Sunday, October 21, 2007

Remembering My Journey 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

As Turkish troops mass on the border of Kurdistan, it seems appropriate to remember my own journey to northern Iraq in July, 2004. My team, the C.O.B.R.A. Team, was the personal security detachment for then-Brigadier General Charles “Sandy” Davidson. We escorted the general during his visit to his civil affairs troops.

I wrote much of the following article as an op-ed piece that was published in the Orlando Sentinel that same month. It is included in a book I have written and hope to get published at some point.

Although I came to respect the Kurds and their unique culture, I still believe they should curtail the activities of the guerrillas who are conducting attacks into Turkey. The existing Kurdistan is a beautiful country with a great future. I would hate to see the peaceful nature of this wonderful land degenerate into war with Turkey.

The above photo shows me in a Kurdish village with members of the legendary Peshmerga, the militia that has protected the Kurds for over sixty years.

* * * *

July, 2004 - Kurdistan in northern Iraq:

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.

General Davidson wanted to visit some of his soldiers, but he also wanted to meet some of the Kurdish people with whom those soldiers worked 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 can’t 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. We all 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 in mere minutes and 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 it was written, apparently from the heart:

“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 hundreds and surely thousands.

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

* * * *

SFC Chuck Grist

Friday, October 19, 2007

Training Hard for the War on Terror

The troops are training hard in a variety of areas: firing ranges, convoys, improvised explosive devices and other things that will affect their upcoming tour in one of the war zones. (The above picture is from the M9 pistol range.)

They are working long days – up sometimes at 4 a.m. and training into the night. The classes and training will only get tougher, but we are preparing warriors for battle. The importance of that task is always before us. As observer/controller/trainers, it is our duty to make sure they are ready for whatever they may face at war.

We are also getting to know them as individuals. It is easy to pick out the leaders, the followers and those who are figuring out which one they will become. Man, are they young. I have jump boots older than virtually all of them. In fact, most of them weren’t even born when I was in Vietnam. Hell, most of their parents hadn’t even met!

It is a blessing to be able to watch the current generation as they prepare to defend all of us. Some of them have asked me if there is a difference between the soldiers then and the soldiers now.

I have told them that some of my fellow soldiers didn’t want to be in the Army, but they fought hard to defend their country. Still, the new "greatest generation" is the best-trained and best-equipped force in the world. Even as they are stretched thin, tasked beyond what they should be or sent forth for the second, third or fourth tour, they still perform with professionalism, dedication and a never-ending faith in their country.

I am so proud of all of them.

SFC Chuck Grist

Friday, October 12, 2007

Navy Seal Awarded Posthumous Medal of Honor

It was reported today that Lt. Michael P. Murphy of Long Island, New York, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism in combat in Afghanistan. The 29-year-old officer was in charge of a reconnaissance mission when his unit was attacked by the Taliban.

The Seals were outnumbered and under heavy fire. Murphy was wounded, but he still managed to use a radio to call for help. He then continued the fight. Because of his valor, a wounded Seal was rescued and the bodies of Murphy and his fellow warriors were recovered.

Murphy’s parents will receive the Medal on October 22 at the White House. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends and fellow Seals.

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Gas! Gas! Gas!

Most soldiers can tell you how many times they’ve been through the gas chamber during their training or mobilizations over the years. They can tell you which soldiers hardly blinked an eye or describe the ones who threw up afterwards.

A soldier must learn how and when to “mask up”. They must be able to do this when there’s a limited threat or when their eyes and throat are burning and it’s hard to see.

We may not have found Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. The old dictator knew we were coming and he could have done anything with his “stock”.

Although the current threat is not necessarily a great one, we have seen the insurgents use bombs attached to chlorine canisters. We know that if they can get their hands on something more sinister that they will surely do so.

Like everything these soldiers experience during their mobilization, this training (shown above) also has a reason. Let’s just hope they never have to use it.

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, October 7, 2007


The First Army’s philosophy in training is “theater immersion”. When soldiers train, they are absorbed into an environment which is as close as possible to that which they will face in combat. There are even civilians brought in from the war theater to allow the soldiers to deal with realistically-scripted events.

Because it is all so real, injuries, bug-bites and other little annoyances can happen. One soldier was bitten by an unknown vermin in the early morning. Over several hours, the itch turned into swollen hands and forearms and it was obvious he had some type of allergic reaction.

Not wanting to take any chances, the instructors sent him to a local hospital to get checked out. We are out in the boondocks a bit, so a medevac helicopter was sent to pick him up.

As the Vietnam-era Huey approached the LZ, I’m sure you can imagine how this old Vietnam vet felt. Having ridden in God knows how many of these sturdy flying machines and having used medevac helicopters a lot, there was a bit of a flashback.

The picture at the top shows a Huey taking off from one of my platoon's landing zones in Vietnam in 1970.

The lower photo shows the medevac Huey that picked up our "bug-bitten" soldier at our current stateside training facility.

The swelling was not serious and the soldier returned to us a couple of hours later.

Time marches on, huh?

SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Life on a Stateside FOB

It’s no fun to sleep on a cot. Some soldiers can sleep anywhere – others just toss and turn until simple fatigue knocks them out. Even in training, though, there can be surprises.

The female soldier saw the stray cat wander into the tent in the dark. She actually saw only the silhouette of the little critter. Doing what comes naturally, she said something to the effect of “Here, kitty, kitty…” Then came that surprise I mentioned.

It was a skunk.

Fortunately, the black and white cat-like creature was simply checking out the strangers in the neighborhood. The soldier and her fellow warriors froze in place and remained quiet for obvious reasons. (One of the oldest rules in military history is to NOT scare a skunk.) The “cat” finally wandered away – without leaving its famous “calling card” behind.

Another story can be added to the deployment history for this unit and they continued their training in the morning. (The above picture shows their commander observing his soldiers as they learn to search civilians who enter military facilities.)

We had a few logistical kinks to fix today, none of which were the fault of the unit. We fixed ‘em and moved past ‘em. Improvise, adapt and overcome are the words of the month. Deal with the issues that pop up and get the job done.

What’s important – as it has always been – is preparing the soldiers for war.

SFC Chuck Grist

Friday, October 5, 2007

War is Hell

2111 hours: The air conditioner in this hotel room vibrates and makes an irritating sound. Over-all, it’s not a bad room – microwave, refrigerator and even a stove top, although I will almost surely never cook anything that doesn't fit in the microwave. Even the TV works fairly well, so I can keep up with my favorite news network – Fox News.

My current life of bouncing around from fort to camp to fort isn’t really bad, but you are still not home. It’s a life of fast food, microwave meals and no chance to have dinner with the wife. This old soldier must endure his nights in air conditioning, in America with no mortars, rockets or improvised explosive devices. A little sweat during the day, but a chance to cool off at night and watch “Survivorman”. Poor baby….

Then I get out with the soldiers - the officers, the sergeants and the troops who are living in a temporary “forward operating base” as they train for their mission at war. As often happens in the Army, training changes, events are postponed or some crisis makes the soldiers’ days more difficult and challenging.

It’s all good – even the stuff that’s a pain – because it helps them remember that there is very little certainty in war. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best and deal with whatever fate hands you on any particular day. Life in war is a roll of the dice and, in the end, it is both the soldier’s skill and those damned odds that determine whether he lives or dies.

This group is lucky in one way. Most of their leadership – officers and sergeants – are war veterans of Afghanistan, Iraq or both. They know what to expect and they are helping us prepare their troops. Still, even the experienced soldiers left their families behind. They may see them once more before they fly out of here, but there will be no Christmas at home in 2007.

We have dealt with those first irritating weeks of mobilization. Their minds are at home with the wife and kids. Tempers are short and sometimes there can be a tendency for our warriors to snap at each other. Still there is a bonding in progress.

The soldiers who have just joined the unit are getting to know their new comrades. As they share the difficulties of training, they start to depend on each other more and more. By the time they enter the war, new friends will become lifetime ones.

They are going to war; I am staying here. In many ways, I envy them, but more importantly, I care about them. I promise you that I will do whatever I can to make them ready.

Well, I'm done with the reports, the charts and the training records. Time to chill out for awhile, then get a good night's sleep. We'll be with the troops again before dawn.

Please pray for them - tonight and every night.

SFC Chuck Grist