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Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier's Fight for America From Baghdad To Washington

Chapter One: George Bush Had Better Be Fucking

If you don't like obscenity, you don't like the truth. If you don't
like the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come
home talking dirty. -Tim O'Brien, The Things They

George Bush had better be fucking right.

That's how I began my journal on April 3, 2003. Writing in pencil
on an Army-issue notebook with mint green pages, leaning in on
deliberate, hard letters, I underlined "better" and penciled over
the words again and again until they wore through the
tactically-colored paper.

On March 19, just two weeks earlier, the US had launched the first
air strike of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Troops on the ground had
invaded Iraq the next day. And now I was off to war for reasons
that I feared were bullshit.

I reclined in the first-class section of a civilian 747 bound for
Kuwait with an M-16 wedged between my legs and my gut firmly
stuffed with all the Krispy Kreme doughnuts I could scarf down in
twenty minutes, courtesy of the old Red Cross ladies who saw us off
at Hunter Army Airfield, Fort Stewart, Georgia. It seemed a bad
omen that the Red Cross was the last organization to see us off to
war. The Red Cross sends emergency notifications to deployed
soldiers when something urgent happens back home-like when someone
is in a car accident or a grandmother dies. Everyone shuddered
whenever word came that a Red Cross notification was on the way. It
was the soldiers' equivalent of the knock at the door.

Sitting in a cracked faux-leather seat with In Flight
glossy pictures of Hawaii poking out the seat pocket
in front of me, I considered the absurdity of the situation.

"Gentlemen, please ensure your seatbacks are in the upright
position," an older woman's voice crackled over the PA

What? We were geared to the teeth with the essentials of combat.
Bullets, grenades, rifles, knives, rucksacks, scowls, Copenhagen,
cigarettes, hatred, the Penthouse March 2003 edition with
Lilly Ann on the cover-the whole Army deal. I was cranked up and
ready to run through hell, already bracing myself for incoming
explosions, and going over indoctrinated checklists in my mind. And
I had to worry about the seatback being upright?

I was going to war, with the greatest military force the world had
ever seen, on a jet snagged from a recently bankrupted airline. I
wondered if we'd get the little bag of peanuts.

I slid my CD headphones over my ears. I tried to shut out the
endless cacophony of yelling, farting, gear rattling, spitting and
snoring with headphones streaming System of a Down, Linkin Park and
Jay Z. The emotional oasis of a temporary musical vacation helped
all of us forget we were constantly surrounded by thirty-eight
other men.

Funny. These headphones were just like every piece of equipment
issued to my platoon: old and held together with nothing but hope
and some twenty-mile-an-hour tape (green Army duct tape). I hoped
these suckers wouldn't break before we got there. I needed my music
to keep me sane-to buffer me from the men, if only for a song or
two. Where the hell do you get new headphones in Iraq?

My men and I were National Guardsmen, attached to First Brigade,
Third Infantry Division, also known as 3ID. * Shouldered with the
task of taking over a foreign country, yet disallowed from smoking
in the lavatories of the plane. Since the days of Troy, soldiers
have pushed the limits of what little they are allowed to
do-especially in pursuit of a vice. The Army has a saying: "Ask for
forgiveness, not for permission." I was pretty sure that on this
seventeen-hour flight one of the many chain-smokers in Third
Platoon would test the FAA to see if it would really fine a soldier
$1,000 for smoking a cigarette in a latrine on the way to die in
Iraq. Sure it would be ironic, but not outside the realm of

I looked across the dimly-lit aisle at one of my SAW gunners. I'll
call him "Gunner." Think the most
Johnny-All-American-Homecoming-King kid you ever met. With a
white-blond flat-top, blue eyes, perfect teeth, a chiseled jaw and
about 5% body fat, Gunner was straight out of a recruiting
commercial. Perfect uniform, immaculate weapon, and always followed
orders without being told twice. He didn't bitch, and maintained
perfect military bearing.

Gunner was big on two things: God, and his beloved girlfriend. On
the left side of his stomach, just above his kidney, was a
meticulously scripted tattoo in flowing cursive letters: "Andrea."
He'd proposed to her just weeks before we left. He probably spent
everything he had and then some to buy her the ring.

I thought of that tattoo as I glanced at him. It was buried beneath
his BDU top now, but it stuck in my head. A lot of guys in the Army
have tattoos around the same area-but a few inches higher, and in a
much different design. Soldiers call them meat tags. A meat tag is
a copy of the Army dog tag you wear around you neck, tattooed on
your torso, just below your armpit. A meat tag isn't just a
hard-core status symbol. It's a way to identify a body if the torso
is all that remains after it's blown apart. Name, social security
number and religious preference (if any). Call it thinking ahead.
Prep for combat. Another safety measure, like an extra pair of

As I scanned away from Gunner to the other faces of my men, time
spun in slow-motion. From the moment I got the call to go to Iraq,
I felt like I was in a movie. Everything around me was a scene I
was watching, rather than a moment I was living. When I walked with
my men behind me, I felt like Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs,
wearing sunglasses, smoking cigarettes, walking toward the

Sitting upright in my seat, I panned left to right across the cabin
of the plane, taking in the pre-game swell of fear, rage,
anticipation and urgency. I zoomed in on a foot tapping nervously
inside a desert combat boot still wet with red Georgia clay. I cut
to eyes darting, closed, or squeezed shut tightly. I could hear a
soundtrack in my head that would amplify the emotional effect of
the moment. My head bopped. Bass guitar thumped and drums pounded
as I panned down to my lap, where my thumb tapped on the thick
plastic buttstock of my rifle. "I'm feeling mean today...Not lost,
not blown away....Shut up! Shut up! Shut up or I'll fuck you up!"
The maniacal screams of Korn's Jonathan Davis assaulted my head
through half-broken headphones.

Maybe I saw everything cinematically because I was a part of a
generation of soldiers who assumed war would be just like in the
movies. Combat was etched in our heads as a series of slow-motion
scenes featuring brave men firing guns and screaming triumphantly,
with "Adagio for Strings" swirling around them. American combat
classics like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, The Deer
and Saving Private Ryan. Violent and inspiring
underdog stories like Glory, Gladiator and Braveheart. Movies with
characters who fought the good fight. Movies with heroes.

I wanted to fight the good fight. I wanted to be a hero. When I was
growing up in New York in the 1980s, most kids I knew dreamed of
being Phil Simms or Don Mattingly. What I really wanted to be was a
noble warrior who fought bravely for the good side. I wanted to be
the ultimate American badass. I wanted to be Jed Eckert.

Played by a young Patrick Swayze, Jed Eckert was the lead character
in the horribly fantastic modern American classic Red Dawn. If
you've served in the military in the last twenty years, you've seen
this movie. Jed, a former quarterback, drives a pick-up truck and
wears a baseball cap. He's an ordinary, straight-talking American
kid until the morning the Soviets invade America and enemy
paratroopers drop into his Midwestern town.

At the dawn of World War III, Eckert leads his little brother Matt
(Emilio Estevez) and a rag-tag bunch of high-school kids in a
daring escape to the mountains, where they hide for the winter and
survive by hunting deer and eating canned soup. After a covert
mission back to town, they learn that their families have been
killed or imprisoned in brutal work camps, and emerge from the
hills with a vengeance. The film's tagline is "The invading
armies planned for everything -- except for eight kids called The

Jed and his band of guerrillas courageously take on the evil army
of occupiers. They ride horses into battle against attack
helicopters. With nothing left to lose, they rebel, inspiring
others and giving birth to an insurgency that is emulated
nationwide. They use creative asymmetrical tactics against a
superior military force and incredible odds. And in the end, they

Red Dawn was entered into the Guinness Book of Records for
having the most acts of violence of any film up to that time. When
I was ten years old I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever
seen. The first time I watched Red Dawn, I lay awake in my bed for
hours. My thoughts raced. With total specificity, I laid out in my
head how I would lead my little brother, our dog Sugar and the
McGuiness boys if the Soviets ever made the fatal mistake of
invading Peekskill and coming onto Arden Drive. We would be ready.
Hiding in the big tree at the end of our block and on the roof of
old Mrs. Hertz's house, we would set up ambushes and kill those
bastards with rocks, BB guns and M-80s. The next day at school
during recess, I ran around the playground carrying a stick like a
rifle, climbing trees and screaming "WOLVERINES!"

Now, with the roles reversed, I was on my way to invade and occupy
someone else's country. America could soon create thousands of
Iraqi Jed Eckerts in places like Mosul and Baghdad. We were going
to kill Saddam and break his army. Dogs of war and all that shit.
Ready to be unleashed. Grrrrrrrr. Warrior killers, steeled for

And served obediently by marginally attractive middle-aged
stewardesses in cheap, ugly suits, with little tears welling in the
corners of their overly made-up eyes. I could feel the other guys
thinking the same thing I was every time the perfumed one with the
long dark hair glided past my seat. We all harbored shamefully
animalistic, testosterone-laden thoughts of taking her into one of
the back bathrooms for a few minutes before we hit the ground. A
sacrifice of sperm for the gods of the infantry. Or maybe just one
last moment of fleeting happiness before I had my head removed by a
sniper round or an RPG.

When you get sent to war, you think about dying. What I worried
about most was how my death would affect my family. Maybe a
clinician will have a technical term for this condition in a few
years. It could be called Modern American Soldiers' Guilt Syndrome.
It's one of the burdens of the all-volunteer army that makes this
generation of American soldiers different from generations past. We
are not like many of our predecessors in Vietnam or World War II
who were drafted. Their numbers came up and they put their lives on
the line because they had to. We who went to Iraq chose to risk our
lives doing this. We volunteered for this shit. And we volunteered
our families for this shit.

The Army helps you plan for your death to some extent. And plants
the seeds of the guilt syndrome. Right after you get your head
shaved in Basic Training, you start filling out a series of
mandatory forms. One of the first forms is the one that determines
whether or not you want SGLI, and who gets it. SGLI is the
Serviceman's Group Life Insurance Policy-the optional
government-subsidized life insurance money your loved ones get if
you take the big dirt nap. Your family gets the loot if you get
fragged by a careless private with bad aim on the grenade
familiarization range. They get it if you fall off the obstacle
course and land on your neck. Or if one of the psycho drill
sergeants kills you in a fury during hand-to-hand combat training.
Or if the civilian transport plane you're sitting in gets hit by a
scud missile on approach into Kuwait.

The Army recruiter told me so.

My recruiter was a slick, fat, middle-aged Italian-American
sergeant. He smelled like a dirty ashtray and called me "kid."
Everyone in America knows that recruiters work like used car
salesmen. This guy actually looked like one. He was sweaty and
beady-eyed, and wore a thin mustache that looked like it was drawn
on with a Sharpie. Not exactly the face of the Army I had seen in
the commercials that ran constantly on MTV.

In a moment that was easily one of my dad's worst nightmares, I had
walked in to a strip mall recruiting office during my senior year
at Amherst College. Before the recruiter could put down the comics
section and pull his fat ass from behind the tiny government-issued
desk, I stood over him burning a hole in his face with my

"I am graduating from college in a few months," I told him flatly.
"After I graduate, I want to be a soldier."

Sergeant Super Mario shat himself. This was 1998. A full three
years before 9/11. College kids weren't exactly lining up to serve
in defense of freedom. People didn't think much about patriotism,
especially not in that part of the country: liberal, collegiate,
Western Massachusetts. But that's why I wanted to join. I loved my
country. I had been afforded tremendous opportunities in this
country and I wanted to give something back. In a democracy, the
military should be representative of the population. Just because I
didn't have to go didn't mean I shouldn't go. I felt that if, God
forbid, my generation had a war and I didn't do my part, I would
never be able to look at myself in the mirror or be a good father
to my future children.

I also wanted to do the hardest thing I could do. I needed a trying
experience that would test my mettle. I didn't exactly wish for
war, but I wanted to travel to the apex of human experience:
combat. It may sound sick, but war is the oldest, and ultimate,
extreme sport.

I wanted to learn to be a leader in an environment where courage
mattered. I didn't care what any Human Resources robot from Goldman
Sachs tried to tell me, being a mid-level manager at an investment
bank is not leadership. Bond traders telling rich people what to do
with their money is not leadership. Going to graduate school and
pushing paper for a few years is not either. Real leadership is
motivating others under tremendous adversity. True leaders are
forged by leading men in combat.

Everyone was telling me that because I went to Amherst, the sun
shone out of my ass. Well, I wanted to go a place where that sun
didn't shine: either the Army or the Peace Corps. Both were
demanding and intense. Both involved travel. Both were
opportunities to better the world and participate in something
larger than myself. Both offered shitty pay. The Peace Corps had
women. But in the Army, you got to shoot guns, jump out of
airplanes and blow thing up. No contest.

Clearly, Sergeant Super Mario did not know what the hell to do with
me. A college kid had never walked in to his office demanding to
join the Army, and he was actually stupid enough to tell me so. His
eyes darted around the room, like he was afraid he was on Candid

Every person I ever knew who had worn a uniform for the United
States had warned me about clowns like this. I was planning to
defer a six-figure job on Wall Street to join the Army, and I was
damn fucking sure that I was not going to spend the next four years
of my life peeling military potatoes in Alaska. Timelines, terms of
commitment, uniforms, weapon systems, training-I wanted the
details, statistics, legalese and fine print for all of it.

After a few minutes of nervous paper shuffling, Mario recovered
from his initial surprise. Like any soldier in a time of crisis,
his training kicked in and he reverted to full fisherman mode. He
had me on the line and focused on reel me in. For every topic I
raised, he and the Army recruiting machine were ready with
materials, talking points and a supercharged three-minute music
video produced by Leo Burnett Advertising. (Ironically, I had
turned down a job offer from them only two months earlier.)
America's tax dollars hard at work. The presentation was perfectly
designed to target my precise demographic-middle/lower class,
MTV-watching, video-game-playing, Doritos-eating, action hero

Mario advertised a multitude of jobs for enlisted soldiers, each
with its own terminology and signing bonus determined by need (or
lack thereof). He explained to me that in the Army, a job is called
an MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). And each MOS had its own
vocational follow-on school, sometimes at a different military
base, with a unique curriculum called AIT (Advanced Individual
Training). The schools ranged in lengths from under a month to over
a year.

Each MOS was assigned a different two-digit number and letter. A is
Alpha, B is Bravo, C is Charlie and so on. These fancy
military-sounding names help mask the actual job specifications. So
"21V/Twenty-One Victor/Concrete and Asphalt Equipment Operator"
pushed a wheel barrel. "92G/Ninety-Two Golf/Food Service
Operations" was a cook. "91R/Ninety-One Romeo/Veterinary Food
Inspection Specialist." The Dogfood Dude.

The multimedia assault and crafty acronyms even made playing the
tuba in the army band look cool.

"And check this out, kid. Follow-on school for Band is only
two-weeks long!" Mario proudly told me.

I was already in the door and it was his job to close the deal. But
I saw through the pitch. I didn't want to join the army to play the

Mario was relentless. As soon as a question fell out of my mouth,
he conjured the corresponding pamphlet out of thin air. Every one
featured another multi-ethnic mix of Kool-Aid-smile-wearing

And when I asked whether or not my little nephew would be
paid-in-full if I were smashed to bits when my Oldsmobile stalled
on the tracks and was hit by a Metro-North train full of suits
headed to Manhattan, he smiled broadly and said, "No problem, kid!
Happens all the time! It's covered."

So I left my SGLI $250K to my three-year old nephew, Sean. I
figured he would be able to pay for college after I died in Iraq in
some violent and unfortunate manner. One generation of my family
would be born with some kind of financial security. As I sat
restlessly on that plane to Iraq gnawing on a wad of Levi Garrett
chewing tobacco, for the life of me I couldn't remember whom I
designated the sorry task of the death notification to. I wasn't
sure whom I had actually, formally, designated as my next of kin. I
had been in the Army four years at that point. In those four years,
I had changed my address three times at least. I'd signed up in
September, 1998. In January, 1999, I arrived at Fort McClellan,
Alabama, for Basic Training. Seven months later I was back in New
York City, an Army Reservist. That fall I took a job on Wall
Street. I knew jackshit about high finance, but my mom faced some
big medical expenses and I wanted to help out. I figured that in
the intense atmosphere of Wall Street I could make fast money, and
learn a ton about business. I only planned to stay on Wall Street
for a few years, then go back to grad school. At some point in
there I switched from the Reserves to the National Guard. In 2000 I
went to Officer Candidate School (OCS), spent some time at Fort
Benning, Georgia, and got my commission. I also got fed up with
Wall Street and quit. My last day was September 7, 2001. In 2002 I
spent six months back at Fort Benning, completing the Infantry
Officer Basic Course (IOBC), and when I saw the war looming, I
volunteered for active duty and the invasion of Iraq.

In January, 2003, the Army obliged, and shipped me to back to
Georgia, to Fort Stewart this time, where my men and I waited and
trained and waited some more. Now it was April, and we were finally
on our way.

Before I was called up for the war, I was crashing with my
girlfriend in Brooklyn, but I didn't get mail there. I had a Post
Office Box back home in Peekskill because I had moved around so
much. So Lord only knows which one of my "homes of record" the Army
had listed in its jacked-up "notify if killed" files.

I wondered which of my parents they'd reach out to first. By 2003,
my parents had been divorced for over ten years. It was a messy
divorce; they fought over everything. But in all the fights between
them, over custody and property, I was pretty sure that they never
discussed who got dibs on my death notice.

I hoped it was my dad. He was the more stable of the two. And he
had been drafted in Vietnam. True, he'd been really pissed when I
told him I'd enlisted, and even more pissed when I told him I'd
volunteered for combat. A foreman for Con Edison, he'd always hoped
my brother and I could avoid going into the service. After all, I
was the first in our family to go to college. And not just any
college, but one of the "Little Ivies." I worked the whole time to
help pay for it--as a bouncer at local bars, working security, jobs
that suited a six-foot-two, 240 lb. football player with a
take-no-shit attitude. And then, in my Dad's eyes, I went and
jeopardized my college payoff by joining the military. "I just
don't understand why you want to turn down a great job on Wall
Street, and all that money, to roll around in the mud with a bunch
of rednecks down south."

As mad at me as he was, my dad would be devastated to get my death
notice. But he would multi-task like a motherfucker letting the
family know. That would be his way of coping. My grandmother (his
mom) was one of eleven children in a huge Italian family from the
Bronx, so I had a dozen aunts and uncles, and throngs of cousins
named Vinnie and Marie who would need to be notified.

But there was no guarantee that the Army would call my dad. It was
entirely likely that they would call my mother first. And that
would not be pretty. My mother has never exactly been a pillar of
emotional stability. When I left for the war, she sobbed
inconsolably for days, and sold her TV to a pawn shop because she
couldn't bear to hear the news coming out of Iraq. I thought about
how she would react in the moment she saw the two fabled Army men,
uniformed impeccably, in her doorway. My stomach curled into knots
just thinking about it. Would she be alone? Would she faint? Would
she attack the poor officers delivering the news? Who would she
call first? My brother? My dad? Her psychiatrist?

Maybe if I died the Army would totally fuck up and call my
eighty-six year old grandmother. She lived alone and could barely
even walk. I could already see it unfolding in my head.

"Stop ya bangin! Stop ya bangin!" she would holler from behind the
triple-locked steel door. "Hold ya horses! I gotta get my walka! I
don't get around so good at my age. Hang on...I'm comin'!"

My grandmother has always been a rock of stability. She kept the
coolest head of anyone through my pre-deployment. When I told her I
was going to Iraq, I expected her to be a wreck. But she was very
matter of fact.

"Okay," she told me in her scratchy New Yawk old lady accent. "I
figured dat was comin' soona or lata. Ya know honey, I've been
t'rough dis before."


World War Two: Her husband, my grandfather, was one of the oldest
guy on his block in the Bronx. At 32, everyone thought he was too
old to be drafted. Of course, he was the first one. Perfect
Army-dictated irony. But that wasn't the best part. My grandfather
immigrated from Germany at age seventeen, and spoke German. It
would make too much sense to send someone who spoke German to help
fight the Germans. No, the Army sent him to the other side of the
world, where his background would be totally useless. He ended up
in the Philippines, New Guinea, Luzon. Drafted three years after
getting married, he spent three years away from my grandmother. He
called it his "all expenses paid world tour." He stood in the rain
for hours one cold day waiting to be addressed by General
MacArthur, and got sick with Dengue Fever. He sent my grandmother
rent money from his poker winnings, and ashtrays he made out of
artillery shell casings.

Grandma's second helping of war came during Vietnam. This time it
was her son, my dad, who got the call. They hoped and prayed his
lottery number wouldn't come up. My grandfather told him, "If you
get an envelope from the government with a subway token in it,
you're going to Vietnam, Paulie."

In 1965 that one-way fare arrived, and my dad was out of the Bronx
and off to Uncle Sam's School for Boys. Thankfully, he got lucky
and spent two years in Germany instead of Vietnam. Unlike my
grandfather, he didn't speak German, but was sent to Germany
anyway. He didn't see combat, but he did his time in uniform. He
paid his citizenship dues.

After two wars, I guess my grandma was used to this routine. My
little tour of the Middle East should be no problem. We weren't a
rich family, so my service seemed like a part of the contract. For
generations, the deal was this: If you were American and
working-class, you served in the military.

And after all, this war was going to be short and easy. Just like
the Gulf War in '91. All we had to do was take out Saddam and
everything in Iraq would crumble like a house of cards. Vice
President Dick Cheney said "we'd be greeted as liberators." I'd be
home by summer. That's what they told me. But I knew the Army
didn't know how long we'd be gone. The Army did to us the same
thing we did to our families. They gave us a date to shut us up so
we'd stop asking.

I told my girlfriend to prepare for three to nine months, but I had
no idea. I just wanted to give her a date to look forward to. I
couldn't tell her that we could be gone for two years. I just
couldn't put that in her head. It didn't seem fair.

I worried enough about counterattacks on New York City. I expected
our enemies to try something, and I told my girlfriend to avoid the
subway if she could for the next few weeks. This was truly a global
war now, and my friends in Manhattan might be in more danger than I
was in the Middle East.

A few hours into our flight, Sergeant Lee stood in the back of the
plane and addressed the men. Sgt. Lee was a real character. He had
red hair, freckles and a deep Southern drawl like Foghorn Leghorn.
He was my second in command, my Platoon Sergeant.

"Men!" he boomed. "Get used to bein' gone! Get used to this shit.
We gone be gone a long-ass time. We already dealt with
Afghaneestan. Now we goin' to Eye-raq to take care of this
mothafucker! After that, we goin' to Sy-reea! Than we goin' to
Kor-eea! The President ain't fuckin around, men. Now that we got
started, we gonna be kickin' everybody's ass from now on!"

Sergeant Lee was almost always full of shit. But I knew that what
he'd said could happen. We all knew that once we got to Baghdad,
the order could come down from the Pentagon to make a big left turn
and keep on going all the way to Damascus. Or a big right turn to
Tehran. Our president was arrogant and single-minded, and that made
anything possible.

I never thought America would make this mistake again. The Iraq War
sounded too much like the Vietnam War. It had all the same flaws at
its foundation: an unclear rationale, a guerilla enemy that was
virtually indistinguishable from civilians, a culture we didn't
understand at all, and tenuous public support. Millions of people
all over the world were protesting the looming war, and nobody had
even died yet. In his book The Long Gray Line, Rick Atkinson
describes how, after Vietnam, Ross Perot once proposed building a
war memorial that could be seen from the White House that bore this
would the American public respond if things got bad?

I really could not believe this was happening: American infantrymen
on a plane to a foreign land to execute the will of our President,
and supposedly the will of our people. I guess I was out of touch
with "the people," because a lot of people I knew were not gung-ho
about this war-especially people with family members going to
fight. If the President was going to take America to war, I thought
he should have a bit better than fifty-one percent of the public
behind it.

Using the 9/11 attacks as a justification for this war just didn't
hold water in my opinion. The President had failed to prove to me
that the Iraqis were in any way connected to the attacks on the
World Trade Center. Yet he continued to use the emotional power of
9/11 to gain support for his controversial war-and tons of guys
bought the rationale. More times than I can count, soldiers in the
battalion would say something like, "Hey, L.T." (That's pronounced
Ell Tee, for Lieutenant.) "Maybe they sent you down here from New
York to get some payback for your city. Maybe they sent you with us
so that you can be up front when we take out Baghdad. They'll roll
you and the other New York guys just in time for the pictures. It
would make a great front page for the papers!"

The men had lots of conspiracy theories about why I was the only
guy from New York in Bravo Company. A Yankee officer in a Florida
National Guard unit made up almost entirely of deep-fried
Southerners, with a very light sprinkling of African-Americans,
Hispanics and a few other ethnicities. There were only four New
Yorkers in the whole battalion. The best theory went like this:
When the decision was made to send National Guard units into combat
for the first time since the Korean War, the spin doctors in D.C.
thought that the first honor should go to Guardsmen from Florida,
where President Bush's brother Jeb happened to be the governor.
Having some guys along from the 9/11 state was a publicity bonus. I
had volunteered for combat, making it a no-brainer.

One thing I knew for certain: the White House was pretty damn good
at creating photo opportunities. I remember when the President came
in for his first big one at Ground Zero three days after the
attack. I was there. For days, I worked in "the pit" alongside
everyday New Yorkers trying to save their own. I worked with three
firemen, a Port Authority cop and a guy who looked like a
steelworker. We were all covered in a coat of fine powder that a
few guys called "the dust." A combination of incinerated drywall,
soot, and the dead, the dust blanketed everything in sight and
covered the streets six inches deep like fine gray doomsday snow. I
never in my life have seen human dedication like I did during those
days. Amidst the unimaginable horror, the way strangers worked
together was a thing of beauty. I witnessed Americans exhibiting a
pure and selfless human devotion to help their fellow man. I was
surrounded by ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances who
emerged as heroes.

And we all wanted payback. But we had to be sure we were
counterattacking the right country. I was personally insulted by
the way President Bush had used 9/11 to propel the country to war
in Iraq.

But Colin Powell was on board. And his opinion held serious weight
with me. He made the case for war before the United Nations and the
world. He told us that Saddam had dangerous and extensive chemical
weapons capabilities. I trusted him more than any other public
figure in politics. Our President may have been a draft dodger, but
Powell was a guy who walked the walk. He was a Vietnam combat
veteran. I read his autobiography cover to cover at least twice.
Powell showed me that being a soldier was a noble and honorable
thing. His story taught me to have enormous respect for the
profession of arms, and to care for my men. I wished he was our
President, and deemed him one of the most impressive Americans
patriots alive. He knew the tremendous human cost of war. If he was
onboard with the plan, there had to be good reason.

Powell once said, "We must not, for example, send military forces
into a crisis with an unclear mission they cannot accomplish--such
as we did when we sent the U.S. Marines into Lebanon in 1983. We
inserted those proud warriors into the middle of a five-faction
civil war complete with terrorists, hostage-takers, and a dozen
spies in every camp, and said, 'Gentlemen, be a buffer.' The
results were 241 Marines and Navy personnel killed and a U.S.
withdrawal from the troubled area."

American soldiers were not designed to be buffers. I held onto the
faith that Powell would never push America into another war that
didn't adhere to this standard. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff after the 1991 Gulf War, Powell outlined his requirements
for decisive military action, later popularly referred to as the
"Powell Doctrine." Essentially, the doctrine expresses that
military action should only be used as a last resort, and only if
there is a clear risk to America's national security. When force is
used, it should be overwhelming and disproportionate to the amount
of force used by the enemy; there must be strong public support for
the action; and there must be a clear exit strategy from the

America had a moral obligation to use its tremendous military power
to help the helpless. And Powell got that. He gave me reason to
think that Saddam might actually have WMD.

Beyond the threat of his WMD capabilities, Saddam had proven to be
an evil and oppressive monster. He and his sons brutalized an
entire nation into submission. The world knew of Saddam's
atrocities. He had gassed his own people. Taking him out and
freeing the Iraqi people was the only part of the war that I saw as
fighting the good fight. And all American soldiers want to fight
the good fight. Every one of us on that plane wanted to be the
soldier who avenged millions by firing the fateful 5.56 round that
would make Saddam's head burst like a watermelon. He definitely had
it coming.

Killing Saddam was not the primary reason Bush said he was sending
us, but if we made that happen, it would be a good result
nonetheless. I saw the appeal of Machiavellian logic. In the end,
it may be acceptable to do the right thing for the wrong

I prayed that Bush was right. He had abandoned diplomacy and
essentially told the world to fuck off. I wanted weapons of mass
destruction to exist in Iraq, because if they didn't, there would
be hell to pay for us all. America's reputation would be
irreparably damaged for generations. If Bush was wrong, thousands
of Americans troops would die for a mistake, and the Iraq war would
be one of the greatest foreign policy mistakes in our nation's
history. The decision to invade Iraq was the mother of all poker
games. Bush was betting the house on this one hand. "He must have
the cards to back it up," I wrote.

So my entire role in the war was a paradox: Against the war from
the beginning, I volunteered to go fight in it. I feared that
President Bush's decision to invade Iraq was not in the best
interest of our country, but I desperately wanted be a part of that
invasion. I was torn in half, wrestling with my hunger for combat
and my revulsion for the President. But I would not let doubt drive
me to sit on the sidelines for the biggest game of my generation.
On the contrary, I volunteered to be one of the first to fight.
This war was happening whether I liked it or not. Protesting the
war in Washington or New York wouldn't stop it from happening now.
America was angry. And America was scared. Little old ladies in
Kansas worried that Saddam would reach out and blow up their Bingo
games on Friday night. When people are angry and scared they
sometimes make rash decisions-especially when they don't fully
fathom the consequences. I just wanted everyone in America to step
back and think about it all a little harder. Once you fire that
round out of the chamber, you can't take it back. Senator John
McCain once said, "War is wretched beyond description, and only a
fool or a fraud could sentimentalize its cruel reality." I just
didn't understand the rush, and I thought we needed more

I printed out some things to take with me to Iraq. One was a speech
made by Senator Robert Byrd on the floor of the Senate in February,
2003. Senator Byrd expressed concern about the lack a debate and
the rush to war:

Madam President, to contemplate war is to think about the most
horrible of human experience. On this February day, as this Nation
stands at the brink of battle, every American on some level must be
contemplating the horrors of war.

My wife says to me at night: Do you think we ought to get some
of those large bottles, the large jugs, and fill them with water?
She says: Go up to the attic and see if we don't have two or three
there. I believe we have two or three there.

And so I went up to the attic last evening and came back to
report to her that, no, we didn't have any large jugs of water, but
we had some small ones, perhaps some gallon jugs filled with water.
And she talked about buying up a few things, groceries and canned
goods to put away.

I would suspect that kind of conversation is going on in many
towns across this great, broad land of ours. And yet this Chamber
is for the most part ominously, dreadfully silent. You can hear a
pin drop. Listen. You can hear a pin drop. There is no debate.
There is no discussion. There is no attempt to lay out for the
Nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is

But if you say something enough times people believe it's true.
Saddam had WMDs and America was going to take him out. The decision
was made, the war machine was rolling, and I was a part of it. I
remembered a quote that hung on the wall of my high school
classroom: "No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing
because he could only do little." By volunteering to command a
platoon on the ground, I could at least have an impact on how
things turned out. I didn't have a crystal ball, but I knew that
there would be a time when the combat would settle down, and my
platoon could help people. That was my mission: to ensure that my
thirty-eight men made a difference, served as a positive reflection
of America, and came home alive. It would be great if we could kill
Saddam in the process.

So my men and I were on a plane to kill another country's sons and
fathers where they lived. In their own houses. Most of the men had
never been out of the U.S. Most of them had never even been out of
the South.

Overhead, lights dimmed as we slid downward into milky dust and
landed in the Kuwaiti Kingdom.

Nobody was shooting at us yet, but we all felt a rush of
adrenaline. After months of waiting, we were in the desert. "The
Sandbox." In the excitement, a few cheers and some nervous
conversations broke the silence. Of course Fat Stew, the resident
smart ass, piped up. He was like Jimmy Kimmel with a Southern drawl
thick as gravy. Always reliable for timely sarcasm, he called from
coach, "Are we there yet?"

Outside, in the darkness, a stairway rolled up to the fuselage with
a bang. Footsteps clanged up to the hatch; a waft of hot air and a
beefy black NCO rushed inside.

"All you motherfuckers shut the fuck up!" he shouted. The plane
fell silent. Our CO was clearly not going to interrupt this dude,
and neither was anybody else. Regardless of rank, he was in

"When you get off this plane, you lock and load and move
double-time directly to the trucks that are waiting outside. No
flashlights. No cigarettes. No bullshit. Keep your pro mask with
you. There could still be scuds coming in. Any questions?"


"Okay, then. Welcome to the fuckin' war!"

Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier's Fight for America From Baghdad To Washington
by by Paul Rieckhoff

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: NAL Trade
  • ISBN-10: 0451221214
  • ISBN-13: 9780451221216