Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Gold Convoy

Since my team in Iraq was responsible for protecting a general during our 2004 tour, we spent a lot of time at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone. My direct supervisor was Lieutenant Clarke Cooper, Brigadier General Sandy Davidson’s aide. (Davidson is now a major general at Centcom and Cooper is the State Department’s Congressional liaison for American Ambassador Khalilzad.)

When the general wasn’t being escorted by our C.O.B.R.A. Team, we often escorted other Coalition officers and civilians. We also were used to protect Iraqi civilian VIPs as well and General Davidson’s driver often accompanied us. Sergeant Herbert Hale was a highly skilled tactical driver.

The following entry from my war journal tells about our “secret mission” for the embassy:

“One morning we met Lieutenant Cooper and Sergeant Hale in front of the main doors of the U.S. Embassy. Cooper arranged for us to take some radios and recovered historical artifacts to the Iraqi National Museum and it would take our Humvee and the general’s to carry all the boxes. Cooper brought out the first set of boxes and put them in the general’s Humvee. He then called me over, pulled the top back on one of the cardboard boxes, moved a handful of styrofoam pieces out of the way and there, in all its glory, was a solid gold bar that weighed about 40 pounds.

I looked at him with an expression that suggested I wanted more information. He said he would tell me more later, but this was the one and only time we would do such a mission. When he walked back into the embassy, I opened the first container again and then a second one and I saw that both contained large bars of solid gold. I grabbed my camera and took pictures of the gold bars for posterity, but the movie “Three Kings” kept popping into my mind.

With some of the unusual activities we had seen in Iraq, I was concerned about the way this was being done. Although I maintained complete faith in Cooper, when he came out again with more boxes, I made sure he confirmed with me and the guys that there was written authorization for the transfer.

Cooper showed the paperwork to us and said the embassy administratively transferred the gold to the Ministry of Culture the day before and the written documentation was sent to the museum by diplomatic courier. Cooper said it was all legal and above-board. His word was good enough for me, but it was still nice to see the paperwork. The sting we did with the master sergeant ran through my mind (the C.O.B.R.A. Team assisted the Defense Criminal Investigative Service in apprehending a soldier who was a thief) and I wanted no part of any questionable deal. I knew Cooper would never knowingly involve us in anything improper, but I didn’t want him screwed either.

After everything was loaded, we took on an Iraqi passenger named Christina who worked with the Ministry of Culture. She sat in the only remaining seat since the rest of them were filled with boxes of artifacts and gold. We then proceeded on what was clearly a secret mission for the American embassy to transfer some eight hundred pounds of gold bullion to the Ministry of Culture via the Iraqi National Museum. Naturally, the enemy would love to get their hands on a bunch of gold bars. I tried to imagine how many IEDs, mortars or rockets could be purchased with all that gold.

Many Iraqi nationals must be aware of the transfer and this was a major concern to me. Was there a ministry employee who was a bad guy and who might try to hijack the shipment? I had to hand it to Cooper because he also thought about that possibility; the actual mission to transfer the gold was officially scheduled for the next day. He moved it up a day without telling anyone, so any plans to rob us would be screwed up. Sharp guy, that Cooper.

We pulled out of the embassy compound with the gold and the priceless artifacts and drove toward the Al Rasheed gate. We then headed north into Baghdad through heavy traffic. According to Cooper, by the time we reached the museum, representatives from the Ministry of Culture would already be there.

We kept getting stuck in traffic and I waited for potential hijackers to make their presence known. We scanned every car, every face and every building for any sign we were going to be attacked. We finally rolled into the offices next to the museum with our secret cargo of gold hidden in boxes marked “Ministry of Culture” and mixed in with the artifacts. While Cooper went inside, I pulled out my video camera and filmed the gold, lifting one of the bars partially out of its box.

Some Iraqis came out of the museum offices and removed all the boxes from our Humvees. We watched as the boxes with the gold were stacked separately. Then, as the other boxes were being carried inside the museum, the gold was loaded into a white NTV(non-tactical vehicle or SUV). Armed Iraqi men dressed in civilian clothes left with the gold, presumably to deliver it to the Ministry of Culture. At least we hoped that was what they were going to do.

Once they were gone, I was able to relax and not worry that we were caught up in some sort of sting operation. I still wasn’t totally convinced this gold wouldn’t end up being stolen by some Iraqi or group of Iraqis and somehow get delivered to the bad guys. We would certainly never know.

Our secret mission ended quickly as did our own opportunity to pull a “Three Kings” gold heist. Let’s face it, we were all cops so such a daring feat wouldn’t possibly work for us. Not only was honesty a factor, but we didn’t want to spend our lives waiting for the swift sword of justice to cut our heads off. In reality, the Iraqi people deserved to be the ultimate beneficiaries of the gold since it almost certainly came out of Saddam Hussein’s personal treasure stash. As long as the Sunni insurgents or Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army didn’t get it, I was satisfied. I still felt like I was living in some Humphrey Bogart-type world.

Spys, secret missions, gold bullion. Like Bogey said, it was the stuff that dreams were made of.”

SFC Chuck Grist

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