Monday, December 18, 2006

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

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