Friday, June 29, 2007

From My War Journal: Flight to Kurdistan

"I was born in the shadow of the Kurdish flag in Mahabad and I am ready to serve and die for the same flag."

Massoud Barzani, President of Kurdistan

It was July of 2004 when my team traveled to northern Iraq from Baghdad’s Green Zone. Our mission was to escort our “principal”, Brigadier General Charles “Sandy” Davidson, to Kurdistan. Here is what I wrote about the experience:

"The heat on the dusty hill overlooking the northern Iraqi border was unpleasant, but it was better than melting in Baghdad. Along with the general and the rest of the C.O.B.R.A. Team, 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 took us over a giant blue lake, over dry open desert, and through remote hills and valleys. Finally, we reached an isolated border outpost, the northern-most Iraqi military position in what the people there knew as Kurdistan.

Protecting us from that point on would be the Peshmerga (which means 'those ready to die'), the Kurdish warriors who had protected their own people for almost sixty years. (Above photo is me with two of the Peshmerga soldiers.)

General Davidson wanted to visit some of his soldiers, but he also wanted to meet some of the Kurdish people those soldiers worked with and view some of the civil affairs projects created by the members of his command. The soldiers on the small civil affairs teams were making friends and making a difference as they tried to improve the quality of life for a courageous and unique group of Iraq’s citizens.

Our tour of the outpost ended with a convoy of NTVs headed east because this part of our journey was overland. Though we were still guarding the general, the Peshmerga were guarding all of us.

Driving over paved roads and mountain trails, we stopped briefly at a Kurdish village where General Davidson and his officers shared refreshments with the leaders of the small community. We continued on to Dohuk where we spent the night in a 'safe house' protected all the while by the Peshmerga.

I found great comfort in standing on the roof of this house and surveying the beauty of the mountains that surrounded us. In such a peaceful place, filled with an overwhelming sense of tranquility, it was hard to believe there was a war going on. Some of the Peshmerga soldiers said the Arab insurgents had a difficult time making inroads in Kurdistan because they were easily recognized by the Kurds.

Traveling with the soldiers of the Peshmerga was a young man whose name still cannot be revealed without putting his life in danger. At the age of only 19, he had already spent over a year working as an interpreter for the Americans. Born in Kurdistan, but raised in California, he was proud to be both an American and a Kurd. 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 liked to repeat a saying we heard frequently in Kurdistan: 'Ten Kurds will die before one American dies'. The Kurdish people loved Americans and they were happy to treat soldiers, as the interpreter said, like 'rock stars'. They would die for their American friends and they did everything they could to keep our soldiers out of harm’s way.

There was 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 twentieth century.

With the help of the young interpreter, the C.O.B.R.A. Team shared conversation and food with the men of the Peshmerga. We came to know and respect them as fellow soldiers and as just plain regular guys. All of us spoke of our families, our homes and our children. Just as I discovered with the Shiite and Sunni Arabs I came to know, the Kurdish people also wanted peace, a safe place to raise their families, a decent way to make a living and a good future for their children.

The Kurds endured a life of prejudice, discrimination and violence under the regime of Saddam Hussein. March 16, 1988, is referred to as 'Bloody Friday' because this was the day that Hussein’s forces dropped poisonous gas on the Kurdish city of Halabja. According to our Kurdish friends, some five thousand citizens, mostly women and children, were killed within only minutes and tens of thousands more perished after days of attacks.

The American policy was that separate 'militias', such as the Peshmerga and al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, must be disbanded. Although the Kurdish leadership supposedly agreed in principal, the Peshmerga soldiers laughed. There was certainly no indication that the Mahdi Army or the other militias in the southern part of the country would disappear any time soon. The Peshmerga warriors also didn’t believe their own fabled army would cease to exist either.

Many of them had been in the Kurdish army since they were twelve years old, it was the only life they knew and the Peshmerga diligently served as the protection for their fellow citizens. The Kurds were a friendly, gentle people, but upon entering the towns and villages of northern Iraq, one thing was plainly missing.

The Iraqi flag wasn’t flown anywhere. The Kurds proudly displayed their own banner, the Kurdistan tri-color of red, white and green with a bright sun glowing in the center. In the new Iraq, the Kurdish people lived with a wait and see attitude for the time being.

As we traveled across the top of Iraq through the towns, villages and cities of Kurdistan, I was amazed by the extraordinary beauty of it all. We saw picturesque mountains and valleys, gently flowing rivers and a waterfall recreation area that seemed out of place in a country at war.

Both adults and children waved and smiled at us and we were greeted everywhere like long-lost relatives. I was never treated this way by the citizens of any foreign country and it helped me to imagine how American soldiers in World War II felt when they were welcomed into liberated European countries.

On our second night, we stayed at the guest house of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). His late father, Mustafa Barzani, was the most prominent Kurdish national leader in their recent history and, according to the Peshmerga, he was considered the father of modern Kurdistan and an inspiration to all the Kurdish people. As we traveled throughout northern Iraq, Mustafa Barzani’s picture was hanging everywhere.

The next day we escorted the general to what the Americans considered the Peshmerga 'Pentagon' or the headquarters of their military forces. General Davidson met with one of their generals, we were all served refreshments and the two generals exchanged gifts. Davidson gave his counterpart one of his commanding general’s coins; the Peshmerga general gave Davidson a Kurdistan flag.

As we reached the final city of our visit, Erbil, we drove through the six thousand year old massive stone citadel that overlooks the city from a giant hill. The Peshmerga took care of us right up to the time we boarded our Blackhawk helicopters for the long and arduous flight back to the Green Zone. I was sad to be leaving such a peaceful and beautiful place.

Before we climbed onto the helicopters, the young interpreter reached up to his shoulder and pulled off his Kurdistan flag patch and gave it to me. I was grateful to receive such a special gift from one of America’s - and Kurdistan’s - bravest citizens.

When we returned from our trip to northern Iraq, I brought back a small piece of paper I found on a table in the waiting area of Mosul’s Civil Military Operations Center. That building was filled with Iraqi civilians who were working with the Americans.

The spelling and grammar are the way the note was written, apparently from the heart, as it referred to the American turn-over of authority to the new Iraqi government:

'To day the CPA has handover the sovereignty to the Iraqis. As an Iraqi I feel so happy, but I have to say that all Iraqis owe much for the brave, the Americans, who have shed bloods for free, peaceful and democratic Iraq. Salute for all the brave Americans and all that cooperate with them to achieve this Noble goal,

Long live freedom, Long live freedom fighters,
Long live the USA The leader of liberty in the world.'

It was signed simply: 'Iraqi'

At least one Iraqi thought enough of America’s sacrifices to write it down. If there was one Iraqi that felt this way, then there were ten; if there were ten, then there were a hundred and perhaps thousands.

We were indeed appreciated by some of the citizens of Iraq and it made me feel damn good."

SFC Chuck Grist


  1. SFC Grist,

    Interesting post, one I'm glad to find as not enough is written about what goes on up north.

    A little feedback about your post.

    "At least one Iraqi thought enough of Americas sacrifices to write it down. If there was one Iraqi that felt this way, then there were ten; if there were ten..."

    It is important to realise and understand that the vast majority of Kurds view themselves as Kurds first and as Iraqi's a very distant second.

    Several things from your own post support this;

    "I was born in the shadow of the Kurdish flag in Mahabad and I am ready to serve and die for the same flag." ~Massoud Barzani, President of Kurdistan

    "The Iraqi flag wasnt flown anywhere. The Kurds proudly displayed their own banner, the Kurdistan tri-color..."

    It is worth digging in the history a bit more for a greater understanding of how the Kurds really feel as we (the USA) left them hanging high and dry more than a few times in the past.

    In the 1980s our military and intelligence services even spun things to pin the Halabja gassing and others on the Iranians. Why? Because at the time Saddam was our proxy fighting the Iranians.

    Our govt knew these things were happening to the Kurds yet we turned a blind eye towards it.

    Do a little reading on the Anfal Operations and how it started as well as Kissingers connections to the Kurds and you will get the idea.

    The bottom line is this.

    The Kurds are serious realists and as such they know that:
    -we will leave eventually...
    -despite our promises and allusions of continued support we have repeatedly failed to follow through in the past... (allies of convenience)
    -they have enemies on all sides that they will have to deal with, without our help, when we are gone.

    Thus we see and will continue to see the Kurds engaging in diplomacy with people that we'd rather they not - such as Iran, etc...

    Also, given a reasonable chance for true independence they will break away in a heartbeat, US interests and desires be damned.

    Dakota (a fellow soldier and husband of a Kurd)

  2. I can't think of one thing I would disagree with. In this part of the world everyone must look out for themselves to some degree. I certainly saw that the Kurds looked at themselves as Kurds first; I understand why they feel that way. I still greatly admired them for their courage and I was proud to associate with the Peshmerga.

    SFC Chuck Grist

  3. "In this part of the world everyone must look out for themselves to some degree.
    I certainly saw that the Kurds looked at themselves as Kurds first; I understand why they feel that way.


    I still greatly admired them for their courage and I was proud to associate with the Peshmerga.

    While no people are perfect, the more I learn about them and their history, the more I admire them as well.

    I think that quite possibly the best representation in the region of ideals such as self-determination, hard work, liberty, etc...

    The Kurds have far more in common with us than other people in the region do.

    Keep up the good work on your blog, I'm interested in seeing more of your writing.