Farewell, Sgt. Denny

Denny and me in southwest Baghdad. March 2006. Curtis Compton took this photo.

Denny and me in southwest Baghdad. March 2006. Curtis Compton took this photo.

I first met the boys of Charlie Company, 1/121 Infantry, in December 2005. I was an embedded reporter, a lost soul among the rough and tumble men of the Georgia Army National Guard. What did I know about the military, about the U.S. Army? Very little.

I arrived with trepidation in my heart. But the soldiers of Company C welcomed me. One of them was Sgt. Thomas Denny.

He was known by his last name, as is standard in the Army. Denny. He worked in the main office of Charlie Company, the admin guy. For that, he took hell from other soldiers who went out on patrol after patrol. Denny. Yeah. He’s the guy who sits at the desk. But that wasn’t true.

Denny told me about how he felt bad that he was the lucky one who got to spend so much time on base while his buddies went outside the wire, on the menacing streets of southwest Baghdad at the height of the Sunni-Shia wars. He talked to me for hours. About how he grew up in Ohio and moved to Georgia in high school. About how he loved the outdoors—hunting and fishing.

Denny in the Charlie Company TOC at Camp Liberty. March 2006.

Denny in the Charlie Company TOC at Camp Liberty. March 2006.

He told me he wanted to go out on every patrol. “But, I’ll be honest, Miss Moni,” he said. “Every guy who goes out there… well… you just never know. You just never know if you’ll make it.”

I wrote down Denny’s words on December 18, 2005, in my Iraq journal. It was among the many conversations I had with him.

One morning, before I flew south to Tallil, he gave me a cross made out of steel hung on a leather chain. “Wear it,” he said. “And think of us poor f—s. Think of me. Be safe.”

I looked at that cross today when I got home from a trip out West to Alaska. Maj. Will Phillips informed me two days ago that Denny had died. He survived Iraq. But he did not survive cancer.

Denny didn’t always sit at the desk. He went out on missions. He put himself out there. He told me he was devastated that some of his Army comrades thought him a coward.

I stand testament that he was not.

The photograph of me in Iraq that has been publicized the most is the one on this post. Of me with Denny. Of me, protected by Denny.

Farewell, brother. Rest in peace.

Rembering Blacksheep on Veterans Day

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Here’s to you, Blacksheep — 3rd platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment.

Thinking of that hot day in April, 2006, when you completed your last patrol.

I was with you in the worst of times and you showed me the best. I feel proud to know all of you. Saluting your courage on Veterans Day.

ERC.

 

Death, dreams and dread

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I had a dream last night. It was the same one I’ve had since August 20, when I learned of Jim Foley’s death.

A man in black holds a small knife in his left hand. He is too cowardly to show his face. But he holds up Jim’s face. For the world to see.

I have been told that if one uses a small knife for such a brutal method of execution, it is an excruciatingly painful way to die. Not like the guillotine; not like a heavy blade making a clean chop.

I dream this every night. I have dreamed it before. After Daniel Pearl’s murder in February 2002 by al-Qaida mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

I do not understand people who wish to kill journalists and aid workers. I hope I will never understand them.

I know this: that if my dreams are so troubling, then how traumatic are these acts to the loved ones of those subjected to such heinous acts? I cannot imagine.

Some Muslims in that part of the world have told me that no less heinous acts happen in America each year. Murder in the most chilling fashion. Rape. Assault. Torture. Grisly crimes that make headlines — and some that do not.

But one act does not beget another. One crime does not justify another.

Jim was a journalist who cared. So was Steven Sotloff. David Haines dedicated his life to the betterment of others. How many more innocents will be killed in this horrific way?

Will Alan Henning be next? His friends pleaded with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, better known by the acronym ISIS, to let him go. But the men who make up ISIS do not know the meaning of compassion. They make al Qaida look mellow.

I will see Jim Foley in my dreams tonight. Again. I am sure of it.

And, in the morning I will again awake saluting his courage, saluting all those who put themselves in harm’s way for making this world a little bit better.

Give to the James Foley Legacy Fund. 

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Courage in journalism, Part II: RIP, Habibi

sarmad2A few months ago, my friend and colleague Lateef Mungin died quite suddenly. This morning, more shocking news awaited me.

CNN photojournalist Sarmad Qaseera passed away. He was 42.

Here’s the thing. Like Lateef, Sarmad was always smiling, always cracking jokes. His joy in life was infectious. I never heard him get bitter like so many other journalists in the war zone.

He came to America from his native Iraq and lived here in Atlanta. He told me how he lived with his ailing mother and was her primary caregiver.

He traveled constantly for work. He survived war zones, riots and disasters. But a long life was not to be his. It’s something a lot of my CNN friends are grappling with today.

I salute Sarmad for his courage and talent in journalism. I salute him for being the very best of humanity.

You are gone from us too soon, Sarmoudi, Habibi. It is a terrible, terrible loss for the world.

Check out this video of Sarmad talking about being a cameraman in dangerous situations: http://cnn.it/1uarHEB

Courage in journalism

foleyHonoring the courage and fortitude of James Foley today. Rest in peace.

I had intended to write more about him but words are failing me now. So I am posting a few links for you. I hope you will think about how so many journalists put themselves in harm’s way so that you may know the truth about our sometimes vicious world.

The Committee to Protect Journalists: 1,070 journalists killed since 1992.

The Free James Foley Facebook page has posts from his family and friends.

A brave and tireless journalist.

Friends remember.

 

Trouble for a forgotten people

Yezedi kids in Baronah, a village near the Sinjar Mountains.

Yezedi kids in Baronah, a village near the Sinjar Mountains.

Who are the Yezedis, the 40,000 people who are hiding in the Sinjar Mountains from the horror of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants?

They are not Muslims. They are a people largely forgotten by the world. In 2007, I had the opportunity to spend time in Nineveh province in the towns and villages around the Sinjar Mountains. Here is a blog post I wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on April 6:

Caesar, an interpreter for the U.S. Army, shuttles us into the courtyard of his house in Baronah, Iraq.  He is anxious for Maj. Daniel Rice to see where he lives, meet his family.

Ceasar was proud to take us to meet his family. His daughters dreamed of leaving Iraq.

Ceasar was proud to take us to meet his family. His daughters dreamed of leaving Iraq one day.

Caesar (his real name has been withheld for safety reasons) is proud of who he is. “I am not Muslim, ” he says. “I am Yezedi.”

Rice, a border patrol transition team officer from Atlanta, sits on a white plastic chair and drinks a can of the local version of RC Cola. Today, he is the guest of honor.

The women of the family usher me into one of the rooms to show me the newborn of the family lying in a small crib. Caesar introduces me to his sisters. They are wearing slinky skirts and body-hugging blouses. Gold jewelry adorns their necks, ears and wrists.

The Yezedis are an obscure sect whose beliefs are ancient and whose practices are often misinterpreted.

No one knows exactly how many Yezedis are left in the world though it’s estimated that 100,000 live here in northwestern Iraq, along the Sinjar Mountains.

The Yezedis are an insular people who have their own customs. They never wear the color blue or eat lettuce.

They have kept their religion alive through oral history and have falsely come to be known as devil worshippers because they are followers of the fallen angel, Lucifer.

The Yezedis, however, believe Lucifer was forgiven by God and returned to heaven. They call him Malek Taus (the peacock king) and pray to him. They do not ever use the word “Satan.”

In the Yezedi villages, women don’t have to cover their heads. They consume alcohol. Cans of Heineken pile up on trash heaps. At a local new year’s festival, Georgia Army National Guard soldiers were offered whisky (they declined, of course).

The Yezedis, like their neighbors the Kurds, were persecuted by Saddam Hussein after he took power in 1979. When the dictator was toppled in 2003, the Yezedis had great hopes that their lives would take a turn for the better.

They believed in the Americans as saviors who would release them from their misery.

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I took an instant liking to a Yezedi boy named Ahmed. I wonder if he and his family are safe now.

But now, in the fifth year of the war, frustration surfaces in Yezedi villages.

In nearby Yarmouk, the mukhtar (mayor), Qasim Sameer Rashu, sits down eagerly with Maj. Voris McBurnette, a high school principal from Raleigh, N.C., who is serving in Iraq on a military transition team.

Rashu leads McBurnette into a large hall lined with carpets on the floor and fancy lighting fixtures on the ceiling. There is, however, no electricity.

Rashu doesn’t hold back. He unleashes a torrent of complaints — no electricity, no water, no food supply.

“Electricity? We have forgotten what it is, ” Rashu says.

“In the beginning we were happy to see coalition forces. They got rid of Saddam. Now we are disappointed.”

McBurnette explains that coalition forces will do less from now on.

“It’s time for the Iraqi government to do more, ” he says.

“You are right, ” Rashu says. “But for three months, they have done nothing for us.”

He says insurgents often target trucks carrying food and medicine into the village.

“What if your kids were without food, without water, without power?, ” Rashu tells the major.

“We think the insurgents come from outside of Iraq but the Arabs here help them. And the Iraqi government — they are not hungry. They don’t know what’s going on in these villages far away from Baghdad.”

They are a forgotten people, Rashu says.

“We feel safer with Saddam gone but the services we have are worse.”

McBurnette explains that the Iraqi government must learn to respond to its own citizenry; that Americans can no longer do their job for them.

And then the mukhtar makes a politically-charged statement.

“We want to be part of Kurdistan.”

Though they practice a different religion, the Yezedis have much in common with the Kurds. They come from the same ethnic stock.

But because they occupy villages that sit on the borderlands between Arab Iraq and Kurdistan, the Yezedis were caught for years between the two.

The Kurds, who established an autonomous region after the 1991 Gulf War, now exercise influence in the Sinjar area but few Yezedis want to be co-opted by their northern neighbors. They have fought for centuries to maintain their identity. Rashu speaks out of economic desperation.

“In four years, the only help we have seen is from Kurdistan, ” he says.

Back in Baronah, Caesar’s family don’t want to let Rice and his team leave. They want him to experience Yezedi hospitality.

Caesar’s family, meanwhile, shows me albums containing snapshots of weddings and vacations. They like to go to Dohuk, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq, where “things are so nice.”

The Yezedis are far removed from the bustling streets of Baghdad. Overlooked even in a war that cruelly highlights ethnic and sectarian differences. There is no mention of them even by those who want to ethnically carve up Iraq into separate nations.

Sadly, one man tells me, the only connection to Iraq these days is through bloodshed. The Yezedis, he says, are prone to bombings and assasinations just as their Sahiite, Sunni and Christian brethren living south and east of them.

Caesar’s sister wants me to take home a photo from their family album. I tell her I cannot accept something so personal.

She tells me they have never seen a foreign journalist in their village before. She says she probably won’t again. She is part of a forgotten people.

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.