Inside Iraq

Oklahoma Gazette | March 19, 2008
Editor's note: Ben Fenwick was embedded with Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Brigade in Iraq.

CAMP BUCCA, IRAQ -- When Steven Turner, 24, of Stillwater, got to Iraq, he wanted to kill as many Iraqis as possible.

He wanted to kill them for his high school buddy back in Indiana, Lance Thompson, a U.S. Marine.

"The day I enlisted is the day I found out that Lance died," Turner said. "I wanted to go to Ranger School, Air Assault School, sniper school. ... I didn't want to be the one who watched everybody pass me up, and knowing that they were going to go face the same people that killed my buddy, kill the guy I went to high school with. ... There is nothing more that I'd rather be doing than kicking in doors and pulling the trigger."

Last fall, Turner's call came. He would go into Iraq with Oklahoma's 179th Infantry Battalion, part of the 45th Infantry Brigade, the Thunderbirds. All summer the soldiers drilled, sweating at Camp Gruber in the woods of eastern Oklahoma, practicing over and over how to kick into an Iraqi-style compound and kill everyone who resisted.

Then came the mission: Turner and most of the others in the 179th would go to Camp Bucca ... to guard detainees. Camp Bucca, which lies in extreme southern Iraq near the Kuwait border, is a detainee camp in the middle of a treeless, windswept scrub plain. It is three miles long, one mile wide, and surrounded by an earthen dam, topped with rolls of razor wire and towers with armed guards.

"I had a disdaining idea of Bucca," Turner said. "We are four clicks from Kuwait. I remember thinking, 'I want to be in Baghdad; I want to be on rooftops; I want to be kicking in doors.'"

He began working daily, 12-hour shifts in the compounds with the Iraqis. Most held there are believed to be insurgents -- all of them men who fought against U.S. or coalition forces, or otherwise are considered to be a threat.

One detainee whom Turner met was a doctor, a man he had to escort daily to the camp hospital. Somewhere during these walks, something changed Turner.

"He helps at the hospital. He interacts with coalition forces in a non-hostile environment. It's amazing," Turner said. "Seeing some of these guys do what they do with their hands, and their ability. A lot of them know fairly good English. And, you know, I was one of those guys who wanted to push the button, and turn this place into a large sheet of glass, and not even think twice about it."

Five years into the Iraq war, Turner and the other Oklahomans are birds on a wire. On the outside, hostiles seed the roadways with bombs and occasionally attack with rockets or mortars. On the inside, these Oklahoma soldiers must guard and protect 20,000 incarcerated men suspected of the same kinds of acts.

How can Oklahomans trained in rifle assault walk that line?

'Enjoy the chow, ... killer'

First established by the British command out of nearby Basra, Camp Bucca was intended to be temporary. However, as the insurgency in Iraq exploded in the years following the invasion, the camp grew. In 2007 alone, the holding facility swelled by 12,000 detainees following the "surge" of American troops ordered by President George W. Bush. Security forces constantly scanning the horizon, clearing traps and watching for escapees, patrol it around the clock.

Lt. Col. Andrew Juknelis, a spokesman for the camp, said the large number of detainees at Camp Bucca isn't its measure of success. He said the Oklahomans must not only guard the detainees, they need to convince them to be allies. That's because detainee camps have been prime recruiting grounds for the insurgency, Juknelis said.

"Maybe these other guys weren't terrorists when they got here, but we rip them away from their families and take them out of their jobs and leave their families alone in Baghdad while we sort it out," he said. "Meanwhile, they (extremists) get in their heads and say, 'You know, it's the Americans doing this. You wouldn't be here if not for them.' They use it as a fertile recruiting ground for their cause. That's why they want us to maximize detention."

Juknelis said the sudden capture of thousands of detainees has probably helped quell the violence in Iraq, but added that in that lies the dilemma of the U.S. and coalition forces.

"If we put every military-age male in detention, it would probably do a lot to curb violence," Juknelis said. "But that's what the insurgents want us to do. So we have to sort through that issue and let the guys who are not security threats out of here ASAP. That's what we are working on."

In Bucca, compounds are split between detainees considered to be extremists and those he refers to as "moderates." The moderates, both Sunni and Shia, comprise roughly 80 percent of the detainees. But, according to Juknelis, that's not enough.

"A minority of extremists can affect a majority of moderates. Mao Tse-tung said that with just 6 percent of his population, he could control all the rest," he said. "Our strategy is to separate the extremists from the moderates, and then empower the moderates to resist the extremists."

Important to getting reformed insurgents back to their homes is the Multi-National Force Review Committee, Juknelis said. There are about a dozen such MNFRC boards operating daily in Camp Bucca, with plans to expand the program. It is the job of the boards to evaluate each detainee.

At one such board meeting, Stefan Sneden, a major in the U.S. Marines and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, leaned forward in his chair and stared at the detainee before him.

The man wore banana-yellow coveralls and a puffy yellow jacket signifying him as a detainee of U.S.-backed forces in Camp Bucca's Theater Internment Facility, or TIF, the main area of barbed-wire-surrounded compounds holding detainees. He stood, shackled, in a witness stand made of plywood and two-by-fours. He swore on the Quran to tell the truth, and faced Sneden and two other military officers who would decide if he would be freed.

The review is set up not to establish guilt or innocence, but to determine whether a detainee is a threat to the U.S.-backed military forces occupying Iraq, according to military officials. All detainees will face similar tribunals every six months in Bucca.

The man had told Sneden he has friends in Jaish al-Mahdi, also called JAM, or the "Mahdi Army" of Shiite strongman Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sitting before Sneden was a folder containing information, some of it classified and not shared with the detainee. The information claimed the man was involved with JAM.

"Tell me why, if we let you go, you would not be a threat to coalition forces in the future," Sneden said to the man. "JAM doesn't give people like you choices. JAM may threaten you. They may threaten your wife."

Speaking through a translator, the man answered: "No way. If they did that, I would file a report against them with the authorities. I would report against them."

"What would you do for a job?" Sneden pressed. "What is your job?"

"I was a security worker."

"Do you think that job got you in the position you are in right now?" Sneden asked. "Do you know that some of the people you may be providing security for may be members of JAM whether you know it or not?"

"Who is going to pay me more than they will?" the man answered.

"That's what we are worried about," said another officer on the board.

It was not going well. Sneden eventually threw the man a bone.

"Behavior in the TIF is very important to this board," Sneden told him. "And I want to say that your records show you have behaved very well."

After a little more questioning, an armored MP with a baton led the man from the room. In discussing his case, Sneden was frank with his misgivings.

"He was a bodyguard for this dude," Sneden said, gesturing at the classified documents. "When he was arrested, he said he was a member of JAM. Now, if they come knocking, he's going to say, 'Roger that.' Well, enjoy the chow in the TIF, killer."

When the man is brought back to the TIF, it is likely that Oklahoma soldiers will receive him, process him and lock him back in his compound while he awaits word.

Although the MNFRC board evaluations aren't a "trial by peers," Juknelis said theater command credits them with dropping the rate of violence in the compound. The prisoners who appear before a board behave better when they go back to their holding areas, he said. The possibility they might be released is as useful for keeping peace as releasing them.

"This thing gives detainees hope," Juknelis said. "If a guy goes before the MNFRC board, maybe he goes back to the compound, and some of them approach him and say, 'Hey, tonight we're going to use the sling and throw rocks at the guards.' He's like, 'Hey, I'm not getting involved. I just came from my board. In 45 days, they are going to let me know if I'm leaving or not. No thanks.' For 45 days, that guy is not going to do anything. And every day, we are doing a hundred guys like that."

If that is true, then Oklahomans guarding the compound are the first who will benefit.

'Courtesy and respect, with a plan to kill'

Spc. Justin Broadhead, 25, who was a journalism major at the University of Oklahoma before going away to war this fall, said he is one of the soldiers escorting the detainees to and from places like the MNFRC hearings.

His 12-hour shifts are spent escorting detainees in and out of their compounds, to and from various programs being offered to them at Camp Bucca. While many of the detainees are educated, a lot are illiterate, according to camp officials, and Bucca has set up schools to provide education, Broadhead said.

Oklahoma Gazette attended a religious education class during one of several visits to the TIF. Detainees sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor around a lecturer eagerly invited the reporter to join them. Held in a razor wire-surrounded building, the class had a friendly, Scout-camp atmosphere. Broadhead described these kinds of classes as typical.

"I'm one of the ones delivering them to these things, so I know they are doing them," Broadhead said. "There are a lot of opportunities here, even though it seems like to the outside world they are prisoners. They are not prisoners. That's why we use the word 'detainee.'"

Prior to his deployment, Broadhead said he studied the history of Middle Eastern insurgencies, including the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, credited with leading to al-Qaida and other violent movements. He said good treatment of the detainees at Bucca could turn that tide.

"A lot of that hatred came from prisons in Egypt and prisons in Saudi Arabia," Broadhead said. "You take a religious, not even a (zealous) person, but a person who feels strongly in their beliefs, and you imprison them and keep them there for years, they are likely to come out a zealot. That's where a lot of it began. This is something they haven't seen. We allow the Red Cross full access to the detainees. We invite the press to come on in. We want for everybody to see that we have nothing to hide."

Most of the Oklahoma soldiers interviewed at Bucca had similar views, although most also expressed a certain amount of caution about the detainees. Some -- like Turner -- had to come to the realization that they were being sent to Iraq to help insurgents, not kill them.

"I think the hardest part is how to differentiate," he said. "For instance, I talked to two detainees the other day who have been here for two and half years for violation of curfew -- something as meaningless as violation of curfew. In that same respect, later that same day, I talked to a failed suicide bomber. He kept saying, 'Clicker not work. Clicker not work.'

"The mind-set you've gotta have is, courtesy and respect, with a plan to kill, and a plan to defend. It's the borderline that's tough to scale."

Turner said one thing that keeps his passions in check is the shadow of Abu Ghraib, the scandal involving the torture and mistreatment of detainees at a former Iraqi prison near Baghdad. The reaction among Iraqis to that scandal is credited with fueling the insurgency that to date has killed nearly 4,000 American servicemen and women.

"With the over watch of ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), and the over watch of numerous associations, Bucca is under extreme scrutiny," he said. "After Abu Ghraib, Bucca is to set the example of detainee operations."

If a board decides to release a detainee, he is transported by armed convoy in a large bus to Camp Cropper, a smaller compound near Baghdad, where he is given a proclamation of his release status, upon which he takes an oath never again to take up arms against American, coalition or Iraqi forces. Officials claim a very low recidivism rate for those who graduate from the detainee programs.

At Camp Cropper, Oklahomans will likely do the processing, as well. Cropper is the mission site for the 279th Infantry, from Tulsa. But officials at Cropper refused access to the Gazette. Instead, the Gazette was allowed a brief visit for a few hours with some of the Oklahoma soldiers near the Cropper detainment compound. During the Gazette's visit, there was an uprising in Cropper's TIF, quickly quelled.

Staff Sgt. Erik Wolf, 40, the operations sergeant for the battalion, said that every detainee who goes back into society through his facility is one more chance for the war to be over, and perhaps one more erasure of the black mark caused by Abu Ghraib.

"It set us back a lot," Wolf said. "We learned a lot from that. It was tragic that Abu Ghraib happened at all, but out of that was born a tremendous interest and a huge drive to develop these programs further and take a proactive interest in the detainee-operations program. We are to take noncombatants, exploited by al-Qaida, and prepare them for return to being a productive member of their own society. ... Yes, Abu Ghraib had a tremendous influence on what we do today. The payoff is our troops coming home. And we owe it to the Iraqi people to responsibly transition this country back to their authority."

But, eventually the soldiers inside have to convince the insurgents on the outside to stop attacking them.

'Honestly trying'

At around 11 p.m. on Feb. 24, several rockets or mortars shot into Camp Bucca. The rounds whistled as they landed, then exploded. The attack sent the thousands in the camp scrambling for shelter to the many concrete bunkers across it. The attack killed a contractor and wounded several others.

In one bunker, an airman in pajamas suggested it was a special welcome for the members of the 45th.

"It's that new unit," he said. "They (attackers) always do this."

Sgt. Leslie Montemayor, 25, of Muskogee, herself a veteran of Iraq deployment in 2005, described Thunderbirds' response to the attack as "chaos."

"I noticed last night, it was the chaos of trying to find a bunker, instead of taking time to get their heads," she said. "A lot of them just now got here, and that was their first occurrence for that type of thing. In the bunker where I was, there were a lot of guys who had only been here a couple of days and they were freakin' out. I kinda felt bad for them."

Unlike bases in Baghdad, Bucca does not have an advanced early warning and defense system that detects incoming rounds and sounds an alarm before they hit. Bucca was not deemed an important enough target for this expensive system, officials said.

During a similar attack on Bucca in June 2007, a rocket hit a detainee compound, killing eight and wounding more than 60. That fact was not lost on Montemayor, a quad shift leader over four compounds in the TIF.

"In the TIF, it's different," she said. "Our other shift was actually there. They had to get accountability of the detainees and make sure they had cover, as well. Because once they are in our care, their safety is our responsibility."

How did her units in the TIF do under attack?

"They got safe," she said. "Then as soon as they didn't hear anything else, they had to get a count of all of the detainees. They had to check their perimeter. There were all kinds of things going on."

Outside the wire, the attacks sent Humvee-mounted patrols scrambling as well -- to catch the insurgents who fired the rockets. Their attempt was not successful.

Alexander Dimitrov, 29, of El Reno -- part of a Quick Reaction Force team that rushes to quell uprisings, attacks or other disturbances at Bucca -- said he's convinced he's in the right place, attacks or no.

"There is a lot of talk back home whether we are winning the war or losing the war, or are we pulling out," he said. "I think, honestly, we are doing the right thing here. We are honestly trying to, and succeeding to, do the right thing. We are winning hearts and minds."

Sidebar: Don't go there

The families of Iraqi detainees are allowed to visit them, but it's not easy.

Two women agreed to speak to Oklahoma Gazette through a translator about their experiences, one visiting her brother, the other her husband. Both Sunni, they said Shiite militias threatened and robbed them during the expensive cab ride from Baghdad to Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

Wife: "When we come in from Baghdad, or any state, the patrol over there, they search us, they took everything, and they took our money, because they are Shia. They asked us everything. They took our prisoner's name and number; they took our files, pictures and letter (for travel) from us. Especially because we are from Baghdad."

Sister: "They asked us, if you have a letter, names or prisoner number, you give it to us or we are going to get you down and search you. And it's not going to be good for you if we search you. They are very nasty with us. They don't treat us good."

The International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, gives a travel stipend to the families of detainees upon their arrival at Bucca. However, the women reported that the same militias that took their money on the trip down will be waiting for them as they drive back.

Sister: "When we go back, they know the ICRC pays us money for when (we) go back."

The Gazette's request to meet with the ICRC was refused. Bucca public affairs officer Capt. Corey Schultz said the ICRC did not want to meet with journalists.

"I hope your story isn't going to go there," she said.

Sidebar: 'My first time'

U.S. Air Force security personnel conduct patrols outside the wire surrounding Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. One of these patrollers is Amanda Drake, 21, of Oklahoma City.

Drake and the others in her security unit, called the Jesters, are veterans of more than 100 patrols since taking over their mission last fall. In mid-February, her patrol survived a blast from an improvised explosive device.

"I was in the lead vehicle. We were on a mission," she said. "Obviously, my vehicle had passed it. I couldn't really see it. I saw in my side mirror an explosion. I felt it."

Insurgents using EFP -- a copper-tipped, armor-piercing improvised explosive device -- hit the third vehicle, another up-armored Humvee, in Drake's patrol.

EFP, which stands for explosively formed penetrator, is considered a recent dangerous development in the war, to which Humvees are especially vulnerable. The charge, a molten copper plug, shoots through the armor and into the cab of a Humvee. Occupants are sprayed with burning metal. Overpressure blows up the cab and can kill those inside. Death is violent and quick.

In this case, however, the insurgents missed, catching only the back end of the vehicle. The crew escaped unharmed, but the Humvee burned to a crisp.

"They (the crew) were real quick in exiting the vehicle because it caught fire. Everybody (who) escaped the vehicle took cover and we set up a cordon to hold all traffic coming in. It all happened so fast," Drake said. "Just like in the movies, everything was slow-motion. That's how I felt. My first time."

It was also the first time for James Bryan, 25, of Stillwater, with the 179th Infantry Battalion. A gunner in the Humvee directly behind the one hit, he had been in country less than two weeks.

"I could feel the concussion of it. It went through my body. I saw the debris fly over my head," he said. "It went off, and it was a deep, thunderous bang. It didn't blow my eardrums or anything. I'm told that for individuals in a blast area, it's kinda like that. It didn't seem that loud. It's the first time I ever heard one."

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