Inteview with Iraqis Veteran

October 21, 2010
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Interview: Albert Manwaring

Q: When did you join the army?

A: I joined in 1985.

Q: What is or was your job in the armed forces?

A: I used to be a field artillery officer from ‘85 to ’95. From’ 95 to the present I am a Jag officer which is a General Judge Advocate. Essentially I am an army lawyer.

Q: Why did you decide to enlist?

A: I decided to enlist because I wanted to serve my country. I thought I also wanted to do something a little bit different from sitting behind a desk, and I thought the army was much like camping and I like camping. Turns out it is not like camping at all.

Q: Why the army as opposed to the other branches of service? (Marines, Air Force, etc.)

A: I always kind of fashioned myself as an outdoors man, and when I was young I envisioned the army as sort of an outdoors camping thing. I also got to go to all sorts of different schools where I had a lot of fun trying out different guns and weapons while training. I also didn’t like the idea of being stuck on a ship or inside a submarine for an extended period of time.

Q: What was it like being in Iraq?

A: It was a long year to be away from my family. Iraq itself is very hot and very dry…there’s no green anywhere. I was assigned to work for the state department as a rule of law officer which means that I worked with judges, policemen, prison wardens, law-school deans, and bar association members on legal related programs, equipment distribution, and training. For example for the police we gave men forensic equipment and taught them how to use it properly. We also built prisons and trained guards about how to properly run a prison. For the judiciary men, we worked mostly on providing them with equipment. We offered x-rays, weapons for judges [to use for protection], and lobbied for security details to guard them at home. So in summary Iraq was professionally rewarding but at the same time you see a lot of tragedy and sadness and that was unsettling and unpleasant to see. But you hope that you add a little bit of value by making some kind of difference for the Iraqis.

Q: What was the hardest part of your job?

A: To me the hardest part was, well the most frustrating part, was that it seemed to take forever to get anything done. It was hard to get anything done when you were constantly being attacked. Also the lack of technology in communications systems such as mail, fax, and phones contributed to very slow progress.

Q: Was there ever a time when you saw combat?

A: Well every time you leave The Wire to meet with a judge, policeman, or prison warden, we went into the “red zone” where you were exposed to shooting, bombs, mortar fire and many other dangers. In the embassy where I was residing people were even attacked and killed. There was one time when I was in a convoy line that was hit by an IED. I was [in the] 3rd or 4th [truck] back and the first was hit. So did I shoot anyone? No, but I did see combat and people killed.

Q: What exactly is leaving The Wire? And what is an IED?

A: Leaving The Wire means when you leave a secure area, such as a base or an embassy, and you go to an unsecure area called a “red zone” where you can be hit by an explosive device called an IED or see other types of danger.

Q: When the convoy was attacked what was the first thought that went through your head?

A: My first reaction was one of cowardice. I was just happy it wasn’t me. Then I was concerned for my colleagues up front and hoped they were okay.

Q: What did you miss most during your time out of the country?

A: I missed my family the most. Not being able to deal with [my sons] Quinn and Paul’s many issues away from home was hard for both me and [my wife] Merle. Andrew, [my youngest son], took it the hardest since he was so young. Being the young without a father around was tough on him, and when I talked on the phone I could hear how upset he was.

Q: Did you learn anything about the people in the country your unit was occupying?

A: Yes. My unit travelled all over Iraq. I was in the Southern province and then went to the Northern provinces. So each different place had different religions, cultures, tribes, and customs. You have to learn customs when going into a meeting to make it going more smoothly. They believe you are making a solid effort to make relations with their people. You cannot make eye contact, shake hands with or ask about their women. You may not use your left hand for anything, and meetings start not with business, but with social talk. You are always served chai tea and it is disrespectful not to have some, and you must greet Iraqis with Salaam alaikum and put your hand on your heart.

Q: Did you make any friends with the Iraqis citizens?

A: Yes. I was friends with the chief judges in a number of the provinces as well as men from the Iraqis Bar Association and a couple of police chiefs. I regularly met with these men and became good friends with them. We always started out meetings customarily talking about social aspects, so I naturally became friends with them through their culture.

Q: Iraqis Bar Association?

A: It is a professional association for lawyers in Iraq. It’s similar to the American or Pennsylvanian Bar Association. You can get legal education, social benefits, and materials that will help just by being a member.

Q: Was there anything you saw or experienced during your time in Iraq that changed your views on their people or culture?

A: I saw a lot. At the very highest levels I saw true gentlemen who were really trying to make a difference for their country. I saw a lot of people who were heroes and survived Saddam Hussein and they were helpful and proud that we were there. On the lower levels I saw people who were corrupted, selfish, and vain which was disconcerting to me. There is a shocking amount of corruption. I would try to give them equipment and I would have to pay someone a bribe to get them to accept something that would do good for their people. It is hard to reach a general conclusion about the Iraqis people as a whole.

Q: Did anybody you knew die?

A: (Long pause) People I knew died, but none were close friends. I had seen them around, and I knew them by face but not on a personal level.

Q: Did you get along well with your unit?

A: Well, I was separated from them at the very inception into Iraq. I was cut off and sent to a different part of the country, so our interaction was limited; however, in the beginning when we were at Fort Dix we got along very well, and I enjoyed their company.

Q: Do you visit with any of them?

A: I will see them very soon when I start my weekend drills. We are also having a holiday party at the beginning of December, and I am looking forward to attending. There is one man, an air force colonel, who calls me usually once every other week and we talk about sports. He’s a Cowboys fan, so we have fun poking fun at each other over their sad records.

Q: Was there ever a time when you regretted enlisting?

A: No. I regretted being in Ranger school sometimes but not the army.

Q: Ranger school?

A: An army Ranger is the army’s elite combat forces. There are three units, and they often fight behind enemy lines. Ranger school is a school for combat arms officers who become Ranger qualified, and it lasts about 10 weeks. It’s a very unpleasant place. You’re not in a combat, but everything is as if you were. You march and jump out of planes all day, food is sparse, and you get little sleep. There is a desert, mountain, jungle phase. It really takes a serious toll on your body.

Q: What did you enjoy most about the Army?

A: Well once when I was a second Lieutenant they put me in charge of a unit and we traveled down to a little island off Puerto Rico called Vieques Island. It used to be the only spot in the area where we could practice naval gunfire and we were welcomed down. We were allowed to try out all of the Naval Artillery and got to shoot projectiles the size of a Volkswagen. We then got to go out on their ships and have absolutely fantastic meals. We were served lobster, steak, and shrimp, along with pricey bottles of wine. The members of the navy who I was dining with tried to convince me I was in the wrong branch of the armed forces. During the day we had the whole island to ourselves. The cerulean waters and white sand were so relaxing and beautiful. There were a few local establishments where we were always served expensive rum. It was a virtual paradise.

Q: Have you ever gone back there? It sounds amazing.

A: No. The Puerto Ricans complained about the noise from the naval fire, and Ted Kennedy led protests against the base. They ended up having to shut it down, and I’m not sure what replaced it. I feel like it’s a little bit ridiculous because the Navy was there first, and they moved in around them, but there’s nothing that can be done now.

Q: Do you feel like your experience in war changed you in any way?

A: I think having seen what I had seen you kind of have a renewed sense of appreciation of life, and you realize that it could be a lot worse as a whole. You realize how lucky you are to have your job and your family and your home. I found a whole new perspective on my life and appreciate each day differently.

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