Friday, June 04, 2004

What's The Mission

What’s the mission?

We knew what our mission was going to be before we got to Baghdad in November of last year. My unit, the 222nd Broadcast Operations Detachment, was tasked with getting broadcast operations up and running in Iraq. That meant starting from nothing and building a radio station out of war torn and dilapidated rooms, moving to northern cities of Iraq called Balad and Mosul to cover military operations in those areas, and organizing and running press conferences given by General Mark Kimmit and Coalition Provisional Authority Spokesperson Dan Senor. Nothing about this task was easy considering we started from scratch, but the military has spent a lot of time and money to train us and we have done a tremendous job. We broadcast 16 hours of self-produced radio every day. Since January, my team of four has sent 580 interviews, along with video footage of American military and civilian personnel, back to the states. Every day, a group of young soldiers gets together and runs press conferences that are shown all over the world. This is our mission, our duty, our role. We expected it.

What we didn’t expect was to cradle to needs of individually displaced Iraqis in our arms. Its not that we don’t want to; we simply don’t know how. We were never trained in civil affairs. As much as I want to help each and every person that approaches me, common sense tells me I can’t. Nonetheless, here we are with another mission: to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis.

My friend Abbey and I were walking to lunch on Tuesday and we were stopped by a woman dressed from head to toe in black. She didn’t speak English except for a few broken words but her body language told most of the story. She smelled as if she hadn’t bathed in days, her teeth were incredibly corroded and desperation seemed to overwhelm her. She was pleading with us to listen to her, to help her, to understand her. But we could not. Then she unfolded a dirty piece of paper that explained it all. Her entire life fit into a few fragmented sentences.

“(Name) lived in Baghdad prior to the U.S invasion. Daughter was killed by bomb, husband is missing and presumed dead. Home was destroyed during the war. Is unable to find work and now lives on the street. Age unknown.”

I am embarrassed to admit I don’t remember her name, but I will never forget feeling so overwhelmed by my inability to help her. I was almost paralyzed with empathy. She kept saying "no food" and "no money", but she couldn’t communicate any more than that. I think she was on her way to the Iraqi Assistance Center, located in the Baghdad Convention Center where I work. I am not sure what services they provide but I think she saw our uniform and thought we could help. I held her dirty hand and looked in her tear-flooded eyes and I did the only thing I could at that moment: I reached in my pocket and pulled out $15 and put it in her other hand. It’s so typical, I thought. “Give her some money and that will make her problems go away. That will bring back her daughter and her husband and the life she once knew.” I asked her to come with us so we could get her some food from the chow hall. The only problem is she wasn’t allowed past the gate. Isn’t that amazing? An American who doesn’t know more than three words in Arabic is allowed to enter a building in Baghdad and an Iraqi woman who has lived here her entire life is not. Abbey and I quickly ran inside and got her a plate of food – American food of course (pizza, fries, soda) – and brought it back out to her. She repeatedly said, "thank you" in Arabic and she carefully walked around the endless cluster of barbed wire as she made her way through the check point back to her cozy home on the street.

We were not at all frustrated by the woman; we were frustrated by the situation. This was not an isolated event. American soldiers are approached every day and asked "how, why, when, where" by Iraqis whose lives have been turned completely upside down. Our uniform symbolizes that life – the good and the bad – so naturally they feel we have the answers. But we don’t have the answers! I’m sure handing her money was not the brightest thing to do (and yes, I could have been conned), but given the circumstances what else could I have done? Are we responsible for fixing individual problems because we wear a uniform? If we try and we do it incorrectly, are we then responsible for the aftermath? Suppose I ignored her and she takes that impression of American soldiers to the streets of Baghdad and Anti-Americanism spreads like wildfire, changing the minds of those who once welcomed us and adding fuel to the fire of those who never have. Doesn’t that seem like a lot of responsibility for two young women who have worked for seven long months to accomplish their primary mission only to feel they failed the other?

The answers to the woman’s questions should have come from the top, but it’s those of us on the bottom who held her hand and put food on her plate. It’s never easy over here, and we deal with this conflict every second of every minute of every day. We don’t always do it right, but we really are trying.

I genuinely enjoy our broadcast mission, and we have done it successfully so far. I also genuinely enjoy the people of Iraq, and God willing, we won’t fail them - because after all, the radio station will go away, but they won’t.

With Love,


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