A Letter from Iraq

(Editor’s note: Dog Canyon writer and Austin resident, U.S. Army Captain Shaw Locke is winding down his second tour of duty in Iraq with a psychological operations unit in Baghdad.  As he prepares to leave the country in the spring, Locke is taking an over-the-shoulder look at what America will leave as its legacy in the wake of complete withdrawal.  He plans to contribute frequently to Dog Canyon.)

As a US Army soldier on my second tour of duty in Iraq, I began to see things with a bit more clarity. I became even more aware today of just how far removed the people of this country are from their government.  The Iraqi government, even now that Saddam Hussein is gone, still is not truly “for” the people or even remotely “at their service.”  The US is presently trying to teach the concept of “government service” to the elected Iraqis and their bureaucrats as well as the Iraqi Security Force (ISF) but the lessons haven’t gone very far. There is a deep and obvious disconnect between the general population and the Government of Iraq (GoI) and after all we have done here I am sorry to report that is likely to only increase after the US military’s final exodus in December of 2011.

A recent experience in trying to assist a young Iraqi national woman made me more convinced of how the GoI is failing to function on the most basic of levels.  A member of my Psychological Operations Team brought this young woman to my attention. SGT Rusk Smith, a California Native who is the team chief for the 344th Tactical Psychological Operations Company, was working in support of a Combined Medical Engagement Mission in the village of Al Abid, near Fallujah.  The goal was simply to engage the local population, gather passive intelligence, and get a sense of the atmospherics of the community, but the team also included an “advise and assist” element, which offered some health care provider support.  Iraqi Security Forces were working with American troops to establish a medical screening process where potential patients were triaged under security provided by both forces.

Iraqis Waiting for Basic Health Care from American Soldiers

While the villagers were waiting in line, the man used as a “local national” (LN) interpreter by the military began to strike up conversations.  One of those residents noticed that SGT Smith was also involved in some of the exchanges.  The man quickly ran off and returned with his sister’s identification and a series of images from an MRI machine.  Almost immediately, he was begging SGT Smith to examine the MRIs and see if his sister might be helped.  The story Smith was told, an odd one for a largely treeless desert, was that the man’s sister had suffered a broken back when a falling tree had crushed her.  He described a disabled woman with bedsores, unable to move or defecate properly for months, who suffered with painful gastro-intestinal complications.  A local physician had seen her and had provided a prognosis of only a few more months of life because of her injuries.

When he returned to our base, Camp Liberty, SGT Smith showed me photos of the man and his digital shots of the woman’s ID card and MRI results.  He asked me if I had any connections to the Iraqi Ministry of Health.  The woman, he insisted, needed treatment or death was imminent.  Obviously, I was inclined to assist but we are trained to be skeptical in these situations.  The “tree” part of the story left me wondering about the facts.  Trees in Iraq are sparse, as I mentioned, you don’t see them lying on the ground, and the ones that are growing have survived by withstanding decades of very strong winds.  When I looked at the MRIs, however, even as an untrained person, I saw the severity of her back injuries and began to wonder about the degree of pain she had endured for the past few months.

What bothered me even more, though, was trying to understand what might have precluded the United States Force (USF) or the ISF from scooping up this young woman and rushing her to Fallujah for treatment.  I had already become painfully aware, however, that the ISF in that area has no regard or respect for the citizenry, and the Iraqi soldiers that are sworn to provide them protection, instead, abuse the locals. In short, anyone with a crisis or a need has nowhere to turn.  SGT Smith described a narrative he had heard from one of the citizens that the Iraqi Police entertain themselves by placing locals in a corral and shocking them with electric probes.  In any case, I don’t think SGT Smith had much support from either side, USF or ISF.  Smith’s team was just a 2-man PSYOP support element and I can understand why he did not try to persuade the other units to get involved.  He might have confronted the team leaders with a problem that could have steered their overall mission off course and cause further military and political complications. He did the right thing by taking down all of the information available and getting it to me so that I might arrange assistance.

SGT. Rusk Smith and local national interpreter "Eddie" with Iraqi Children, Village of Al Abid near Fallujah

The next series of events, even in retrospect, still strike me as fairly miraculous, and they only took less than 24 hours to execute.  I immediately had a meeting with the 1st Armored Division Information Operations Section that evening.  Fortunately, the 1st Armored Division Surgeon, LTC Vincent Barnhardt, was in attendance and I took him aside before the more formal business of our officer corps.  After I described the situation to LTC Barnhardt, he was clearly concerned and asked me to forward the information to his office. I sent him an email later that evening that detailed everything I had been told and included the photos and cell phone number for the woman’s brother, whose named we finally learned was Sadwyn.  She is only 21 and her brother, Suha, who appeared to be about 30, was determined to get her assistance from the Americans.

The next morning LTC Barnhardt forwarded the email to the United States Forces-Iraq Headquarters to the USF-I Surgeon, COL Lisa Zacher of the Third Armored Corps. She contacted the US Embassy and was directed to a “Dr Daniel,” an Arabic- speaking physician assigned to the Embassy.  I do not know if he is Iraqi by birth but he quickly took ownership of Suha’s predicament and called the Director General of Health (DG) of Anbar Province.  The DG agreed to send an ambulance as soon as an affirmative location and hospital preference were confirmed.  Eventually, Sadwyn was contacted on his mobile phone and by noon his gravely injured sister was en route to Fallujah Hospital.

As much as I wanted to be pleased by our ability to assist Suha and her brother, I found it quite troubling that it took a call from a US Embassy physician to the Director General of Health for the entire Province of Anbar to provide emergency health care to a woman who had been in life-threatening pain for many months.  I was, obviously, ecstatic to see that this woman was helped and I know that SGT Smith and his team and the surgeons felt a sense of accomplishment but I could not escape the fact that it required the highest level of government intervention just to get an injured Iraqi citizen to a hospital that is only an hour’s drive distant from where she lay suffering.

Of course, this is only one incident.  There’s no way to know how many have ended less happily. Probably not something we want to know, I suspect.  But I think the American taxpayer needs more information like the story of Sadwyn and Suha to understand the deep level of dysfunction within the Iraqi Government.  If it is a large, uncaring monster, we have to take some of the blame.  None of us wants to be here any longer and we will be completely out of Iraq in fourteen months.  But I wonder what we are leaving behind.  I think I know but it’s a reality that I find hard to stomach after all of this sacrifice and I wonder why the American public is being shielded from the truth of what continues to happen in Iraq.