A US Warrior’s Diary of Iraq

 

 

This was a wall locker that I used in Iraq as a temporary safe. There is approximately $300,000 US in Iraqi dinars in this wall locker. I kept this wall locker in the CMATT briefing room with just a simple combination lock to secure it. By the time I turned the payroll function over to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, I was using six safes and Saddam Hussein’s own personal vault in the Presidential Palace for storing all the dinars signed over to me.

This is a truck belonging to the Iraqi 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, Iraqi Intervention Force (IIF). At the time, the 2nd IIB (Iraqi Infantry Battalion) was in An Najaf mopping up remnants of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Army which were still in the city after the major fighting had ceased. This truck received a direct hit from an RPG round but as you can see, the improvised armor plating prevented major damage and loss of life.

My security escort from HHQ, 1st Infantry Brigade, An Najaf, Iraq. These were very sharp troopers. The Iraqis can be VERY good soldiers if properly led, trained, motivated and equipped. I worked almost exclusively with Iraqi soldiers during my tour in Iraq and I felt completely confident in their ability to hold their own if and when the stuff hit the fan.

The Wild Bunch, An Najaf, Iraq. These were the Iraqi soldiers who helped me cart around close to 1 billion dinars in An Najaf, Iraq for purpose of paying soldiers from the 1st Brigade, 2nd battalion and 4th battalion. Unlike U.S. soldiers who are paid via direct deposit, all the Iraqi soldiers are paid in cash!!! For a three month period, I was the official paymaster for the Iraqi Armed Forces so it was my job to make sure everybody got paid. Needless to say, it was an extremely difficult, dangerous and interesting job. The lowest paid Iraqi soldier makes about the equivalent of $50 US a month while the top ranking officers (e.g., generals) make about $600 US. This might seem low to us but the cost of living is really low in Iraq. A person can live like a king on about $600 a month (876,000 dinars).

My boss in Iraq, LTG David Petreaus, the CG of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I). This is the command tasked with training the new Iraqi Army. LTG Petreaus is one of the sharpest Generals I have ever met. He even remembered me from my US Army Europe (USAREUR) days when I ran all the Force Protection VTCs for US Army Europe and he was Assistant Chief of Staff, Operations, SFOR. It was LTG Petreaus who put a stop to the practice of rear echelon staff officers receiving the Bronze Star Medal as an exit award for completing their tours of duty in the Green Zone (i.e., not putting one foot outside the Green Zone during their entire tour of duty in Iraq).

One of my Iraqi workers in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense J8 Section (Finance Section). While in Iraq, I used code names for all soldiers and civilians working for me for security reasons. I called this individual Mr. A for Mr. All-Knowing. It was Mr. A who told me that I had a $20,000 price on my head because of my job as Paymaster for the entire Iraqi Armed Forces. I was extremely lucky and never did get caught. My Iraqi driver, Mr. W., however was captured and held for four days before being released. He had to quit because the bad guys threatened to not only kill him if he continued to work for me but also kill his two wives and his seven children (In Iraq, it is legal for a man to have up to four wives). On the trip where he was captured, I was supposed to be with him but a last minute change in my plans prevented me from going. As a result of this, I was saved from being a guest star in a terrorist beheading video.

A Wagon Train run from the Green Zone to Taji Military Training Base (TMTB). Wagon Train was our code word for a payroll run where we had an armed escort (Humvees; code word: the “Cavalry”). A Pony Express run was a payroll run where it was just me, my Iraqi driver and one or two shooters (“shooters” is the term that I used for the armed soldiers riding with me; I also used the term, “gunslingers”) in our UNARMORED SUV. We carried billions of dinars on both types of run. On this particular run, we are in the white SUV in the background. As I recall, we had about 1 billion dinars in the back of this SUV stuffed into cardboard boxes. That’s how unsophisticated things were at that time. FYI, the 18-wheeler in the background had been shot at minutes before we passed. The dead driver was still in the vehicle as we drove past.

A Wagon Train run on the Mosul Highway to Taji Military Training Base. The Mosul Highway ran from Baghdad straight to Mosul (about 200 miles north) right past Taji MTB. We are stopped right in the middle of the road because one of the Humvees had a flat tire. While it was being fixed, traffic was stopped in both directions. Needless to say, this caused traffic problems which only compounded the traffic problems that already existed due to the fact that some of the worse drivers I have ever seen are in Iraq. Anyone who has served in Iraq and seen how Iraqi men drive should know what I am talking about.

The Bone Yard at Taji Military Base (TMTB). The Bone Yard at Taji Military Base was HUGE due to the fact that this is where all the armored vehicles from the old Iraqi Army were stockpiled in order to be scrapped. This is actually a poor picture because it really doesn’t show just how big this bone yard was. I estimated that the armor for at least three full armored divisions was lined up in this area. This is the tank section. There was also a section for self-propelled artillery and a section for armored personnel carriers (APCs).

This is what the suicide bombing of the Haji Mart looked like a few minutes after the bomb went off. You can clearly see the smoke rising from the target area. When I left Iraq a couple of months after this incident, they were still trying to figure out how the two suicide bombers got their explosives into the Green Zone.

The brand new Mosque at Kirkush Military Training Base (KMTB). Not being a Muslim, I did not go inside the Mosque so I only saw the outside improvements. KMTB is about 20-30 minutes from the Iraq-Iran border right out in the middle of nowhere. Rumor had it that Saddam built KMTB with the help of the old communist Yugoslavian government but the base was never fully operational because Saddam was skimming most of the construction money for other purposes. The worst sandstorm I was in while in Iraq was at KMTB. It was so bad that you could not see two feet in front of your face.

Up in smoke. The Information Technology room at the Presidential Palace in the Green Zone in Baghdad goes up in smoke due to either faulty wiring or over-wiring. This happened one morning in the summer of 2004 before the regular work day had begun. The IT room was basically just a wooden structure built on one of the balconies of the Presidential Palace. This fire burnt up ALL of the computer equipment in the IT room. Rumor had it that the total loss was somewhere in the $250,000-$1,000,000 range. Since this was U.S. taxpayer money, the solution to the problem caused by the fire was simple: more U.S. taxpayer money was spent to replace what had been lost.

Precision bomb damage. This was one of the large Iraqi government buildings in the Green Zone that was destroyed from the air during the initial war in April-May 2003. This building was about 2-3 blocks from the Presidential Palace which was not damaged at all. I got a couple of different stories about why this building was taken out. One story was that it was Headquarters for the Republican Guard. Another story was that it was one of Saddam’s fake palaces, i.e., an expendable decoy. Whatever its real purpose, USAF/USN bombing made it totally useless.

An early method of employing an Improvised Explosive Device (i.e., IED; roadside bomb). Early in 2004, the insurgents would just pack explosives in a pipe, wire the explosives, bury the pipe under the road, get set up to observe the target area (with a camcorder of course) and then just wait. Because they were using pipes, we made an effort to deny them pipes. If you drive around the Taji Military Training Base, you will see that all the pipes that use to be buried in the ground have been dug up in order to prevent their being used for IEDs. Of course since then, the insurgents have become more sophisticated and deadlier. Their preferred weapon of choice now is the Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED, i.e., car bomb). VBIEDs come in two varieties: static (i.e., the car is parked and detonated by remote control) or suicide [i.e., the car is driven by a single male fanatic (very few women drive in Iraq and suicide bombers rarely carpool)].

Bust of Saddam. This is a pic of one of the four busts of Saddam that were positioned on top of the Presidential Palace in Baghdad. All four had been removed by the time I arrived at the Palace. The Presidential Palace was the Iraqi equivalent of our White House. This is why many Iraqis are pissed that it is now the U.S. Embassy. Saddam, by the way, had his face on EVERYTHING: money, billboards, roadside monuments, portraits and pictures of all kind everywhere. Any guy that obsessed with seeing his face all over the place has to be a real sicko. I was even told that every hospital in Iraq had been named after Saddam which must have made it extremely difficult to locate a friend or relative who ended up in a hospital unexpectedly.

A convoy in the early days. Note that these are unarmored Humvees without doors!!! This is early 2004. This is why many soldiers were screaming for armored Humvees and many were raiding scrap metal yards in order to come up with improvised armor plating. Because the insurgents are now using deadlier IEDs (artillery shells as opposed to mortar shells and grenades), it is totally impractical to drive around like this in Iraq nowadays.

Haji Mart aftermath (My apologies if I offend anyone but this is what we called it). This is what the Haji Mart looked like the day after a suicide bomber carrying explosives in a backpack struck. The Green Zone Cafe was also taken out by a second suicide bomber carrying explosives in a backpack on the same day. As it was told to me by my Iraqi co-workers, the Green Zone Cafe was targeted because some Iraqi women were using it for the purpose of meeting western men (FYI, many Iraqi men DO NOT like the idea of Iraqi women getting involved with western men so a few words of advice to those headed there: avoid Iraqi women while in Iraq). The Haji Mart was targeted because the insurgents did not want Iraqis doing business with westerners and they knew it would be shut down if they hit it (which is exactly what happened). I do not recall exactly how many people died in the Haji Mart blast. I believe it was two U.S. contractors and two Iraqis (one being the suicide bomber). I arrived at the Mart about ten minutes after the explosion. I had parked my car and was observing the scene from the street when someone pointed to an object on the ground not far from where we were standing. It turned out to be a piece of intestine from one of the victims. Since most of us had already seen the aftermath of one or more explosions, no one was even phased by this.

Martyr’s Park in the Green Zone as it appears from the street. You can actually climb inside the hands and go up a certain distance into the swords. The FPS guards (Facilities Protection Services; Iraqis in blue uniforms hired to protect certain buildings and facilities) protecting this place also showed me a piece of the infamous U.S. Dollar carpet. When Iraqi soldiers paraded through the park, they would march over a carpet made out of U.S. dollars. I guess this was one of Saddam’s sick ways of insulting the U.S. There were also Iranian helmets hanging from the hands and embedded in the concrete at various spots throughout the parade field.

Brick factories on the road to Kirkush Military Training Base. These things were really spooky in that they were stuck out in the middle of nowhere (like KMTB) and every time we drove in to check them out, we did not see a living soul. Because the countryside in this part of Iraq is absolutely flat, you can see the smoke rising from these chimneys for miles. This is a relatively quiet sector of Iraq. In all of our trips to and from KMTB, the only hostile fire we experienced was one wayward rocket round that landed way out in the middle of nowhere (I experienced indirect fire at Baghdad, Ar Rustamiyah, Taji and KMTB-this one round; I experienced direct fire at An Najaf and Taji).

Blawkhawks over central Iraq. The UH-60 (Blackhawk) is a comfortable ride but being an old paratrooper, I will always prefer the UH-1 (Huey). Even though I like the Huey, I never bought the story that it could glide when in trouble. Since the UH-60 is bigger and heavier, to me that just means more trouble if it runs into the problems. That’s why I favor the Huey over the Blackhawk.

Iranian helmets. This is another gem from the sick mind of Saddam. These Iranian helmets are part of the “Arms holding the Swords” monument at Martyr’s Park. Whenever you see videos or DVDs of Iraqi soldiers marching past Saddam in his viewing stand, chances are this was occurring in Martyr’s Park. FYI, Martyr’s Park is right next to Iraq’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Haji Mart in the Green Zone during its heyday. This is what the Haji Mart looked like before the suicide bomber struck. You could buy a lot of interesting items here: old Iraqi money (genuine and counterfeit), cheap DVDs (two weeks after a movie’s release in the USA, you could buy a bootleg DVD version of it in Iraq), leather custom made holsters, knives, paintings, Persian rugs, CDs, old Iraqi medals, old Iraqi uniforms (parts or complete sets) and even porno DVDs. When the killing of several vendors who had booths in the Haji Mart failed to scare away the others, the insurgents blew it up. That did the trick.

The famous Imam Ali Mosque in An Najaf, Iraq. The Imam Ali Mosque was built over 1000 years ago. Because of this and the fact that the prophet is buried here, this is the most important holy place for Shite Muslims. This was the main reason why U.S. forces were extremely careful to avoid causing any damage to the mosque when fighting raged in An Najaf during the late summer of 2004 between US/Iraqi Army forces and the followers of Muqtada Al Sadr. I arrived in An Najaf at the end of August 2004. I missed the major fighting but little skirmishes were still going on (I got into a brief fire fight at a police check point on the outskirts of the city). When I took this picture, I was about 100-200 yards from the mosque. I could not get any closer because snipers were still active in the area.

The famous four chimneys of the electric power plant in Dora, Iraq. Dora is actually on the outskirts of Baghdad; a sort of suburb of the city of Baghdad. The electric power plant in Dora supplies the bulk of the electricity for the city of Baghdad. A good sign for the people living in Baghdad was to observe all four chimneys belching smoke. This indicated that the plant was fully operational and supplying enough electricity for the entire city of Baghdad. Unfortunately during the entire time I was in Iraq (10 months), I only observed smoke coming out of one chimney. When I arrived in Baghdad, none of the traffic lights were working. This was also the case with the street lights. This made driving during the day very difficult and driving at night VERY dangerous. Because of the electricity problem in Baghdad, everyday living was extremely hard for the Iraqis living there. Keeping food from spoiling was a major problem because power outages or no power at all was a constant problem. It was especially bad during the summer months where the temperatures averaged 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit every single day [The heat was simply unbelievable with a three month period (June-August) where every single day there was not a single cloud in the sky!!!!!!]. In order to escape from this summer heat, many Iraqis living in Baghdad simply slept outside on the roofs of their houses.

If anyone asks you, this is what a $500,000 trailer looks like. At least this is what I was told the U.S. government was being charged by the company responsible for building and delivering these trailers to Iraq for U.S. military personnel to live in. Each trailer has two air conditioned rooms for sleeping quarters with each room having enough space for two twin size beds, two wall lockers, a small refrigerator and a small entertainment center containing a 25″ color TV set and a DVD player. The two rooms are connected by a bathroom that contains one sink, one toilet and one shower stall. A small hot water heater is also located in the bathroom. These trailers were actually quite comfortable living quarters but if the $500,000 price tag is correct, the profit margin on these structures must be pretty high. MG Smedley Butler, USMC, once made the comment that “war is a racket”. I guess this is just as true nowadays as it was back in the 1920’s when he was around. When I was in Iraq, I also heard a rumor that Kellog, Brown & Root (KBR), the subsidiary of Haliburton in charge of operating all the dining facilities (DFACs) for the U.S. military in Iraq, was charging the U.S. government $235 for every three hot meals served. That seemed to me to be pretty steep as well but in defense of KBR, I have to admit that the food they served was pretty good and wherever a significant number of U.S. military/government personnel were stationed in Iraq, KBR was right there as well providing three hot squares a day. I am really grateful to KBR because, thanks to them, during my entire tour of duty in Iraq, I did not have to eat one MRE (I guess I am an old soldier at heart; I will ALWAYS prefer C rations to MREs!!!).

This is part of Camp Victory from the air. This area with its man-made lakes and waterfront palaces and chalets was actually a complete resort town built by Saddam in 1998 for his 61st birthday. The waterfront palaces were for himself and members of his immediate family while the waterfront chalets were for his most loyal followers (i.e., his kiss asses). To see such extravagance for a select few in a country so poor and destitute was extremely disgusting to me. In a country where the average working adult made about $3 US a month (before the war), Saddam had about thirty palaces scattered about the countryside for his own personal use. All of this proved to me that Saddam was just like all the other dirtbag dictators who plagued the human race throughout the 20th Century; he was/is a complete and total sociopath.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Presidential Palace in the Green Zone, Baghdad, Iraq. Despite its size, it was rather unimpressive to me and appeared to have been constructed on the cheap. It seemed to me that Saddam was more interested in spending lots of money and time on monuments to himself rather than on the poor unfortunate Iraqi soldiers who were forced to fight his many senseless wars. Practically all of the Iraqi men who were of military age during the Saddam years had to serve in the Iraqi military. Officers serving in Saddam’s army had their passports confiscated so that they could not leave the country.

An unfinished mosque in Baghdad, Iraq. This mosque, once finished, was to be proclaimed the largest mosque in the world. The toppling of Saddam’s regime brought its construction to a halt. Like everything else in Iraq, it was picked clean by scavengers once the fighting was over. However unlike many unguarded sites, there were no squatters living in it because it was inside the guarded compound housing the Baghdad recruiting center and the Iraqi infantry battalion tasked with garrison duty for the city of Baghdad. Squatters were a BIG problem in Baghdad. They were basically the homeless who would move into any unoccupied building and basically set up house. Squatters had no problems coping with no running water, no indoor plumbing, no electricity, etc. And once they moved in, it was almost impossible to evict them because practically all the male squatters were armed. In Iraq, it is legal for every male to own at least one weapon so practically every male has an AK-47 since this is the weapon of choice in Iraq.

Babylon. Babylon is about 100 miles south of Baghdad. Saddam was in the process of renovating this historical site when his regime was toppled. Babylon is only one of the many ancient historical sites in Iraq. The real tragedy of Iraq is that it could really have a booming economy based upon oil production and tourism. However the insurgency currently going on within the country is preventing this from happening. As I see it, this insurgency is the work of hardcore fanatics because only fanatics would refuse to realize that now that the Iraqi people have experienced true freedom and the benefits that come with it, many simply do not want to go back to way things use to be (i.e., a few haves and many have nots).

Some of my Iraqi buddies. COL Taha, MAJ Aqil and CWO Hasim from HHQ, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, Iraqi Army, at Ar Rustamiyah, Iraq. Colonel Taha was my boss when I was briefly attached to the 1st Brigade, Iraqi Army. Major Aqil was my Iraqi Army counterpart. He and I still correspond regularly via email. Chief Hasim was in charge of the 1st Brigade security detachment that provided protection for me when I was running payroll for the Iraqi Intervention Force. Ar Rustamiyah is where the Iraqi Army Military Academy is located. It is about 20 minutes south of Baghdad. This picture was taken at the small Iraqi shopette that was located on the post. The Iraqi gentleman running the shopette was a BIG Notre Dame football fan. That explains the ND poster on the wall in the background. I offered him $100 for the poster, which is a LOT of money in Iraq, but he refused to sell it. I ran into several Iraqis who were ND football fans. I also ran into several Germans who were ND football fans when I served in Germany. From these encounters it became apparent to me that the University of Notre Dame is probably the ONLY American university that can claim an international fan base in regards to its football program. GO IRISH!!!!!

My Mike Force, Baghdad, Iraq [this is why we were code named Baghdad Mike Force (BMF)]. This is a pic of me with SSG Craig Patrick and Chief Petty Officer Theodore Wilson taken on the grounds of the Presidential Palace, Baghdad, Iraq (not pictured, CPT Michael Gaines, USMC). These are the guys I used in Iraq for running payroll for the Iraqi Army for a three month period. During this period of time, we transported the equivalent of $4 million US in Iraqi dinars without the lost of a single dinar. We initially started with practically nothing to aid us in accomplishing our mission (the individual who tasked me with this job was my first boss in Iraq, COL Thomas “Tex” Hammes, USMC, the author of “The Sling and the Stone”). Note that CPO Wilson is holding an old beat up AK-47. At the beginning of June when I did my battle hand off to the Iraqis, all of my men were carrying brand new MP5’s and Barretta pistols, all of them were getting weekly target practice at the Baghdad RC rifle range and all of them knew how to get around Baghdad unescorted. We had our own code system so we could email and telephone payroll information in the clear without the worry of being compromised. It was roughly based on American old west terminology. The Iraqis working with us eventually caught on towards the end and because they got a kick out it, they started calling us Buffalo Soldiers. This was because, for this three month period of time, the U.S. military personnel responsible for paying the entire Iraqi Armed Forces were all African-Americans. The reason as to why was simple: survival. At times when we had to roll without armed escort and in civilian clothes, we had to blend in. Since there are blacks in Iraq (some Sudanese and some native Iraqis from southern Iraq around the Basra area), the solution to blending in was simple: use African-American military personnel. However in spite of our success and our innovative ways to stay alive in the line of duty, I had to endure a lot of grief from REMFs who simply could not or would not TOTB (think outside the box). The Green Zone is inundated with these “warriors”. The danger with this is that a preponderance of these guys in a war zone inevitably leads to the triggering of the Sukhomlinov effect.
The Sukhomlinov Effect. Named after General Vladimir Sukhomlinov, the Imperial Russian Minister of War at the start of World War I, this “rule” holds that in any given conflict the loser is most likely to be the side whose generals wear the better uniforms (modern day examples: the Vietnam War: 1965-72, the Afghanistan conflict:1979-1989, Somalia: 1993).

LTC Elton Johnson, Jr.
Tel  888-960-0644 Ext. 700
Fax  951-346-5533
Email elton.johnson@amerivetsecurities.com

The brand new Mosque at Kirkush Military Training Base (KMTB). Not being a Muslim, I did not go inside the Mosque so I only saw the outside improvements. KMTB is about 20-30 minutes from the Iraq-Iran border right out in the middle of nowhere. Rumor had it that Saddam built KMTB with the help of the old communist Yugoslavian government but the base was never fully operational because Saddam was skimming most of the construction money for other purposes. The worst sandstorm I was in while in Iraq was at KMTB. It was so bad that you could not see two feet in front of your face.