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Reporting For Duty

by Marc Defreyn and Frank Selden

One afternoon in mid-October 2003, the second day at my new job as in-house counsel for the Washington State Department of Health, I went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. At the end of the meal, the fortune cookie read: “You Will Take a Trip to the Desert.”

A few days later, 3,000-plus members of the 81st Brigade of the Washington Army National Guard were notified that we were being activated for 18 months, to include a 12-month tour to Iraq.

I should have gone to Red Robin for lunch that day.

Full disclosure is required here: I never left the base to which I was assigned—LSA Anaconda, a logistical support base about an hour north of Baghdad. I did not fly in a helicopter; I did not fire a round of ammunition or face the enemy head-on. I did not see Saddam Hussein’s golden palaces, nor did I help build new schools. My existence consisted primarily of my living area, dining facilities, a working area and various areas of entertainment. My contact with others came mainly from appointments with service members seeking legal assistance and interactions with Iraqi nationals when I approved their claims for damage caused by the U.S. Army.

Others who went to Iraq and read this might say, “That’s not my recollection!” To those who don’t recall it quite this way: Write your own damn story.

 

The Arrival

After a four-month stint at Fort Lewis, 30 days at the National Training Center in California and a bit less than a month in Kuwait, I left for Iraq. I was among the fortunate ones who did not have to “convoy” up from Kuwait but flew to LSA Anaconda. The experience was uneventful—but that would soon change.

I flew in an Air Force C-130; as we landed, the back end of the plane opened up while LSA Anaconda was receiving mortar fire. We went “code red”—unfortunately, no one had explained what that meant. I figured it out fast: You run like hell to get out of the middle of a large airfield where there are lots of ignitable items. As we were running, me surpassing everyone, I wondered (it was my first time in a war zone): “What if I am running toward the next mortar?”

The mortars kept coming. LSA Anaconda is nicknamed “Mortaritaville” because of the frequency of attacks. The Seattle Times once reported that LSA Anaconda had been on the receiving end of roughly two attacks daily since July 2004. These attacks are—to say the least—surreal. You hear a bang, you look around —then you hear the sirens and you run (or, after about four months, walk) to a “hard shell” building. The “duds” make an interesting thump—sort of like a junior high school band’s version of the ending of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, where it tries to make a loud bang but can’t pull it off.

However, it turns out that the mortars that are not duds are really &()*#$)#@ loud ... I vividly recall one that landed probably 100 yards from my office, but every time I tell the story it gets closer, so let’s just say it was about 25 feet from my building. During a mortar attack, you ask yourself: “WWJD? What would JAG [Judge Advocate General] do?”

You make promises to God that you have no intention of keeping; you curse the JAG recruiter who did not mention this possibility; you think of your spouse, your brand-new Mini Cooper waiting for you at home (which your spouse had better not be driving), and are you glad you extended your law-school loans to 30 years, in case you don’t make it. You also suddenly realize that people want to kill you just because of who you are, and you secretly sort of agree with John Lennon that maybe we should give peace a chance. All these thoughts occur in about eight to 10 seconds.

When able, we would return fire. This, too, is really loud ... and if you are like me, initially you are not really sure of the sound difference between incoming and outgoing. Soon everything sounds like incoming mortars: trucks backfiring, air-conditioning units turning on and off, and our return fire. Even thunder at 2 a.m. wakes you up and prompts you to put on your gear and head toward a safe building.

You’d think eventually the insurgents would run out of mortars, but I am sure Syria or God-knows-who-else has plenty on the black market. I was told by my predecessor that mortar attacks were rare. Lucky me—the insurgents found a new stockpile, or was it two-for-one at Syria’s House of Rockets, Mortars and Sundries?

During my time there, several people died as a result of mortar attacks. It was a constant, all-too-real reminder that war is a dangerous reality. All those dead-lawyer jokes didn’t seem that funny at the time. To this day, when the city of Olympia tests its red-alert siren, I find myself startled by the sound. I still keep the student loans on the 30-year payoff plan.

 

LSA Anaconda

Though I am sure GlobalSecurity.org could better describe LSA Anaconda/Balad Air Base (the Army calls it LSA Anaconda; the Air Force calls it Balad Air Base; I guess the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and 5,000 civilian contractors had no input), at 15 square miles it is the largest support base in Iraq and seems to have been built during the height of the Cold War by a random Eastern-bloc country. It has that 1950s East Berlin feel to it: bland, dreary, made of cement and metal. The glass has a dingy film, probably never to be removed, and the floor has a dusty look no matter how many times you sweep. The monotone colors are about as soothing as the East Berlin symphony ... and the roads are big enough to hold a tank but barely large enough for two cars to pass (my theory: Tank has the right of way anyway).

But LSA Anaconda is a city unto itself, with its own post office, “restaurants,” movie theater, shopping complex, gym and other forms of recreation. We even had an Olympic-size pool, track and stadium. Right before I left, Pizza Hut, Burger King and Subway opened.

There are a few chapels, but it’s verboten to enter the only mosque on post ... I was told that a non-Muslim walking into a mosque is like a Muslim walking into a Catholic church and urinating on the crucifix. I’m no theologian, but that seems a bit of an exaggeration, as I would have loved to respectfully view the inside of the mosque. Alas, it was locked, and now it is passed by hordes of American Christians and Jews with automatic weapons.

LSA Anaconda has a population of about 25,000. That there are Army, Marines and Air Force service members makes sense; Navy and Coast Guard, a bit less. There are “friendly nation” forces like the English and Australians, and then there are the civilians, including the U.S. group, ranging in age from 18 to 75. There’s something odd about seeing someone who could be your grandmother in the middle of a war zone.

Aside from the American contractors, few civilian workers on the base speak English. It was like being on a cruise ship where the employees come from all over the world ... and so, despite all my travels, it appears the No. 1 place to meet people from all over the world is not in their respective countries but, rather, at LSA Anaconda, Iraq.

 

My View of Iraq

The flatness of Iraq, at least my view of it, left me longing for the green, rolling hills of Kansas; the oppressive heat made me think affectionately of those “chilly” Phoenix summers. And while I still recall fondly my impression of seeing every imaginable shade of green when I first arrived in Washington state, little did I know that a world away, God had perfected his/her multicolor experiment by creating 4,319 shades of brown.

Eventually, I foresee Gray Line setting up shop there. It could be (pardon the pun) a tourist mecca. Disney-Babylonia. Six Flags over Persia (unlike Texas, this one shall not include France!). Glass-bottom tours of the Euphrates . . . it’s all coming. It really will be worth your visit . . . and don’t worry; as sure as we still have soldiers in Japan, Germany and Italy, rest assured that U.S. soldiers will be there when you and your grandkids visit in 2027.

Other than the ones who were trying to kill me, the local people were wonderful. I never tried to speak to anyone outside the fence; most of the local Iraqis working with us were polite, or at least appeared so. I smiled a lot and they smiled a lot, and we all probably thought very nearly the same thing:

Them: “Get the *(%)@_ out of my country.”

Me:  “I wish I could get the *)($*)# out of your country.”

 

My So-Called Life

Daily life at LSA Anaconda was mundane, but there was odd comfort in the routine. One of the perks of war is the free laundry service; much like your college days, you get someone else to do it. And, keeping the cruise analogy alive, the food is adequate, if not lavish. You eat constantly, as much as you want, and dessert is always the best part.

I recall one day in the D-FAC (dining facility) when we were getting mortared, I jumped up and said, “I’ll be right back.” A few seconds later I came back with something in hand. A newer guy asked, “Why did you jump up so fast when the alarm went off?” Eating the ice cream I had just gotten, I replied, “When we get mortared, the dining facility workers have to stop serving and leave the building, so I needed to get my ice cream before the ice cream–scooper guy left.” He asked, “Do you realize what you just said?” We laughed for a second, and I noted, “Hey, I can only control so much here ... one of the things I can control is making sure I have ice cream while I sit here and wait for the attack to end.”

We lived in trailers—the kind you see in mobile-home parks in the southeastern part of just about any state. There were three rooms per trailer, two to three people per room—and no bathroom or kitchen.

Getting around was a challenge. You could walk, take the shuttle or drive in a Humvee. Walking in 120-degree heat with full “battle rattle” wasn’t fun; the Anaconda bus system was about as reliable as the one in Philadelphia; and Army Humvees are not like Gov. Schwarzenegger’s H2 Hummer with air-conditioning and a six-CD MP3 player. So, better to ride in an NTV. You don’t know what an NTV is? Well, neither did I; everything gets a new acronym in the Army. It’s a “non-tactical vehicle.” In other words, a car. Actually, an SUV. We may or may not have been in the land of milk and honey, but we certainly were in the land of oil, so welcome gas guzzlers. LSA Anaconda had more Nissan Pathfinders and Toyota 4-Runners than any Truck City, USA.

So, in the middle of Iraq, in the middle of a war, I’m driving a brand-new V-6 automatic 4X4 Mitsubishi Montero. The A/C works, there is a windshield to stop the dust and bugs, and you pick up Iraqi radio. You are not sure what they are saying, but secretly you like the music and you think there just might be a chance they’ll play Cat Stevens. One complaint to auto designers: no place to put M-16s.

 

My Duty

Of course, you are still wondering: What does a lawyer do at a war? There is the romantic side, which creeps its way into the news and movies (and bad CBS-TV shows): “operational law,” “law of war” and military justice–criminal law. Then there’s contract law, administrative law, fiscal law and environmental law (a work in progress in Iraq).

There’s also the bane of every JAG officer: “legal assistance.” This can most closely be described as “general practice”: whatever walks in the door, you take. And so, because I was “slotted” as the administrative law officer, I naturally became the Chief of Client Services. Well, it sounded better than “legal assistance.” Sort of like being called an “associate,” even though none of the partners want to associate with you.

Considering LSA Anaconda’s large population of service members and civilian contractors, a good percentage will, at one time or another, need the advice of counsel on a range of personal matters. Imagine moving to Pullman or SeaTac and being the only lawyer in town. Now imagine having that monopoly, but you don’t get to charge an hourly rate.

We offered family law, estate planning, property law, bankruptcy advice, immigration law (a fair number of non-U.S. citizens are in uniform, and some interesting laws expedite their citizenship status), advice regarding the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, and “administrative” defense regarding appeals of annual evaluations, Reports of Survey (being held financially responsible for lost or destroyed government property) and adverse administrative actions.

My favorite case was the soldier who thought he did not have to pay his Visa bill because the charges were made in Iraq. I thought he meant someone had stolen his card and used it illegally, so my initial reaction was that I could help him. No, he was using it. I asked Visa about this and it turns out his theory was wrong, which is too bad. For a while there, I was hoping it would prove true.

Using the theory that the more you worked, the faster your stay at Club Anaconda would go, I also handled claims—both personnel-type claims (personal stuff owned by a soldier that was damaged during war) and foreign claims (stuff of the Iraqis’ that we broke). As far as paying claims to U.S. service members, all I can say is this: These kids nowadays sure know how to go to war. Claims in excess of $10,000 for Xboxes, PlayStations, Game Boys, Global Positioning Systems, laptops, MP3 players, portable DVD players and more than 400 DVDs were not uncommon (though how you could watch 400 DVDs on a 365-day tour and manage to fight a war was beyond me). Fear not, taxpayer watchdogs: Claims filed does not equal claims paid, as any insurance-defense attorney can acknowledge.

The part of my job that entailed interaction with local Iraqis was “foreign claims.” Though these cases were built on tragedy (claims for damaged property or death or injury to innocent Iraqis), it was the most rewarding. One thing the media do not cover is that the United States does pay for damages to persons or their property when the innocents are not the target of combat activity. I don’t mean to imply that money equals full compensation, nor can I sum up the complex military-claims process in one paragraph, but I personally think our government should be applauded for such a program. I think it is fair to say that most other armies view such claims as “collateral damage” and offer no compensation whatsoever.

However, you do have to remind yourself that the claims system is set up with situational reality in mind; paying a soldier $3,000 for a broken laptop, while paying a father $750 for his permanently injured 7-year-old daughter brings you little comfort or sense of worth. And yet, every claimant I paid was extremely grateful, thanked me profusely, kissed me and insisted I take a picture with the family. A little compassion (and, yes, a little compensation) shows the Iraqi people that we are, in fact, there to help; I remain convinced we are welcomed by the majority.

 

The Iraqi Election and My Departure

And so, your life for a year consists of every day putting another X on the calendar. On January 26 (at 8:37 p.m.) I received wonderful news: I would be going home after the Iraqi election. At the time, it seemed the election (days away) would never come. And, of course, there was the continuing threat of violence, a bit more intensified as the insurgents tried to rattle both the Americans and the local Iraqis into fear and chaos.

In messages home, I noted that the Iraqis I interacted with spoke of the election with joy and determination. About a month before, I asked my Iraqi interpreter if he were going to vote, and he said, “Oh yes; it is my civic duty as an Iraqi ... I will be there voting with pride.” When asked about the threat of violence, he dismissed the issue as though to remind me his entire life had been full of violence. At least this time, there was some purpose to facing it.

About two days before the election, local Iraqis were prohibited from coming on base. On election day, I had no idea what to expect. Getting mortared was far from new, and I was convinced we would get hit hard. I got up that morning at 4 a.m. and went straight to work; I wanted to be in a “hard shell” building. I was only partially over-reactive, because all locations on post that allowed large groups were closed, even the chow halls. Basically, except for those on patrol or performing missions, we were “locked down.”

This restriction allowed me to follow election news, and I was glued to the television. While we can debate the overall success or failure of the election, I think it went much better than expected. Voter turnout was relatively high, even among the Sunnis; the violence was minimal—though, tragically, slightly more than 40 people died that day from insurgent attacks.

Three days later, we allowed the local Iraqis back on base. At my office, there was a lot of human traffic because we were housed with the contracting office. The Iraqis’ return to our base a day or two before my departure is a memory I will never forget ... the smiles on their faces; their excited broken-English conversations about the election; and, most important, their purple thumbs, dipped in ink to ensure “one person, one vote.” Though three days had passed, the first thing my interpreter did was show me his thumb. “I have not washed my hand,” he told me. “I wanted to show you my thumb.” Younger women, college-age students, some locals who looked past 80—all had purple thumbs.

My interpreter never actually said “thanks,” and I never actually said “you are welcome,” but the look in his eyes and his pride allowed me to feel, finally, that some good was occurring in Iraq. Days from departing, it suddenly felt like my year in Iraq had sped by and that a part of me (a very, very small part) would miss being there to see that country’s progress firsthand.  L&P

—Against his high-school counselor’s advice, Marc Defreyn became a lawyer, then served as in-house counsel for the Washington State Department of Health. He joined the Army National Guard for the commissary privileges, but ended up having to go to Iraq for a year as a member of the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate.

 

 

I used to joke that, rather than send militaries to fight each other, countries should send their lawyers. Nonlawyers would always laugh at the mental image of attorneys legally—or physically—dueling with opposing counsel. My lampooning ceased when my Washington National Guard unit received orders for duty in Iraq.

Our unit arrived at the Mosul airfield base in early 2004. At that time, it was a fairly quiet base, experiencing mortar and rocket attacks but almost no direct fighting or bombings. The conditions changed after the United States transferred ruling authority to Iraq’s Interim Council on June 30, 2004.

Units throughout Iraq received orders to take a low profile and allow the Iraqi forces greater involvement in their own security. This policy change resulted in altering the Rules of Engagement (ROE) that governed our actions and reactions during enemy encounters. We decreased patrols, searches and even community-support missions.

In my first legal role as a soldier, I was charged with creating an updated ROE training program for our base. I considered the heavy responsibility of applying the new ROE to our activities. For example, if a soldier followed the training I developed, yet a military court found him guilty of a violation, I knew I would feel partially responsible for that soldier’s actions. Yet I wanted to allow our soldiers as much latitude as possible to handle dangerous situations. Misunderstanding or ignoring ROEs can mean the difference between a hero’s medal or criminal charges.

My training program received full approval but did little to actually prepare us for the increase in violence against our base and the Iraqi nationals we were under orders to protect.

Following the transfer of authority, the governor in Mosul imposed a citywide three-day “holiday” in which he strongly advised everyone to stay home. Our base employed up to 1,500 local Iraqis on a daily basis, but no one showed up for work during the holiday. Only essential convoys left or entered the base, and patrols essentially ceased. Our ability to monitor events in the city virtually disappeared.

I became frustrated with the increased restrictions. I felt like a caged animal that terrorists could easily target while the rules barred us from doing anything proactive.  While venting my concerns, someone remarked, “You are probably the luckiest person on this base.” He touched my arm in a few places. I gave him a questioning look. “Not a scratch,” he explained, and I understood. We had sent far too many soldiers home in body bags or on medical evacuations. The reminder to be grateful did not alleviate my concerns but did give me something else to think about.

One morning a loud blast rocked our base. Doors and windows blew open, shelves and their contents fell off walls, people hit the ground or scrambled into bunkers. Radio reports from our towers described a close detonation. The blast, however, had occurred more than 2 miles away. The most deadly detonation in Iraq to date since the operation began killed 72 Iraqi citizens, primarily police officers and private-security-force members. The Nineveh governor’s office estimated that the number of wounded exceeded 250.

I spoke with one soldier who worked on the grave registration team. She told me the victims closest to the blast were hard to identify because the bodies were in pieces. She also told me of a family gathered around a table for breakfast. A car thrown by the blast crashed through the roof and landed on the children sitting at the table while their mother, preparing their morning meal, watched in horror a few feet away.

In a skirmish following the attacks, terrorist forces attempted to take control of several police stations. Our forces moved to the Sheikh Fatih police station to support the Iraqi soldiers. Fire came from the Mohammed Al Noory mosque. Our new ROE cautioned against returning fire into mosques and restricted us from entering them except under specified conditions. So the Iraqi National Guard soldiers secured the mosque and our soldiers took back the police station. One U.S. soldier died and three were injured. Five Iraqi police officers were also wounded in that series of attacks.

In another legal role, I screened some Iraqi applications for compensation. Valid claims were handled by a team located with the northern command headquarters on the other end of Mosul. The U.S. government created a fund to pay Iraqis for damage done by our troops in other-than-hostile situations.

For example, our ROE allowed a gunner in the rear of a convoy to fire a warning shot into the radiator of an approaching vehicle if the driver did not obey hand signals to stay away from the convoy. It was difficult for our soldiers to distinguish between impatient drivers wanting to pass the convoy and suicide bombers intent on destroying the convoy. Anyone receiving a .50-caliber round into their radiator would insist they were not trying to harm soldiers and we needed to pay for a new car.

The U.S. paid hundreds of millions of dollars in claims settlements to compensate for collateral damage or unintended consequences, even if legally we were not at fault. Coupled with our humanitarian aid, it clearly showed Iraqi citizens the difference between U.S. operations and Saddam’s blatant disregard for his own people. How many claims did Saddam pay to the Kurds of northern Iraq after removing thousands from their homes; to families who went hungry after the main breadwinner was assassinated on undocumented charges; or to displaced residents of the southern marshes after drying up their water supply?

Amid the seriousness of our work, we tried to tell jokes and pull the occasional minor prank. Suffice it to say, the old TV show M.A.S.H. would never have feared competition from us. What we touted as funny anecdotes would make Jerry Springer cringe, and mine were among the worst. They told me not to quit my day job.

Since returning from Iraq, I no longer joke about some things—like sending lawyers to handle all our confrontations. Terrorists are just not the negotiating type. Some argue that our military strength is one main reason terrorists attack us. I learned our military might be the only thing preventing even worse situations. Our military is run by rules so complex it would be easier to explain to Washington business owners all the laws that affect their operations than clarify to soldiers all the legislation, military regulations and international treaties that govern every move they make.

I am honored to play a role in our state’s National Guard, even though the past 18 months were more than I envisioned when enlisting for duty—“one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer”—10 years ago. Our military needs a few good men and women who carry briefcases instead of M-16s. A professional and ethical legal team is vital to successful military operations. A lawyer’s sense of humor, however, may be optional.  L&P

—Frank Selden graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 2003. Rather than plunging right into a legal career as he had hoped, Frank spent the next 18 months on active duty for the Army. The experience expanded his perspective on the role of military lawyers. This article is his first for WL&P.

 


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