready when that war started. And we’re lucky that it wasn’t worse. My guys didn’t have armored vehicles, my guys didn’t have the proper equipment, my guys didn’t have enough equipment, and that’s because they were pushing so many people up there so quickly. Now the guys going over are incredibly equipped, they’re well trained, but there was this rush to war. Where was the urgency? Why did we need to go right then? That’s never been explained to me. And my guys were the ones that were put in direct danger as a result. So I have a ton of questions for the president if I ever meet him one day. And most of the soldiers over there would.
I think people would be surprised with how few of the soldiers coming back are going to vote for George Bush. The military traditionally has been blindly biased toward the right, for whatever reasons. But I think that’s changing. I think people understand that they don’t necessarily have to be a Republican to be behind the military. It’s not a partisan issue; it’s just about the evolution of the military and the evolution of the solider becoming more intelligent, becoming more sophisticated.
But a lot of the guys who came back realized that the administration did not have a plan for post-war Iraq. There was no plan. There were not enough soldiers. We were overstretched, we were unnecessarily put in harm’s way, and it pisses a lot of the guys off, because they know it. If you ask me right now, “Do we need more troops over there?” I would say "yeah, absolutely." It’s better for the guys who are there if there are more of them. But politically they’re not going to do it. Where are they going to get them? So, I also worry about what I think is the blunting of the sharpness of the military. If you do extended low-intensity conflicts, the ability of the Army to conduct high-intensity conflicts, in my opinion, is diminished.
You’re talking peace-keeping missions?
If you play fight all the time, when you have to fight for real you’re going to hold back. And that worries me. When you’ve got the best-trained units in the world doing a mission that’s really not properly what they were designed to do.
That’s a criticism of Kosovo as well as Iraq, isn’t it?
It is. I think the military is going to change dramatically, the composition of the military and its structure is going to change dramatically after this conflict, and it does after every conflict. The military does learn from its mistakes, and pretty rapidly, considering the size of it. Right now, for me, the downside for what this war has done to the military is much more than what it has done to the upside. Unless they increase the size of the active duty military or institute the draft, we’re going to have to either change our foreign policy or we’re going to suffer some losses.
So, if you’re going to continue to overextend the military, we need to have a plan in place to take care of their families back home, especially Reservists and the Guard, because they don’t have the infrastructure of the military bases, they don’t have their resources, they’re your neighbors right next door. And they don’t have a military hospital down the street. They don’t have a chaplain to go to. They might not even have had health insurance prior to the war. There are a lot of macro issues that get gobbled up and twisted into it, but the fact that we’re having this discussion is a good thing, I think. And the fact that people are discussing it on the streets, on television and in print, is great.
Is it fair to say, Paul, that you’re going to be actively involved in these issues on behalf of men and women who may in the future or may not be under your command? You’re not just going to walk away from this.
No, I think it’s my duty at this point, and the duty of my soldiers, to communicate to as many people as possible about our experiences, about how our views have changed and developed as a result of these experiences. My soldiers, since they’ve returned to the U.S. have become more publicly active, have become more socially active, and that’s a good thing.
Do you have any sense of how this is all going to turn out in Iraq?
I wish I did. One of the things about Saddam that was unique was that because of the degree of his ruthlessness, because of his oppression, he was able to keep together a tremendous amount of people who otherwise wouldn’t get along. I asked my interpreter one day, “Are you better off or worse?” And he said, “It’s difficult to say. Iraqis don’t trust each other now. Before Saddam, we were always united against Saddam. Now we don’t trust each other.” They don’t have a common enemy so much; and we could become the common enemy.
The Iraqi people were always united in hating Saddam. Whether they could say it publicly is another issue. But now you have a multitude of groups that are diametrically opposed on some issues and are vying for power. The Shi’as want the power, and the Sunnis don’t want to give it up, and there’s not, I think, a short-term answer to this. It’s going to take a long time to filter this thing out. We’re going to have troops in that place 50 years from now. You can put me on the record. My kids’ generation will be there. We’re not going to give up that space. Don’t think there won’t be American troops there 50 or 100 years from now. As long as America continues to exist, we’ll have some sort of military presence in Iraq.
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