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Part 3: Venturing ‘outside the wire’ in Baghdad

Called back to Army duty after 12 years, 38-year-old ad executive Tom Deierlein embarked on an improbable journey from a corporate office in Manhattan to the slums of Baghdad.  Here is the third installment in a five-part series about his struggle to make a difference.
/ Source: contributor

I don’t know if we should have come here in the first place, I really don’t, but I do know we are here and more importantly, I know that I am here, so I am going to make a difference even if just a little bit at a time each and every day.
Excerpt from an e-mail message Tom Deierlein sent from Baghdad on May 27, 2006

Once he arrived in Iraq, Tom Deierlein sometimes wondered whether he should have stayed home.

For one thing, his status was a little galling.

Here he was, a captain. If he had stuck with his military career, the 38-year-old would have been a lieutenant colonel and a battalion commander by now. Instead, he had a junior officer rank that most West Point grads attain by about age 26.     

He tried not to dwell on it, but it grated. As chief operating officer of a Manhattan media company with a passion for getting things done quickly, he knew he had many layers above him in the chain of command, many procedures and protocols to navigate.

Plush accommodations ‘inside the wire’
Still, after an exhausting 48-hour journey, he arrived in Baghdad with a sense of relief. He was happy to see his room at Forward Operating Base Loyalty, which had a clean bed, air conditioning and Internet access. He had to share the room with three other officers, but that wasn’t so bad. Their bathroom had four private shower stalls, and they also had a small kitchen with a microwave and refrigerators for the many, many water bottles they needed to withstand the desert heat.

If he was pleasantly surprised by the accommodations, the food blew him away. “The mess hall is AWESOME,” he wrote in his first e-mail update from Baghdad in May 2006. “Some of the best food I ever had. The selection is huge and no limits to portions.”

He soon learned that when soldiers were at the base — a fortified, heavily defended camp — it was called being “inside the wire.” Leaving its safety zone and traveling through the streets of Baghdad was dubbed going “outside the wire.”

Deierlein’s rank may have been frustratingly low, but the task his commander gave him was enormous — and it was one that required him to spend most days of the week outside the wire. Deierlein was given responsibility for Sadr City, one of Baghdad’s poorest areas and a stronghold ofthe Mahdi Army, the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Mahdi Army was playing a pivotal role in the sectarian violence engulfing Iraq. The vengeful retaliations between the country’s majority Shiites and minority Sunnis seemed never-ending. A primary tactic of the Mahdi Army: Shooting Sunnis execution-style and leaving their corpses out in the streets of Baghdad, often with their hands still bound. A main tactic of Sunni groups: Coordinating destructive suicide car bombings in predominantly Shiite areas.

‘Like the Wild West with automatic weapons’
“I roll down the street and see all kinds of people in all kinds of uniforms, with all kinds of weapons,” Deierlein wrote of one of his early forays out into the city. “Scary ... like the Wild West with automatic weapons.”

More than 2 million Shiites lived in Sadr City, an 8-square-mile expanse of slums. Many residents used whatever materials they could find — oil canisters, cardboard, pieces of concrete, corrugated metal — to fashion makeshift dwellings.

Basic services, such as garbage collection and sewage systems, were almost non-existent when Deierlein arrived. Trash was piled up everywhere, and sewage pipes got so clogged with garbage that raw sewage backed up into the streets. Sometimes the ghastly black liquid puddled in pools here and there; sometimes it formed lakes a foot deep.

“It’s disgusting,” recalled Drew Corbin, a captain who trained with Deierlein at Fort Bragg and worked alongside him in Baghdad. “You roll through it and it creates a wake.”

In this blighted section of Iraq’s capital city, Deierlein was given the job of leading a four-member team whose mission was to coordinate reconstruction efforts and the restoration of utilities. He served as the main liaison between U.S.-led forces and Sadr City’s District Council, or local government. In that role, he had to coach and mentor the mayor, the mayor’s staff and District Council members, and also work with contractors handling projects carrying an overall price tag of more than $400 million.

Deierlein had traveled to Third World countries and witnessed abject poverty before, but what he saw in Sadr City alarmed him. He was especially affected by the neighborhood’s children. Many of them weren’t wearing shoes, and their shabby clothes didn’t fit them. He noticed dirt in their hair and on their ill-fitting outfits. Most of the kids looked far too small for their ages. And one particularly horrifying moment kept haunting him: the day he saw children swimming and splashing in a pool of sewage.

Deierlein wanted to help. He wanted to see more schools, more hospitals and clinics, new water systems and a functioning trash service. Such efforts were in the works when Deierlein started his job in Sadr City, but he wished they could move faster.

Slow pace of change is grating
One month after his arrival in Baghdad, Deierlein wrote to his friends and family about the frustrations he was beginning to feel:

“I continue to work with the local politicians (District Council) and must admit to getting a bit frustrated already with them at times. All they do is complain and all they want to do is talk and talk with no solutions or goals. … But in the end we all want the same thing — quality services for the people of Sadr City. Also, they have a tough job. Not in my district but the one next to me, three of the District Council members were murdered and the chairman fled the country all in the last two weeks. … I need to spend a little more time studying up on Arab culture to find better ways to work with them and to have them want to work with me. I’ve bonded with some already, but a couple of the key players remain aloof since they have dealt with colonels and generals in the past and I am a lowly captain.”

At Forward Operating Base Loyalty, Deierlein soon formed fast friendships with people from different units, and his bonds with the people he met at Forts Jackson and Bragg continued to grow. Corbin became a close friend. Deierlein constantly challenged him to games of rock-paper-scissors — and lost. He stirred up all sorts of other competitions as well, such as impromptu races in the swimming pool or quick-draw contests with the pistols they carried in holsters on their hips.

“Tom is the most competitive guy I’ve ever known and that’s not an exaggeration,” Capt. Bill Billeter, another officer who trained with Deierlein, said of the quick-draw showdowns. “Drew was pretty quick, and the first couple of times Drew won. Well, Tom went to his room and practiced in a mirror. That’s how competitive he is. After that, he started winning.”

More than anything else, Deierlein earned a reputation as the guy who could make almost anybody laugh.

“When we’d eat chow, we would just sit there for an hour and just laugh because of the jokes he’d tell,” Corbin said. “It was so great to have a meal with your friends and just laugh.”

On Saturday nights, Deierlein held court during what became an addicting tradition: Cigar Night. He and some friends would sneak up to a rooftop on the base so they could smoke cigars, unwind and talk for hours. Deierlein cued up everyone’s song requests on his iPod, and he often kicked off discussions by posing questions: What are the top 10 books ever written? What’s the best movie of all time? What celebrity would you sleep with if your wife or husband gave you one get-out-of-jail-free card?

Birth of a charity
On other evenings, armed with his laptop and his Internet connection, Deierlein fielded e-mail messages from friends and relativesback home who wanted to send him care packages. They asked him what he’d like to receive most.

He looked around at his surroundings. He had a limitless supply of water and every imaginable kind of food. He had access to TV, movies, good music on his iPod. He was even getting to smoke cigars. What did he really need?

He thought about the children in Sadr City who always ran up to the Humvees with those giant grins on their faces.

“Meester! Meester!” they yelled in English. “Soccer ball? Water? Dollar?”

“I really don’t need anything personally right now,” he wrote. “But, if you want to, please think of inner-city children and what they need. Specifically, I need things in bulk. Ones and twos are nice and still appreciated, of course, but I need bunches of stuff if I am going to set up a distribution and do anything meaningful.”

‘Like sandcastles on a beach’
When the occupations of Germany and Japan began at the end of World War II, the United States didn’t suffer a single combat-related casualty.

The U.S. also didn’t experience a single combat-related death when it intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

James Dobbins, a former U.S. envoy who has overseen multiple post-conflict missions over the years, said the key to limiting casualties in such scenarios is to flood an area with a large enough number of troops.

“The first thing to do is establish security,” said Dobbins, now a director with the RAND Corp. and author of the book “The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building.” “If you don’t establish security, nothing you spend on political or economic development is likely to be of lasting value. It will get washed away like sandcastles on a beach.”

Members of Deierlein’s civil affairs company often felt overwhelmed by their jobs in Baghdad, in part because violence and intimidation clouded every project, every interaction.

Corbin had responsibility for the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya. He worked hard to forge relationships with Adhamiya officials during his year in Baghdad, but in that short time he said two District Council chairmen and seven District Council members were assassinated.

Deierlein said it was tough to get projects completed anywhere in Baghdad because of the dangers local officials faced if they worked closely with Americans.

“As much as you were trying to get them excited about the latest sewage line or water line or trying to improve the electricity in the city … they’re just wondering if they’re going to make it home that night,” Deierlein said.

The enormity and complexity of the problems could conspire to make a soldier feel small in a place like Baghdad, Billeter said.

“Trash, sewage polluting the water, the economy — these are huge problems. What can I do about it?” he said. “You think, ‘I just want to do something, I just want to make a difference.’ … But looking at it realistically, did I solve the problems in eastern Baghdad? No. Realistically, I was just a little guy in a truck with three other guys driving around trying to make a small difference.”

Moving forward, then backward
Deierlein did witness some encouraging signs of progress in Sadr City. Shortly after he arrived, he attended the opening of a gleaming new health clinic. He also saw 27 compact water units turned on that were capable of providing 405,000 liters of fresh water every day.

The trash problem even started to improve in Sadr City while Deierlein was there, in part because the Mahdi Army kept violence in check for a time, making it safe enough for garbage collectors to travel the streets and do their jobs.

In late June 2006, Deierlein met with vendors and talked with locals in one of Sadr City’s sprawling open-air markets. The market was teeming with life and abundance — rows of colorful fruits; sodas stacked up in impressive towers; live goats being slaughtered to provide fresh meat for customers. Deierlein felt upbeat after his conversations with people at the market went well.

A few days later, on July 1, 2006, a suicide car bombing in that very market killed more than 60 people. The scene was horrific — pools of blood in the street, people running and screaming in chaos. Deierlein was appalled to see how many women and children died in the bombing. And as the month progressed, senselessness continued to reign: More suicide bombings claimed even more lives at crowded outdoor markets in Deierlein’s assigned neighborhood.

At the same time, Army bureaucracy slowed even seemingly simple tasks. In July Deierlein found hundreds of displaced Shiite families huddled in Sadr City with nowhere to live. He rushed to secure blankets and other supplies for them, but was told again and again to fill out a spreadsheet, or a form, or a report — paperwork the Army insists is necessary to document transactions of goods paid for by taxpayers.

The level of paperwork in such a dire situation seemed excessive to Deierlein, and so did all the waiting around. He lost his temper with higher-ranking colonels and majors, adding a “sir” to the end of his outbursts but yelling regardless. After all, what did he have to lose? He didn’t have a military career ahead of him, and he wanted to get his hands on provisions that he knew the military had. It was hard to get them, though, because no one seemed to know how. He wrote about the experience in one of his e-mail updates home:

“I felt like I was in a bad ‘Who’s on First’ skit while trying to find out who actually could help me get food, clothes and shelter for 2,000 homeless I had found in Sadr. … I even got in trouble for e-mailing the Division Officer in charge of Humanitarian Aid.  It is in his job description and part of his title on his business card and even he didn’t know how to actually (get) access to the goods. That is what happens when you have 100 percent turnover in an organization every 12 months for three years.”

After this incident, Deierlein addedblankets to the list of items he requested from his friends and family back in the States.

His e-mail recipients didn’t disappoint, and their habit of forwarding Deierlein’s messages along to other people they knew served as a force multiplier. The little grassroots charity started providing stacks of boxes filled with supplies for Iraqi children and families, and Deierlein and his fellow soldiers were glad to distribute them. It was something they could control.

Making plans
By August 2006, Deierlein was getting excited about his two-week mid-tour vacation break, which was coming up in October. He couldn’t wait to see his wife, Hiwot. He was in fantastic shape — doing 86 sit-ups in two minutes and completing 4-mile runs in well under 30 minutes — and he had signed up to run a 10-mile race on Oct. 8. He also planned to get in a round of golf.

Deierlein absolutely loved motivational quotes. As he often did in his monthly updates, he closed his Aug. 28 e-mail message with one:

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. … The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. ... We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. ... I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.