Caught between “Iraq and a hard place” – my Najaf experience

Caught between “Iraq and a hard place” – my Najaf experience

May 5, 2019 0 By Rick

In 2004 while posted in Surabaya, Indonesia, I volunteered to be embedded with the U.S. military in Najaf, Iraq. This was right after the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had been disbanded and power had been returned to the Iraqi government. The State Department was asking for officers with experience from the Middle East (I had none except as a tourist), Arabic (couldn’t speak a word) and prior experience in the military (the only thing I had). So, I was very surprised when they selected me to go. I was given 10 days to pack up and move my family to Washington D.C. to attend a two-week course conducted by Diplomatic Security to prepare me for my assignment in Iraq. We said our good-byes to our friends in Indonesia, flew to D.C., checked into a hotel (our home for two weeks), and I started the course.

Preparing
The course was great, with lots of speakers who had been in Iraq. We studied Iraqi culture, Islam, military field medicine, surveillance and counter-surveillance and fired a few weapons on the range. I also learned a little about what I was expected to do once I got to Najaf. I made plans for my wife to return to Sweden so I wouldn’t have to fly back to the U.S. from Iraq for R&R (Rest & Recreation). Everything was hurry, hurry, hurry because I was needed immediately in Iraq or, so I was told. The position was unfilled, and I needed to fill it asap. I graduated on a Friday afternoon and boarded a flight for Kuwait the same night after a tearful good-bye with my wife. I had a great aisle seat, but gave it up to a lady who was headed to Afghanistan and didn’t have a seat due to overbooking. My gallantry actually paid off. I was upgraded to business class.

Protecting the “family jewels”
I arrived in Kuwait and checked into the Hilton hotel. Not a bad gig, I thought. I sat there for a week, riding out to the airport and back several times only to be told there was no flight to Baghdad. Flights were often canceled at the last moment for security reasons. Finally, I boarded a military flight (C-130 – a plane I had jumped out of many times in my past) and I was Baghdad bound! As we approached Baghdad, I took off my helmet and sat on it, garnering many strange looks from some of the younger people on the plane. Need to protect the “family jewels” if the shit hits the fan, I commented. We made a combat landing in Baghdad, which means that we approached the airport at a high altitude to avoid ground fire and then started a steep corkscrew approach from directly above the airport only to level off and land at the last minute. That was a first for many of my fellow passengers, many of whom vomited in their helmets.

Hurry up and wait
After landing, we joined a convoy to the Green Zone on Route Irish, probably the most infamous highway in Iraq due to all the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and ambushes. We arrived safely at one of Sadam Husain’s huge palaces and I found a bunk in a tent on the front lawn. Remember all the hurry, hurry, hurry talk I got in D.C.? Well, I spent a week in Kuwait and a week in Baghdad waiting for transportation to Najaf, about 160 km south of Baghdad. I finally hitched a ride on a Blackhawk helo heading south and landed in Al-Hillah, where we had a regional embassy at an old hotel. At my first briefing, I asked when I would get to meet the rest of the team (I was supposed to be part of a State Embedded Team – SET). I was astonished when told that I was the “team.” No one else had volunteered. Oh great, I thought! Was I getting tossed under the bus or thrown into the deep end of the pool to learn how to swim? Only time would tell.

“Holy shit”
Another week passed before my PSD Team (Personal Security Detail) could find a lull in the fierce fighting going on in Najaf to drive up and collect me. They were a great bunch of guys: former Rangers, SEALs, SAS, Grom (Polish special forces) and a PJ (air force special forces). I’m still in contact with some of them after all these years. We drove in a four-vehicle convoy at about 160 km/hr swerving from one side of the road to the other to make us a difficult target. These guys were true professionals! When we arrived, they held a security briefing for me and a general get-to-know-each other gathering. I went to bed late and woke up the next day thinking “holy shit,” what have I got myself into now? One morning, we launched a mission to meet the newly elected Governor of Najaf, who I had been told had spent some exile years in Finland and had just returned to Iraq. I mustered up my best Finnish, which consisted of “Mita Kulu? Mina olen amerikalainen,” roughly translated: how are you? I’m an American. He laughed loudly (probably because of my pronunciation) and even though he belonged to a political party supported by Iran, we had established a bond that lasted throughout my tour.

Bits and pieces
I could write for pages about all the things that happened there, but I’ll just give you a few highlights. We had mortar attacks on the camp (I had a personal mortar shelter inside my hooch.), attacks on our convoys, incidents with the local bad guy (Mutaqda Al-Sadr and his Sadr Army) and sniper attacks, luckily from a sniper who didn’t have a spotter or didn’t sight his weapon or didn’t allow for windage or all three. He fired a round that hit a sign half an arm’s length to the right of my head, prompting me to hit the deck quickly and “eat some dirt.” One night we thought the base was being attacked due to all the gunfire, but it turned out to be a wedding party celebrating according to local customs.

Highlights
I managed a large reconstruction budget and helped reopen schools, a university and a hospital. I ate delicious lunches with Sheiks and got to visit Babylon, which I had read about in school. It was quite a thrill. I worked hard with the governor to get newspapers, radio and TV stations up and working again and to help him ask for competitive bids for reconstruction projects. Every so often, I flew to Baghdad for briefings but much preferred the shorter trips to the regional embassy in Al-Hillah, which had a sports bar of sorts on the top floor where I could grab a bite to eat, play pool and darts and drink a cold one (or several). It was the closest to civilization I could get.

My right-hand man
I had a fantastic local translator who helped me with Iraqi Arabic and local customs. And because he drove to the base each morning, he also provided valuable advice to me about conditions outside our base. I canceled some missions based on his encounters with numerous impromptu roadblocks manned by masked, heavily armed people while driving to work. Since I was based in Najaf, where Supreme Ayatollah Al-Sistani lived, many Shia politicians and ministers traveled to Najaf to seek his blessings and counsel. It was too dangerous for them to drive from Baghdad to Najaf, so they took Blackhawks to our base. Toward the end of my interview with the Minister of Health (in Arabic thanks to my right-hand man), I asked my translator to ask her if she had spent “exile years” abroad and if so, where? To my huge surprise, she said Sweden. I immediately began speaking Swedish to her and we both laughed like fools. My translator went for a cup of tea, and we continued the interview in Swedish. It turns out that she and her husband had operated a Middle-Eastern food store in Stockholm before returning to Iraq. I never thought I would use my Swedish in Iraq, but there you go!

Home “Sweden” home
I made a few trips back to Sweden to see my wife, one of which I spent strapped to the ramp of a Casa aircraft (thanks to my Blackwater PSD buddies) because there were no more seats available on that aircraft and all commercial flights from Baghdad had been canceled due to security threats. I really wanted to get home badly. It was super uncomfortable, and I kept worrying that the ramp might suddenly open. On one trip to Sweden, I came home with good news: my next assignment was to be in Auckland, New Zealand.

Bad news
I received a call from my sister one night saying that our mother didn’t have much time left (cancer of the skeleton). I spoke with the powers that be and arranged an emergency flight back to the U.S. My sister had told me earlier that our mother had said she hoped to live long enough to see me leave Iraq safe and sound. I flew to Al-Hillah, then Baghdad and finally to Aman, Jordan to catch my flight back to the U.S. I arrived in Aman, checked into a hotel and went to sleep. My sister called in the middle of the night to say that our mother had passed away. I asked her for the time of death, did some calculations and discovered that she died just as I was passing into Jordanian airspace, i.e., out of Iraq. Coincidence or did she somehow hang on long enough until I had left Iraq? And if that was the case, how could she have known? These are question that will remain unanswered. At least I got to speak at my mother’s funeral.

The “Egil” has landed
After a few weeks of vacation in the U.S., it was off to New Zealand for my next adventure. Two weeks after arriving there, my wife fell pregnant, and baby Sean Egil La Roche was born in Auckland on July 1, 2006! My wife missed out on the great wines of New Zealand as she was either pregnant or nursing but I kept her up to speed on the quality of them😊. Two years went by much too quickly, but our next assignment was also great – we were headed for Sweden. But that’s another story.