Kevin Norton: Part 1
Kevin served as an infantry officer in the Army and deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. In part 1 of his interview, he discusses his deployment to southwestern Baghdad in 2005 and some of the challenges he faced leading an infantry platoon. One of the highlights of the deployment was the establishment of Operation Kevin's Kids – a program that distributed school supplies and toys to Iraqi children.
Part 2 of the interview will be available soon.
Interview conducted on June 13, 2015 in Bryant Park, Manhattan
Present: Richard Hayden and Kevin Norton
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Kevin Norton: Kevin George Norton.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
KN: I was in the United States Army from 2003 to 2006 and I got called back in 2008 through 2009.
RH: What was your rank when you got out?
RH: What was your MOS?
KN: I was an 11A [spoken as eleven Alpha], an infantry officer.
RH: What were some of the units that you served in?
KN: I served with Third Battalion, Seventh Infantry Regiment which was in the Fourth Brigade, Third Infantry Division. I went to Iraq with them. Then I served as a combat advisor attached to CSTC-A, Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan. [he spells out CSTC-A] I was a combat advisor to two police districts in Paktia province, Afghanistan. I was attached to, or operationally controlled by, Fourth Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.
RH: What motivated you to join the military?
KN: 9/11. In the Army they called us 9/11 babies. As soon as 9/11 happened, I signed up to go to Officer Candidate School. The Army brings you in, you go through basic training like a Private and then they send you to Fort Benning. I went to Fort Sill in Oklahoma and that’s where they were calling us 9/11 babies. It was almost an entire class that was mixed but I’d say there was fifty percent of us were going to go into that officer training program called “The College Option.” So you go to college and then you join the Army. All of us were young professionals in our first year or two of getting out school when 9/11 happened. I was actually teaching at Quinnipiac University. I was an adjunct professor of history at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and working as an editor for a small publishing house in Connecticut when 9/11 happened.
So we went to basic training there and 09S [spoken as oh-nine Sierra] was the designation. We were going to basic training and Officer Candidate School together and they called us the 9/11 babies because all of us were young professionals that decided to chuck it all and sign up, at least for now.
RH: Why did you pick the branch of service that you did?
KN: I picked the Army because my dad was in the Navy. He was an intel officer in Vietnam. I told him I was thinking of going either Army or Marines and he said, “You know, I just feel like the Army has got more options for you. They do more in terms of not just infantry stuff.” And of course, I end up being an infantry guy. That’s what I wanted to do. There was all kinds of things you can do. He was telling me about the programs that help defense attaches, and all that stuff. The Marines don’t really have that stuff. So he pushed me towards the Army and I actually ended up going with the Army. It was a decision I was glad I made because the Army did really introduce me to a whole bunch of different things.
RH: Why infantry?
KN: Why else man? I was a 9/11 baby. Revenge was the motivator. [RH laughs] It was kind of funny. I went in for revenge and it was like, what else would you do in the Army, in my view, at the time? Just be an Infantryman and try to locate, close with and destroy the enemy. I kind of wanted to be that. It’s interesting that I joined up and revenge was the motivator but, over time looking back on it now and knowing what I know, how do you define revenge? Revenge is just hooking and jabbing with the Taliban and killing those guys. I’ve done it. I’ve been in gunfights with them. I’ve been in Iraq and caught insurgents, Al Qaeda guys, the Shiite militia guys, raiding houses almost every night but none of it really gave me the sense of revenge that I thought it would. It didn’t give me the peace of mind, I guess, that I wanted.
I studied in Ireland – in Belfast, Northern Ireland – and I did a field study of the IRA while I was there in 1999 and 2000. What I found when I was interviewing those guys was their view of revenge, the IRA’s view of revenge was very succinctly defined by one of their senior commanders, a guy named Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death on hunger strike for political prisoners status in 1981. This guy actually said, “We will have our revenge in the laughter of our children.” I felt like it kind of put the whole war in perspective for me when I got out. That kind of did give me peace of mind. I did my thing, let everyone know that you certainly don’t fuck with Americans and if you fuck with us we’ll fight back and we fight back hard.
But that really wasn’t the end goal when I think about it now and I’ve got a kid on the way. It’s making sure the next generation is here and they’re happy and they’re safe. That’s what it came down to.
RH: Good to go. How did your family feel about your decision?
KN: They were all scared. They didn’t want me to go. My mom got my brother to try to convince me not go in. My dad was really hard on me about going in. Not a whole lot of support going into the Army during wartime. They tried to get me to do something else, maybe join the FBI, or something like that. But really, at that point I was really just out for blood.
RH: Where were you on September 11th?
KN: On September 11th I was actually at that job. I remember it was a Tuesday and I was working on a book edit and was in a marketing meeting for this book with my bosses when someone ran in and said, “Holy cow! A second plane has hit a building." I didn’t know about the first one. "A second plane has hit the World Trade Center. This looks like a terrorist attack." We were like, “What the fuck are you talking about? A terrorist attack?” When the first plane hit the building we were like, “oh no. Some idiot didn’t know what he was doing.” But then a couple of minutes later, another one hit.
So we all ran out watching the TV. I was listening to Warner Wolf because I had a little radio there. Warner Wolf had gotten on – remember him? The sports guy from New York. [RH laughs] He was giving a play by play, quote unquote, because he was there. He was close. He was only a couple blocks away, I think. And he was on the radio – CBS FM I think it was – and he was just going off, “People are running! This is unbelievable!” I remember him going, it’s a famous clip, him going “Oh my God! Oh my God!,” when the buildings start to fall. I remember that very specifically.
And my uncle, at the time I thought he was still working for a bond firm, a very famous bond firm, and now the name escapes me. It’s going to kill me. He had just left that bond firm to go to another job and wasn’t there. He used to work on the hundred and first floor of Tower Two and that firm got wiped out. The CEO was on TV a couple of days later talking about it. We were terrified of that. Everyone was trying to call him. The phone lines went down, of course, because the networks were overloaded. So I’m calling him on my cell phone and nobody could get in touch with him and he was actually at the Yankee game that day with his son which is crazy. But I remember it like it was yesterday.
RH: And you were upstate when this happened?
KN: I was in Connecticut at the time. I was in Westport, Connecticut. I immediately jammed home to White Plains and hugged my mom. It was her birthday. Her and my brother’s birthday was September 11th. It was one of those things that was just crazy.
RH: What was your training like?
KN: Training was interesting. I remember, I get to boot camp, me and Private Snafu and everyone else, they put us on cattle cars, drive us out to the first day of boot camp. They take you out to the middle of nowhere and there was your training area. They would just scream and yell and throw bags. They were smoking the shit out of us. I must have done five thousand push-ups in the first day. Of course you think you'll never make it and you’re struggling and I remember this big, huge – Drill Sergeant Knight his name was – this big, huge tall jacked black dude. He’s in his full green uniform with the round brown Drill Sergeant hat on and he gets down on his knees and he looks me in the eye and says – I’m in the push-up position – he looks me in the eye and says, [in a menacing but smooth voice] “Look at you! You sweatin’ already pri. Let me tell you something. I’m gonna fucking kill you, pri.” At the time I was like, “I may actually die, man.” [RH laughs] Some people don’t make it out of here which is stupid. I just remember those first couple of days thinking, “maybe I can jump in the shower and break my leg and get out of her because I don’t know if I can stand this.”
But over the ten weeks or whatever it was, you end up bonding with a bunch of guys. I was one of the oldest guys in my class – I was twenty-four, I think I was – and I had already had a job. They found out I was teaching so they called me “college professor.” They said, “What the fuck is a college professor doing in this platoon?” [RH laughs] So they were all forever fucking with me.
This one drill Sergeant Kempen, I’ve got a funny story about him. Drill Sergeant Kempen was our senior drill instructor in our platoon. He used to ask me history questions. So Drill Sergeant Kempen was like, “Norton! Get over here professor.” He pulls me out of the formation and I’m like, “Oh shit.” He would ask me these ridiculously random history questions and a lot of the time I actually got them right or got something right. So they were impressed by it but still, it gave them a reason to fuck with me. So Kempen goes, “Private! How big were the size of the guns on the USS Missouri?” And I was like, “I believe they were fifteen inches, Drill Sergeant!” He was like, “NO! I got you! They were eighteen inches!” I was like, “Actually Drill Sergeant, I think they were fifteen inches because the eighteen inch guns were too big for the boat at first so I think the Missouri just had fifteen inch guns.” He was like, “YOU'RE FUCKING WRONG PRIVATE! DO PUSH-UPS!” I was like, “Alright. Roger.” So I do push-ups.
Five minutes later I was on the obstacle course where you climb up the rope and then you run across and you go on a rope net and you climb down. He’s on the top of this obstacle course and he’s thinking for a second and he’s all quiet. Then he’s like, “Norton!” I was like, “Yes Drill Sergeant!” He goes, “I think I lied about the eighteen inches!” [RH laughs] And somehow I got the balls to say to him, “That’s alright Drill Sergeant! A lot of guys lie about eighteen inches!” [both laugh] And this guy just busts out laughing. I thought he was going to smoke the shit out of me and he just busts out laughing.
It was awesome. It was a mix of tough. You know how it is. You automatically learn you are not important. You are only as good as the guy next to you. You are part of a team, you’re not an individual anymore and if you don’t perform, people will get punished. It’s a very great way to rinse the civilian out of you. So that was great. I met a bunch of friends that were going with me to OCS and they became lifelong friends. I’m still in touch with a bunch of them. We went to OCS which was great. It was very interesting. It’s all Sergeants getting ready to pin Lieutenants.
RH: One quick question. When you were in boot camp you went through enlisted boot camp?
KN: Yes. Enlisted boot camp. Half the class were the guys that were going to OCS and the other half were the guys were going to be artillerymen so they were Forward Observers. They were going to go to training in Forward Observer school. They were the cannon cockers that literally would pull the string. The “Gun Bunnies” we used to call them. So it was a whole mix of us and half of us went onto OCS which is at Fort Benning. It was a very interesting experience. I met more good people. A lot of enlisted guys that were becoming officers who taught us a ton. They just were invaluable in terms of teaching us and helping us grow up because all of us were still kind of kids. We learned a ton. That was a fun experience. They smoked the shit out of us there. They really enjoyed smoking the shit out of us because they knew at some point they were going to have to salute us so you had all these guys low crawling on concrete – July asphalt in Fort Benning, Georgia – and you’re low crawling to the chow hall. It was nuts.
But it was great because at the end of that they start to treat you like an officer the last couple of weeks. Just like I said, great training. So I did that and was very excited when I got pinned Lieutenant. Drill Sergeant Kempen happened to be at Fort Benning for training and heard that I was graduating, that OCS was graduating and actually came to the ceremony and gave me my first salute as a Lieutenant. It was awesome. It was really cool. This guy was really beating the bag. He told my parents, [in a gravelly voice] “Your son is such a good guy. He’s gonna be a great officer but I’ve got tell you something, he used to crack me the fuck up.” [RH laughs] And of course my mom is horrified. She’s literally scandalized by this guy and my dad just laughs. He’s like, “I used to smoke his ass,” and they didn’t even know what that meant. “I used to smoke his ass just because he made the stupidest fucking face every time I’d be smoking him. He’d always have this goofy look on his face and I’d just sit there and laugh while he was doing push-ups.” [RH laughs] They were just like, “OK.” And I was sitting there laughing. But he was one of those guys. He was a social misfit but a great dude I respect him a lot and I learned a lot from him. It was pretty funny.
RH: Cool. Do you feel like your training prepared you for deploying?
KN: Great question. All that stuff really does train you but I didn’t appreciate it. And the infantry school, too. I had to go from OCS to the infantry school and it was kind of a gentleman’s course. They push you hard – twenty mile road marches into a simulated attack and that kind of stuff. You’re writing operations orders on no sleep, trying to figure out what the fuck is going on and that type of stuff. Infantry school was the same stuff. You attack at right angles, here’s how you attack, here’s how you look at terrain and figure out the high point. So it was a thinking man’s game as well which is really good but it was rogue training. “OK. You start attacking here then you attack from this side and you attack from a ninety-degree angle.” Over and over again. I didn’t really understand the goodness of it.
Then when we went to my unit and were doing training to go to Iraq, I took over Second Lieutenant and these guys had just gotten back from Iraq. These guys had pictures. They had taken down Qusay Hussein’s palace, one of the palaces in Baghdad. The shit they found in this palace! These guys were battle hardened dudes. They have pictures of themselves taking a shit on a golden toilet bowl in his room, right? [RH laughs] That type of stuff. I mean, these awesome stories and they’re total badasses and they’re sitting there.
I remember the first day, they sent me out to the field because they were in training to go back to Iraq, they sent me out to meet my platoon and here’s this brand new, cherry LT smelling good because he hasn’t been in the field yet, could not be wetter behind the ears and I’m supposed to be leading these guys through training. It was the same thing – squad attack, platoon attack. It was a mechanized unit so we had the Bradleys going this way and we were on the ground going that way and it was rogue, rogue, rogue. Same thing over and over again. The plan changes a little bit but it was the same type of stuff over and over again. I didn’t really understand the value of that training until I got to Iraq.
I don’t think we got into a single full-blown gunfight in Iraq. A couple of IED events stuff like that – close to a VBIED that went off in a marketplace at one point but that really was the extent of it. A couple of people were taking shots at us and we called them sniper attacks but it could be some Iraqi shithead. You could kind of tell by when they were shooting because if they were shooting a lot, then it wasn’t a trained sniper. If we popped smoked in the middle of the road to try and maneuver out of the kill zone and they’re still shooting, that’s not a well-trained sniper because a well-trained sniper only takes good shots. With smoke and obscuring, if he’s still shooting at us in some way then either he’s not well trained or we’re still very exposed. Usually it was because they weren’t very well trained.
So the first one, I’m talking to this Iraq Army Colonel and he’s this big fat guy. He’s like, [in a deep voice] “Huh, huh, huh, huh!” That type of thing. I’m talking to him about what’s going on in my AO because we had this little AO in southwestern Baghdad. A round goes flying past our head, I’d say maybe fifteen feet away, and hits a wall on the building that we were standing against. I literally jump – the Iraqi Colonel doesn’t flinch so I look like a big pussy [RH laughs] – I literally jump on the ground, I start low crawling and I’m like, “Hey! Did anyone else see it?” Then all of a sudden the radio starts cracking, “Roger! We’ve got fire incoming!” So I go straight into the mode, “White One, get over to the other side of the street. I need someone with eyes on the other side of the street. White Two, you stay on this side of the street and get up on the building.” So I just start throwing out orders. I just say, “I’m taking my team, I’ve got my security unit. I’m taking them with me and I’m going to try to run up the north side of the street here and keep going to the front of the formation to see what I can see. Everybody keep reporting what you’ve got.” And everything happened like that [snaps his fingers a few times] and I wasn’t even thinking about it.
It ended up being, for the most part, the right answer because if you don’t react or you think about the best idea, then you’re dead. You’re shot. So I had just enough of a sense of, “OK. Here’s is where we might be vulnerable,” in that split second. Here’s what we might have to do to see what the fuck was going on, let’s just do that. It ended up being pretty much the right answer and that was because of the training. I was so used to reacting that way even in bullshit situations it just became second nature to me. I couldn’t believe it. That was the first time it really hit home for me and it served me well through both tours.
RH: Where were you stationed in the US when you deployed?
KN: I reported from Fort Benning and OCS to infantry school and after that I went to Fort Stewart which is right outside Savannah, Georgia. I met my platoon there. We trained up for almost a year and went to Iraq. That was 2003.
RH: Did you do most of your training in Georgia or did you move around the country at all?
KN: We were training mostly in Georgia but we also got pegged, my battalion got pegged to go take part in what’s called Operation Full Eagle in March of ’03. Every year in March, an Army infantry unit goes to the border of South Korea, the North Korean border, at a range called Rodriguez range. You took a tour of the border and the North and then we did a month long series of live fire exercises basically just to rattle the cage of the North Koreans. We had air support doing training, blowing up everything we can. It was one of those great training events where we had this gigantic range and we’re driving around and the Bradleys are firing away. We’re maneuvering under fire. All live fire stuff. It was awesome training for a month. We did that which was fantastic.
Also at that time, the Army was testing a boat. I forget what the concept of the boat was. It looked like a huge catamaran. The boat was supposed to be able to move an entire mechanized rifle company. You get on the ship and it moves you to another port as quick as possible and then you get off the boat and you roll right into town. So we did this operation like that. It was supposed to be the Inchon landing reimagined and they were testing this boat out. So that was a cool piece of that as well. We did that training and then we came home for a month. The only other training we did outside of Georgia was at the Joint Readiness Training Center down at Fort Polk, Louisiana. We went there and that was the final operational training you do with live fires before you go away to war. You either go to NTC – National Training Center in California where you go to JRTC which is in Fort Polk. We went to Fort Polk.
RH: Alright. Good to go. So let’s move into deployment. Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
RH: How many times did you deploy?
KN: Twice, in total.
RH: What were the dates of those deployments?
KN: I got on the ground in Baghdad in January, 2005 and we left in the end of January, 2006. I got called back into the Army and had to report to Fort Benning in October, 2008 and did a train up at the Combat Advisor School in Fort Riley in Kansas for three months. Then in January of ’09 I went to Afghanistan and came back in August of ’09. It was a short deployment.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let’s go ahead and talk about the Iraq deployment first.
RH: Where in Iraq did you deploy to?
KN: We went to southwestern Baghdad, a place called Clark district. I was serving out of a base called FOB Falcon – Forward Operating Base Falcon – which was on route Irish. Route Irish is the main highway, Highway A. It was the main road that comes all the way from Basra, actually the Iraq border, all the way through. They called it the “Highway of Death” during the first Gulf War. It’s the main, eight lanes in each direction, highway that goes from the south into Baghdad. We were on the corner between route Tampa, which is east to west, and route Irish which takes you north into the city. We had that whole corner AO that included south of the Baghdad airport – BIAP, Baghdad International Airport. We had that whole area. Northeast of us was the actual Green Zone about twenty clicks away, not even. BIAP, the airport, was north of us and northwest of us so we had that whole area south all the way toward MSR Tampa.
RH: What was the mission of your unit?
KN: Our unit was to conduct counter-insurgency operations in their truest form. We were to dominate the terrain as much as possible, win hearts and minds, quote-unquote, and essentially root out any insurgent activity that we could. We were broken up into little towns within our area. My area was called Abu Deschir.
So my platoon – a forty-two man rifle platoon – had an area called Abu Deschir. We spelled it D-E-S-C-H-I-R. The locals called it Abu Chir. When we would go there we would interact with the local police force. We would interact with the local sheiks, the local imams, and basically try to collect intelligence, walk patrol, show presence. And I always tried to not to just be a presence control because that’s when people get killed, when they’re just driving around in circles and walking around doing nothing. I always tried to have a specific mission for each patrol that went out there. Go engage the sheikh or go engage this imam or I’m getting intel that says there’s a mortar firing point at this location. Go check that out and talk to the locals. That type of stuff. Some Lieutenants didn’t do that which I think kind of sucked. In my mind they always had to have a mission but those were the types of missions that we were doing. I would always go out a couple times a day, or at least once a day, for a four or five hour block and I went every day to [a loud motorcycle passes along 42nd Street].
RH: A motorcycle.
KN: [laughs] I used to go out every day and hit up my intel sources. We would develop these intel sources. One guy ran a gas station that was right on the edge of our AO that was on the corner of another important road that led out of the city, led out of our area. So I was talking to him. He had great intel. I had an intel source that was in Baker, right in the middle of our AO, that everyone went to. This guy had all the information. Every day I would go and I would buy a bag of bread and he’d give me this big plastic bag with these rolls in it. We’d give him five bucks, ten dollars US, and in the bottom of that bag would be all his notes from the night before about what was going on in the AO, who was talking, who was asking stupid questions.
At one point he told me where this whorehouse was. And I’m like, “Ah! A whorehouse. That’s interesting.” So we hit the whorehouse that night thinking that even insurgents need love, man. [RH laughs] Especially the foreigners. They’re young bucks and they may have a little money or whatever. So we hit this place and the whores ended up being a great intel source too because I was right. We didn’t catch anybody there that night but they ended up being great sources of information. This guy came through town and he spoke like I’ve never heard. One guy spoke Russian. We thought we were cracking a Chechen unit for a while that was moving out of our AO. Chechen Islamists. So they were great sources.
Basically when I went out on patrol, that’s usually what I did. We talked to the local imams if they were friendly. We tried to win them over. We did a lot of talking with people. I wanted to go talk to this imam at this mosque because we feel like they are building car bombs out of it and at one point they were. A new imam got installed after the old unit hit this place and found car bombs. They installed a new imam at this Sunni mosque and I engaged this guy over time and actually developed a rapport with him where he would end at least giving me information that was, most times, verifiable. He wasn’t giving me, “Hey, these bad guys are here. I’m hiding them.” He wasn’t friendly per se but he understood that we were just there to try and keep everybody safe. As long as they weren’t any trouble to us, we were no trouble to them. So that’s the type of stuff we did on patrol.
RH: When you went and got this intel, you brought and interpreter with you?
KN: Oh yeah. We never went out without an interpreter. At least one, sometimes multiple.
RH: Did they bring that back? Did you have your intel on base transcribing everything?
KN: Yes. So we would bring back all our information and we had to file a report. Every patrol had a patrol report that went to the S2 shop which in the Army was the intel shop. We had a battalion intel shop and a brigade intel shop on base there. They would take all our raw reporting and turn it into finished analysis and then give it back to us and then also send it higher. They’d go on Cipro, this classified network, to see if there was any big picture stuff going on and send it back to us. I would then make future patrol plans based on that stuff.
RH: Good to go. What do you remember most about deploying to Iraq for the first time?
KN: What do I remember most? [laughs] First things first, the heat and the stink in Baghdad were unbelievable. Right after we got there, it was the rainy season, quote unquote, in Iraq or at least in Baghdad. It was a month straight from the end of February until the end of March where it rained every day, pretty much all day. What happened was it would flood the whole area to the point where a lot of my AO, where we were walking around in and driving around in, had three inches, four inches, five inches of sewer water because the sewage would overflow. That was pretty nasty. It looked like the trash compactor scene from Star Wars. Remember that?
Then it would stop raining and then the heat would burn up. The summer would really hit and it would just burn off all of this water over time, this sewage. And the stink. I can’t describe to you the stink of what that smelled like. It was amazing. So that was one of my first impressions.
In all seriousness, besides that and those types of impressions, I came to really like the Iraqi people very quickly. I thought they were good people. All they cared about was their family and making sure everything was OK and trying to find a job and that type of stuff. They were truly simple people just trying to survive. I thought they were good-hearted people. I remember being struck by that right away. I wasn’t dumb enough to think that they were all enemies but I didn’t realize how receptive they would be to us and what we were doing.
We got there right after the first election. They had the first election to elect a constitutional committee in January of ’05 and that constitutional committee spent the next nine months writing a constitution. Then in October of 2005 while we there, they passed the constitution and had people vote on it and the constitution was adopted based on popular vote. In December of 2005 they elected their first representatives to their government. All that happened in the year that I was there. January 2005, right after we got there, they had voted for this constitutional committee and they voted for the first time and they were out in the streets and everyone was cheering so there was a lot of good will towards us, at least in southwestern Baghdad. It was a mixed neighborhood of Sunni and Shia – that presented its own problems later on – but in general there was good will towards us when we first got there and we tried to take advantage of that.
RH: OK. Are there any parts of your AO that were particularly memorable?
KN: Sure. There was one area that was flooded more than others. It was the poorest, poorest of the poorest Shiite areas. Saddam basically starved out a lot of these areas around him. They had no electricity, they rarely had running water, that type of stuff. It just was the most disgusting area. But you know, I also found that those people ended up being the most amenable. It was kind of interesting.
At one point we drove into that AO because we were chasing a guy. Some Al Qaeda guys were somewhat affiliated with Iraqi Sunnis. There was a group called the 1920s Revolutionary Brigades that was in our AO, a Sunni – Ba’athist essentially – insurgent group. They went and shot up a Shiite mosque in our area that Shiite mosque was very important to us because they were very friendly and they were feeding us a lot of intel. So we were driving up as this attack was ending and we heard it going on. We go to haul ass. We’re in the old 1115 Humvees. They up armored these Humvees but they didn’t beef up the engine so we were carrying all this extra weight. You’d step on the pedal and it would barely take off. We eventually are hauling ass to get there. We get there right as there’s chaos going on at the steps of the mosque. Nobody, luckily, got shot but the head of that mosque – the mosque security guy – runs out and he says, “They just went down that road! They just went down that road! It’s a red car.” We’re like, “roger.” So we’re driving. We make a right, we’re hauling ass and trying to get through the streets and people are getting out of our way. Literally, it was kind of straight out of a Bond movie. And we never really caught up. We saw the car and then it made a quick right and we try to turn.
Well, we end up making a turn into this alley that just is flooded with sewage water and shit. So my lead guy actually crashes into the water and gets stuck. It was like, “Goddamn!” So they get away. We didn’t get them. We’re sitting there trying to recover the Humvee. It’s in mud and water and we’re pulling the Humvee out. While we’re there, these kids start trying to play with us and my FO, my Forward Observer – obviously we’re not shooting artillery so they’ve been repurposed to do the information operations type of stuff, the goodwill, hearts and minds type of stuff – he goes and he’s playing with these kids and he sees that these kids have these weird lesions on their face and their heads. He’s taking pictures of them and he brings me those pictures and we bring it to our battalion headquarters like, “Hey man. Some of these kids are really sick. We need to do something about this.” Why don’t we set up what they call a MEDCAP – a Medical Capabilities operation.
So it’s the first one that goes on in the whole Brigade AO. We are the first one to apply for one and we get one. So I’m trying to coordinate. I had to go brief the Brigade Commander, a full bird Colonel – that’s a funny story. [laughs] I have to tell this story. I go to brief the Brigade Commander on my security plan. I’m bringing everyone into my AO into this one area. We’re going to bring all these medical officers from the Army that are in Baghdad in the Green Zone at the 86th CSH – Combat Support Hospital. We bring them all out and they’re going to treat the patients. They also have a mentorship group from the State Department with doctors that are mentoring these Iraqi doctors. They come out and they’ve got all these civilians with ash are trash everywhere. We set up the security AO and we’re supposed to keep people safe while everyone in the neighborhood goes through and gets treated. We set it up so that they went to the medical tent, got treated, they get ointments, the doctor has seen them and come back in a week. So the people are really happy. But we also set up so that once they came through, they went from one tent to the other and the other tent was full of intel people, Army intel people, human intel people, that would interview them, “How’s everything going? What’s going on in the AO?,” just trying to get some information from them. We got a ton of great information from them because they were really thankful, “we know you guys are here to help.” It was a great day.
I go to brief this plan beforehand, a week before, to the Brigade Commander and his whole staff. I’d actually got called from patrol to do it. I wasn’t planning on doing it but they wanted me there. I go up there, this dum dum Lieutenant. I smell, literally, like sewage after walking around in sewage. [RH laughs] So I go up there, the stink coming off of me could choke a horse. I’d been on an eight hour patrol that started at four o’clock in the morning. It was like three in the afternoon now. I brief my security plan and they’re like, “Roger, Lieutenant Norton. Now get the fuck outta here because you smell.”
So I sit in the back of the room and this female Captain gets up and she’s a Medical Officer. She’s one of those, you find them in the Army or in the service or whatever, these broads that don’t need to act like dudes but they feel like they have to because of the rough and tumble. So she comes up and she’s like, [in a gruff voice] “Alright Sir, here’s what we’re doing. My guys are going to be up here seeing some patients and the patients are reporting. I just want to reiterate to everybody that the patients are the most important people. This is the main effort,” in tactical doctrine parlance, “This is the main effort of the operation so I don’t want anyone messing with my patients and my doctors while they work on sick patients. I’m serious Lieutenant Norton! I don’t want your soldiers messing with the patients at all or punching people and keeping them out of the way. I want to see as many people as possible so you keep your guys away from me! If I see any of your guys messing with my patients, I will…” So there’s this term in the Army, and you may have had it in the Navy and Marines too, for the combat engineers. They say when you run into an obstacle on the battlefield, what do you do? You have an option. You can go around it or you could go over it or you could reduce it or blast it in place. It became “Let’s blast this thing in place.” The engineers would go blow something up and then blast the thing in place and get it out of the way. So it became a term for people in the Army, if someone’s chewing your ass and you’re in trouble, they’re blasting you in place.
KN: So this chick says, “Lieutenant Norton, if I see any of your guys fucking with my patients, I will blow ‘em in place!” [RH laughs] And I immediately burst out laughing. I don’t know if it was because I was tired or whatever but it sounded like she said she was going to give out free blow jobs. [laughs] And I just burst out laughing. And everyone else realized what was going on too and I just couldn’t stop laughing. She was just like, “I’m serious Lieutenant, you will not mess with my patients!” And I’m just like, “Roger ma’am. No problem!”
So anyways, we do this medical operation and, to pull the thread a little bit, coming all the way from chasing down bad guys and not getting them, we end up in this predicament and seeing these kids. It ended up being huge. We throw this operation and it ended up having a huge success and really gaining a lot of good will in that part of the AO that we rode all the way for the rest of the year. It ended up being a great source of information. We ended up doing a lot more of those Medical Capabilities operations and people started to realize, the Lieutenant with the big glasses – I used to wear BCG glasses in the AO specifically because they were so identifiable. You used to look like a retard when you’re wearing them. I wore them specifically so people would be like, “Oh. That’s the guy that’s in charge in this AO. He’s the guy that gets shit done. Let me go talk to him.” It was one of those things and they recognized me. Over time we were everywhere. These Medical Capability operations, we got these operations going and they ended up being something that we ended up doing over and over again all the way through the rest of the year and it built up a lot of good will.
RH: Did you guys ever find out what was causing those lesions?
KN: I didn’t find out they definitive cause. They actually took a bunch of them back to the hospital. They felt like it was such dirty conditions for these kids that they basically just had lesions or big, bubbly infections. That’s what their initial assessment was, just looking at them, because we were like, “What the eff?” That’s what they ended up telling us what it was initially. We never got anything back like, “Hey, there’s something radioactive there,” or whatever. We had no idea. They didn’t look normal, I guess just from living in sewage and stuff like that.
RH: What was the enemy like?
KN: Very elusive. That guy wrote that book about counter-insurgency in Iraq. I forget his name. He was a soldier and he wrote a book called Eating Soup with a Knife. It’s kind of similar. I would describe it as throwing knives at shadows because you can throw a knife at a shadow against a wall and be dead on target – you’ve identified your target, you’ve got something there, I’ve got to hit it and you hit it – and it’s still nothing. It doesn’t have any type of operational effect. You could kill the guy and you hit your target but it was elusive. What you thought was a legitimate target ended up not being a legitimate target and having no operational effect. And I found that that happened most of the time. The enemy was that elusive that most of the time we felt like we were throwing knives at shadows. That’s the way I describe it.
I was telling you that story about the Al Qaeda unit. There was an Al Qaeda unit that was challenging us for the area and we didn’t even know it. They were hitting us with some IEDs but it was sporadic. They’d had that attack on that police station, the Al Baya police station. Once those guys got defeated, the AO was kind of ours. We had some Shiite militia activity, some Sunni – like I was telling you – some Revolutionary Brigades guys but they weren’t organized.
I found out that if we focused on the people as much as possible and focused on helping them, the hearts and minds part of the coin campaign, we ended up getting a lot of good intel. Myself and the rest of the platoon leaders in my company and the rest of the battalion took that same type of attitude. Because it was sporadic activity, it was focused sometimes but there didn’t seem to be an overall strategy. We could kind of isolate it by helping the people out and always being the nice people, always being in the marketplace waving and talking. We used to call it going on the campaign trail, waving and talking to people and saying, “Hey, we’re here to help. What do you think about politics?” I had no fear about talking about politics and getting people excited about the election coming up. We found that by doing that, we kind of insulated ourselves from these random attacks. The attacks became so random and so sparse over time that we felt like we really dominated that AO. So the enemy was elusive at first and then kind of non-existent by the end which was amazing. We were really excited about that.
RH: What are some of the other notable events that occurred during your deployment aside from those that you already mentioned?
KN: Other notable events. God, there was a lot. If I think on the kinetic side, we lost a couple soldiers to IEDs which is really unfortunate. We had a guy get hit by sniper fire and it took his bicep off. It took his bicep off but he was fine. They rushed him to the hospital and he was fine. He was back in his unit a month later. We had a guy who, unfortunately, a really good friend of mine who was a Corporal – he was an older guy – Corporal Stan Lupinkski. He was a little bit older than your average soldier. He was thirty-two at the time. Very mature, extremely smart. He was a 9/11 baby too. He decided to enlist instead of being an officer. He was just a really smart, very mature guy. The soldiers loved him.
I used to talk philosophy with him a lot. We used to bullshit in the field. He was very interested in philosophy and I had taught Western Civilization, Modernization of the West and Western European history. I was very interested in western philosophy and thought too and modern thought. So we’d talk about communism and Marx and utilitarianism and all these different philosophies that basically made the modern world, essentially. It made modern history which made the modern world. He was one of those guys.
I was getting ready to go on patrol and he comes running up to me and says, “Lieutenant Norton! Lieutenant Norton!” I’m thinking he’s about to give me a last-minute intel dump before I go on patrol, like something’s happening in the AO. I was like, “What’s up Ski?” because it was Lupinski. He was like, “Hey, Lieutenant Norton. Phew! Glad I caught you. Do you know what philosopher coined the term ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’?” [RH laughs] He was like, “Was it Mikhail Bakunin?,” – the Russian anarchist, the founder of anarchism. I was like, “No. Actually, that might have been Marx. I’m not sure but I thought Marx was the one that was talking about the dictatorship of the proletariat leading to the freedom of all and having no real power structure, or a reversal of the power structure that would eventually lead to no power structure and everyone living together in communities. But I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’ll have to look it up.” He was like, “OK. I’ll check it out too.” So that was the type of stuff. He was a really smart, good dude. And he actually got killed and was hit by and IED. It was a random shot. It was just the luck of the draw. It didn’t even hit his vehicle. It hit behind him and he was behind all that glass in the turret of the gun in the Humvee and a random, tiny shard of shrapnel just happened to clear that one thing – he was kind of a tall guy – and just hit him right under his helmet and he was dead like that. He was dead instantly. It was a real shame.
This is something that was very memorable. We went to break down his stuff and, like I said, he wasn’t in my platoon so another platoon was clearing out his foot locker and stuff like that but since I was very close with him I was checking in on him. And this one kid, Corporal Brown his name was, said, “Here, Sir. Do you want this?” And it was the most dog-eared, underlined, read and re-read copy of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville that I’ve ever seen. It kind of brought it all home to me. This is a talented guy that could have fucking done anything. He wanted to serve his country and he felt like it was the right time. He believed in the mission very much so. He believed that human beings were capable of being free. He was very, very clear about that and that was one of the things I truly believe in too.
I don’t care if you were Iraqi, if you were a Muslim, if you were a Christian, you’re black, you’re white, you’re brown. I felt like in America that there was this really disgusting strain that came mostly from progressive liberal side of people that were opposing the president. I felt like there was this disgusting trend from the left and the right of people just like, “Why are we in there? They don’t have the capacity to be democratic. They don’t have a George Washington there,” or whatever. I felt like that was such an unfair assessment because the basics – and we saw this happen over the years – the people will always reach out and always take the next step. They take the dangerous steps to make themselves free in one form or fashion. It may not look like Jeffersonian democracy but in its most basic form – and I saw this over and over again – if you give people the chance to be free, to make their own decisions and order their own lives and their own society, they’re going to take that chance no matter what’s happened to them in the past and no matter what their culture dictates. And I felt like that was a really immature thing for the rest of the country and I really bonded with this guy.
It really was and that was a very memorable thing because it was a huge loss for us as a unit but for me personally as well. It just kind of encapsulated this generation of guys like you and me that could be doing other things and getting on with our lives after 9/11 and doing whatever but felt like if we could make a difference and we could not just take out Saddam or take out the Taliban because that was only part of it. If we could actually help these people decide for themselves and order and configure their own lives and their own society, we’ve done something. We’ve had the revenge that I was looking for after 9/11. Folks could be living, and unfortunately it’s not really happening right now, but they could have been living examples. That country could have been the embodiment of what we were trying to do – a tribute to 9/11 and what we lost. It could have been those countries. And that still can happen. I still am pretty hopeful, especially about Iraq believe it or not. Over time it might take twenty or thirty or fifty years but I feel like we gave them that taste and too many people don’t want to let that go.
RH: Alright. Are there any Iraqis in particular that stick out?
KN: Yes. All my interpreters were just good human beings and taking tremendous risks with their own lives and the lives of their families to help us out. That was amazing. My intelligence sources, they were taking tremendous risks. They believed in us and they believed in themselves, really.
One guy that really stuck out to me was that imam of that angry mosque. Right before we get on the ground, this mosque called the Shuhadi mosque had been raided by the previous unit – a special forces unit – and they found a bunch of perfectly intact, ready to go VBIEDs. So they arrest that mosque leader, that imam, and they arrest everyone in the mosque. They shut down the mosque. They bring in the mosque committee because each mosque has its own committee and its own members. They bring in a new guy who is less angry but he’s still a Sunni and he feels disenfranchised. That’s the guy I was going to engage every day when we got there. He was new too and over time we built a lot of rapport.
One of the things that I thought was really noteworthy was he was very suspect of me at first. I would go and engage him on everything. I’d talk religion. “Want to talk religion? Let’s talk about religion. Let’s talk about Islam or Christianity.” And we would. He would lecture me on Islam saying, “This is what I think and you’re wrong,” or whatever. I had studied Islam a lot too and told him what my understanding of Sharia law is. I’m telling him this and we’d have conversations that would go on for hours. Eventually we’d have tea together. He never invited me into the mosque nor would I have gone into the mosque. It would have been disrespectful for a US soldier to be walking around inside the mosque unless we were raiding the place. We’d go outside and he’d come outside his gate and we’d talk and he was very suspect of us. I told him, “You’re a free man now. I might have a gun but I’m not allowed to do anything to you because you’re a free man. As long as you follow the rules and obey the laws of the country, you’re free to say whatever the fuck you want to. You want to tell me to fuck off, then fine.” We’d have these very pointed conversations at times. We were yelling at each other at times because Iraqis love to talk politics and Arabs in general. Their two favorite things: politics and religion. That’s what really builds relationships and rapport in the Arab world so I didn’t shy away and neither did he.
One time I said, “What do you think of President Bush?” He says, “Aww, Bush is a cowboy.” He starts spitting out these talking points of the Bush critics in the US. He’s spitting out all these talking points, “Bush is a cowboy, bla, bla, bla,” and all this other stuff. But he said a couple of things in that conversation I’ll never forget. He said he respects the American people because the American people always will hold their government accountable. Stemming from the Bush thing, he thought we were going to hang Bush in the streets but he always felt that Americans always got it right and I brought up the 2000 election where the country didn’t fall apart when there was a crisis of power. The transition of power was not clean but we didn’t go into riots or anything. He respected that. He respected the American people. He thought we were ingenious in terms of technology and always having the new thing and always developing new things. They had a lot of respect for us.
The other thing he said, I said, “What do you think of the American people who say that Bush only invaded Iraq for your oil, for Iraqi oil? I think it’s stupid because I’m here. I’m trying to help you out. WMDs or oil, I’m still here. It doesn’t matter." He said, “Let me tell you something.” He gets real serious and he gets a little bit teary-eyed like a lot of Arabs do. He’s getting emotional. And he’s talking through my interpreter so this is how my interpreter interpreted it so take it as you will. I said to him, “What do you think about Bush and the oil thing,” and he says, “Let me tell you something. We will give you every drop of our oil for one drop of your freedom.” And it hit me in the gut. I was like, man, this guy understands it. He doesn’t give a shit why we invaded. We’re here and as long as Saddam is no longer there throwing people off the roofs of buildings for fun and oppressing everybody and taking the wealth of the country and he actually has the right to preach to his people and do what he sees fit within the bounds of the law and nobody’s killing each other, then this country’s going to be alright. The trade has been a good one, even if we take all the oil. I was really, really struck by that. This is coming from a guy who is in charge of an angry Sunni mosque in April, May, June of 2005 when shit was really about to kick off. So that was one of those memorable Iraqis that I really remember. I remember so many. There really were a lot.
RH: What was the most challenging period of the deployment: the beginning, the middle or the end?
KN: That’s a great question. Challenging? I mean, you can define it many different ways. I was just straight up scared the first time we drove out the gate. I had no idea what to expect. I was terrified about losing guys. I was terrified about shooting some innocent person that I mistook or whatever. Just everything that could go wrong was in my head, weighing down like a ton of bricks and I was in charge of it all in my little AO. The challenge was getting to a place where I could actually step out of the Humvee and have a clear thought and think something or driving around and actually go, “What do I do next?,” and stop worrying about how it all could go wrong. That was a huge challenge. It took me a week to get my feet under me to be like, “OK. I have this plan. Here’s what I’m going to do. What are we going to do next that makes sense?” So that was challenging.
The middle of the deployment losing guys was very challenging. Trying to keep everybody motivated when that type of stuff happens and trying to keep dudes on a leash. This guy Lupinski died in June. The anniversary was actually June 11th. Trying to keep soldiers that were great friends with this dude from not going out and randomly kicking down doors and shooting dudes and being trigger happy. It was one of the most difficult things ever. These guys were disciplined though. It ended up being more in my head than anything else but it was still something that was really tough – to keep guys on message, keep them on mission and keep them focused on helping the Iraqi people. How do you try to help the Iraqi people out when it seems like everyone is out to get you and taking your guys’ life? So that was definitely tough.
The end of the deployment was tough just trying to keep people focused. There were two things that were real tough. At the end everyone gets kind of complacent and they’re ready to go home and they’re thinking about banging their girlfriend. So keeping people in the moment and making sure that they’re still on point was tough towards the end. But the other thing that was tough was we had two elections that we had to keep polling stations open for. I actually ended up writing a plan because at this point in the fall I had to transition out. I had almost two years of platoon leader time between my pre-deployment training with my platoon all the way through to the end of the year. They had to change me out. The Army’s policy really is you get one year as a platoon leader – twelve months or fourteen months. I was on month number twenty and they had a whole bunch of Lieutenants. They had plussed up all these Second Lieutenants that were sitting in battalion headquarters waiting for platoons in case someone died or whatever. Those guys needed to get into their platoons. The Department of the Army started saying, “Why aren’t these guys platoon leaders? What are they doing jerking off in the S3 shop?” So I ended up switching out which sucks because I wanted to bring my guys home.
But then I ended up going to the Op Shop and became an operations planner – one of the main planning officers. And I was one of the main planners that wrote the plan to protect all the area for the elections coming up so it was working with the intel guys, wargaming how they would attack these polling stations or where people would be massing to try and go to the polling stations. Those were all targets at that point and we’re trying to keep people safe. So we came up with the barrier plan where we would put these big concrete barriers leading into the polling stations – how people flow was going to happen, what streets would get completely cut off to make sure there was no attacks, which buildings we had to dominate around the polling stations and stuff like that, which areas, which roads we had to dominate to keep everything safe. So I helped to write that plan and we ended up having zero attacks that day. So the challenge was unbelievable. I remember not sleeping for over forty-eight hours going through form the day before all the way to the day after and then falling into this coma after it was all over. So that was a specific operational challenge that I was involved in that was extremely challenging, just working day and night, hours on end to try to come up with a plan.
They voted for the constitution in October of 2005 and that went well. They adopted the constitution and then the elections to seat the first government was in December of 2005, right at the end of our deployment. I helped to write that plan too. It was very similar. And coordinating media coverage. It’s so interesting because we had an imbed. Christiane Amanpour was supposed to be imbedded with our unit in southwestern Baghdad. Everyone’s expecting shit to blow up on Election Day and she wanted our battalion to provide her with helicopter support or we were supposed to escort her around the battlefield to different polling stations. We took her to a polling station and she’s standing there like, “Well, this is kind of boring. What’s going on in the rest of the area? If something blows up, I want to be there.” And we were like, “You fucking bloodhound. You are a vampire. You’re not going to report on these people who are cheering?”
Election Days were unbelievable. It was one of those things that truly reaffirmed my belief in the process. Just the idea of voting for these people was so new it was like a festival. Nobody was working. Everyone was out kicking around a soccer ball, barbequing and hanging out with their neighbors. Just the feeling, the electricity, the emotion and the excitement on the street for both of those elections was something I cannot describe and no one will ever be able to experience ever again. It just was unbelievable. And to have this broad just sitting here looking for disaster and to sit there and report on the disaster was beyond disgusting to me.
That was the kind of stuff that we had to coordinate too. Here’s our plan. We have to account for the imbedded reporters. We had to do this. There’s all these different aspects that we had to deal with. So that was a serious challenge at the end of the deployment.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was the most challenging non-combat aspect of deploying?
KN: Man! The most challenging non-combat aspect? I think most challenging thing was, really, kind of knowing that no matter what you did, you couldn’t help out all the people all the time. It’s knowing that you can’t help all the people all the time and cleaning up a market after a VBIED drove into a marketplace and blew itself up. We weren’t even there. We responded afterwards to the carnage and knowing that it was nearly impossible to stop. Always wanting to do something was definitely the most challenging thing non-combat related. It was the challenge of being lonely and being away from home. My brother’s wife was pregnant with the first kid and ended up having the first kid in September of 2005 and being away for that kind of stuff.
My mom actually had cancer at the time and she was in remission. She had the surgery right before I left. She was in remission and they hit her with chemo one last time. Not being there for that was something that was so challenging for me and trying to constantly stay in touch with her. When someone died from our battalion they shut down all communications because they wanted to be able to let the casualty officers know before some idiot got on facebook or called home to his wife and said, “Hey. Stan Lupinski died.” Then she goes and tells the wife instead of the Army telling her. So a lot of times it would be four or five days without access to the internet and if we lost somebody and were out of contact with our families it was definitely one of the most challenging things.
And keeping morale up at that point. Keeping morale up was definitely one of the most challenging non-combat challenges related to those types of things – communication at home and not being home.
RH: During the deployment, how did you grow?
KN: How did I grow? Interesting. I definitely grew up a lot definitely in terms of maturity. Just in terms of when you’ve got the weight of not just your welfare but the welfare of your platoon and they guys that you’re in command over, trying to keep them safe and keep them happy but also make them successful. A United States infantryman – Army or Marine – will literally suffer any type of indignity or hellish type of circumstance if, at the end, he feels like he is going to be successful. Those guys would do whatever they have to over and over again. If they feel like you are on a mission, if they feel like there’s a point and there’s a goal and you get to that goal, they’re going to do whatever. I felt like I grew in terms of confidence because that was happening. They would follow me anywhere. One guy said, “Sir, I would rather have taken a bullet than disappointed you and the platoon.” To me that was kind of a validation that if you put the needs and wants of other people before your own and before yourself, not only will they follow you but chances are, if you are constantly focused on that and you’re focused on it while you’re focused on the mission, you will be successful in the craziest of circumstances.
I felt like, overall, we were very successful and I felt like I grew in a lot of confidence. I grew in leadership abilities but I also learned a lot of lessons about human dynamics talking with the Iraqi people. I remember, knowing now that I finally understood the concept of looking at someone in front of you and trying to figure out, “What’s important to this person?” I’m talking to this guy and trying to help this guy out and he’s trying to help me out or whatever the nature of the relationship is, if I can figure out what’s important to this person and try to address that need, then I can understand that person in a way that makes it mutually beneficial. That’s really how I kind of grew. Leadership is a tough thing but to the soldiers it’s the same thing. They looked out for each other and they cared more about others and the mission more than they cared about themselves. They learned the same lesson. Even if they were Private Snuffy, it became one of those things where you become your greatest when you’re part of a team and the team is working well. You’re so much more important than you are as an individual and you can contribute that much more.
General maturity, if that’s the right word, was really how I grew and it’s informed the rest of my life in ways that are so numerous that it’s impossible to name them all. Whether it’s me being a sales rep or me being a consultant with the Department of Defense now, in my professional life, my personal life, I feel like I take a leadership role with my family, with my wife. To take care of her and look out for her I put her needs before my own and she appreciates that. She loves that and she follows me in a way that I feel is somewhat similar. That’s that maturity that came through that I feel makes me a better man.
RH: Good to go. Did you have any transformative or significant events that informed your deployment aside from those that you already told me about?
KN: You know, I felt like this debate keeps coming up. It’s coming now in the next election, the election of 2016, “Was it stupid to go into Iraq knowing what we know now?” We could get into those type of hypotheticals or whatever but the bottom line is, just like every other veteran you talk to, we were there. We had a mission and we went and we did it. I felt like, just like I was telling you before, the mission in my mind or the importance of the mission and the outcome of the mission changed over time.
I felt like one of the transformative things were these little things that happened. I started a campaign called Operation Kevin’s Kids. I asked my uncle here in the US in New York and he reached out to all these different people in the community – schools, high schools, grammar schools, Catholic churches – to send medical supplies and school supplies for the kids and we would have them out on patrols. We got tons, literally, tons and tons and tons and tons of stuff from all over New York and all over the States really. It got folded into a program that the battalion tried to stand up called Operation Iraqi Schools and we took that over. We collected forty thousand pounds or twenty tons of school supplies and handed them out over the course of the year.
I felt like those operations were really – it was day to day. The standing order in my platoon, just like every other platoon in the battalion eventually, you go and you pick up some notebooks, you pick up some candy, you pick up some soccer balls. A lot of units did this. I wasn’t the only one. But you go out and those were those things that were transformative in terms of changing the way every soldier in our platoon and our battalion viewed what they were meant to do there. They would go there and they would interact with these people and they would give these kids the stuff and the parents would be so grateful, “Al-hamdu lillah, praise be to God. Thank you so much for what you did. My kids will love this.” Those are the missions, I found my soldiers wanting to go on those missions more and more especially after an IED event or a guy died or something like that. It eventually became one of those things that helped people kind of cope and keep them focused on why we were really there.
There were so many little events that were transformative. I remember one time we’re handing out all this stuff. We’re handing out all this gear to these kids and it was always kind of like a melee – kids running around trying to grab stuff and we’re trying to calm them down and hand stuff out in an orderly fashion. This one kid had a teddy bear. He’s got two notebooks under his arm. He’s got a ruler and pens and pencils and he’s just running around. He’s trying to get away because kids are trying to steal shit from each other too and we’re trying to calm everybody down. This kid’s running and I’m standing next to one of my squad leaders. I’m sitting there talking and we’re looking over the whole thing making sure everything’s safe and this kid’s got this handful of stuff. He runs past my Sergeant and my squad leader – I remember his name, Staff Sergeant Arroyo – so he runs right past this guy and he’s two feet from running into a busy road. Sergeant Arroyo goes, “Holy shit!” And he grabs this kid. He just gets past me and he grabs him by his chest like that [makes a grabbing motion] from behind and he yanks him in like, “Hold on buddy, hold on.” The interpreter’s going, “Hold on buddy. That’s a busy road.” The kid’s looking up. He’s like, “It’s OK. It’ll be OK. Just watch out for the street.” The kid’s like, “OK,” and the interpreter tells him, “Just be careful.” The kid runs away and the Sergeant looks at me and goes, “That kid’s heart was beating two hundred miles a minute. I felt his heart beating when I put my hands on his chest to try and stop him from running into the street.” For this kid, this was like Christmas. You’d like to think that this was something that kid never forgets.
So those were the type of transformative things where you’re like, whatever happens, somebody in Iraq might be saying, “You know what? Fuck America or fuck the past,” or whatever but they’ll remember that we tried to take care of them as much as we possibly could, you know? And that was kind of transformative, because of that operation. Those types of things. Those day to day interactions were kind of transformative.
RH: Good to go. Alright. Before we move on Afghanistan and coming home, is there anything that we left out about this deployment that you would like to address?
KN: Not at all.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Can you talk a little bit about your immediate post-deployment experiences from this deployment?
KN: Yes. It’s kind of funny, man. So we came home and kind of got right back into the mode again. I was the Plans officer for the battalion so at that point I’m like logistics and helping the rest of the planning shop, the S3 shop to figure out who’s going home when, who’s getting on what hop, getting onto what plane to get home, who’s in charge when they get home and all this other shit. It was go mode all the way until we got home and then they cut us loose. I remember coming back on the bus from Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah to the base. We’re on a bus and we’re just driving and we’re kind of quiet. Everybody’s really excited to be home. We got home, we’re in formation, they release us and the first person I see is my sister. Everybody’s running around and they come from the grandstands or whatever and everyone’s running around the parade field looking for people. I look around and my sister’s like, “There he is!” I gave her a big hug or my family comes around and I gave everybody a big hug. My little niece who was a newborn at the time, she was only three months old, I hold her. My parents took a picture of that. I still have that which is awesome. It’s just a really exciting time.
They immediately release us and we go down to Savannah and my parents are staying in a hotel with my family. We go out and have a great meal. We have a bunch of beers and it was so overwhelmingly exciting and happy. It was unbelievable. I rode high for a while and I didn’t understand it at the time but you may have had the same experience. You go right back into go mode and you’re trying to get ready for the next deployment. Everyone’s kind of reintegrating but you never really slow down and stop and think everything through and put it into perspective. I didn’t really notice this at the time – it happened both times – but I was kind of out of control. I wasn’t depressed or drinking by myself or whatever but I was so euphoric. You get into the mindset of, “Man, with the thing I just went through, I must be fucking awesome!” Everything I do is brilliant because I just got home from a deployment, you know what I mean? You may have experienced that same type of euphoria like, “Yeah! I can do no wrong!”
I was really out of control. The first day I got back I went and bought a cell phone. I went and drove off the lot a used white, 2002 Mustang. What was that? Who drives that besides guido chicks? [RH laughs] It’s a five speed transmission and I beat the bag out of that thing all the way around Savannah, driving a hundred miles an hour. Everything I did was gold. At one point I was kind of stupid. I was drinking and driving a couple of times which is dumb. I would go down to downtown Savannah and get rocked. I wasn’t that far from downtown but there was no excuse. It was that type of out of control-ness. Hooking up with a couple broads. I imagine the next day they were probably like, “What is the matter with this guy?,” just because I was out of control. Everything I do is awesome so you better do what I say type of thing, you know what I mean?
KN: And I didn’t realize that the euphoria was really more of me totally feeling out of place like, “What do I do now?” After being on point, I found myself always waking up in the middle of the night because you always slept with your rifle. We were in hardened buildings on a base but it was a standing order at the time. You sleep with your rifle. So a couple of times I’d wake up thinking I’d lost my rifle. Just that type of stuff. I was not back in the mindset of go do PT from 5:00 AM to 6:00, go eat breakfast at Denny’s, shower up and get in your uniform then go do office work. I just wasn’t prepared for it, really. I didn’t even know that I was having that type of reaction. The same thing was happening in Afghanistan and we can talk about later. I got back from Afghanistan and that post-deployment high was even worse because I thought I wasn’t going to make it home. On the second deployment I dodged so many bullets that I thought my time is going to be up. It was more gunfights. Afghanistan was true blue gun fighting.
RH: So you said you got out in 2006. You eventually transitioned out of the Army?
KN: Yes. We got back in January of 2006. I stayed in the Army for another nine months and got out in September of 2006. I took a job at Johnson & Johnson selling surgical tools. I made a ton of money but wasn’t happy with it. I went to grad school at Johns Hopkins and took a job at Booz Allen Hamilton part time. I was working during the day and I had switched to a night school. It was the same school, Johns Hopkins, but I switched to the executive program so I could work in the day. That’s when I got called back. In the fall of ’08 I got called back to go to Afghanistan.
Part 2 of Kevin's interview can be found here.