I fucked up once as a civil servant and my boss called me on the carpet for it.
I deserved it. The ass-chewing was spot on.
This fairly senior, nearly senior executive-level service (SES) Department of the Army civilian ended the talk with me in a direction I hadn’t ever thought through.
He said, “Look you’ve had a few tours down range. Have you talked to anyone about them?”
I was in Iraq from April of 2003 to March of 2004 and I was in Afghanistan for my entire life.
I think I was in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2006, but I forget the months I arrived and departed because that job was so boring I likely do need professional counseling.
In Afghanistan I worked in a combined joint tactical boring center. My days were spent hoping nothing happened or feverishly writing craptastic three-paragraph news releases about the things that did happen.
If you recall, the media’s focus during the years of 2005 and 2006 wasn’t exactly on Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan I built zero relationships with the local population.
In Iraq, however, the exact opposite was true.
I met many, many Iraqis who I then and now consider friends. In an admission that will likely keep me from ever obtaining a top secret clearance — I stay in touch, through social media, with most of them to this day.
Actually, on second thought, the NSA already knows about these relationships so that was kind of a pointless confession.
I can only speak to my experience. Someone serving in Iraq during those years might have an experience completely opposite mine. That’s OK. Hell, I’d love to hear about it.
We were stationed in the city of Kirkuk, a place populated largely by Kurds. During the invasion Kirkuk experienced very little violence. While I wasn’t there, many members of the unit I was with, the storied and decorated 173rd Airborne Brigade, talked about how the Iraqi army dissolved before the 173rd even entered and secured the city.
I arrived a few days, maybe a few weeks, after the 173rd did. I honestly don’t recall how long they had been there.
I worked for two different officers there. Both were brilliant, energetic and dedicated. The first was reassigned fairly quickly. The events of September 11, 2001 had just happened and talented public affairs officers were in high demand.
The second officer was a former Ranger who came to the 173rd already sporting a combat jump on his airborne wings (which was incredibly rare back then) and he wasn’t trained in public affairs at all. He was an Infantryman through and through. He was assigned as the brigade’s personnel officer (or S1 in military terms), but that shop was basically running itself so he wanted to play in the Public Affairs kiddy pool.
We fought bitterly, at first. I capitulated when he told me the following: I don’t give a shit if the wives, parents, kids, or the American public back home are informed. I want the Iraqi people here to know we’re on their side. The American’s are already behind us, it’s the Iraqi people I want to talk to.
I spent a bitter night in my sleeping bag, but he was right.
Prior to his arrival, our detachment had already established a very good relationship with Kirkuk radio and TV stations. From that point forward we kicked all of those relationships into high gear.
Every day of the week, as guests we had Iraqi and our own educational specialists on the radio airwaves, we had Iraqi doctors and our own doctors on the airwaves, we had Iraqi and our own engineers on the airwaves.
The phones during those interviews never — even hours after the show was over — stopped ringing.
And that’s how I met my Iraqi friends with whom I still keep in contact. They were in our audience or worked at our station.
Some of them were Muslim — for all I know, all of them were. But they were just people at the end of the day.
We had a very young soldier with us, he couldn’t have been anymore than 19 or 20. The Iraqi people who worked for us knew he missed his family and asked what kind of food he liked. Because he was a kid and an idiot, he said pizza. A Muslim woman of perhaps 40 made him pizza from scratch. Think about that. She went out into the streets, dangerous as they were, to dig up the ingredients for pizza.
I’m proud to report it tasted awesome.
I once brought into the radio station a plate of food that our cooks had made. They were heated-up “T-rations,” something we ate two meals a day on the airbase. Because I’m an insensitive jerktard, the day I decided to do this on was a day when the cooks made ham.
The Iraqis gathered around. After I explained the meal contained pork, two ladies ventured in to taste. The more daring of the duo ate a piece of ham, while the the other, in a fit of giggles, couldn’t believe how brave her coworker was. I believe the Koran was mentioned, but only in a joking manner.
One time we traveled up north to the stable and safe city of Sulimanaia for some sort of conference. It became obvious very quickly that beer and other sorts of booze were being served. Because my job mainly revolved around setting the thing up once, it was underway I was free to enjoy my meal and chill out.
It was a well-known fact, even then, that I enjoyed beer. My Iraqi friends pointed out that no one was looking and that I could indeed enjoy a beer at the moment. I refused. Later that night, in my hotel room (which was on par with any top-of-the-line hotel room anywhere in the world) there was a knock at my door. One of the Iraqis brought me two beers, explaining that he knew I was embarrassed to drink in public. Silly fucker.
If you’re reading this Iraqi friend, those two beers were the best I ever had.
To this day, 10 long years later, I still get emails and Facebook messages from those friends. Some happy, most are sad though.
Recently a series of bombs rocked the normally stable city of Irbil. Iraq, despite our half-hearted days-gone-by efforts, continues to consume itself with pointless violence.
When I got the news via Facebook from a friend in Iraq, I peppered him with questions like I always do.
“Is everyone OK?”
“How about so and so, doesn’t his family live near there?”
And then I send out message after message looking for responses from my other friends still there.
It’s always the same. There’s nothing America can do, there’s not much of anything I can do. It just sucks to have friends in Iraq.
I don’t know if I have PTSD or not. I doubt honestly that I do. But I do know leaving friends behind to live in hell while I blog and drink beer doesn’t feel very good.
I pray the people of Iraq unite soon, I hope I don’t ever get another text like yesterday’s that leaves me wondering if everyone is OK, and I hope, hope, hope that America’s next exercise in foreign intervention ends better.