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Part 1: From executive suite to Baghdad’s slums

Advertising executive Tom Deierlein, by his own description a "38-year-old beer-bellied has-been," is called up to active Army duty and sent to Iraq.

As you drive through certain neighborhoods you see people smiling and waving, thanking us for being here. These folks have had tumultuous history by any standard. They deserve the right to be free. They deserve the right to be safe.
— Excerpt from an e-mail message Tom Deierlein sent from Baghdad on July 28, 2006

A single shot, from such close range it was deafening, knocked Tom Deierlein to the street.

A sniper had been watching as Deierlein, a U.S. Army captain, and about a dozen other armed soldiers climbed out of their Humvees in Adhamiya, where Iraqi garbage collectors had been fired upon less than an hour before. The neighborhood was one of Baghdad’s most treacherous.

Garbage had become a symbol of Iraq’s decay and collapse. It concealed rats, bodies and roadside bombs. Trash stood in piles more than 5 feet high on some streets. 

Deierlein and the other soldiers in his civil affairs unit weren’t usually charged with providing security in one of the world’s most dangerous cities. They were in Baghdad to help restore the most basic infrastructure, such as garbage collection. It wasn’t going well.

But amid the chaos, they had found a way to make a small difference — by doing what they could to help the city’s most impoverished residents.

Days earlier, Deierlein, 38, and his buddies had handed out Flintstones chewable vitamins to a crowd of smiling mothers only blocks away. Deierlein had told them: These will help your children grow stronger and taller.

“Shukran, shukran!” the women had replied in Arabic. “Thank you, thank you!”

The vitamins, as well as toys, crayons and coloring books, were gifts from Americans, donated to a makeshift charity Deierlein had created shortly after arriving in Iraq.

But on this day, as Deierlein and the others stepped onto the street, no one spoke to them. No children ran up to say hello.

An unexpected assignment
Deierlein didn’t have to be in that filthy Baghdad neighborhood. When the Army reached back into his life in October 2005, he was well past his eight-year service obligation to the military. A senior-level advertising executive, he lived in a trendy Manhattan apartment and had a share house in the Hamptons. He was engaged to marry a beautiful airline pilot. He owned a tuxedo and wore it often. He hadn’t worn an Army uniform in 12 years.

Call-up orders arrived in his mailbox anyway. When he balked, an Army official told him he could be jailed if he didn’t report for training.

Then, a few days before Deierlein was set to ship out, another Army official called to say that his military obligations had, in fact, already been met, that he owed the military nothing. He didn’t have to report for duty after all.

He went anyway.

By then, much of the mammoth task of putting Baghdad back together had fallen to tiny teams of reservists. Deierlein (pronounced DEER-line) led one of these four-member teams during his tour of duty. Their assignment: Find ways to get schools and hospitals rebuilt, factories and fire stations reopened, local governments functioning as they should and basic utilities such as trash collection up and running again for millions of residents.

For the most part, the reservists in Deierlein’s civil affairs company had no idea how to tackle such complicated projects. Still, they did their best. They met with local officials and contractors in different sectors of Baghdad and tried to provide guidance and support. Too often, though, the people they befriended were assassinated, and the projects they carried out were attacked by insurgents.

Frustrations mounted for the reservists, people in their 30s and 40s who had put their lives and careers on hold to serve in Iraq. Like Deierlein, several didn’t have to deploy because they had fulfilled their military obligations years earlier. They, too, got called up, and they went anyway.

All their adult lives, they’d been proud that their Army training equipped them to parachute into almost any situation and figure it out. They wanted to do good work — important work — during their year on the ground. But nothing could have prepared them for the sheer size of this assignment, or for the violence and lawlessness they encountered. Deierlein and his fellow soldiers quickly realized how hard it was to have an impact in Iraq.

So they found another way.

‘People are suffering’
The Army provided thousands of bags of food and bottles of water to the people of Iraq, but Deierlein decided to go further. Shaken by the malnourished, desperately poor children he saw, he asked loved ones and well-wishers back home who wanted to send him care packages to send supplies for Iraqi kids instead.

Boxes began to arrive.

Deierlein fell into the habit of writing about his Baghdad experiences in monthly e-mail updates to his family members, friends and colleagues. Those e-mail messages get forwarded, and forwarded, and forwarded.

More boxes arrived.

Before long, Deierlein and his friends in his civil affairs company were distributing children’s clothes, shoes, vitamins, toys, soccer balls, school supplies and blankets in one poverty-stricken area after another.

“We really enjoyed those kind of opportunities because you drove through these neighborhoods day after day after day,” Deierlein said. “There’s a lot of innocent, decent people that just are there and are suffering. So even if you could alleviate that suffering a little bit, it really did make you feel good.”

During the humanitarian-aid drop in September 2006 when Deierlein handed out vitamins, an elderly Sunni woman fainted in temperatures approaching 110 degrees. Deierlein ran to a nearby Humvee and grabbed a stretcher. He and the others carried the woman, limp in her long black dress and headscarf, into an air-conditioned room. Deierlein held the woman’s hand.

“While I am 100 percent sure I wasn’t supposed to be doing that,” he recalled, “she reached out, and it seemed natural.”

Deierlein stepped back outside into the heat, which he described in an e-mail message as feeling “exactly like when you open an oven to check your food and the air pushes into your face.” He had more vitamins to give away to the moms, more gifts for their curious, smiling children.

‘We should have been past this’
Humanitarian aid wasn’t the primary focus for the U.S. Army’s civil affairs units in Iraq in 2006. The main emphasis was on helping the locals with issues of governance and economic development — getting institutions, infrastructure, utilities and places of employment going again.

That kind of work could be maddeningly slow-going, though. Deierlein’s unit often encountered inertia in dealings with both local Iraqi officials and U.S. military bosses.

At least some of that sluggishness, especially on the Iraqi side, was rooted in fear. Progress achieved with the help of U.S.-led forces invariably drew the attention of insurgents. When the Army took on the task of hiring Iraqis to work as garbage collectors to clear Baghdad streets choked with trash, the effort stalled again and again. The reason: Garbage collectors, with their slow-moving trucks and predictable routes, were easy targets for snipers.

Other undertakings — even simple ones — often became mired in bureaucracy. Deierlein would try to get something done, such as obtain blankets for homeless refugees, only to be stymied by a barrage of paperwork.

“I found plenty of people who wanted me to fill out a spreadsheet, form or report and no one that could tell me what they actually did with that form or who it actually went to,” he wrote in one of his e-mail updates. “I filled them all out — still waiting.”

Delays like these drove Deierlein crazy. Accustomed to the frenetic pace of his life in Manhattan, he wanted to make things happen — fast. 

The charity work in the poorest sections of East Baghdad turned out to be something he and his fellow soldiers could accomplish together. The work became therapeutic.

“Honestly, we all felt that we should have been way past this,” said Maj. Phil McIntire, 43, commander of Deierlein’s company in the 414th Civil Affairs Battalion. “When war first breaks out, you do these basic humanitarian things. We thought we should be restoring governance and economic development at this point. … But because the military was having such a hard time providing real direction for what they wanted to do, we thought we’ll at least do this if nothing else. …

“And the people who got the help were very, very grateful. A lot of these people have nothing.”

The call-up
Yes, I guess it has gotten so bad they are calling up 38-year-old, beer-bellied has-beens.
— Excerpt from an e-mail message Tom Deierlein sent out to his staff in New York on Oct. 14, 2005

Deierlein’s improbable journey to the slums of Baghdad began in October 2005, when he returned to his Upper East Side apartment after a business trip to Puerto Rico to find an official-looking envelope containing a Western Union Mailgram from the Army.

“A lot of stuff I received from the military I never even opened,” he recalled. “But this just looked different. I opened it and it said, ‘You must report or a warrant will be put out for your arrest.’”

Deierlein was stunned. He was sure it had to be a mistake. A 1989 West Point graduate with two master’s degrees, he had left military life behind more than a decade earlier.

He called a lawyer, who assured him he could successfully fight this, and he called the Army to protest the orders.

“I’m an old man,” he told the voice on the other end of the line. “I’ve been out of the military for 12 years now. How could it be that I’m being called up?”

“All I know is that you have to report to Fort Jackson for a few weeks, and probably Fort Bragg after that,” the voice replied.

“What if I decide not to go?”

“A warrant will be put out for your arrest.”

After confirming his Social Security number, Deierlein realized the Army didn’t have the wrong guy. He was being called up because his name had remained on the Individual Ready Reserve roll ever since he had left the Army in 1993. Unlike part-time soldiers in the National Guard or Army Reserve, most Individual Ready Reservists do not receive ongoing training, and they rarely get called back to military life.

Authorization from Rumsfeld
But facing a need for soldiers on the groundin Iraq — particularly for officers such as Deierlein — the Army received authorization from then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to call Individual Ready Reservists back to active duty.

Deierlein felt certain that the specter of jail time was just a threat. But a thought began to gnaw at him: What if he got dishonorably discharged for failing to report? The idea troubled him deeply. He was a graduate of West Point, after all. And he had endured grueling training to become an Airborne Ranger, an elite Army soldier capable of jumping out of airplanes and operating under extreme stress, including sleep and food deprivation. Could he stomach the disgrace of a dishonorable discharge?

He also recalled that as a young man at West Point he had pledged to give a lifetime of service to the nation. That phrase “lifetime of service” kept knocking around in his head.

If his country really needed him now, could he say no? By refusing to go, would the promise he made years earlier be empty, meaningless?

He discussed the matter with the people he trusted most. His parents, opponents of the war in Iraq, begged him not to go. His fiancée, Hiwot Taddesse, who had served in the Navy for four years after graduating from high school, understood the pressure he was feeling to step up. “What are you going to tell your grandkids?” she asked him. “That you got called up and didn’t go?”

‘An opportunity to go and serve’
Deierlein’s best friend Patrick O’Hanlon, a fellow West Point grad and a veteran of the first Gulf War, spoke of duty.

“You got called up,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to go and serve.”

Deierlein’s internal debate quickly grew one-sided. “My best friend and my fiancée said it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I knew it was the right thing to do. But I was just scared.”

He began making arrangements to leave his New York life behind. He had 30 days to plan a wedding sooner than expected and organize a leave from his demanding job as chief operating officer of Dynamic Logic, a company that researches the effectiveness of online advertising.

Three days before Deierlein was set to ship out for processing and training, he stood in his nearly empty apartment, watching the movers wrap up their work. The only furnishings left were his TV and his telephone.

The phone rang. An Army official started explaining to Deierlein that he didn’t have to report for duty after all. He may have remained in the Individual Ready Reserve, but his obligation to the Army ended years ago. He could resign his commission and stay home.

Deierlein’s reply: “I’m still going to go.”

Whirlwind courtship, and a quick goodbye
I have the full support of Hiwot, my fiancée, and something told me not to fight this but rather to embrace it and go ahead and serve my country with honor, dignity and pride.
— Excerpt from an e-mail message Tom Deierlein sent out to his staff on Oct. 14, 2005

Deierlein met his future wife over Fourth of July weekend in 2001. She worked as a flight attendant for United Airlines and also clerked at the front desk of a boutique hotel in Boston.

He stayed at that hotel during a trip to Boston for the wedding of two close friends. On his third day in town, he ambled into the hotel lobby and saw Hiwot behind the counter.

She was beautiful. Stunning, in fact. He did a double take. He couldn’t stop staring. She looked up at him.


He decided to walk over and apologize. She smiled.

“Don’t worry, it happens all the time,” she said.

Tom started picking through the candy dish on the counter and attempting to make small talk.

“Don’t take any of the pink candies,” Hiwot chided.

“Pink?” Tom replied. “Who would want pink? Who would want peppermint?”

“It’s not peppermint! It’s watermelon.”

“Well, that’s even worse! It would be like a Jolly Rancher. Anyway, I’m looking for butterscotch.”

He spotted her first name on her name tag and asked her how to pronounce it (HEE-watt), where it originated (Ethiopia, where her family is from; Hiwot means “life” in Amharic), and whether she grew up in Ethiopia (nope; born and raised in the States). Tom struggled to keep the conversation going beyond that, but as he put it, “I had no rap.”

Tom didn’t see Hiwot again for the rest of the visit, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He decided to leave her a note before heading back to New York. The clerk working that day warned him that plenty of guys flirt with Hiwot and she probably wouldn’t remember him.

He taped a pink candy to his note.

She called him.

A jet-setting romance
Tom and Hiwot managed to see each other 45 of the first 60 days they were dating. As a flight attendant, she could trade lines with her co-workers and meet Tom in the different cities he had to visit for business meetings.

But the world was about to change for everyone. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, Tom watched the World Trade Center towers collapse from a 37th-story office window at his company’s headquarters on Park Avenue.

“It was such a shock,” Tom recalled. “I headed to the hospital to try to donate blood. … In the end they didn’t really need it. There weren’t many survivors that day. Either you died or you made it out.”

The terrorist attacks sparked a radical shift in U.S. foreign policy. The “global war on terror” commenced.

They also had a crippling effect on the airline industry. Hiwot and hundreds of other airline workers were about to lose their jobs. That would give her even more time to spend with Tom, but it also left her with uncertainty about what she should do with her life.

Eventually she realized what she wanted to do: Be a pilot. She talked to Tom about it, and he had a plan.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Figure out what the best flight school is, apply, get in, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

Hiwot applied to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida and was accepted. She and Tom bought a house in Daytona Beach where she could live while she attended school.

Before long, they were engaged. Tom proposed on Dec. 13, 2003, the same day Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a spider hole near his hometown of Tikrit.

Bittersweet celebration
They planned to wait until Hiwot finished flight school to have a huge wedding bash in New York in the summer of 2006, followed by another ceremony in Ethiopia a week later.

Tom and Hiwot's engagement picture taken in Central Park.
Tom and Hiwot's engagement picture taken in Central Park.

But then Tom was called up for military service on Oct. 13, 2005. He only had one month before he had to report for duty.

“I knew it would be better to get married before I left,” Tom said. “It would be better for her than being my fiancée if anything happened to me.”

With the help of wedding planners, the couple pulled together a wedding outside Las Vegas complete with ice sculptures, champagne and lots of dancing. About 75 friends and family members were able to attend on Nov. 5, 2005, with just two weeks’ notice.

“There was not one slot machine around — I was amazed!” said Tom’s mother, Kitty Deierlein. “It was a very elegant, beautiful affair.”

Tom’s military service began on Nov. 13, 2005. He and Hiwot had one week together as husband and wife.

Then he went away.