A Soldier’s Tale
Paul Rieckhoff's Talk at Amherst
Paul Rieckhoff gave this talk to a capacity crowd in the Octagon’s Babbott Room on April 20, shortly after he returned from Iraq.
I love Amherst deeply, and I hope that tonight I can offer you all some insight, but most importantly some perspective: about the war in Iraq, about how it affected me, and ultimately how it affects all of you. I’ll start with December 23, 2003. Our company, Bravo Company of the 124th Infantry, was tasked with conducting a cordon search in the northeastern neighborhood of Baghdad. Our mission was to surround and capture or kill three Iraqi men who had been financing the building of roadside bombs throughout Iraq. We called them IEDs. IEDs are made of any number of wonderful ingredients: tank rounds, artillery shells, grenades, all wrapped up in a nice little package. And it’s detonated using either a cell phone or a garage-door opener. These IEDs had been hitting soldiers throughout the city daily. We woke up every morning to the sound of American patrols being hit by these explosives. IEDs were roadside bombs that were designed to kill Americans. They were designed to kill us.
Our time for this mission was 2200 hours—10 p.m.—that was the point of contact. It was an extremely dark night and there was no moon. The mission dubbed Operation Paymaster. We had three platoons of light infantry, armed to the teeth—about 120 men, or so. We were supported with half-a-dozen tanks, 10 Bradley fighting vehicles, two Apache helicopter gunships, three sniper teams on the rooftops and another company of infantrymen on standby in case something should go wrong. There are usually various levels of something going wrong. This night would be somewhere near the level my soldiers would call totally and completely screwed up.
Two squads of about 18 men were stacked in a column at the base of a five-foot-high wall that surrounded a huge mansion—a mansion probably like any you would find in this country. Take what you have probably envisioned as Baghdad and throw it out the window, because it doesn’t look like what you see on CNN. There are mansions in Baghdad, huge ones. And my guys were coiled like a snake, ready to blow the door of the house on command from higher up. There was a lot of tension, as there is on every mission. On this night, the sky rained down tracer rounds. Ears went numb; everybody took cover. High walls surrounded us on both sides, and we were caught in a textbook ambush. A guy named Sgt. Tuller got caught out in the open. He was a staff sergeant and a squad leader, and he was directing the squad from across the street. He was promptly cut down with AK47 rounds as they cut through his leg. On the opposite side of the street a guy named Sgt. Jason Crawford was at the head of the column. Crawford, or “J-Craw” as everybody called him, was, without a doubt, one of the most popular guys in the company. He was a top student leader at Pensacola Junior College. Smart, fearless, charismatic and always smiling, he was a natural leader, and that’s why he was at the front of the stack. The first guy in every door.
Just as he turned the corner to answer, he saw a muzzle and a flash. He took a knee and he felt the back of his head, under his helmet—looking for his brains, pretty much. He thought, we thought, he was dead. The squad moved past him quickly, scooped him up and pushed him to the rear, as we do with our injured, and rushed past him into the courtyard to kill the bad guy. A .38 pistol lay in a dead Iraqi man’s hand. But Crawford would be fine. The round entered his face just below the nose and stopped just above his front teeth at the base of his jaw, knocking out one tooth clean. But that was it. He’d be fine—a few stitches and a lost tooth. A “Baghdad root canal” we would later call it. Sgt. Crawford returned to his squad about three days later. He was our Christmas miracle.
Sgt. Tuller wasn’t as lucky. He lost a ton of blood and the chopper medivac was slow. We thought he was dead. His body armor stopped at least three rounds in his back that would have surely killed him, but his legs were left unprotected, and his legs would later be amputated, which would ultimately save his life. He has a wife and three young sons. The next day after this happened was Christmas Eve, and one of the first soldiers to donate blood was a guy named Sgt. Major Eric Cook. Brigade Sgt. Major Cook was 41 years old. He was the senior enlisted man among 1,500 men. He came down to the aid station as soon as he heard about the attack on our company and rolled up his sleeve to donate blood to help Sgt. Tuller. That was the kind of leader he was: he led from the front, by example, and the men loved him deeply for it. That night, about 12 hours later, on Christmas Eve, Sgt. Major Eric Cook would be dead. He was killed in an ambush about 150 meters in front of my platoon.
Ironically, just before it happened, my platoon stopped for about five minutes when one of my guys, Pfc. Bill Broach, twisted his ankle on a curb. Broach was a total and complete klutz. He was always falling down, always dropping things. We called him “Baby” and would ask, “Who’s taking care of Baby today?” But if not for falling down and slowing down the platoon, we would have covered about 150 meters in that five minutes. Had Broach not twisted his ankle, it would have been six or seven killed instead of just one.
This is the type of analysis that soldiers do. We realize that our lives are spared or taken by a matter of inches. We count those inches. We save them up and wonder how many more we have. We talk about them, we even trade them. We love them and we hate them. Kind of like the stories you hear about Sept. 11, where a guy misses his train on his way to work, or a lady got a flat tire, and it saved their life. Soldiers tend to think that way every day in combat. It makes you feel like you have some kind of control over whether or not you die, when you really know you don’t.
I was against the war in Iraq. George Bush did not convince me that we, as a nation, needed to invade Iraq. There was a constant changing of the rationale, a multitude of reasons the administration used to justify the war. First it was the connection to 9/11, then it was to free the oppressed Iraqi people from a ruthless dictator. Then it was the weapons of mass destruction. In the end, I didn’t understand the urgency and I was not convinced we needed to go. The fact that there was marginal public support in the U.S., a culture we failed to understand and a guerilla force that could blend in with the civilians smacked to me of Vietnam. I didn’t exactly have a warm and fuzzy feeling about the whole war. Many of my friends couldn’t understand it, especially Amherst friends. They would say to me, “How can you be against the war and still go and fight in it?” Well, I’d made a commitment. I’d joined the Army in 1998, and as an infantry officer I had a responsibility, a responsibility to lead 39 men, 39 of America’s sons, in combat. It was my duty to lead them well and get them home alive. And quite honestly, I knew I could do that better than most others. This war would not be short and I would have to go sooner or later, so I wanted to go now. It’s very hard to explain, but I didn’t want to watch it on CNN. I wanted to go to war.
It’s not that soldiers like war, it’s just that they want a chance to prove themselves. To prove that all the training means something. To prove that what they do means something, what they are means something. It’s kind of like practicing a sport every day for a game that never comes. So I volunteered to be part of the first wave. It was clear to me that the 3rd Infantry Division would be at the tip of the spear, and that’s where I wanted to be. More than anything else, I knew I could have a greater impact on the war and the world if I was a platoon leader on the ground with 39 soldiers under my command than I could holding up a sign in Washington, D.C., or New York. The war was going to happen. That was not my choice. But it was my choice how it affected me and how I affected it.
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I knew there would be a time when we could help people. The modern American infantryman, especially in this new war on terror, has to wear many hats. I knew there would be a time when I could dictate how 39 men viewed and treated a people, most of whom had never met an American. As a platoon leader in the Army you have a unique opportunity to change people’s lives. The good ones know it and they love it. They get it. It’s kind of like being a professor or coach. You’re with your men every day—all the time every day. You’re more than just their leader. For these 39 guys you’re their therapist, you’re their marriage counselor, you’re their financial advisor, you’re their legal counsel, their dietician, you’re their teacher, their personal trainer, you’re their buddy, their boss, their father and often their entertainment.
After the fall of Baghdad, my platoon was assigned to an area the Army referred to as Sector 17. Sector 17 was in the A’Zamiyah section of Baghdad, on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. It’s a predominantly Sunni area. Section 17 included three Iraqi ministries: the ministries of finance, health, and labor; three foreign embassies: the Italian, Turkish and Lebanese embassies; two colleges: one of art and one of dentistry; five high schools; 10 elementary schools; and an area called Medical City, which was the largest medical complex in Iraq. The area quickly fell into disarray after the fall of Baghdad. For most of the spring it was like the Wild West: killings and shootings, raping, robberies, all rampant. With the Iraqi army dissolved and the police in large part participating in the crimes, we were the only thing close to the law.
Let me dispel some rumors for you.
No, there were not enough troops. After we took it, I expected Baghdad to be filled with U.S. troops, military police on every corner, and foreign aid to come streaming in by the truckload. It didn’t happen.
Yes, the air strikes are that precise. The Air Force and the Army really do an amazing job of making surgical strikes that effectively took out critical targets, while minimizing the collateral damage and the civilian loss of life. It really is amazing to see.
Yes, Saddam was that bad. The horror stories are unfortunately true. The mass graves did exist. People were humiliated, oppressed and tortured daily. I met a man whose tongue was cut out for looking at one of Saddam’s palaces from across the river. I met artists who were beaten for creating their own works. I met men who were in prison for not going to mosque and I met men in prison for going to mosque too much. I met a police officer who stopped Uday Hussein’s convoy at an intersection because cars were coming. Uday’s men got out of the car, grabbed the man, beat him into a coma and put him in a trunk. They kept him in jail for five years and beat him once a week, every week, for five years, for stopping Uday at an intersection. These terrible stories are true and one of the few things I think aren’t exaggerated about the war.
No, we did not have adequate supplies. We were down to one bottle of water per man for many days, with no resupply in sight. And that’s one bottle per man with 130-degree temperatures. We were short vehicles, we were short vehicle parts, we were short weaponry parts, we were short batteries, we were short medical supplies, we were short ammunition. Many of these problems could have been avoided if the war hadn’t been rushed, in my opinion.
No, they did not have a plan for Baghdad after the war. I could go on about this part alone all night. They had no idea what to do after Baghdad fell. The troop mix for preserving the peace was all wrong, the supply lines were in ruins, we didn’t have enough friggin’ water. There was no security plan. We had no interpreters. It was clear to every single one of us on the ground that the great minds in Washington, the great minds that were also 7,000 miles away from the bullets and the mortars and the gunfire, had no solution for the problem. It was our problem, and it was up to guys like us to figure it out. But that’s what we pride ourselves on: our resourcefulness. We’re Americans. We’re ingenious, we’re creative, we’re resourceful. We make do.
The second day we were in Baghdad, we realized we would be stretched thin and that mostly we would have to fend for ourselves. We had a lot of ground to cover. And we would need vehicles to get around. And Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld sure weren’t going to send their limos from Washington anytime soon. We needed to patrol the sector and also to fan out across the city to find items that were essential, like, again, water, ammo, and Copenhagen chewing tobacco (it’s our lifeblood). Soon afterward, my guys found an underground garage filled with over 100 brand-spanking-new SUVs. It was unbelievable. Land Rovers, Nissan Patrols, $70,000 SUVs, all loaded, all brand new. Most still had the plastic packaging. These were vehicles hoarded by Saddam before the war and hidden in an underground garage. Many of them had been looted for the batteries and gas, but after about eight hours two of my 19-year-old privates, one a former mechanic and the other a former carjacker, had done some clutch work on behalf of the platoon. We had eight vehicles, full of gas and running, gun turrets in each, and Eminem and Godsmack screaming from the sound systems. The guys had a little trouble removing the doors—you need to remove the doors so you can maneuver your weapon—so they opened the doors and drove the cars backward at 30 miles an hour into a palm tree. It was like a scene out of “The A-Team.” The doors came off. We did what we had to do to survive, like soldiers have done for generations and generations. We look back and we don’t think we had it that hard compared to other soldiers.
We were told that Sector 17 was ours at this point. Marines were going home. The 101st Airborne would be pulling out and heading north to the Syrian border. The third ID would have Baghdad. So it was all ours. After a few months, we heard from the president that major combat operations were over. We were being told the war was over; the Iraqis were defeated. We were told we would be going home by July 4. I figured I’d be home for at least one month of the summer. I wrote my brother and told him to get tickets for the Red Sox-Yankees series in the Bronx. I’d be home in time for the World Series, at least. Then we were told on July 1 that we would be extended, indefinitely. Little did we know that we would be extended three more times for an additional eight months. I would miss baseball season; I would miss football season. We’d already been away from our families at this point for six months. And within my platoon alone, three babies had been born, three wives had filed for divorce, and one fiancé sent the ring back to us in Baghdad. And that was only July.
Morale was low—very low. It was low enough that one guy in my platoon decided he didn’t want to be there anymore. His wife had left him, and he had a real hard time dealing with it, obviously. So he calmly pulled out his 9 mm pistol, laid it against his leg, and shot himself: a first-class ticket home from Baghdad. Our platoon was not in disarray, but a sign over the command post read, “The shipment of morale has been delayed until further notice.” Cynicism was pretty common. The guys really didn’t greet him with much sympathy after that. To soldiers, nothing is more despicable than cowardice. But we pulled together, and we took care of each other, and we continued on with the mission. That’s what really kept the rest of us going, was the mission. That mission, for us, was to help the Iraqi people. That may not have been why we were sent there originally, and that may not have been what other people were doing, but that’s what we were doing. And that’s what most of the American soldiers there were really doing at that point. We’d thrown ourselves into that full-throttle.
We found an elementary school that had been gutted. The teachers and students were petrified. Saddam loyalists would find rooftops and wait for the school to start. The school was only maybe 25 students—very tiny. They’d wait for school to start, and then they’d start shooting with AK-47s down on the kids. Not to kill them, but just to send a message that Saddam is still around, that the remnants are still around and that school should not be in session. When we met with the headmistress, the children swarmed us, pointing, waving, smiling. They treated us like superheroes, and that’s honestly how we felt. They would ask us about our weapons, about our sunglasses, about our boots, and then they would chant, “Good Bush, good Bush.” My guys weren’t real crazy about that at that point.
I told the headmistress to keep her school open. But she was scared. She shifted her eyes and she hid behind this old, rickety desk. I really couldn’t figure out why she was scared. It was obvious that people were shooting at her and that was part of it, but there was something about me that scared her. I was used to that, as well, but my interpreter pulled me off to the side and offered me this bit of advice: He said that word on the street in Baghdad was that our Oakley wrap-around sunglasses were not only sunglasses, but they were X-ray sunglasses, and they could see through clothes. I promptly removed my sunglasses, and she smiled. But she was scared, and I told her that I would be watching, that my men would be watching. We stationed two sniper teams equipped with night-vision goggles and heat-detecting thermal scopes high on a water tower nearby. I told her she wouldn’t see us, but we would see her; we’d be there. Three days later, thanks to my snipers, the shooting stopped.
Halliburton and Bechtel? Nowhere in sight. The school had become our school, Third Platoon’s school. And nobody messed with it. It was our school. We found out that the teachers hadn’t been paid in four months and they couldn’t afford to come to work anymore, so they were going to stop teaching. My guys took money out their own pockets and collected over $300 and paid the teachers. We found friends and family back home and told them to go to Wal-Mart and Staples and get whatever school supplies they could and send them over to us. My former colleagues at J.P. Morgan sent 35 boxes of office supplies. Kids from the Horace Mann School in New York City were sending pencils and pens, they were sending their pens and pencils. And drawings of their kids, drawings of their lives, and we brought those to the kids in Baghdad. We were making a difference.
Medical City was our turf. That was our core. We patrolled it like beat cops and defended it like our home. We had men stationed on the entrance and we had a Humvee outside the ER. It was critical that this hospital stay open to treat patients, most of which were actually not the victims of U.S. hardware, but of Iraqi-on-Iraqi crime: revenge killings, religious differences. Now the Iraqis were at war with themselves. My interpreter once told me that at least under Saddam, everyone was united against Saddam. All these different groups could align themselves against Saddam. Once Saddam was gone, then they’d start fighting with each other. So different parties, different sects, different classes, clashing in an internal war. It’s kind of like Amherst when Sarat and Arkes are in the same room.
There was one night when one of my squad leaders called me up—his name was Sgt. James—he called me up on the radio and said, “Get to the emergency room right now; I’m going to help.” I have a hard time looking back on it now, putting together all the little pieces of the story. I just got back about a month and a half ago, and it’s very difficult to catch them all and come with a concise package and talk to you guys about things you’d want to hear. This is a letter I sent to my girlfriend, who’s here tonight about the events that took place that night, and I think it was kind of fresh and gives you an idea of what we were experiencing during that time.
I saw a holy man die last night. We were providing security for the doctors in the ER, some extra work to keep them safe and keep the ER open late at night—a friendship gesture. The doctors begged me to do it. We were talking with some locals outside with our interpreter, Isan, explaining that, contrary to popular rumor, our combat boots cannot detect and defuse landmines. Just as we were doing that a pickup full of men came barreling into the ER. They were closely followed by a bus, a full bus, of people scrambling after the truck. The men carried a small, thin, blood-drenched body topped with a swollen head about the size of watermelon. They were all frantic. The man had a small entry wound above each nipple on his chest and one in between his eyes. No visible exit wounds. Gallons of blood streamed off of him as they carried him into the ER. I couldn’t believe the enormous size of his head. About three dozen people, mostly middle-aged, mostly men, were kneeling and praying on the dirty floor in the ER, whimpering and whispering for over half an hour while the doctors worked on the man from behind the shower curtain guarded by two of my guys. The medical equipment is abominable. Blood is everywhere, basic sanitation is absent, totally. All the while, a skeletal woman watched unmoved from a white cot positioned against the wall to my right. She’s always in this emergency room. She’s always there, patiently waiting to die as the carnage rolls past her hourly. The doctor says she has TB. Great. She’s been lying there reading and watching since before the war started. I recommended to the doctor that maybe he should isolate her from everyone else, especially my guys. He failed to realize my rationale. This is the same doctor who told me that AIDS only happens to homosexuals.
The crowd runs in and out of the hospital across a dark street to the blood bank and back about 10 times. The only way to get blood from the blood bank is to run over and actually donate it yourself. Then they put the blood in a bag and you run your own blood back to the hospital. They continued to work on the man, and Isan tells me that this man was shot in the street. He’s a local sheik at a Shi’ite mosque. Shi’a mosques are actually out of our sector, so he was coming from far away. Shi’as are notably more dramatic, more exaggerated, tend to be more superstitious. Isan was a Sunni. He says when you die, you die. He offers me a cigarette, as Iraqis usually do, and says “Cigarettes shorten everything: time, money, life.”
The Imam finally dies. Now the doctors are frantic. They’re debating how to announce it, how to tell it to the crowd. They fear retribution. I reluctantly agree to make the announcement as one of the followers leaps from behind the curtain. They all freak out, beating themselves. An old woman in a full black robe wails, calling out to the man who died—her brother. On her knees, smacking her own face on the floor of the hospital. Tattoos are on her chin and on her eyebrows; her teeth are missing. To me she kind of looks like a dark witch. Another man arrives to hear the news and faints. My six guys and I are saddened, deeply affected. Sgt. James starts to cry. My heart is aching for these poor people. They flail and they kick, restraining each other so we don’t have to. We stand there watching, absorbing.
At the lowest moment, another man emerges to hear the news. He turns to the woman who’s wailing and then slams his head against the wall, not once, but twice, and knocks himself out cold. Specialist Coleman turns to me and says, “Shit, sir, that guy just knocked himself out cold.” We both laugh uncomfortably in amazement—too unreal, yet funny. I worry that this shit will really get to my boys later, but it’s amazing experience to witness these people grieve. I feel like I’m violating their privacy, but at the same time grateful for the exposure. The hospital head and I confer with my interpreter—infinitely wise in these situations—and we find the head of the family, express our sympathies and ask for guidance. The only thing they ask for is a note so they can pass through the U.S. checkpoints after the 2230 deadline. We decide that now is the moment to roll the body out, so the family doesn’t attack the doctors. Often, when someone would die, the family wouldn’t have an understanding about medical care work, and retaliate against the doctors and feel like the doctors had failed them. So the doctors were in constant fear of being assassinated, shot. They rolled open the curtains, the Iraqis went at top speed, pushing the body with two of my soldiers running alongside of it. The family members and followers dropped as they saw him pass them, and the guys fly out the door in a blur. Coleman turns to me and says, “Elvis has left the building.”
Exhale, cigarettes for all, another hall pass for the bus, another night in Baghdad, time to report it higher on the radio.
Just as we start to leave, three armored Humvees fly in with two bodies in the rear: two bad guys who shot at them and they shot back. Iraqis don’t do too well in these situations. We can see at night, and we have magic boots. And a guy told me today I look Chuck Norris. Usually it’s Arnold Schwartzenegger. Never a shortage of stories.
I love you,
So people try to ask me what life was like in Baghdad, and I try to pick these stories. But as far as amenities, it sucks. It absolutely sucks. I wrote a list of a few things I missed. I’ll just read some of them to you:
Things I Miss and I Look Forward to Very Much
Wearing clothes without my name written on them.
Baseball at Yankee Stadium.
Taking my grandmother for Carvel ice cream by the river.
Doing anything with Sean, my five-year-old nephew.
New York City subways and taxis.
The smell of women (and actually anything to do with women).
Seeing different types of houses of worship on the same block, or at least in the same city.
Talk radio; all radio.
Not wearing 50 pounds of gear and a helmet every time I leave the house.
Ice cream, tiramisu, cheesecake, chicken pad thai.
A dog that I can pet and a hand that I can shake without fear of contracting a disease.
A multicolored wardrobe.
The New York Times.
Beer, cold or otherwise.
Not having to babysit people.
Not having to attend meetings, planning sessions, debriefings.
Traveling in a vehicle without a rifle and with doors.
A population to interact with that generally speaks English.
Entering a building without having to clear a round from my weapon.
Sleeping in a bed.
Normal toilets and showers.
Soft toilet paper.
Ducks and other birds.
I returned to the U.S. in February, about a month and a half, two months, ago. And needless to say, it’s good to be home. I’m proud to say that all 39 of my guys are home, too, and all alive. Some are in better shape than others, and adjustment has been hard for some, easy for others. Sgt. Teller, the guy who lost his legs, has a long road ahead of him, but we had a welcome dinner about two weeks ago, and he walked in with his new legs. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
I know some of you want to ask me questions about what’s going on there now, and I’d love to answer them. But the situation has certainly not improved, and I worry about friends who are there, Americans and Iraqis. I don’t see a quick fix. The June 30th deadline is too soon. When we left in February, they couldn’t get a gas station to function properly without corruption. A gas station. So I highly doubt that the new government will be ready by June 30th. People ask me what we need in Baghdad. I highly doubt that the new government is going to be what we need. Iraq needs time. Iraq needs lots of time, and it needs support, understanding and patience. And I fear that we have none of those right now. Our republic is 200 years old, and we still haven’t gotten it right here, so assuming we’ll have democracy, a healthy democracy in Iraq after a year is ridiculous. And even worse, it’s dangerous.
Keep in mind that my experience is different than it might have been for someone in the north, in Mosul or Tikrit, but I can tell what it was like from my perspective, and hopefully that will have some value for you.
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