Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Tyrant's End

The hanging of Saddam Hussein at the end of 2006 brings a long and horrendous era to a close. While there are those who may oppose capital punishment for moral reasons, it is a good thing that Hussein has joined his sons on the rock pile of Hell. Were he still alive, he would always be a rallying point for a few diehard Baathists who longed for a return to the days of power.

Now the Sunnis must re-evaluate their priorities. Their champion is gone and there will be no day in the future when he will either escape from jail or be pardoned by some future Iraqi administration.

We must hope that the “New Way Forward” being prepared by President Bush will push us quickly to the point where the Iraqis can take care of their own country with minimal outside assistance.

That is what we want, but that is also what the Iraqis want as well.

Happy New Year to everyone, but especially to those who are serving in harm’s way in the war on terror and to the families who are waiting for their safe return.

SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Standing Tall in Duty, Deed

I’d like to tell you about another friend of mine, Sergeant First Class Michael Harrington. The previous piece about the Purple Heart medal and Sal Cernigilia relates to this incident because both took place during the same battle. The following op-ed piece tells Harrington’s story. At the time he was a Staff Sergeant:

Daring rescue embodies the U.S. citizen soldier
Special to the Sentinel
April 16, 2005

Staff Sgt. Michael Harrington heard the strained voice of his wounded commander over the radio. It was late in the morning of Aug. 8, 2004, and at least a hundred Iraqi insurgents were laying siege to the only government building in Baghdad’s Sadr City – the DAC, or District Advisory Council. Small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars were taking a toll on the defenders. Several American advisers were wounded and at least two of the Iraqi soldiers defending the walled-in compound were dead. As the injured officer asked for a re-supply of ammunition, he warned that the compound was in danger of being over-run.

Harrington, a resident of Orlando, and Sgt. 1st Class Charles Welsh of Dunedin were advisers at the DAC. They had just started a three-day R & R a few kilometers away, but when they knew their comrades were in trouble, the R & R was over. The two sergeants quickly organized a convoy of five vehicles filled with ammunition, food and water. Harrington was the only American permitted to accompany the 17 Iraqi soldiers as the convoy headed toward the Sadr City battle.

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Militia were then, and still are, the force to be reckoned with in Sadr City. The area is named for al Sadr’s father and is home to some 2 million Iraqis. On this day, the intent of the Mahdi Militia was to destroy the DAC and its defenders. During the first hours of the relentless assault, the American and Iraqi soldiers had expended 40,000 rounds of ammunition. The desperate situation was clear as the men resorted to scraping loose bullets off the ground to fill the magazines of their weapons.

The convoy left Baghdad’s Camp Cuervo but was ambushed a short distance away. The soldiers pushed the vehicles through the enemy attack with only minor damage and two wounds to Iraqi soldiers. They arrived at Forward Operating Base Ironhorse and Harrington asked for an armed escort to the DAC. Unfortunately, with other units also engaged in operations, no escort was available. Time was also an enemy now, so Harrington and the convoy moved out.

Just before entering Sadr City, they were ambushed again. Rocket-propelled grenades skidded across the pavement in front of them, small-arms fire shattered windows in some of the vehicles and more Iraqi soldiers were wounded. During this attack, Harrington credited one of the Iraqis with saving his life when the man drove his vehicle between the enemy and the American.

With even more damage and additional casualties, Harrington pressed the convoy on, reaching the gate of the DAC compound under a withering fusillade of small-arms fire. After the vehicles were safely inside, Harrington and the Iraqis ran to the only building in the compound. Debris and small rocks bounced off their backs as bullets and mortars hit the ground nearby. Ammunition was quickly distributed and the battle continued.

The siege of the DAC continued for several days, but the American and Iraqi defenders ensured that the 6-foot walls of the compound were never breached. Sgt. Welsh returned the day after Harrington and, although both men had to kill some of the insurgents during the battle, they echoed the sentiments of warriors throughout history. “It was them or us,” they said.

The American defenders of the DAC were all awarded Bronze Stars for their service as advisers to the Iraqi Army. Harrington and Welsh are experienced Army infantrymen who also earned the coveted Combat Infantryman’s Badge on that August day. They and others from their Orlando Army Reserve unit, the 3rd Battalion, 347th Regiment, have trained and fought with many of the new Iraqi soldiers. Like other Reservists and National Guardsmen, they are proud of their part in the war on terror.

As the Army Reserve celebrates its 97th birthday in April, it is important to remember that this war could not be fought, and will not be won, without the citizen soldier.

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Young Marine and the Old Cop

Since returning from Iraq in October, 2004, I have met many other Iraq war veterans as I worked the streets of Central Florida as a police officer. The following op-ed article recalls one of those encounters:

Special to the Orlando Sentinel
October 26, 2005

The young Marine, in his dress-blue uniform, sat in the passenger seat of the car. He was visibly upset and his new wife, in a formal dress, stood helplessly nearby. I was the cop, called to the hotel parking lot at 3 a.m. for a disturbance. Now that I had found it, I had to fix it.

Walking up to the Marine, I glanced at his uniform and immediately recognized the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. This meant he had been overseas in the war on terror, probably to either Iraq or Afghanistan. He had been drinking at his wedding reception and his wife said he wouldn’t get out of the car.

I asked him where he had been overseas and, staring straight ahead, he said, “Fallujah,” a major battleground for Marines in Iraq. When I asked him how long ago, he said he had only been back for a couple of months.

Then he started to cry.

I knelt down next to the car and told him that I was an Army sergeant and that I had also been in Iraq, stationed in Baghdad. He suddenly looked at me with a look of “recognition”, that unique way that one war veteran looks at another. Through wet eyes he said that “they”, meaning the insurgents, had killed his friends. It was clear now that the problem was post-traumatic stress.

As I put my hand on the shoulder of this strapping young Marine, I told him that I knew how he felt, and I did. When I was his age, I was returning from Vietnam with similar memories. I told him that it had been 34 years since I returned from that war and I can still see the faces of my friends who died there. After my tour in Iraq, I have new faces to add to the old memories.

After he calmed down a little, he agreed to let me help him to his room. I asked him if he was still on active duty, and he said he was on leave but planned to spend his whole life in the Marines. I smiled to myself. He was a spiritually “wounded” warrior, but he was still a warrior.

As we reached the hotel room, I looked at him and shook his hand. I told him that he had lost a great deal in Iraq, but he had also been given a great gift. He asked me what I meant.

I explained to him that he had been given a chance to teach other Marines the warrior skills he had learned in combat. Now that he is an experienced infantryman, he not only has the opportunity, but the obligation, to pass his knowledge on to new Marines. This would be the best way for him to honor his fallen comrades. He promised that he would do so.

Then he began to cry again. I put my arm around him as a father would for a son. I did feel his pain and briefly my own pain returned, giving me a lump in my throat. What a sight we must have been, the old cop embracing the young Marine.

At one point the young man said, “They just don’t understand.” He was talking about the rest of the world – the non-warriors – those for whom we carry the sword. I told him that, no, most do not understand and never will. That is why we take care of each other, just as we did in war.

Then the new husband joined his bride in their room.

I walked outside into a hot summer night and returned to my job on the street.

It was time for a cup of coffee.

SFC Chuck Grist

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bravery Under Fire

I have been blessed to serve with some great American soldiers over the years. One of these was Sergeant First Class Dan McKinney. Although he also served in Vietnam, we did not know each other then. I had returned from Iraq by the time he arrived there.

It was not unexpected that, at some point, Dan would distinguish himself in the war on terror. The following op-ed piece tells the story:

Vietnam vet ignores wounds, saves comrade in Iraq
Special to the Orlando Sentinel
September 24, 2005

Sgt. First Class Daniel McKinney had just given his Iraqi police students a lunch break. Entering the small dining area in the Iraqi military compound, McKinney sat down with his meal, glancing up briefly as the door opened. An American lieutenant walked to the door and McKinney looked back at his food. At that moment, the suicide bomber standing in the doorway exploded.

As the terrorist blew himself up, the lieutenant and another American, along with at least two Iraqis, were killed instantly.

As many as 18 other soldiers, including six Americans, were wounded. One of those was Dan McKinney.

The force of the explosion lifted McKinney up from his seat, throwing the table onto him. Still conscious, he knew he was wounded but he did not yet realize how bad those wounds were. Then he heard a wounded American soldier on the floor behind him. Not knowing if there were other bombers or if a larger attack was underway, McKinney picked the man up and carried him to safety through a hole in the wall.

Doing what seemed natural, McKinney turned to go back into the room to see if others needed help. He was stopped by soldiers who saw his injuries and took him to a casualty point nearby. There it was discovered that one of his legs was injured and that there was blood in the folds of his uniform.

Once the critical injury to his abdomen was discovered, a race against time began. As McKinney lapsed into unconsciousness and then into a coma, his life fell into the hands of the medics who took care of him from Iraq to Germany and then to the States. His coma lasted for four days, and he woke up in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, badly wounded but alive.

Service to his country is what Dan McKinney has always been about. I first met him when he and I joined the Third Battalion, 347th Regiment, an Army Reserve unit based in Orlando. Right away we understood each other. After all, we both had served in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division, although in different years. We were also some of the “old soldiers” of the unit and proud of it.

Dan left our Reserve unit some years ago, continuing his civilian career as a federal agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In fact, as he was being called up for duty in Iraq with the Army Reserve, McKinney was on a list from that federal agency to go to Iraq to train border guards. Destiny would lead him to that war one way or another.

Dan is not bitter in the least. He still believes in the Army’s mission in Iraq. He calls the Iraqis he worked with “good people” and specifically mentioned his young interpreter. The young man was a university student before the war, and he enjoyed talking to McKinney about democracy, freedom and how excited he was about the future of Iraq.

McKinney, a Florida native who lives in Miami, is getting the best medical care in the world since the Aug. 23 attack. He has endured four operations and will likely have at least two more. After a lifetime of service to his country, both as a civilian and a soldier, he has a lot of friends to support him in his recovery.

Americans are blessed to have men like Dan McKinney standing between them and those who would destroy their way of life. In fact, one day recently he received some special visitors. The young soldier he pulled to safety came to the hospital with his family to say thanks.

A warrior like Dan would say that what he did was not a big deal. After all, for guys like him it was just another day at the office.

SFC Chuck Grist

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Call to Duty

After I was back in the good old USA for a few months, I still remembered those with whom I served in Iraq. Only those who have been to war would understand the feelings I wrote about in the following op-ed piece:

Where the soldier’s heart dwells
Special to the Orlando Sentinel
June 26, 2005

After spending most of last year on active duty with the Army Reserve, I am having a difficult time relating to a civilian world that is far away, physically and emotionally, from the turbulent life of Baghdad. This life is the illusion – the war is the reality.

Last year was my turn in the swirling sandstorm of the war on terror. I spent most of my time running hundreds of convoys in and around Baghdad, including the infamous airport road, Route Irish, the most dangerous stretch of road in the world.

I may be home, but many of my comrades are not. Some remained in Iraq and some have returned voluntarily for subsequent tours. A few were killed. My former lieutenant now works for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone.

Doc, my medic, is now a private security contractor, doing the same protective service job we did, but for a bigger paycheck. He was almost killed recently when a car bomb exploded as his team passed a checkpoint.

When I try to explain to someone that I miss Baghdad, they look at me as if I just escaped from a mental hospital. What they don’t understand, and will never understand, is that there is an exciting, electric feeling when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death – and live. A soldier is never more alive, and his senses are never more in tune, than when his universe is immersed in war.

I must admit that I have thought about going back. What keeps me here is an important job that I must prepare to retire from in a few short years, a wife who went through hell once, and does not deserve to go through it again, and the reality that I am not a youngster any more and will, in fact, probably retire from the Army Reserve next year.

It is still hard to sit in a restaurant, walk through a mall or drive down the road without thinking that most of the people around me are clueless about what their fellow Americans are doing on their behalf.

They could not understand what it feels like to walk out of your granddaughter’s recital and hear the thump of mortars in the distance. Turning to the sound, the realization hits that the explosion is a fireworks display at nearby Disney World, and not incoming rounds.

It is said that soldiers will naturally feel the urge to march toward the sound of the guns. After all, that is where their comrades are. It does not feel natural to stay behind, in safety, when your brothers and sisters are still on the battlefield. I cannot deny that I feel that sense of urgency and call to arms, even now.

It took a long time for me to “return home” after my tour in Vietnam more than 30 years ago. That is why I understand the reason I feel the way I do about Iraq. I am home, and it feels good to be safely in the arms of my beloved America. Still, something is missing.

I know I left a part of me in the jungles of Vietnam, and now I have left another piece of my soul in the deserts of Iraq. My wife understands, and sometimes, when she is about to enter the room, she will stop.

Somehow she knows that I am not at home at that moment. I am an American warrior in a Humvee, traveling hell-bent down the most dangerous road in the world, and may God have mercy on the terrorist who takes me on.

SFC Chuck Grist

NOTE: Obviously, I did not retire in 2006. I have discussed my upcoming mobilization with my wife and, as always, she is supportive because she is the wife of an American soldier and she understands. Whether I serve here or abroad, she will stand by me as she always has. I am indeed a lucky man.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Baghdad Sting

It is late Christmas Day. Please read “Christmas at War” from yesterday and may everyone have a wonderful holiday season.

Now that Christmas is just about over, I can concentrate on continuing to wait for my mobilization orders. I have been given the word that it won’t be January 1 (which is good since that is almost upon us) but that the 15th is a possibility. I am not alone. There are several of us in my local Army Reserve unit whose mobilization packets were submitted some time ago.

While it is unknown why our parent unit is waiting to call us up, I suspect it is because they are waiting to find out exactly what President Bush’s “New Way Forward” will consist of and how our unit will be tasked.

As I continue to reflect on my tour in Iraq in 2004, I remembered an incident where we learned once again that the Army, like any other organization, has its black sheep. The vast majority of soldiers perform their missions with honor and integrity. Still, there are always those who are in it for themselves.

I was fortunate to work with a team that was comprised entirely of police officers. When we were approached one evening to participate in a shady weapons deal, there was only one thing to do. The following op-ed piece tells the story:

Good Cops Catch a Bad Soldier
Special to the Orlando Sentinel
August 20, 2005

The Army master sergeant had served in Iraq since the beginning of the war. When our command arrived in Baghdad’s Green Zone in February of 2004 to replace his unit, he extended his tour to serve in one of the offices at the Coalition Provisional Authority. The CPA was located in Saddam Hussein’s former residence, the elaborate palace that eventually became the U.S. Embassy.

My team, the COBRA Team, went to Iraq to serve as the protective service detail for an American general. In our limited off-duty time, we lived in a small house on the west bank of the Tigris River. (We called it the COBRA pit.) We were well-armed and, depending on the mission, carried M16s, M4 carbines, shotguns, M9 Berettas, an M79 grenade launcher (courtesy of the Marine Corps), two squad automatic weapons, a German sniper rifle or MP5s. Like the sniper rifle, the MP5 submachine guns had been captured from Saddam Hussein, but their compact nature made them perfect for use on most of our missions.

One evening we had a visit from the master sergeant, a man with many years of service in the Army. He said he heard we had some MP5s and he wanted to know if we would like to trade them for some Glock handguns. We were surprised because we thought the only Glock handguns around were the thousands that had been delivered to the CPA for use by the new Iraqi police.

My civilian job as a police officer has made me suspicious by nature. Once this man told me the Glocks were brand new, I was convinced they were stolen. My team members, also cops in civilian life, looked at me out of the corners of their eyes as I made a deal to trade two of our MP5s for two Glocks. If the handguns were stolen, I wanted to nail this guy. The exchange would happen the following evening.

The next morning, just before I went to the CPA to report the encounter, we were contacted by another sergeant from our headquarters. He said the master sergeant had come to him asking if he knew how much the Glocks would bring on the streets of Baghdad. Now we really had a problem. If this soldier sold weapons to Iraqi civilians, it was almost a certainty that such weapons would ultimately be used against Americans.

With the assistance of one of our unit’s officers, I made contact with the Defense Department’s Criminal Investigative Service at the CPA. The DCIS agents confirmed that there had been thefts from the CPA. I told them I had arranged a weapons trade for that night. The agents decided they would also be present when the deal went down.

The master sergeant showed up at our house at the appointed hour. He had one brand new Glock handgun in a box with two magazines. I gave him one MP5 and walked him outside to the street. I shook hands with him – the pre-arranged “done deal” signal to the DCIS agents – and they made the arrest. The serial number of the Glock confirmed that it had come from the stock of Iraqi police weapons at the CPA, weapons paid for with American tax dollars. When we left Baghdad, the case was still pending, but we were told the thefts had stopped.

In every war there are thieves, profiteers, black-market operators and those who think that the war is their own private business enterprise. Wars will always have these black sheep, those who dishonor themselves for pleasure or profit.

The overwhelming majority of the men and women serving in today’s military fervently believe in living by fundamental character traits such as the Army values: Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.

Thankfully, these good soldiers far outnumber the bad ones.

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas at War

Friends and fellow Americans:

There is nothing lonelier than being a soldier who is immersed in a world of war while your family is forced to celebrate the holidays without you. It is important that we remember our warriors each and every day, but especially during this time of the year.

Having lived this experience during the Vietnam War, I wrote about it for the Orlando Sentinel last year. With friends who are serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I would like to share it with you again this year.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone.

SFC Chuck Grist

Special to the Orlando Sentinel
December 25, 2005

On Christmas Eve in 1970, I stood on the bunker line at a firebase near Xuan Loc, South Vietnam. I had been playing poker with other soldiers, but I needed a break. Only 21, I was thinking about all the Christmases I had enjoyed at home in Orlando. With a cigar in one hand and a beer in the other, I stood quietly in the darkness and stared at the moon and the stars.

My holiday moment was interrupted by the sound of automatic weapons fire. A firefight began in a small village nestled in the jungle valley below. Then I saw the tracers.

A friendly unit was firing at the enemy and the red tracers from their weapons streamed through the air toward their target. Then the enemy fired back and the green tracers from their weapons crossed the path of the red tracers, creating a colorful, though deadly scene.

With the sarcasm only an American G.I. at war could muster, I looked at the Christmas colors filling the valley with bullets and softly sang, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.”

Events may keep a soldier busy during Christmas in a war zone, but the holiday season is a lonely time for the American warrior. Standing in his wrinkled, dusty uniform, he sees the same moon and the same stars that look down on his family back home. He remembers the warmth and joy of the holidays, and childhood memories flood his heart with a confusing mix of both happiness and emptiness.

Unfortunately, the grim realities of war and the larger task of just staying alive cause him to push those softer and gentler times aside. To do otherwise risks the unpleasant possibility that the soldier will never again enjoy another Christmas at home.

Thankfully, the military tries to bring some of the holiday spirit to the troops. Depending on where they serve, service members may get as much as a USO show or as little as a CD with Christmas music. After all, listening to Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas” means as much to us as it did to our fathers and grandfathers.

Every effort will be made to give our men and women in uniform a traditional holiday meal. They will open packages and gifts sent by both family and strangers, and the contents will be shared with their buddies. They will discover once again how much they are appreciated for their service to the nation.

Those in military service never forget where they were or what they were doing during their Christmas at war. They know what they are missing at home, but imprinted forever on their souls will be the reason for missing it. They have a strong sense of pride in their mission and that pride will help fill many of those deep valleys of loneliness.

War is a terrible ordeal for all Americans, especially those with loved ones at risk. As our sons, daughters, fathers, mothers and neighbors in the military face the greatest challenge of their lives, we must set aside our feelings about war to make sure they get all the love and support they need to carry on.

It does not matter whether it is a beach in France, a hill in Korea, a rice paddy in Vietnam, a desert in Iraq or a mountain in Afghanistan. What matters is that our warriors are not with us during this special time. Instead, they are putting their lives on the line, making sure that we will spend our Christmas morning in peace and safety.

At the end of a bountiful Christmas Day, we will look up at a golden moon and bright stars that shine over a free America. We must not forget that lonely soldier who is taking off his helmet and wiping his brow as he gazes at the heavens and thinks of home.

SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Tribal Loyalties: Iraq must bridge divide

As the sectarian violence in Iraq continues to plaque that new democracy, we are reminded that not all cultures are like ours. During my tour in Iraq in 2004, I had a great opportunity to meet Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Although I found the average Iraqi to be extremely kind and even gentle, the cultural divide between these three main groups was apparent in most of the Iraqi citizens with whom I dealt.

I wrote the following op-ed piece for the Orlando Sentinel:

Special to the Orlando Sentinel
April 24, 2005

The Sunni Muslim barber was cutting my hair with a long pair of sharp scissors. He was the only one working in the barbershop of the al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t stop talking about how all Sunnis were good and all Shiites were bad. I wanted to ask him a question, but until he finished and put away the scissors, I thought silence was the way to go.

When he was done, I stood up, handed him his money and asked, “If all Sunnis are good, what about Saddam Hussein?”

His eyes got big and he said, “Well, maybe Saddam was not so good.”

I’ve been a cop long enough to spot a bad liar, so I just laughed.

Last year I got to know Iraqis of all types, including Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians. Like other Westerners, I learned that Iraqis are more “tribal” than they are nationalistic. Other than foreign terrorists, loyalties to tribe, region and religious sect are the biggest internal obstacles the newborn nation will face. Much of the insurgency arises from the loyalty that some Sunnis felt toward the old regime and the blood oaths made in the past to the imprisoned dictator.

Fortunately, the new Iraqi leaders see the importance of including all segments of society in their fledgling government. Shiites are working with Kurds and both groups are trying to lure the Sunnis into the democratic system. This progress gives us hope that all of the Iraqi people will eventually learn the benefits of working together.

In America, our Irish, Italian, German, African, Spanish, English or Chinese heritage is an important part of what makes each of us unique. There have been times in our own history when these differences have spilled over into conflict. For the most part, we have learned our lesson and we have been fairly successful in balancing individual needs with the common good. We may have our differences, but we settle them in the halls of Congress or in the city council chambers of our hometowns. We don’t kill our opponents with bullets and bombs; we defeat them with words and ballots. Iraqis are still learning this lesson.

During my tour I met Salem Chalabi, the man in charge of creating the tribunal to try Saddam Hussein. I was honored when Chalabi, the nephew of Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, asked for my advice on some of his personal security issues.

One evening I sat sharing tea with about 10 of his Shiite guards. Only a couple of them spoke English, but I listened as one said, “All Shiites are good, but all Sunnis are bad.” I remembered the Sunni barber with the opposite opinion.

“If all Shiites are good,” I asked, “then what about Muqtada al-Sadr?” At the time, al-Sadr’s Mahdi Militia was killing both Iraqis and Americans. One of the guards rolled his eyes, shook his finger in the air and said, “Muqtada no good.”

Another guard sitting next to me said nothing, but continued to look at me. I’ve seen that look before after I handcuffed someone.

Looking into the man’s eyes I asked him, “Do you like Muqtada?”

He shrugged his shoulders and looked away, giving me his silent answer. His fellow guards laughed and pointed at him. They told me later that he lived in Sadr City, the Baghdad neighborhood of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Before we left Iraq, some of those guards came up to us. They put their arms around us and said farewell. I was glad to be going home, but I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty at leaving the job unfinished. Then I thought to myself that the job wasn’t ours to finish.

It will be up to the Iraqi people to create the happy ending.

SFC Chuck Grist

Friday, December 22, 2006

U.S. Embraces War Vets

Continuing to look back just a bit before my upcoming third mobilization, I wrote the following article in March, 2005. I would ask that everyone remember their warriors during this holiday season. It is because of them that we will celebrate this Christmas in peace and safety.


SFC Chuck Grist
Special to the Orlando Sentinel
March 22, 2005

Walking through an airport in California in 1971, I was proud to be in my uniform as a returning veteran of Vietnam. My thoughts raced ahead to the moment when I would see my parents, my sister and my grandmother standing in the Orlando terminal, their arms and hearts open for my homecoming. The girlfriend had moved on, but such is life.

What happened next was unexpected, and I didn’t know how to react as a couple of young people walked up and spat on the floor at my feet. It was disconcerting, but it wasn’t over. As I walked to my next flight in Atlanta, I heard a voice in the crowd behind me say, “Murderer.”

Although I had seen and endured a great deal as a young infantry lieutenant, I was not a murderer. I was also not prepared for rejection by some of the very people I had been fighting for. Ultimately, only my family and a couple of close friends welcomed me home. I took my uniform off that first night and did not put it on again for nine years.

Then, early in 2003, the war in Iraq began. I stood once again in uniform at an airport, this time near Fort Stewart, Ga. I was now an Army Reserve sergeant with many years of service. It was an unexpected surprise when two women came up and hugged me, thanking me for being in the Army. Later, an elderly woman saw my uniform and walked up to me. I immediately recognized her British accent as she grabbed my hand and said, “I’m not sure if I agree with the war, but we’ve always loved the Yanks.”

As a veteran of both Vietnam and Operation Iraqi Freedom, I believe I have a unique perspective. While some Vietnam vets had difficulty adjusting after that war long ago, most of us have adapted quite well, thank you. We don’t live under overpasses with “Work for Food” signs, and we are active, contributing members of society. We have accomplished much, even without that welcome home three decades ago. Still, the unpleasant memories remain.

The first Gulf War re-awakened America’s understanding that war must not be confused with the warrior. Political differences should never affect our appreciation of the sacrifices being made by the members of our armed services. They don’t fight for Democrats or Republicans. They fight for their buddies, their families and because they refuse to let the terrorists win. There is no room for politics in a foxhole.

Warriors must have the support of their fellow citizens. Fortunately, in this war on terror, Americans have reached out in many ways to offer encouragement to our military men and women throughout the world. They have also shed tears with the families of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

When I returned from Iraq last fall, our plane stopped to refuel in Maine. As we walked into the terminal in our desert uniforms, grateful to be on American soil once again, our hearts stopped as we saw dozens of people waiting to welcome us home with signs, hugs and pats on the back. Many of these wonderful people were Vietnam vets.

The young soldiers took it all in stride. They laughed and happily returned the handshakes and hugs. This was the status quo for them and they did not know how different it could have been.

I was overwhelmed and knew that I had finally come full circle as a Vietnam veteran. Reaching the crowd with a lump in my throat, I saw the smiles of people I didn’t know and felt the hugs and the pats on my back. It felt so good to be a soldier.

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Purple Heart Medal for "Wounds" not "Injuries"

On a hot August night in 2004, Baghdad’s Green Zone was attacked. A large number of mortars and rockets hit the four-square-mile zone in a display of aggression fomented by Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army.

The following day, and only a couple of miles away from us across the Tigris River, a group of Army Reservists, friends of mine from my Orlando unit, were defending a small government compound in Sadr City. During this battle, Staff Sergeant Salvatore Cerniglia was terribly wounded.

After I returned home, a brief controversy erupted when some young Marines were forced to return Purple Heart medals because they had received them for non-combat-related injuries instead of actual wounds from enemy action. One of these young men was run over in his foxhole while he was sleeping. Remembering Sal’s sacrifice, I wrote the following op-ed piece, published in the Orlando Sentinel on February 13, 2005:


The two Iraqi soldiers stood in the heat of Baghdad’s Sadr City last August without their helmets. Staff Sgt. Salvatore Cerniglia, one of the Army Reserve advisers to the 4th Battalion of the Iraqi Army, looked at them sternly. “Put your helmets on,” he ordered. Then he turned, just in time to see a rocket-propelled grenade flying toward his fighting position.

Cerniglia, who lives in Palm Harbor, felt his life become like a slow-motion movie. The enemy RPG exploded above him, and his body crumpled backward with his left leg bent in an unnatural direction. His field of vision changed to a curtain of red. Shaking his head, Cerniglia could see only the red, which he described as like a “filter” over his eyes. He couldn’t hear anything, and he couldn’t move his arms or legs. Slowly, the red faded and the bright colors of the world returned. As his hearing came back, so did the sounds of the battle that surrounded him.

Then the pain started, and he felt a hot burning on his chest, like a “branding iron” he said later. A fist-size piece of shrapnel was imbedded in the armor plate of his protective vest. There was no doubt his body armor had saved his life. He also had more serious wounds to his left arm and left leg. The two Iraqi soldiers had not been as lucky. One died when a piece of shrapnel struck his unprotected head. The other died from massive neck wounds.

Salvatore Cerniglia, “Sal” to his friends and fellow soldiers, came to the Army to make a difference. A native of New York City, he served as a captain in the Air Force many years ago. He returned to the military as an infantryman. Now, at the age of 54, he is looking at a military retirement forced upon him because of his wounds. A self-employed insurance adjuster in civilian life, Sal still considers himself lucky. At first he was told that he would probably lose his leg, but after five operations and a lot of physical therapy, that seems less likely now.

Recently, in ceremonies in Orlando, Cerniglia was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart Medal. The Purple Heart was for wounds he received while engaged in combat with a hostile force.

In contrast, it was recently announced that several young Marines, who had been awarded Purple Hearts for injuries received in Iraq, were having their medals revoked. Their injuries resulted from accidents that were not related to combat with the enemy. One of these young Marines was run over by a tank while he was sleeping in his foxhole.

Unfortunately, accidental deaths and injuries are unavoidable in the fast-moving clouds of war. These Marines, who surely served with honor and distinction, have suffered terribly because of their injuries. Still, the regulation is clear. Those who sustain injuries related to “accidents, to include explosive, aircraft, vehicular and other accidental wounding not related to or caused by enemy action” are not eligible for the Purple Heart. It is unfortunate that the officers in the Marine Corps who approved the awards in the first place made such an inexcusable mistake.

It may be embarrassing to the service members involved, but this special award, first created by George Washington during the Revolutionary War for a meritorious act, has a tradition that must be preserved. For generations, the Purple Heart has been a warrior’s medal for a warrior’s wounds sustained in mortal combat with an enemy force. The priceless value of this unique medal is in the sacrifice it takes to earn it. The enemy RPG forever changed Cernigila’s life and, while the young Marines should be honored for their service, combat-wounded warriors like Sal are the ones who have earned the Purple Heart.

SFC Chuck Grist

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Safe Havens for Terrorists?

Yesterday, the 19th, I heard from my Army Reserve unit and I was updated regarding my pending mobilization. I am still on the list to return to active duty during the first part of January, 2007; however, I can’t help but believe that most units in the military are waiting to find out what the President’s new plan will be. Only then will they know how they will be expected to use their soldiers.

Upon my return from Iraq in October, 2004, like many veterans, I felt guilty leaving both my comrades and my new Iraqi friends behind. Sitting in safety back in the States, it remained important to me to stay tuned in to what was happening in Baghdad.

In Vietnam we faced an enemy who was able to train, equip and re-group in the sanctuaries of Laos and Cambodia. Even when America invaded Cambodia in 1971 to “clean out” those North Vietnamese camps, we were the ones accused by the anti-war crowd of “invading” Cambodia. No mention was made of the illegal use of those countries by the enemy to wage their war.

A similar situation has arisen in the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars, with insurgents and their supporters using Syria, Iran and Pakistan for the same purpose: to recruit, train, equip and re-group for attacks against us in Iraq.

I wrote the following article for the Orlando Sentinel and it appeared on December 19, 2004:


Once upon a time, the United States was fighting a war in a far-off country. The enemy soldiers were skilled insurgents fighting to advance their own agenda. They used neighboring countries as safe havens from which they could funnel arms, ammunition and soldiers into the war zone. After mounting attacks against innocent civilians and Americans, they would run back over the border to hide and to re-supply. Then they would return to wage war again – on their terms.

While the insurgents could make use of these other countries in that bloody war long ago, the Americans could not. For political reasons, the American military fought its ground war only in the war-torn country, until it was finally decided that enough was enough. American troops invaded Cambodia, taking a terrible toll on the enemy, rousting him from his hiding places, killing many of his soldiers and capturing tons of equipment and supplies. Though the North Vietnamese had not been criticized for their “invasion” of Cambodia, a double standard of the time accused the Americans of an “illegal” invasion.

There is gathering evidence that some of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni henchmen are based in Syria. With that government’s likely support, these old friends of Saddam are sending arms, ammunition and insurgents into Iraq to kill and maim both Iraqis and Americans. Further evidence suggests that the Iranian Shiite government is also supporting – with men and arms – efforts by Shiite insurgents to destroy the hope of freedom in Iraq.

Although, there is little disagreement that the war in Iraq could have been managed better all along, our commitment to the Iraqi people must remain firm. We turned their lives upside down in the process of liberating them. Now that the going is getting tough, as it always does in war, we must remember that we have no choice but to endure.

President Bush said in the beginning that we would go after the terrorists wherever they chose to hide. He said that if you support or harbor terrorists you were also the enemy. Those statements were inspiring and led to the liberation of tens of millions of people in Afghanistan and Iraq. The bill for the purchase of that liberation has been paid, and is still being paid, with the lives of gallant American and coalition soldiers as they continue to do a magnificent job.

Still, the world is watching the level of our nation’s resolve. Will America cave in or stay the course? As a soldier who has served in both Vietnam and Iraq, I pray we will not stop until victory is sure.

Soon, the Bush administration will have to decide how to handle the insurgent bases in Syria, Iran or other countries. Most soldiers would agree that the only way to win a war is to turn the enemy’s offense into the defense. We have progressed from fighting an offensive war to liberate Iraq to fighting a defensive war – our decisions have become reactive, not proactive. This is certainly a recipe for disaster, if not failure. If we are to prevail, we must go after the insurgents wherever they are.

There is one very good reason that we have not had a terrorist attack in this country since Sept. 11, 2001. We have put the terrorists on the run and they have learned that it is difficult to wage war from a hole in the ground. We must not let them find new safe havens in Syria, Iran or any other country that chooses to mock our efforts at defeating terrorism. Our enemies must never forget that, if they hurt our citizens or support those who do, we will hunt them down and capture or kill them, and we will do it relentlessly, no matter how long it takes and no matter where we have to go.

Most of all, we do not need another black wall in Washington filled with the names of warriors who gave their lives for a politically abandoned cause. This war must be won, regardless of the cost, and America’s sons and daughters must never again die in vain.

SFC Chuck Grist

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

October, 2004: Farewell to Baghdad

My 2004 tour finally came to an end. This op-ed piece was in the Orlando Sentinel on October 5, 2004.

Baghdad – October, 2004

Standing on the roof of our headquarters building on the Tigris River in Baghdad, I looked across the river at the Sheraton Hotel and thought about how many times it had been the target of rockets. I saw the blue dome of the nearby mosque and heard the evening call to prayer. Hearing this several times a day became a memorable experience in this exotic, though dangerous, part of the world. With my tour in Iraq about to end, I was smoking a farewell cigar. It was time to go home.

I had taken my last look at Assassin’s Gate, Iraq’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the gigantic monument of Swords and the presidential palace that is now the U.S. Embassy. I ate one more at the Chinese restaurant and the Green Zone CafĂ©. I experienced for the last time the intrigue of the al-Rasheed Hotel, where the reporters, the embassy staffers, the mercenaries and the spies hang out. I said my goodbyes to my Iraqi friends.

There would be one last convoy as we drove to the Baghdad airport. It would be a strange feeling to know that, once the wheels of the aircraft lifted off the ground, many of us would probably never again face the prospect of death by rockets, mortars, improvised explosive devices, ambushes or assassination. A few of us will surely return, but the job goes on for the thousands who remain behind.

Our four-man Protective Service Detail, the COBRA Team, was formed for one purpose. That mission was to ensure the safety of Gen. Charles Davidson, commander of the 350th Civil Affairs Command, during his tour of duty. To accomplish this, our movements in the air and on the ground had to be planned well enough that the enemy could not predict where we would be and would never see us as a “soft” target. True success would mean that we were never the victims of an IED, an ambush or an assassination attempt. The possibility of “bad luck” was always there, but it always is.

On Sept. 28, Davidson departed Iraq after completing his own important job. When he left, our primary mission had been successful and was at an end. My own last mission would be to get the members of my team out of Iraq and safely home.

During our missions in Iraq, we have been shot at but never wounded. We have been on the receiving end of rockets and mortars, but the shrapnel did not hit us. We have never been the victims of an improvised explosive device, a vehicle bomb or an ambush, but we have missed them all by only minutes. We have seen mysterious men in masks with AK-47s lurking in alleys along our routes but, with the general in our convoy, our job was to avoid contact. We are all combat veterans of other wars and did not need to “face the elephant” again, but we were ready, willing and able to do so.

For their overwhelming support, our families, friends, churches, employers and average Americans will have our gratitude forever. They kept our spirits up with letters, cards, e-mails and generous packages. Saying “thank you” could never be enough.

We are looking forward to reuniting with our families and resuming our civilian careers. Staff Sgt. Aaron Self will return to Texas to complete the police academy. He had only two weeks to go when he was activated. Sgt. Chad Higginbotham will return to his family and his law enforcement career in Mississippi. Newly promoted Sgt. John “Doc” Actis II, another Mississippi cop, has joined the ranks of the private security contractors making the big bucks. After taking a short break, he will return to Iraq as one of the “new” mercenary soldiers of his generation.

As for me, with Vietnam and Iraq on opposite ends of my career, it is time to return to the States and to my job as a police officer with the Altamonte Springs Police Department. At least the bad guys back there don’t use rockets and mortars.

To Debbie, my dear wife of 30 years who is the girl I left behind, I must simply say how blessed I will be to walk with you through every day of the rest of our lives.

SFC Chuck Grist
Baghdad, Iraq

Monday, December 18, 2006

July, 2004: Journey to Babylon

Our mission to protect our general took us to the legendary city of Babylon in July, 2004. I wrote an article about our journey:

Babylon, Iraq

As I stood among the ruins of ancient Babylon the day after our own Fourth of July celebrations, I tried to comprehend that I was standing on what many regard as the most important archaeological site on the face of the Earth. This civilization had thrived and fallen many times before the United States was even a gleam in the eyes of its founders.

I came to Babylon with Brig. Gen. Charles Davidson, commander of the 350th Civil Affairs Command in Iraq. He has been given an important role in the Army’s effort to protect the most historic area in the world. As the sergeant in charge of his Protective Service Detail, I get to go along for the ride.

As I watched the general look out over the horizon, surveying this almost mythical land, I was reminded that Alexander the Great also looked out over the Babylon of his time. The tasks of the two generals were far different, however. Alexander came to conquer and rule. Our general came as a part of an effort by a coalition, not just to conquer, but to liberate, nurture and protect. As a parent would for a child, America has handed the keys of freedom to the new nation of Iraq, giving it the opportunity to create its own modern legend.

For me, an average man and police officer, I was humbled to be standing on the ground that had once been ruled by Hammurabi, whose code of laws was the basis of modern law and one of the reasons I have a job to go back to in the States, with the Altamonte Springs Police Department. To stand in the path of Procession Street, next to Nebuchadnezzar II’s re-constructed palace, was to stand where that ruler had walked. Even Alexander the Great had marched with his troops there. I could almost hear the sounds of horses coming down the road or the rattling of the swords and armor of his army. The foundation of the Tower of Babel is only a short distance away.

I stood in the throne room of Nebuchadnezzar, where he would have looked out over his own military leaders, his palace staff, his scientists and his scholars. I remembered some of the accomplishments of his age: the first astronomers, the 24-hour day, the 60-minute hour, the invention of algebra and many others. History also records that, after he destroyed Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar deported the Jews to Babylon where, according to many historians, they wrote the Hebrew Bible.

Those of us in the modern world often forget that this part of the Earth is the cradle of all civilization. The armies of our coalition have accepted the responsibility of helping to ensure its protection forever. Gen. Davidson has sought, and found, officers and soldiers with training or experience in archeology. He has also given them a gift as soldiers, a chance for them to help America leave a positive legacy of its own in this historic land.

War has ravaged Babylon for thousands of years. During this war and the subsequent effort by coalition troops to protect the site, some unintentional damage has occurred. American military and civilian authorities have stopped further construction of a military base around Babylon and are working to relocate military personnel from the area and to protect the site.

Ultimately, the lead force in the overall effort will be the Iraqis themselves. Their own scientists and archaeologists already know how best to protect Babylon. Along with these experts, groups and individuals throughout the world with the necessary expertise are being invited to join the effort. On this visit, Gen. Davidson walked with some of the Iraqis who will be instrumental in the protection of this unique city and who told us some of the great stories of the history of Babylon.

For me, just being able to walk through ancient Babylon is one of the greatest experiences of my life. I was not only able to walk among the ghosts of Babylon, but as a modern soldier, I had a chance to reflect on what it might have been like to be an ancient soldier.

After all, at 55, I am one of the oldest soldiers in Iraq, and my men joked that I was a private in Alexander’s army. I’ll never tell.

SFC Chuck Grist
Babylon, Iraq

September, 2004: Soldiers Making a Difference

I wrote this article about a couple of extraordinary soldiers serving in Iraq. It appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on September 21, 2004:

Baghdad – September, 2004

During the Iran-Iraq War, an Iraqi tank commander tried to recover his senses after an Iranian shell had destroyed his tank. His fellow soldiers were dead, and, realizing that his own legs were gone, the soldier dragged himself out of the remains of the tank. Before he lost consciousness, he managed to tie tourniquets around the stumps of his legs.

More than 20 years later, this Iraqi man is living in a veterans’ community near Baghdad, where he recently met two American soldiers who would change his life and the lives of many others in Iraq with similar disabilities.

Sgt. Christopher Cummings has been an orthotic technician for 12 years in Fort Lauderdale. His specialty is making orthopedic braces and prosthetic devices. As a member of the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion, he deployed to Iraq in January as part of a civil affairs team led by Capt. Matt Pedersen, an Oviedo resident and member of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.

Cummings knew he would find a need for his profession in Iraq, but he wasn’t sure how to put his skills to work. He lacked the contacts, and he still had to perform other duties as a member of his team. Fortunately, once it was discovered that he had the ability to make specialized devices for missing arms and legs, Army officers helped him focus that ability on helping some of the many disabled people in Iraq.

Cummings formed a unique partnership with another medical practitioner, Capt. Steve Lindsley of the 112th Military Police Battalion of the Mississippi National Guard. In space donated by the First Cavalry Division, the two men built a workshop. Both soldiers continued to work their regular schedules at other Army duties but spent their own time helping disabled Iraqis. Their efforts have become a significant civil affairs project for their own units and for the 350th Civil Affairs Command.

Cummings and Lindsley began working with the Al-Wasity Hospital in the Karada District of Baghdad. On their first visit to the hospital, they found two young men who would become the beneficiaries of the soldiers’ expertise. One was only 15 years old and lost his right leg in a hit-and-run accident two years ago. The other was a 20-year-old man who lost his right leg to cancer as an infant.

Cummings has many stories from the average people he and Lindsley have helped. One of the local Iraqi interpreters flew MIGs for the Iraqi Air Force during the first Gulf War. While flying back from Kuwait, he was shot down in error by Iraqi gunners and lost one of his legs. He went to Saddam Hussein for help but was instead thrown in jail for five years.

Cummings and Lindsley are waiting on the arrival of prosthetic materials donated by Mississippi Methodist Hospital in Jackson, Miss. These materials will provide the final hardware to complete the outfitting of many patients in the Baghdad area. Cummings has also arranged for a $44,000 civil affairs project so this mission will continue after his tour in Iraq ends next month.

Although he is going home, Cummings has made sure that disabled Iraqis will continue to get the help they need. In addition to his own efforts, he has trained Iraqi technicians at the Al-Wasity Hospital in the basic techniques of making prosthetic devices. Lindsley will be in Iraq until January, but then he, too, will return home. Their work will continue through the seeds they have planted in one Baghdad hospital.

Cummings feels that what he has been able to do in Iraq might be the most important thing he has ever done in his field of expertise. He and Lindsley may have helped dozens of people, but those seeds they planted will eventually help thousands.

That is quite a legacy for one sergeant and one captain to leave behind.

SFC Chuck Grist
Baghdad, Iraq

Note: Sgt. Cummings extended his tour to remain in Iraq and ensure that his civil affairs project was implemented successfully.

August, 2004: Close Calls Getting Closer

The photo at left shows a damaged steel fence in front of a rocket crater. This impact was only about 100 meters from where I lived with my team in the Green Zone in 2004. With only a couple of months left in our tour, I wrote this for the Orlando Sentinel and it was published on August 19, 2004:


The enemy rocket tore through the sky over my head and exploded nearby, shaking the ground under my feet and sending me rushing for cover. I had heard two other loud explosions before running out of my residence on the west bank of the Tigris River. This third explosion sounded even closer. It was dark this night of Aug. 7 and I could not see the rockets, but there was no mistaking the air-piercing sounds of the projectiles above me or the explosions that followed their impact.

Soldiers like me who live in Baghdad’s Green Zone, now known as the “International Zone”, have become accustomed to frequent mortar or rocket attacks. Most are aimed at the U.S. Embassy, which is south of us around the bend in the river. Other attacks target nearby coalition installations or Iraqi government buildings. The resulting explosions are heard, but are rarely this close.

Kneeling in a fairly secure walled-in area, I tried to count the rockets that seemed to come from the area of Sadr City to the east, the home of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. They continued to fly over my head, and one rocket exploded only about 75 meters away, hurling debris and razor-sharp steel shrapnel onto the roof of our house.

A total of 10 rockets landed perilously close to us and to our neighbors. This was the closest brush with these weapons that I have had here in Iraq. We do our best on convoys to avoid ambushes or IEDs (improvised explosive devices), but with these rockets, it is like living near the bull’s-eye of a target. If the insurgents had aimed only a little lower and to the right, that one rocket would have landed on top of me.

Within the last week or 10 days, there have been a lot of close calls for people I know. In addition to having their house peppered with shrapnel from the same rocket that impacted near me, the civil affairs team living next door has had other near misses. In the most recent incident, a mortar landed in front of one of their Humvees in downtown Baghdad but, miraculously, most of the blast went away from them.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Self, one of the soldiers I supervise on the Protective Service Detail, had two bullets whiz by his head as he stood in the gun turret during one of our convoys.

A friend from my former Army Reserve unit in Orlando was seriously wounded in Sadr City. Another soldier from the same unit was lightly wounded.

The other day, we passed a group of Iraqi soldiers surrounding a rocket that only minutes before had buried itself in the middle of our route, failing to detonate. Also that day, our convoy returned along the airport road to the International Zone, passing the remains of an IED that had just exploded. On a recent night, a rocket-propelled grenade narrowly missed a Marine colonel we have worked with.

When I was in Vietnam, it seemed that the last 60 to 90 days of a soldier’s tour were the most dangerous. A lot of guys were killed on their last helicopter ride, their last convoy or their last patrol. In Iraq, this same phenomenon has happened again, as it did to the Apopka soldier killed just before he was to return home.

With around 140,000 of us in Iraq, the odds are small that we will be the ones wounded or killed. Still, as the end of our own tour approaches in a couple of months, those odds can slowly begin to work against us. After hundreds of convoys and dozens of rocket or mortar attacks, the chances begin to increase that we will also be ambushed, hit by an IED or found by one of those poorly aimed rockets or mortars. Fortunately, these potential threats only heighten our senses and strengthen our resolve to survive.

I keep telling my wife, Debbie, not to worry. If the whole North Vietnamese Army couldn’t kill me, I won’t let these guys get me either.

SFC Chuck Grist
Baghdad, Iraq

July, 2004: Flight to Kurdistan

Continuing to look back, this was published in the Orlando Sentinel on July 26, 2004:

Kurdistan, Northern Iraq – July, 2004 –

The heat on the duty hill overlooking the northern Iraqi border was unpleasant, but it was better than melting in Baghdad. Along with my fellow soldiers, I looked out on a river junction that twisted like some wild blue snake through the desert. I could glance north across one river and barely see a Turkish army guard tower in the distance. When I turned to face the other river, the barren desert hills of Syria rose before me.

The trip from Mosul in a Blackhawk helicopter had taken us over a giant blue lake, over dry open desert and through remote hills and valleys. Finally, we reached this isolated border outpost, which is the northern most Iraqi military position in what the people here know as Kurdistan. Protecting us from this point on would be the peshmerga (which means “those ready to die”), the Kurdish warriors who have been protecting their own people for almost 60 years.

I came to this part of northern Iraq with Gen. Charles Davidson as the sergeant in charge of his Protective Service Detail. Gen. Davidson, commander of the 350th Civil Affairs Command, came here to visit some of his soldiers, to meet some of the Kurdish people those soldiers work with and to view some of the civil-affairs projects created by the members of his command.

Our tour of the outpost ended with a convoy of SUVs headed east. This part of our journey would be overland. Though we were still guarding the general, the peshmerga were guarding all of us. Driving over both paved roads and mountain trails, we stopped briefly at a small village where Gen. Davidson and his officers shared refreshments with the leaders of the village. We continued on to Dohuk, where we spent the night in a “safe house”, protected all the while by the peshmerga.

Traveling with the peshmerga was a young man whose name cannot be revealed without putting his life in imminent danger. At the age of only 19, he has already spent more than a year working as an interpreter for American soldiers. Born in Kurdistan, but raised in California, he is proud to be an American. When the United States invaded Iraq, destiny called and he returned to his first home to help defeat the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The young man likes to repeat a saying heard frequently in northern Iraq: “Ten Kurds will die before one American dies.” The people here love Americans and are happy to treat soldiers, as the interpreter says, like “rock stars”. They would die for their American friends and do everything they can to keep our soldiers out of harm’s way.

There is still resentment reserved for Britain, however, for failing to give the Kurds their own nation when the British Empire carved up the Arab lands early in the last century.

With the help of the young interpreter, we shared conversation, as well as food, with the men of the peshmerga. We came to know and respect them as fellow soldiers and as just plain regular guys. We all spoke of our families, our homes and our children. Just as I discovered with the Shiite and Sunni Arabs I have come to know, we all want peace, a safe place to raise our families, a decent way to make a living and a good future for our children.

The American policy now is that separate “militias” must be disbanded. Although the Kurdish leadership has agreed in principle, the peshmerga soldiers laugh. Many have been in the Kurdish army since they were 12 years old; it is the only life they have known and the peshmerga are the only protection their people have known.

The Kurds are a friendly, gentle people, but upon entering the towns and villages of northern Iraq, I notice one thing is plainly missing. The Iraqi flag is not flown anywhere. The Kurds proudly fly their own banner, the Kurdistan tri-color of red, white and green, with a bright sun glowing in the center. In this new Iraq, they have a wait-and-see attitude for now.

Before we returned to Baghdad, the young interpreter reached up to his shoulder and pulled off his Kurdistan flag patch and gave it to me. I was very grateful and knew I had received a special gift from one of America’s, and Kurdistan’s, bravest citizens.

SFC Chuck Grist
Kurdistan, Northern Iraq

June, 2004: Four Months into Iraq Tour

As I get ready to return to active duty, I wanted to look back at my 2004 tour in Iraq. During my first two mobilizations (stateside in 2003 and Iraq in 2004), I kept a detailed “War Journal”. I entered Iraq on February 4, 2004 with my team, the C.O.B.R.A. Team, but by June we had seen enough that I began to write a series of op-ed pieces for the Orlando Sentinel from my post in Baghdad.

The following is the first of those articles and, considering the status of the war today, it is interesting to see how some things haven’t changed:

Orlando Sentinel Op-ed Page of June 21, 2004

Baghdad - After five months in this part of the world, I have learned much about the Iraqi people, this war and the Americans participating in it. With insurgent activity increasing in this area, including more car bombs and rocket or mortar attacks, it is time to reflect on some of this.

For the most part, American soldiers come to Iraq with high spirits and a sense of purpose. They are anxious, as soldiers have always been, to make a difference. What they find when they arrive is a country torn in many pieces: Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and others. They eventually discover that, individually, they can make small differences; collectively, they will make a big difference. (It’s kind of like being a cop.)

What surprises most soldiers is the wide spectrum of Iraqi opinions about their presence. They are greeted warmly by many Iraqis only to see news reports of other Iraqis dancing happily around the bodies of dead Americans. As they drive their convoys throughout the country, Iraqi citizens may wave happily, shoot them the finger, scowl angrily at them or ignore them on purpose.

As in past wars, it becomes difficult to tell friend from foe. The man smiling at you as you drive out of the Green Zone in Baghdad may have a cell phone to call his friends who are up the road planting an improvised explosive device or setting an ambush. Your convoy will pass hundreds of cars on the highway filled with Iraqi citizens. As you drive by each one, you must look at their faces, read their eyes and try to make sure they don’t have AK-47s in their laps. Soldiers must aim their weapons at each vehicle that passes, just in case.

After all, the convoys that are less likely to be attacked are the ones with soldiers who appear ready to fight, even aggressive. Those Iraqis who stare hard at soldiers are met with and equally intense stare, eyeballs meeting eyeballs. The unspoken words are, “Go ahead pal, try me…” This technique does not work, however, for roadside bombs detonated by remote control.

Unfortunately, sometimes the bad guys succeed. This enemy is not only aggressive, but capable. Hundreds of thousands of Saddam Hussein’s soldiers faded into the cities when we came. Many are highly trained commandos and explosives experts. Add the unknown number of foreign “holy warriors” who have come to Iraq to fight us and the men with their own agendas, like Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the task before American warriors is a dangerous challenge each and every day.

When not performing combat missions, it is possible to reflect on this place called Iraq. A simple 21st –century soldier looks upon a land that was Mesopotamia until World War I. He is reminded that the cradle of civilization is here and that places like Babylon and the Garden of Eden are here. The battlefields where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ancient warriors faced off, are here.

I will certainly remember those Iraqis who have made an impression on me: from our friend Zack who endures threats on his life to work for the Americans to the old Iraqi woman who came up to us the other day crying because her sick baby died.

The next hurdle for us will be the days running up to the turnover of authority and the weeks that follow. Army officials have publicly predicted a major insurgent attack of some kind so we keep listening for the familiar sound of the bomb or rocket. In fact, we woke up this morning to the sounds of half a dozen rockets and/or mortars impacting a few hundred meters away from our house.

I continue to appreciate the support I have received from all of you. My soldiers are also getting a lot of support from their communities and their employers. I cannot adequately express our gratitude.

We are determined to finish our mission to the best of our ability. We will not disappoint you.

SFC Chuck Grist
Baghdad, Iraq

Sunday, December 17, 2006

2006: The New Way Forward

As I wait for my new orders calling me to active duty for the third time since September 11th, I have decided to try this "blog" stuff out.

During my tour in Iraq in 2004, I took a lot of photos and video, wrote a few op-ed pieces for the Orlando Sentinel and experienced my second war in over thirty years. I am an old soldier and first served in Vietnam. Being older and, presumably, a little wiser, I still find great satisfaction in serving my country as a soldier. I don't yet know if this mobilization will take me back overseas, but I have volunteered to serve on one of the training teams that will further prepare the Iraqis (or Afghanis) to take over the protection of their own countries. We shall see what transpires.

As soon as I figure out all the details of how to use this blog, I intend to add links to the home page of my 2004 protective service detail team, The Cobra Team. I will also endeavor to publish some photos and video clips of our adventures in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.

Whether you support the war effort or not, continue to support your troops; they care so much about you and are risking their lives every moment of every day for you. Thanks for your support.

SFC Chuck Grist