By Tom Gordon
Since B-Metro’s editors welcomed me to write for this magazine four years ago, I have written about things I have had to learn about, and I’ve also written about subjects with which I was familiar. One of those subjects has been Alabamians who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks. At the time of the attacks, I was a reporter at The Birmingham News. In the days that followed, one of my first assignments was to cover a send-off ceremony for an Army National Guard unit whose soldiers were going to be guarding military installations such as Anniston Army Depot and Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. Nearly two years later, photographer Hal Yeager and I were in Mosul, the third largest city in Iraq. We were embedded with another Guard unit that I have written about for this magazine, the 877th Engineer Battalion.
Mosul has been in a lot of unsettling headlines of late. When Yeager and I were there, the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, under the command of Gen. David Petraeus, was in control, and the 877th, full of folks who could fix or build just about anything, was doing projects all over the area. Not long after our arrival, Yeager and I covered the reopening of an Olympic-sized swimming pool that 877th soldiers had helped repair. It was a warm morning, the temperature already well over 100 degrees. An audience of dignitaries and soldiers was on hand for speeches in Arabic and English, and people watched from the rooftops of nearby homes while young boys dove into and swam in the pool’s clear water.
A few months earlier, U.S. troops had pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. And while there were troubling signs, particularly in Baghdad and other cities to the south of us, that things were far from the “mission accomplished” stage, Mosul seemed more stable, safer. There was a Sunday, for example, when Yeager and I went with a large group of 877th soldiers to one of the city’s oldest Christian churches, where we were treated to a delicious meal in a dining hall in which Henry VIII would have felt at home. Later, Yeager and I went with some soldiers, most of them from the 877th’s Charlie Company, to a largely Christian village north of Mosul called Al Qosh. As the battalion commander at the time, now-retired Col. Randy Martin, reminded me in a recent email, “We were there for several months building roads, repairing roads, and repairing schools.” The 877th soldiers lived at a monastery, in sight of a seventh-century monastery built into the side of a nearby mountain, “and the monks prepared them at least one meal a day,” Martin said.
While some 877th soldiers were gearing up to work in Al Qosh, others were repairing schools in another location, a village near Mosul Dam, and trying to impart their skills to the young Iraqis helping them. One soldier, a mason by trade, was a sergeant, now retired, named Bobby James. A resident of Spruce Pine in Franklin County, James soon became a magnet for local folks seeking someone who could fashion a bicycle seat or fix a sewing machine. “If they needed something done, I’d just do it,” James said. Working at the schools, James had a 15-year-old Iraqi helper whom he called David. Out of his own pocket, James paid David two dollars a day, which he said was the going rate then for a skilled worker in Iraq. “I loved that little ole boy,” James recently told me. “He cried when I left. He was wanting to come home with me.”
As I write this, a lot of tears have flowed and a lot blood has been shed and a lot of havoc wreaked in places like Mosul Dam, Mosul, and, I suspect, Al Qosh. Fighters with the Islamic State, well-armed, well-funded, and savagely intolerant of anyone not following their extreme version of Islam, took control over Mosul and much of the surrounding area in the late summer. While lately, it appears that they have been pushed out of some of the places they had taken, I have no doubt they committed murder and mayhem in places where 877th soldiers tried to leave a positive mark. In his email concerning Al Qosh, Martin said, “The recent events have been very disheartening. A lot of good people lived in that area and mostly just wanted to live their lives in peace.”
Like bullets from high-powered weapons, what-ifs on Iraq are flying fast and furious these days. James said he never expected to change the world when he deployed to Iraq, but he hoped things would be better there than they are now. Did U.S. forces leave Iraq too soon? Or did we just not do “a good enough job” while we were there? Maybe, James suggested, the best thing might have been “to have left Saddam alone.” Just as it did after the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq needs peace and rebuilding in a big way.
If only the task was as simple as repairing a broken school.