A Soldier’s Tale
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So, here you are, in the Army Reserves, and 9/11 hits. What was your first reaction?
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 a.m. I got a call from a friend who said, “Have you seen what’s happening on TV?”—I had slept late for the first time in two years. I wandered out onto 24th Street and then walked over and looked down Broadway as the second plane hit. 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 and said, “Let’s go down there and see if we can help out.”
So I linked up with two or three other guys. We got on whatever military equipment we could and just made our way south before the towers fell. My unit was activated formally around 10 p.m. Sept. 11. 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, firemen, military, ex-military, guys on leave.
When we were walking downtown people 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.
What were the orders following 9/11 for you and your unit?
It was pretty much “hurry up and wait.” We thought we were going to go to Afghanistan. And that was put on the back burner. I went in the meantime to an infantry officer basic course and pre-Ranger course down at Fort Benning, Ga., for about six months, from February 2002 to June or July 2002.
Where were you when the U.S military crossed the border of Iraq?
My battalion, actually my company, was scheduled to come down through Turkey. Part of the original plan was to have Task Force Iron Horse, the 4th Infantry Division, come down through Turkey to Baghdad, through Tikrit and Mosul.
When the Turkish Parliament said “no,” we were redirected through Kuwait. So we actually got there late. We ended up getting to Kuwait the last week of March, beginning of April. 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 one side, and the Third I.D. came up through the other side.
We rolled into Baghdad pretty much as the city was in the process of falling. Elements of our battalion were in the original invading force, especially in Baghdad and around the Baghdad Airport. Pieces of our battalion were there throughout the whole combat phase.
The combat was over, at least in a lot of American minds, the day the Saddam statue in Baghdad was toppled — an event that happened almost exactly one year before this taping. When did you feel that combat was over, if at all?
It ebbed and flowed.
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 buildings 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 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. 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.
The organized attacks really didn’t start to come until the fall. November was the worst month for us, when we started to see improvised-explosive-device attacks.
They started to take mortar shells or artillery shells, wrap them up with some detonation cord, and attach them 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 a mounted patrol in 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. Those are difficult because when you are hit, it’s 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.
Rieckhoff enjoys the gratitude of some of the Iraqis he helped. He and his platoon members paid teachers’ salaries to keep schools open.
What was your best day in Iraq?
We did a lot of work with the local schools. In my sector we were responsible for the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labor. There were two colleges, the largest medical complex in Iraq, I think maybe six elementary schools, three nursery schools and I think three high schools. We were reconstructing a lot of those facilities and the way they operated.
The thing that my guys and I took the most pride in was the schools. There was one school in particular that had been 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 chalkboards, no books, no security. The kids there did not feel safe; their parents did not feel safe sending them. So my best day was maybe one of the days when some friends from New York and from J. P. Morgan put together 50 or 60 boxes of school supplies. I told the kids 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.
In my platoon, each guy contributed 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, and they couldn’t afford to teach any more. Days like that really fueled my fire and made it worthwhile.
What was the worst day?
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 couple of buildings to the west of our sector that had been a problem, and as we were getting ready to enter the buildings we got caught in a rain of AK-47 fire, and three of our guys were hit. One was shot in the face and miraculously enough 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 at Christmas time, I think, made it that much harder.
The following night, to exacerbate this situation and make it that much tougher, we lost our Command Sgt. Maj., Eric Cooke, while we were executing a raid in another part of Baghdad. Those two raids were probably the toughest 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.
Photos: War Memorial, Frank Ward; Iraqis, courtesy of Paul Rieckhoff