A Romeo and Juliet love story from Iraq

Mike and me in Baghdad in early April, 2006. He believed in love. I wonder if he still does.

Mike and me in Baghdad in April, 2006. He believed in love. I wonder if he still does.

I met Mike when sectarian strife exploded in Baghdad in 2006. That was not his real name, of course, but it was what he went by in his job as a translator for American soldiers.

Mike and I spent several evenings chatting at a coffee shop on the vast Camp Liberty complex. He was a smart well-spoken man with Antonio Banderas looks. He told me about his life in Iraq before the war. He taught computer science at a small Baghdad college and ran a photo processing shop.

He told me about the hope he’d held in 2003 after the ouster of Saddam, after which he worked as a security guard for Kellogg, Brown & Root. Eventually he found a job as an interpreter for the U.S. Army.

But things did not progress the way he’d expected and his homeland seemed on the verge of civil war.

The Georgia Army National Guard unit I was embedded with was then patrolling the streets of southwest Baghdad. Sometimes, Mike would peer out the sliver of a bullet-proof window in the back of a  Bradley Fighting Machine and look for a small stucco house on one of the main thoroughfares.

Over coffee one day, I asked him why he stared so intently through the glass.

“Asra,” he said.

“Asra? Who is that?” I asked.

She was the woman he adored. They shared dreams. Of going to Sulaimaniyah to see snow for the first time in their lives. Of getting married, having children.

He bought American shampoo for her from the PX at Liberty. She had long, thick hair, he told me.

Sometimes, he broke Baghdad’s curfew and snuck into Asra’s house late at night. They knew they could not be seen together.

But he could no longer do that. They knew their love could bring them serious trouble.

Mike was Shiite and Asra, Sunni.

Mike was unwanted as a Montague in the house of Capulet.

Mike wished Asra would stand on her balcony when the Bradley thundered past her house. But she didn’t step outside anymore. It wasn’t safe.

A month earlier, the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra worsened the sectarian violence in Baghdad. I remember seeing bodies strewn on the streets of the capital. I could see that many had been tortured or mutilated or shot in the head, execution-style. Revenge killings soared. Neighborhoods in which Sunni and Shiite lived side by side went one way or the other. Thousands of Iraqis were driven from their homes.

I have been thinking of Mike a lot lately as I watch the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgents battle towards Baghdad. I fear there will be all-out sectarian war. Sunni against Shiite. Blood spilled on the very soil where the division began with the killing in 680 AD of Muhammad’s grandsons in Kerbala.

We may never know modern-day Iraq again. I can see how borders might get redrawn. I am not necessarily opposed to that – the lines, after all, were drawn by the British to serve colonial interests and Iraq was, in many ways, an artificially assembled nation. But it is heartbreaking to see the carnage.

ISIS makes al Qaida look friendly. There have been reports of crucifixions, mass executions and beheadings. The atrocities make Iraq look like Yugoslavia on speed. That’s how Middle East politics expert Gareth Stansfield described the situation in a recent National Geographic interview.

I wonder if Mike and Asra were ever able to be together, start the family they wanted. I don’t have any way of contacting him anymore. I wish I did.

He told me once that it made no difference to him that Asra was Sunni, though her family didn’t see it that way. He saved a huge chunk of his American paycheck every month to build a house for Asra and himself in a Baghdad neighborhood that was then still very mixed.

He knew he was fighting the odds. He told me it would take a miracle to realize his dreams in a country fraught with war. But he wasn’t going to give up — he still believed in love.

I wonder if he still feels that way.

Remembering Ramadi as Iraq suffers again

Ramadi looked apocalyptic when the Sunni insurgency raged there in 2006.

Ramadi looked apocalyptic when the Sunni insurgency raged there in 2006.

I fought off tears as I read Sunday’s New York Times. The news from Iraq was horrifying.

A vicious civil war seems imminent as fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) point their guns toward Baghdad.

They are men who make al-Qaeda look like nice guys. And the Taliban, wimps.

They have taken over much of Nineveh province — Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Tal Afar. They are now taking aim at Samarra and threatened to destroy a historic Shiite shrine there. An attack on that shrine in 2006 unleashed sectarian bloodshed. Entire neighborhoods in Baghdad and other places were ethnically cleansed.

I remember how hard it was after that to make amends.

I was in Anbar province when the Sons of Iraq program was just getting off the ground. It began with Sunni Sheik Sattar al-Rishawi who helped launch the Anbar Awakening, a movement to stop the extreme violence that had gripped Iraq’s only Sunni-majority province.

I patrolled with 1-9 Infantry soldiers who dubbed one neighborhood in Ramadi "the heart of darkness."

I patrolled with 1-9 Infantry soldiers who dubbed one neighborhood in Ramadi “the heart of darkness.”

Cities like Fallujah and Ramadi looked apocalyptic. I don’t think I saw a single building in Ramadi that had been spared from bullet holes.

I walked the streets of a Ramadi neighborhood called Melaab with Able Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers called the place “the heart of darkness.”

When I asked residents what it was like to live there, they glided their right index finger across their throats. Sunni insurgents brazenly beheaded people in public and distributed videos of the executions.

Ramadi, back then, was the perhaps most dangerous place on Earth. And it was widely believed that the sheiks of Anbar were supporting the insurgents.

Then they began withdrawing that tacit support. I sat with Sheik al-Rishawi’s brother, Ahmed, to understand why his family and others had come around to helping the Americans establish peace.

He showed me his camels (see the photo at the top of my blog), sipped sweet chai and told me the people were just weary from that kind of extreme violence. His own father and brothers were killed by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

He invited U.S. commanders into his palatial home and talked strategy with them. Such friendships had seemed improbable just months ago but the sheiks were determined to bring peace.

From that movement came the Sons of Iraq. Insurgents who once pointed their guns at Americans and their Shiite brethren began to help keep the killing out of their territories. During the so-called surge in U.S. troops, the Sons of Iraq program was in full swing. The Americans paid them $10 a day to keep terrorism at bay.

When the Anbar Awakening first took hold, an uneasy calm came to Ramadi. I went to a polling station where people were voting in a city council election. Amazingly, there was no gunfire that day.

Outside, Capt. Jamey Gadoury, commander of 1-9 Inftantry’s Charlie Company, took his helmet and flak jacket off. We shared lamb and rice with community leaders and members of the Iraqi police.

There were three ways to deal with insurgents, Gadoury told me as he tore a piece of bread and scooped up a chunk of meat. “You either want to kill them, make them go away or get them on your side.”

“So what happened to the Sunni insurgents here?” I asked.

Gadoury stopped chewing and grinned, as though he were onto some awful secret.

“You’re eating with them, ” he told me.

I looked around and suddenly lost my appetite.

I think of my days in Anbar now as I read the tragedy unfolding in Iraq. All that ingenuity to befriend the enemy and make peace. Where did it all go?

Many have blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for stirring Iraq’s cauldron of ethnic strife. Others have blamed President Barack Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops prematurely.

I won’t go into all the reasons I think that violence has come back with a venomous vengeance — I’ll save that for a later post.

I will only say this: my heart is broken.

Memorial Day is not National BBQ Day

 

Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery.

Occasionally, I pick up my iPhone and am pleasantly surprised to see an incoming call from a soldier I met in Iraq. The other night, it was Mike Brown, who helped train Iraqi security forces for a year in Baghdad.

He wanted nothing in general, nothing in particular. Just to say hello.

His call was a good reminder, just ahead of Memorial Day.

There’s a photo that went viral on Facebook and Twitter of a grill. The caption says: Memorial Day is not National BBQ Day. So true.

For many of us, the three-day weekend has become synonymous with the beach or hamburgers or a chance to get away. It means the start of summer, the start of lazy afternoons under a hot sun.

We are quick to forget the true meaning of the holiday.

Civil War depiction at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Civil War depiction at Gettysburg National Military Park.

It used to be known as Decoration Day and was started after the Civil War to remember the thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers who died on bloody battlefields. Later, Memorial Day became a remembrance of all men and women in uniform who gave their lives for America.

Mike Brown served in the 48th Infantry Brigade of the Georgia Army National Guard, which lost nearly 30 soldiers in the year it spent fighting in Iraq. I covered memorial services for the 48th as well as other brigades in Iraq that lost almost as many soldiers. I attended too many services.

They were men and women who lost their lives too young. They left behind shattered families and communities. I think of them and all our servicemen and women this weekend and salute their courage. I urge all of you to do the same.

Iraq’s forgotten tragedy

I met Ahmad in 2007 in Nineveh province. I wonder how he is doing today. I don't even know if he is alive.

I met Ahmad in 2007 in Nineveh province. I think about him and all the people I met over the years in Iraq and wonder what their lives are like today.

I just read an excerpt from Peter Baker’s new book, “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. It’s being touted as the most comprehensive account of the Bush-Cheney years, at least until historical archives are opened to the public.

What’s clear from the book is that Cheney was a major driver of the Iraq War. And a  senior administration official is quoted as saying that America was looking for a fight, looking to kick someone’s ass.

So the Iraqi people paid the price.

I am looking forward to reading Baker’s book. I met him in Baghdad in 2002, when he was with the Washington Post and I was with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That was four months before the invasion and all foreign journalists were made to stay at the Al-Rashid Hotel — the one that had a mosaic of Papa Bush’s face on the entrance floor. You couldn’t enter the hotel without stepping on the presidential mug.

I read about Baker’s book today along with the latest media reports of more bloodshed. At least 43 people were killed Sunday. Dozens more were wounded.

A suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded coffee shop in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in southwest Baghdad, not too far from where I was in March when I was last in the Iraqi capital. Many of the victims were young men gathering to drink tea, smoke hookah and play games, officials told CNN.

Earlier, in mainly Sunni Anbar province, three attacks killed six people.

At least 350 people have been killed in October.

Take a look at these numbers compiled by the United Nations mission in Iraq. They are nothing short of shocking:

September: 887 killed; 1957 injured

August 2013: 716 killed; 1936 injured

July: 928 killed; 2109 injured

June: 685 killed; 1610 injured

May: 963 killed; 2191 injured

April: 595 killed; 1481 injured

March: 229 killed; 853 injured

February: 418 killed; 704 injured

January: 319 killed; 960 injured

Adding to the horror is a new survey that estimates the civilian death toll of the war to be much higher than believed — 500,000.

Yet Iraq is but a blip on the news. Iraqis are not a part of the global conscience, at least, certainly not a part of the American conscience.

My heart bleeds for Iraq. I think about friends I made there; how so many of them lead lives marred by hatred. It’s difficult to read about daily death and destruction now, more than 10 years after Bush and Cheney made the decision to attack.

Few American news outlets are covering events in Iraq the way they should be, I believe. It’s a mistake not to focus attention on the bloodshed. Terrible to ignore tragedy, worse to forget.

You can read my last story from Baghdad on CNN.

Every day is Memorial Day

John Alderman, who was captain of Mike's cavalry troop in Iraq, at the grave Thursday.

John Alderman, who was captain of Mike’s cavalry troop in Iraq, at the grave Thursday.

Thursday evening, I drove out to Loganville, Georgia. I suppose it’s not a tremendous distance from downtown Atlanta but during rush hour, it took me more than an hour before I turned right onto Georgia Highway 81, named the Michael Stokely Memorial Highway.

It was the eighth anniversary of Mike’s death.

He went to Iraq with the 48th Infantry Brigade and was killed by a bomb in the Iraqi town of Yusufiya. I covered his memorial service in Iraq and later, when I returned home, I wrote about his father, Robert Stokely, and how he coped with his son’s death. I visited Mike’s grave with Robert one year after Mike died. Friends and family gathered to remember the fallen soldier at the exact time of his death. 2:20 a.m. in Iraq.

Over the years, I kept in touch with Robert; quoted him in several of my Iraq stories and wrote a longer piece about his own journey to Yusufiya a couple of years ago. He felt he would never have closure until he touched the dirt where his son fell. That journey did not turn out as Robert had planned it but it was healing nevertheless. You can read the story on CNN.com.

Michael Stokely was killed in Iraq in August 2005.

Michael Stokely was killed in Iraq in August 2005.

I’ve always felt grateful to Robert for sharing the details of his punctured life. It’s important, I believe, for America to know it has helped others cope with their grief.

Not too many people showed up this year for the annual gathering at Mike’s grave. As Robert said, people move on with their lives. We said our hellos and made conversation. It had already rained Thursday and the clouds looked down at us with a threat of more to come. We talked about how it was unusually cool for August, almost chilly, how it has rained so much this summer that Robert didn’t have to buy gallon jugs of water to keep the grass green over Mike’s grave.

There was nothing formal about the gathering. Just family and friends remembering Mike and reflecting on the path our lives have taken.

Robert and me at a November screening of an HLN documentary about his trip back to Iraq.

Robert and me at a November screening of an HLN documentary about his trip back to Iraq.

Before I began covering the Iraq War at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I never called anyone in uniform a friend. But now I know many people in the military. Before, I was like many Americans who are oblivious to the toll of war. Not any more.

On the way home on 1-20, I thought about Robert standing on the ground above his son’s coffin. He asked everyone to remember the men and women who gave their lives fighting for their country. To many, he said, they are just soldiers. To us, they are sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters.

Today is not Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day but for families like the Stokelys, every day is one of remembrance.

‘When we were good men’

Noor, in a happy moment, at the school for disabled kids she attends in Baghdad. March, 2013

Noor, in a happy moment, at the school for disabled kids she attends in Baghdad. March, 2013

As a reporter, I have numerous conversations every day with people I don’t know that well or at all. Once in a while, those conversations strike a chord. That’s what happened a few days ago in my 30-minute discussion with Col. Kevin Brown.

I’d met Brown in Baghdad in 2005; he was commander of a 10th Mountain Division battalion (Triple Deuce), to which a Georgia guard company I was embedded with was attached. I saw him now and then when he interacted with the soldiers I was writing about and then in the context of “Baby Noor,” an Iraqi girl with spina bifida who the soldiers flew to America for life-saving treatment.

You can read my stories about Noor on CNN.com: “Iraq’s Baby Noor: An Unfinished Miracle” and the followup story for which I called Brown recently.

I knew Brown was a smart man. He was now a retired Army colonel pursuing a PhD in security studies. He was a high-ranking officer who was well-liked by his soldiers — I didn’t hear that often about battalion commanders.

Brown at a medal ceremony at Camp Liberty, Baghdad, in March 2006.

Brown at a medal ceremony at Camp Liberty, Baghdad, in March 2006.

But our phone conversation struck me. Brown was forthcoming and deeply philosophical about his years at war and how Iraq had affected him and others. Though he is largely unfamiliar to me, at times in the conversation, I felt I was talking to my best friend. I knew exactly how he felt. I felt comforted by the words on the other end of the phone.

“Perhaps the Noor story shines that light on a time when we were good men and earned our nation’s respect whether they were looking or not … whether they knew it or not, and it gives us some comfort amongst the shades of gray we experienced there,” he said.

At that moment, I knew that my follow-up story on Noor had to center on Brown. He had captured the essence of the story with his words. I hope you will read it on CNN.com.

It’s not a big, bad, breaking news story. And in the grand scheme of things, Noor’s story, as I say in my piece, is a blip in the overall chaos and  sorrow of the Iraq War.

But it’s stories like these that keep me going as a journalist. Because in the most basic way, they confirm our humanity and keep me believing there is good in people. Without that, after all, there is little meaning in our lives.

Silenced too soon

Michael and me at Camp Striker near the Baghdad airport in September 2005.

Michael and me at Camp Striker near the Baghdad airport in September 2005.

Michael Hastings died Tuesday in a car crash in Los Angeles.

The news hit me hard. He was 33. He was a great journalist. He was a friend.

Most people know his name for the Rolling Stone story “Runaway General,” the profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal that exposed him as a loose cannon, chiding his civilian commanders in the Obama administration.

“Great reporters exude a certain kind of electricity,” said Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana, “the sense that there are stories burning inside them, and that there’s no higher calling or greater way to live life than to be always relentlessly trying to find and tell those stories. I’m sad that I’ll never get to publish all the great stories that he was going to write, and sad that he won’t be stopping by my office for any more short visits which would stretch for two or three completely engrossing hours. He will be missed.”

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed praised Michael’s incredible instinct for a story. He also said this:

“Michael was also a wonderful, generous colleague, a joy to work with and a lover of corgis — especially his Bobby Sneakers.”

Michael was known for his aggressive reporting. He believed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were misguided and didn’t for a second let any U.S. official — whether it was McChrystal or Hillary Clinton — get away with an easy answer.

His fiancee, an aide worker, was killed in Iraq when Michael was a Newsweek correspondent. He wrote about that relationship in his first book, “I Lost My Love n Baghdad: A Modern War Story.”

I never met his wife,  Elise Jordan. I cannot imagine her grief today.

As much as I respect his journalistic prowess — I leave it up to every media outlet to give him the proper reporter’s eulogy — the Michael I will cherish the most is the one I met in May 2005 at a hostile environment training put on by AKE in Virginia. I was there with AJC colleagues. He was there, I guess, on his own, determined to make a career for himself by going to the wars America was fighting.

He entertained us with his NYC white-boy rap — he was really good — and acerbic wit. Not bad, I thought, for a 28-year-old kid.

Three months later, Michael messaged me. “I am in Baghdad,” he said. “Going to Camp Striker tomorrow. I hear you are there. Lunch?”

So we ate standard military fare at the chow hall and shared stories about being embedded with the U.S. Army. He made me laugh when I hadn’t laughed in weeks. For that I will always be grateful.

An incredible young man robbed of life. An amazing journalist who will never again be able to write all the words that were within. Or expose the world for its sins.

Goodbye, Michael. May you rest in peace.

Read Michael’s advice for young journalists.