Michael deployed to Iraq in 2009 and served as an intelligence officer in the Army Reserve. In Iraq he worked at the corps-level intelligence and monitored a number of regions throughout the country. During his time at Al Faw palace in Baghdad he met the man who pulled Saddam Hussein out of the spider hole and briefed Vice President Joe Biden's personal security detail. He is currently a teacher.
Interview conducted on April 19, 2015 in White Plains, New York
Present: Richard Hayden and Michael Sanchez
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Michael Sanchez: Michael Andrew Sanchez.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
MS: I was in the United States Army Reserve from 2001 until 2012.
RH: What was your rank when you got out?
RH: What was your MOS?
MS: I’ve has two MOSes throughout my career. When I was enlisted right after 9/11 for about a year and a half I was a 31B [spoken as thirty-one Bravo] which is military police. It used to be 35B [spoken as thirty-five Bravo] I believe. When I became an officer, I became an intel officer which is a 35D, [spoken as thirty-five Delta] All Source officer, and I was in charge of a detachment of 35Gs [spoken as thirty-five Golfs] which are image analysts.
RH: What were some of your units?
MS: I’ve had a few units. When I was an MP, my first unit was a unit called the 1302 [spoken as thirteen oh-second] Port Security Unit. They were responsible for port security. When I first joined them when I got out of basic and AIT, they were actually stationed at Cherry Point, which is in North Carolina, for about a year and a half. It was a mobilization, it wasn’t a deployment, it was a mobilization. They guarded Cherry Point which is the largest Army depot in the world. It’s a huge Army depot on the Cape Fear River.
My intel unit when I became an officer started out being the 331st Military Intelligence Company which is part of the 800th MP Battalion. And when the military started to reorganize itself to be more efficient in terms of which branches or which units reported to who, they moved the 331st to the 323rd Military Intelligence Battalion out of Fort Meade, Maryland. We remained the 331st until a few years into the reorganization and then we became DET 1 Alpha Company, 323 Military Intelligence. The unit was an imagery unit.
RH: What motivated you to join the military?
MS: In 2001, right as I graduated college, that fall 9/11 happened and I pretty much had sworn somewhere in my life that if the United States was ever attacked that I would join the military and do my military service. My father served in Korea as a seventeen-year-old in the United States Navy and I just felt that it was the right thing to do.
RH: Why did you pick the branch of service that you did?
MS: As a college graduate I was twenty-two years old when 9/11 happened. I wanted to check out all of my options. I never thought that I was ever going to join the military. It wasn’t a goal of mine or something that I really had aspirations to do as a young person. I looked at the Navy. I looked at the Marines. I looked at Air Force. I originally wanted to be a Naval officer and do military intelligence there but I didn’t want to join active duty. As I did my investigation the Navy said that I needed, I think, four years of prior service to join the Naval Reserve which I didn’t have and I wasn’t going to go active Navy. I didn’t want to be on a boat forever which was one of the things that discouraged me from joining the Navy so I looked into the Army. I didn’t want to be a Marine because I felt like the Marines were very brainwashy. I didn’t necessarily want to be a grunt, a full-time grunt, so I wanted to be in the action but I wanted to put my skills to use and the Army just offered more jobs. I could go in as a reservist and be a full-time reservist as opposed to having to do active military service right of the bat. I knew that I eventually wanted to go to graduate school and going active would not have allowed me to accomplish my civilian goals.
So in researching the Army I went and talked to the recruiter down in Mount Vernon, Staff Sergeant Gonzalez. I remember him. He was a great guy. He gave me some options. He was very hands-off. I told him, “I’m joining the military.” I said, “do not call me. Do not bother my family. Do not harass me. I’m telling you I’m signing up, I just want to do it on my terms.” And he was great about that. He came and talked to my family. My parents were supportive but obviously my mother was very apprehensive. And the jobs that the Army could offer me were just much greater in their variety as opposed to some of the other military branches.
RH: How did your family feel about your decision?
MS: After 9/11 things were very up in the air. We didn’t know if this was going to be World War III. We hadn’t declared war on any countries. We started our assault on Afghanistan in October of 2001 but there was no real declaration of war. It was just so ambiguous, where we stood in the world and where we were going.
My father, though he never would have said it, was extremely proud in the sense that I was going to do my patriotic duty. My mother, just like most mothers, was very apprehensive. She didn’t want her child to go off to war, let alone her youngest child. This was really the first adult decision in my entire that I had made life solely on my own. So this was growing up in the blink of an eye.
RH: Why did you pick the MOS that you did?
MS: I only had a choice over my enlisted MOS. When I went in, again, I originally wanted to do military intelligence but I would have had to have waited until April of 2002 in order to possibly get a slot in military intelligence school. I passed the ASVAB, I scored high enough and I had all the scores to get into intel but it would have been a few months down the road and two factors played into it. One, I didn’t want to change my mind. If I waited several months then that might have happened. Two, there were no guarantees that I would get into those slots and it could have been longer. So my motivation was I wanted to get into the fight as quickly as possible. The two MOSes that were in demand – because that’s how the military works, they want to slot you where they need you – so the two options they really gave me was either Supply or Military Police.
So the way that it was described to me was if you’re a Supply NCO – I had a college degree so I did come in as an E4 – that you’re basically responsible for logistics and supplies, handing out equipment, and that just seemed very against what I wanted to join for. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good MOS. I think in the civilian world, the responsibility that it brought – I’m trying to weigh how this is going to equate when I come out of the military. Will this be something that I’ll be able to use? So being responsible for millions of dollars of equipment, tracking that equipment was somewhat appealing but not what I was interested in.
Military Police on the other hand, I knew that Military Police was stacked to the T with arms. They’re in the combat role of basically mobilized infantry. They’re kicking in doors and they were doing some pretty hooah stuff. Though, I have a major disdain for police officers as a whole [RH laughs] going back to my youth and my childhood, though I know that there are some great police officers out there. Giving people tickets on a military base or busting people’s chops for minor infractions was not something that I was really interested in. I think the combat role of the military police was much more appealing to me and the fact that he said that I could lead soldiers and that I would see action and I could be in school very quickly was a major turn on for me. So I literally signed my papers on November 5, 2001 and I was in basic training on November 15, 2001. Within ten days I had signed my papers and I was in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
RH: Where were you on September 11th?
MS: September 11th, 2001 I was at my parents’ house, my childhood residence and I was in bed. I had just recently returned from Africa from about a three-and-a-half week soiling my oats, is that what it is?, travelling, seeing the world. Everything was great coming out of college. On that day – I was looking to be a substitute teacher – I was twenty-two. My mother came upstairs, I lived in the attic at the time, and said, “you have to wake up. You have to come downstairs now. Something has happened at the World Trade Center.” I remember waking up and turning on my television in my room with mother standing there and watching. Both towers by this point had already been hit.
I quickly got out of bed, I went downstairs, and I was in the kitchen with my mother watching the news. I remember watching, I’m pretty sure, the north tower collapse. I immediately said to her, “this is World War III.” I think by that point we knew that it was not an accident. Both towers had been hit, one tower had collapsed. I think right that around time period we were also getting information that the Pentagon had been hit and I don’t think we knew about Flight 93 yet. But I just remember thinking in my head that we are at war, and that this was serious. I had major concerns for my brother who lived in the city at the time and my friend Jay who was a firefighter at the time. We didn’t know. It was just the weirdest situation that I’ve ever been in in my life in a sense that we just didn’t know what was going on, the full story, and where we were heading. It was just complete and utter astonishment and confusion.
It was traumatizing. It was traumatizing for the country, and I think that it was traumatizing for all of us in a way that like when JFK was assassinated, it was something where we would never forget exactly where we were when we found out that planes had flown into the towers.
RH: In the month and a half between September 11th and when you enlisted and two months before you shipped out or went to boot camp, what do you remember about that time? How were you feeling?
MS: I was twenty-two. I remember that week gathering with friends. We would go to the bars and drink outside. It was still relatively mild out and we were talking about what was going to happen with the world and what our next moves were. We were in shock probably for at least three weeks, I feel like. It was the only thing that we lived and breathed for twenty-four hours a day for probably three weeks to a month, you know? I remember telling people, “I’m joining the military.” I remember just saying, “there’s no ifs, ands or buts. I’m going to join the military in some capacity.” And it was that time period where, literally in a day or two, I started doing the research and going to visit recruiters and whatnot.
RH: So you went to Fort Leonard Wood for boot camp, correct?
MS: I went to Fort Leonard Wood for OSUT training – One Stop Unit Training – for basic and military police training.
RH: What was that training like?
MS: It was very interesting in a sense that it was the first round of soldiers – not everyone that was in basic training was there because of 9/11. I was there because of 9/11 but there were people that had been signed up for weeks and months prior to 9/11 that probably were like, “holy shit,” [RH laughs] “what did I get myself into?,” not thinking that they would ever go to war at all. And our NCOs were pretty much a cadre of NCOs that had never been to war but they were hardcore. I had some insanely hardcore NCOs. Today, you go to basic training or boot camp, you have a cadre full of veterans that have not only been there once, twice maybe three, four, five times at this point. We’re talking a lot of experience.
So I could tell you it was probably my least favorite time in the military. It was humbling in many respects because, though I was a college graduate, I was probably one of five college graduates out of four platoons that had probably three hundred people or so in it. Was it three hundred? Our battalion had three hundred so maybe it was a hundred and fifty or so. It was a hundred fifty people in the company, that’s what it was. It was humbling because my college experience – everything that I had been taught book-wise and academically – meant absolutely nothing in the military. Things I thought I would excel at, I failed at. Things that I thought I was not going to do well at, I did well at. I was just really put in a situation where I was out of my element, you know?
With that being said, I was the honor graduate of my platoon. It ended up working out because I adapted as I went and there were things that worked in my favor but I was picked on because I had gone to college. I was picked on with my other buddy Bill because we were from New York. It was not easy. You probably couldn’t pay me at this point to do it again.
RH: To become an officer did you attend OCS? What was your path to becoming an officer like?
MS: I graduated from Basic and AIT as a military police office. I went to my unit the 1302nd and there I met some NCOs – they were cadets, actually – who were doing ROTC down at Fordham. So I inquired about it and I said, “how can I become an officer?” They answered questions. They said, “you should go down and see the people down at Fordham.” Since I had a college degree, I was like, “I’m interested in pursuing a field in education, maybe I can get my Master’s paid for.”
The issue was, right at the time that I decided I wanted to become a cadet, our unit the 1302nd was getting ready to mobilize to go to Cherry Point and they needed all their bodies. They needed all their enlisted people. I was a Specialist at the time and they were going to try and convince me not to do ROTC because once you’re in ROTC you’re non-mobilizable, you’re non-deployable. They had known my plans, they were supportive until the orders came down and then they tried to tell me I couldn’t do it. They were like “if you’re going to do ROTC you need to have that paperwork on my desk by tomorrow.”
So I went down to Fordham and in one day I got a full ROTC scholarship to Fordham University for a Master’s Degree in education. It seems like the impossible happened but I could very easily tell you that I was in very high demand for a school like Fordham University. I was a college graduate already. I was Hispanic. So to have a college – this is 2001 – to have a Hispanic person with a college degree going for a Master’s interested in ROTC, I filled this really small niche that they were interested in having to add to their numbers. I think it worked out for them. It worked out for me very well. I got my paperwork in and I got my commission through ROTC.
RH: When did you actually get commissioned?
MS: I got commissioned in 2004, May 2004.
RH: Did you face any unique leadership challenges as a young officer?
MS: Every single day, even as a Reserve officer. The funny thing about the Reserves is people think they do one weekend a month, two weeks a year and that’s it. But as a NCO, as an officer, you are every single night on your e-mail. You are setting up training for the month for whatever your drill weekend is, whether it’s the range or whether it’s this training or that training. As time went on the demands became more as the military knew what they actually had to do to be successful and what we were trying to accomplish.
But being twenty-two years old as a Second Lieutenant and being in charge of men that are forty-five, fifty years old who are your E6s, E7s – on the Reserve side your NCOs are generally a little bit older. Nowadays it’s come back to the young side because of the way that the demographics have switched but when I came in most NCOs were much older – double my age, easily. Finding that balance of being a leader, being assertive and letting people know that you are in charge but at the same time listening to the people that had probably been in the Army for as long as you have been alive and respecting what they had to say and making decisions as a leadership unit as opposed to just one person making a unilateral decision just because they can. You find that with a lot of young officers where they’re like, “I’m in charge.” It’s a big ego thing as opposed to really understanding using the experience to your benefit. Because I was a little bit older when I joined the military, I feel like I was able to put my ego aside in many cases to say that the E6 – even the E5 – the E5, the E6 and especially the E7 raise good points and their experience was invaluable.
And then I had issues where I had older NCOs who were fucking up. Missing drill, being drunk, coming to drill, not showing up for drill because they’re drunk and then having to be a twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four-year-old – I was twenty-four when I became a Second Lieutenant – twenty-four years old and laying the smackdown on someone who was double my age. They’re basically like, “fuck you Second Lieutenant!” There’s very little recourse in the Reserves when they’re Active Duty. You control everything about these soldiers’ lives. Once we leave drill weekend, besides maybe writing them up, there wasn’t much recourse for things like that. So it was difficult.
RH: Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan, or both?
MS: I served one tour in Iraq from 2009 to 2010.
RH: As a Reservist, what was the work up to that like?
MS: By this point it was 2008 when we found out that we were deploying. I had just received tenure as a Social Studies teacher in White Plains. That October we were told that we would be deploying to Iraq in a theater-level intelligence capacity and our training started in February of 2009. It did not leave us a lot of time to get things in order.
We trained in three major places prior to our deployment. We did our initial at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Now it’s Dix-Maguire-Lakehurst Joint Base. We did about, maybe a month training there. Then we went back to Fort Meade in Maryland to do a lot of class training – cultural training, intel training – because most of our secure facilities were there. And then some of the agencies that we were doing work for were also in DC so we did a lot of training at those agencies. And then we went back to Fort Dix and then from Fort Dix we went to Fort Hood.
So we were able to see our families and our friends leading up to Fort Hood and once we went to Fort Hood that was really, to me in my mind, the beginning of our deployment because we went right from Fort Hood to Kuwait and then to Iraq. Do you want to know about the specific training that we did or just where we did it?
RH: What was the training like? Specifically as much as you can recall.
MS: At Fort Dix it was based around infantry. It was based around our basic infantry skills – shooting, tactics, leadership, weapons qualification, breaking down your weapons. Your basic infantry stuff that you should just know as a soldier, you have to know. Just familiarity. We shot off everything. We carried M16s and M9s but we did the .50 cal training, the SAW training, the 240B training. We might have even have had M60s still. I think we did have M60s still. But we were transitioning to 240Bs from there, that’s the 7.62 rounds, fully automatic machine gun and then Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher training. So it was a lot of that basic stuff and it was fucking cold. I remember there were a few days where we had a foot and a half of snow. We had night shooting training and it would be a blizzard outside. It was not happy. It was not a happy time. We were getting our smallpox vaccinations. It was not cool.
The we went back to Maryland and we did some basic intel and cultural training and classes. That was a lot of classes but we were living in a hotel. On the weekends our spouses or girlfriends or whatnot could come and visit us. It wasn’t very restrictive in a sense that, once your day was over, you could go to the movies. Many of them lived in Maryland because a majority of the people in our unit were from Maryland. I had played hockey down there twice, pick up hockey. I brought my equipment down with me.
And then we went back to Fort Dix really to get our equipment, all of our gear that we were needing to deploy, some other class training or whatnot and then when we went down to Fort Hood, that was our very specific theater-level intelligence training. What they could do down there is they put us in the teams that they thought we were going to be in in terms of the section of the case, the corps analysis control element that we were going to be in. Whenever you have a plan, the first contact the plan goes to shit, you know, type deal. So they thought they had a plan going and then we got over there and everything was just out the window. People that thought they were in charge weren’t in charge. That was a whole ego thing.
But at Fort Hood that was the very specific intel training and skill set that was going to be needed when we went over there. Via phone, via other means of, obviously, sensitive communication. We were talking with the people that we were replacing. We were getting to know them. We were asking them questions in terms of, “what is it like? What are we going to do over there? What is your job? I’m going to be replacing you. How’s the training going to go?” Just for familiarity’s sense. It was OK. The training there was OK. Nothing’s going to prepare you for being there except for when you’re there.
RH: In Iraq, what was the mission of your unit?
MS: We were a Reserve element that was going to be supporting the theater-level intelligence. This is the weirdest thing about being a Reservist, is that we train for one weekend a month, two weeks a year, and we got to Iraq and we were half of the intelligence apparatus for corps-level intelligence. So when we got there we were half of the intelligence unit – we were about a hundred and fifty but the whole case was about three hundred people – to support First Corps and their General who was General Odierno’s deputy, the CG, the Commanding General’s deputy. His name was General Jacoby. We were his intelligence apparatus.
The way that it works at Corporate Army – what I call Corporate Army or corps-level intelligence – is that it is broken up into a variety of different compartments that all find out information through their specific intelligence capability from human intelligence which we didn’t have a lot of anymore. By the time we got to theater America troops were out of the cities. We were back on the bases. We were not doing missions anymore unless we were specifically asked by the Iraqi government to come and help out with a certain situation. A lot of the was EOD, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, specialists that were asked to go out and assist with investigations or maybe Special Forces-type stuff but the vast majority of our combat troops were already pulled out of the cities.
I was in charge of, when I first got there, trends and analysis. I was the daytime officer that was responsible for – basically if there was an attack it would be plotted and recorded and we were looking for trends of where attacks were happening throughout the different AOs. We had a team on my team that was responsible for northern Iraq, southern Iraq, Baghdad and western Iraq. We would plot all these different attacks that were happening though they were few and far between compared to years past to find trends. And it was an interesting time period because we had not ever been in Iraq during a time period where American troops were not in cities so things were a lot less. To figure out what was going on it took a lot of research and investigation and we just didn’t necessarily have the resources out there to really understand why certain things were happening. So it was an interesting time period.
That’s what I started out doing. And then as time went on people weren’t performing well, people were not doing a good job and I ended up taking over several other areas and their jobs and advising them and then I eventually got the trust of the case chief – he was a Major and then became a Lieutenant Colonel – and I was made the Battle Captain which was the, besides him, when he was gone the person in charge that would take questions and answer questions for the entire case which was about three hundred people. It was stressful. It was a lot of work. It was theater-level intelligence at the corps level.
RH: What do you remember most about deploying to Iraq for the first time, initially, when you first got there?
MS: To include Kuwait?
RH: Yes. Let’s start with Kuwait.
MS: It was hot. It was like you walked off the airplane and imagine ten blow dryers blowing on you at the same time across your whole body. It was windy and it was hot and dry. It was boring but most of all it was hot. So we spent about a week in Kuwait. We fired our weapons to make sure that they worked and besides that we didn’t do anything during the day besides go to the gym, work out, weapons training and just kind of get ready to go to Iraq.
And then when we got to Iraq we landed at Baghdad airport which is part of the Victory Base Complex. It was probably the same for you. Did you land at Al Assad? Is that where you were?
RH: We were at TQ, Al Taqaddum.
MS: OK. TQ, which is right south of Fallujah. Right on the lake?
RH: I think so. We came in at night and we drove into Fallujah at night so I had a hard time kind of seeing what was around us. [laughs]
MS: So we flew into Baghdad during the day but again, the level of contact had just gone down tremendously since – I forget the word – in 2007 there was as a surge. Things had progressively gotten better between 2007 and 2009 as a result of the surge of our forces and the uprising, the Sunni uprising in Anbar which really did a great job of unifying the Sunni tribes to kick Al Qaeda out. So things had gotten better.
But we came in, they did the combat maneuvers coming into Baghdad airport going left, going right, dipping, going up, going down and they’d come in for a very steep landing. You could get sick. And then we landed and did our in-processing that probably took two or three days. I remember the first day we got there we did get a chance to go to Al Faw palace to meet the reservists that we were replacing from the 321st MI out of Arizona. They were great guys. Great guys and girls. Great soldiers. They trained us up pretty well. They were a pretty professional group. If you talked to them they would tell you that they were all ate up but I liked them. I thought that they were pretty squared away. You looked at them as like the older brother because they had been there for a year already. They were like the gurus and the Gods and then when we left we ended up being gurus to the people that were replacing us.
It was less stressful than I thought it would probably be because we were all in it together, you know? We all showed up together, we knew what we had to do, we knew who we were going to meet, we knew where we were going to be. The fact that certain things were in place already relieved a little bit of the stress of like, “well, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
RH: What was the enemy like while you were there?
MS: OK. So there were so many different enemies. There were so many people that hated us but again, we were out of the cities so we were not the primary target. Honestly, the entire year that I was there, there probably were not more than five or six American deaths and most of them were from indirect fire on FOBs and COBs and other areas. They weren’t combat related in a sense that we’re thinking about. There were some vehicle-borne – not VBIEDs – there were IEDs but they were like these copper-charged IEDs that the Shia were using. They were good. But anyway, there were many groups that we were fighting that were Shia out of Sadr City and then we had the Sunnis that were basically ISI – Islamic State of Iraq – and then there were others. There had to be ten or twelve other Sunni and Shia groups that we were all keeping an eye on so to say who was the enemy? There was so many of them.
But what was the major concern? Who were doing the major bombing attacks? It was mainly ISI. Or it was AQI – Al Qaeda in Iraq – and then they transformed into ISI, the Islamic State of Iraq, and today we know them in their form of ISIS, or ISIL or whatever they call themselves these days.
So we knew a lot of these players already. We knew the guys that are running the shit now – Baghdadi and all those other guys – those are the same motherfuckers in 2009 and 2010 that were lower lieutenants then but big players that are now the head of this organization that are now in Syria and Iraq. And Syria was part of what we were looking at and how things were coming into the country. That was a big part of what we were analyzing and what we wanted to know about.
But there were a lot of different enemies and they all brought different things to the table. The Shia were much better trained. They were Iranian backed. They were much better at indirect fire. They had katyusha rockets. You knew when they were firing at Victory Base Complex or any of our other bases because they were accurate and they were hitting the things they wanted to hit or coming pretty damn close to hitting what they wanted to hit whereas you knew it was some ragtag group of anti-Americans or ISIS guys because they were just lobbing mortars left and right and they would just hit things indiscriminately, hoping to hit things.
The biggest things that were happening were these massive, massive bombs that were going off, mostly in Baghdad in the areas that were surrounding the attacks that were happening during the Shia pilgrimages. Our motivation was to protect those people and I guess when we talk about things I remember the most those will fit in there but they were elusive, you know? And there was a lot of them.
RH: It was mostly IEDs and the explosive penetrator?
MS: Yes. I’m trying to remember what they called them. Listen, there was a lot of different things. There were these IRAMs, these barrels of explosives that were put on rockets that they would shoot off into FOBs that, you know, it would be like putting a car bomb on a rocket. And they had all these ways of rigging explosives. They got really creative on how they would try and attack us. It was a lot harder for them to attack us but it just encouraged them to be more creative on how they would attack our bases.
MS: For me, for the most part on Victory Base Complex and most of the people that were there, the biggest threat was indirect fire or the fear that there would be a suicide bomber that would come through the front gate but there was eleven thousand people on the FOB and at the time the enemy didn’t have the numbers and strength or the capacity to have a frontal assault on a Victory Base Complex. So that would be a very minimal fear during our time. The biggest fear was just indirect fire, mainly 240 rockets, 108s, mortars of a variety of types that would come in sporadically.
RH: What were your interactions with the Iraqis like?
MS: Very little. We did have a liaison at corps level who would go and interact with the Iraqi Army and be a liaison between the two. I had very, very little interactions with Iraqis. Third-party nationals, a lot of Filipinos that were doing laundry and working for KBR, I believe was the contractor who would clean out the latrines, the port-o-potties and whatnot. But I did have a very awesome experience talking to the guy who pulled Saddam Hussein out of the spider hole.
RH: What was the guy’s name?
[Interview temporarily paused as we searched for some information online]
MS: Samir. So this guy was a former Iraqi Republican Guard. He was a Shia, I’m pretty sure he was a Shia, and he left Iraq after the first Gulf War because there was an uprising against Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War and things got crazy. Saddam killed a whole bunch of Kurds and a whole bunch of Shia and there was a whole cleansing thing so he left and he came to America. And then after 9/11 I guess the government went out and started recruiting some of these people from Michigan. Dearborn Michigan and other parts of the Midwest have the largest Muslim population outside of the Middle East and the largest population of Iraqis outside Iraq is in Michigan and upstate in Buffalo, New York and all along the Great Lake regions.
So this guy Samir was working with this other dude from Michigan. They had been in Iraq since the war started in 2003. So these guys would travel all over the place and basically poll Iraqis, “what do you think about this candidate? What do you think’s going on? What do you think about the Americans? What do you think about all these different things that were going on?” It wasn’t classified information, it was just the word on the street. It was another form of human intelligence that wasn’t classified human intelligence.
And we got to interview this guy for probably three hours. He told us his stories about his life. He told us about pulling Saddam out of the spider hole and how happy it made him and whatnot. He gave us a very good real indicator of what the Iraqis were thinking in different parts. They would go up to Mosul. They would go out to Ramadi. They would go down to Karbala and Basra and all different places. It was dangerous for them in a sense that whether you’re a Sunni or you’re a Shia, whoever you’re asking questions to and why you’re asking them questions. And they were not armed. They were almost reporters. It was interesting but they were government contractors. So that was probably the most interaction that I had with Iraqis but it was quality. It was cool. There was maybe only four of us that got a chance to talk to the guy. That was a perk of the position that I was in while I was over there.
RH: Nice. Alright, great. What do you remember most about the soldiers that you served with in Iraq?
MS: Both active and reserve?
RH: Yes. The people that were immediately around you.
MS: They were amazing. Very dedicated, hardworking. Like any other part of society you have your bad apples but they were few and far between. I worked for two different corps. I worked for two different corps-level Generals. The first group that I worked with which was First Corps out of Fort Lewis, Washington I really, really liked. I liked the leadership. I liked, for the most part, how we were being treated.
[Interview temporarily paused as Mike’s wife entered the room]
So First Corps and Third Corps. So First Corps I really liked. I felt that they did not treat us like Reservists. They treated us very well. They listened to our comments, even though they might have dismissed our comments, they at least would listen and they were much more open-minded. That was in great part because of the leadership that they had. Our case officer was a guy by the name of Major Ford and he became a Lieutenant Colonel there. One of the smartest guys I ever met in my whole life. Very hardworking. The guy probably slept three or four hours a night plus did PT and he would get to work at four in the morning and would be there until eleven o’clock at night. Never at in the chow hall but would always have his food either at the office or would eat in his CHU and do his PT and just was always at work. The guy was a mentor. When we fucked up he didn’t just yell at you, he wasn’t a huge yeller. He would yell sometimes but he was kind of nerdy so when he yelled at you, that wasn’t what he did well. But he would say, “this is why it’s wrong, this is how it’s wrong and this is how I’d like you to fix it.” Good leader. He mentored you and told you how to fix things and he was humble in that respect. When he made a mistake he admitted the mistake. He never blamed anybody else for it or anything like that and he respected us a lot. There were a lot of those type of characters in First Corps out of Fort Lewis that I really learned a lot from and respected.
Third Corps – when they came in out of Fort Hood who we originally did our training with going to – they came and they were hotshot, know everything, “you’re the reservist, you don’t know anything.” But, we were also there for a year in this climate and in the intel world things change in a day. If you take a day off or two days off or you’re out of the loop for three days, sometimes shit changes very, very quickly. So these guys came in not thinking much about us. They were very ego-centrical. I didn’t like the new case chief that came in and they didn’t treat us very well. I disliked them more than the First Corps guys but they were still competent. They were smart. I just wish that they had respected us a little bit more for the work that we had done – respected the year that we had already. At this point it was almost a year. We were only there for a few months before we redeployed back to the States. But by that time we were the SMEs. We were the Subject Matter Experts. We had been on the ground for several months at this point. We knew what we needed to know and they probably could have learned more from us if they were just more receptive to what we had to say.
But the Privates, the lower enlisted, great group of kids. Motivated to learn and to do better. They took so much pride in their work. The NCOs took pride in mentoring them and also being responsible for the work that they had to get done and the things that they had to report for. When people didn’t do a good job they tried better. I thought altogether I loved where I worked and I loved the people that I worked with.
RH: Good to go. What were some of the notable events that occurred during your deployment, aside from those you already mentioned?
MS: There was a few. We had some good times over there. The fun stuff for me personally didn’t happen that much because I never took days off but on a professional level the things that I remember tremendously, one, there were a few NCOs and officers that I worked with that I respected tremendously. All the time that we spent together working to bang out projects or to do briefings. These are Corps-level, three star General briefings. There was a lot of briefings that we did.
But things that stood out that I’ll never forget, August 19, 2009 there were two major explosions that occurred almost simultaneously. Probably within minutes of each other, if not seconds, I don’t remember. But two dump trucks of homemade explosives exploded outside the Ministry of Finance and – where was the other place? – the Foreign Ministry. The numbers changed depending on who you talked to, the classified version versus the unclassified version. We’ll just go with the unclassified version: a hundred dead, six hundred wounded. Though the daily attacks were down, the big attacks were catastrophic and they were having these mini 9/11s – the only way that we could possibly relate to it – on a monthly basis.
So the size of these explosions – even though we might have been fifteen, twenty miles away – the base of the explosion is something where it happens, you know it wasn’t close, but everybody stops what they’re doing for a second. Your first reaction is, “was that an earthquake? Was that close? Was that far?” But the concussion of a bomb that big that goes off is felt for thirty miles. When you hear that very definitive THWUMP and then there’s something that almost sucks the air out of the room on a smaller note, everyone just goes quiet and the next thing you know, “what was that?” And everybody spins into, “let’s find out what that was.” We had all types of assets to fly over and look at what was going on. They took down entire buildings.
Then October 25, 2009. A hundred forty-seven dead, seven hundred wounded.
RH: Wait, repeat those numbers?
MS: A hundred forty-seven dead, seven hundred wounded. Do you know the size of a bomb?
RH: Yes. It was huge.
MS: Right. So that one, if I remember right, was four bombs put around the city but they were homemade explosives and our tactics started to change along with these guys. And then as a result of these bombs going off, the lack of daily stuff that was going on, you start to see patterns. I told you that’s what we were looking at. So as a result of things not being reported and these massive attacks that were killing Iraqis – they weren’t killing Americans, they were killing Iraqis – I was sent on investigations around the country. The three star General and the people that work for him sent me and a team out to Anbar, to Al Assad and we had to interview Generals and other people to get a full picture as to why these explosions where happening in Baghdad and why their reports had been down.
The perspectives were very, very interesting. I’m not going to go into the details of what was discussed but you have to understand that, historically, you were getting two hundred attacks a day on American soldiers out in Anbar Province and now you’re reporting seven a month. But now the explosions that are going off in Baghdad are catastrophic and we know that they’re coming through the Fallujah corridor, why are we not doing more to prevent that? Well, we’re in an environment now where we’re not in the cities, we’re not patrolling. We’re not allowed, legally, to patrol. So we had to figure out what we could do more because we knew that shit was coming from the west. So those type of experiences were good.
I did brief Vice President Biden’s personal security detail when they came into Baghdad. That was a highlight to talk to those contractors, which was weird. They weren’t Secret Service guys which was interesting. We briefed them, we told them. We said, “driving around is relatively safe. What you need to worry about are IEDs.” Next thing you know, Biden comes, they announce it, THWUMP!, rockets start pouring into Baghdad. That was interesting. I got to see Colbert in Al Faw palace. That was pretty cool.
But the major attacks. Those two were the big ones. But again, patterns. Every two months, three months, there was a massive attack and it takes a lot of coordination on their part to piecemeal everything together. It wasn’t like they were driving into Baghdad with dump trucks full of explosives. These were things that were coming from different areas and assembled in different places the way that we would fabricate a warship. You would build this part over here and this part over here and this part over here and they would come together at a central location to build the product. Trying to track those things became very difficult as we were just not out there as much as we used to be. So we had our issues.
RH: Alright. Interesting. What was the most challenging period of your deployment: the beginning, the middle or the end?
MS: Honestly, the most challenging parts of the deployment are right around your leave, coming home for two weeks, being with your family. This is for me. Some people’s entire deployment sucked. Mine didn’t. I enjoyed the work that I did. I felt the work that I was doing was important. It had value. But right around leaving and coming home, being home for two weeks and knowing that you had to go back for another six months, I did six months there, six months back. A little bit different from the Marines who do six altogether, and the Navy also. Our deployments are a little bit longer.
And then probably the month before coming home where you’re so close, everyone is burnt out, you’re like, “fuck Third Corps and fuck these other guys that think we’re assholes. Let’s train them up and get the fuck out of here.” You come to a point towards the end of your deployment where you just want to be done. But on the other end coming home is not so bad in a sense that just driving somewhere, or even being stuck in traffic I was like, “this is fine.” [RH laughs] I could be over there. Things were alright. You saw things a little bit differently. But those were probably the two hardest parts.
The guys that replaced us, that was the other part that was annoying. They were kind of fucked up. This Reserve unit, they were cross-leveling people from different places. They weren’t as motivated as you would have thought. We came in very motivated to do the job and we just didn’t see them as being as motivated. Trying to train them up they were more worried about what their living situation was like and if they had cable or internet or whatnot. That was a little bit frustrating. By the time we were ready to leave, I was ready to go home.
RH: What was the most challenging non-combat aspect of deploying?
MS: Dealing with egos. I don’t know what you dealt with. If you had to deal with guys with big hard ons and people that just were spotlight rangers, that were just trying to impress other people or thought that they were in a movie or something like that. I had to deal with a lot of office egos where people didn’t give other people credit or they stole ideas or thought that they were always the smartest person in the room which is never a good idea when you’re dealing with this level of intelligence. Chances are you’re probably not the smartest guy in the room. Unless you’re the Warrant Office Three, Four or Five you probably don’t know everything.
I would say that non-combat, is that what you said?
RH: Yes. Non-combat.
MS: I didn’t really see any combat so it was really dealing with egos and more stuff like that.
RH: Did you have and significant or transformative events that informed your deployment, aside from the ones you already talked about?
MS: I had some really good NCOs who taught me the nature of humility and being humble, listening to the people around you, listening to the experiences that people have had that might make them of value to the decisions that you are trying to make. I mean, that’s really it. I think I came out of there really just open to what other people bring to the table.
RH: How did your views on leadership mature or evolve as you progressed?
MS: I think that that is probably the most part. Again, though most of these kids – and I say kids because they were nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three – some of them had gone to college. There smart motherfucking people that were doing this job that didn’t necessarily have degrees. You can’t judge a book by its cover, you know? Again, I think I mentioned to you the kid with the tattoos that came out of his uniform. Back in the day that would have been so unacceptable. One of the smartest analysts that I have ever met. Good at his job. Anything that he said was probably gospel. He was spot on in terms of analysis. And then people that think that they’re the smartest person in the room are probably the dumbest person in the room.
RH: Alright. Let’s shift a little bit and talk about coming home. Can you talk a little bit about your immediate post-deployment experiences?
MS: So my niece was born when I was in Iraq, my first nice, and I missed her birth. I remember before I left them telling me that my sister-in-law Jackie was pregnant and I was so happy for them but I cried because I was like, “I’m going fucking to miss this.” Those were the things that you were going to miss when you were gone. When we talk about sacrifice, it’s not just in a combat sense like, “oh, you’re going to get shot at or wounded.” I think that most soldiers take that as a given, that it’s a dangerous environment and this is what we have to deal with.
Missing certain things was tough. To come home and have to be reintegrated or be introduced to my niece who I missed the first, pretty much, six months of her life. My wife, my current wife, no, my only wife, who I’d only been dating since [counts off the months] five months before I deployed. She was great. She was really supportive with my family. Getting to know her again. I came home in the very end of March, very early April of 2010. I was home for maybe a few weeks before I started graduate school because I couldn’t go back to work as a teacher. It was just too late in the school year and I didn’t want to be more of a disruption than I would have been helpful. So I just took the rest of the year off. I didn’t get paid for that and whatnot. I started graduate school and then my wife moved in in June – my girlfriend at the time, now my wife. So I feel like the first few months of my coming home were actually very positive because I stayed busy. I used to run the camps for the city of White Plains so I jumped right into that. I was very busy from, pretty much, the minute I hit home which was a good thing.
I think some of the issues that I ran into post-deployment were not post-traumatic in any way – beside things I saw from a drone or from pictures or what not, which were traumatic, but I wasn’t face to face and I didn’t live through it, I was just a witness to it – was more my disappointment in what I was coming home to. I was in the Army for eleven years so loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, personal courage. Those values that we hold so high, that most of us do a really good job of living by, are not adhered to by average people. The disappointment that I just found in everybody else not living up to those standards in which the wonderful people that I served with in Iraq were just prime examples of, for the most part. People that just showed the utmost respect for their job, respect for what other people did, the loyalty in the sense that people stood up for each other. The selfless service where, “you guys are eating first, the higher up people are eating last.” That’s just an example of the sacrifices that real leaders made at that level.
To come home and work with civilians and to sit in class with civilians that just were lackadaisical, took things for granted, didn’t even know that, in many cases, a war was even going on because there has been literally no sacrifice here on the home front as it pertains to being a nation at war, just started to make me angry. And I have a wonderful life. I love my wife, I have a house, I have a dog and I have a job, my wife has a job. We do well. But I have an anger that is the first response. It’s not the response that will always come out because I can say, “that shouldn’t be your response.” But in many cases when someone’s not doing what they’re supposed to do, my first response will be anger or disappointment. I feel like that is probably the hardest thing that came out of coming home and still is. I don’t think it’s anything that is ever going to leave me. It’s the fact that I expect people to live their life by a code and to live up to expectations which they just don’t and I guess I just have to accept that.
I don’t think I have any traditional PTSD. I worked for corporate Army so my stresses were very different from maybe what you saw as a Corpsman or what a combat soldier would have seen in the thick of combat but there was a lot of stress because the information that we were providing to the Generals was information that they were using to make decisions for the entire country of Iraq. And policy was being made, troop movement was being made. Special operations were happening as a result of what we were providing them so it was important that we were correct as best as possible. I do have anxiety in the sense that I don’t want to be late to anything ever so I often have a hard time sleeping in a sense that if I wake up at four in the morning there’s a fear of oversleeping even though I have an alarm clock, that I don’t go back to sleep. I have a deadline anxiety. [laughs] This is corporate stuff! Some people would wish for these problems. It’s just the stress of not meeting deadlines. Something is due? There’s just no excuse for it not being done. And you getting whatever’s done. As a teacher you’re dealing with deadlines. And when kids miss deadlines, I’d rather you hand me something on time than nothing at all.
So I don’t know. Little things keep me awake at night. Little things kind of give me anxiety in terms of the performance of myself and others. But I wouldn’t say that I had a bad post-deployment experience. I’ve only done one tour too.
RH: Did the soldiers around you change after your deployment and, if so, how?
MS: I think people were humbled because they might have got there beforehand as an E6 or a Captain and they weren’t shit when they got there. The job that they thought that they were going to be doing was not the job that they were given. They thought that they were going to do a great job and be high speed, low drag, get a Bronze Star, bla bla bla and they ended up being very disappointing to themselves and others. There were some people who came in as nothing, E4s, and did a phenomenal job and came out fucking studs and studettes that earned a lot of respect over there. And then there were some people that were broken who just didn’t do a good job, didn’t get good evaluations. Awards at the Corps level become very political and they didn’t necessarily get the accommodations that they might have thought. Some people came out of there very strong and built up and tall and some people left there broken.
RH: Did you use the GI Bill at all?
RH: And you got your Master’s with that?
MS: No. My first Master’s I got through ROTC. ROTC paid for my Master’s in Teaching and then when I came back from Iraq I used my Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for my second Master’s in School Building Leadership which is an administrative degree. And it was great. Honestly, the people at Manhattanville where I went, there was a VA representative who filled out all the paperwork for me and I think, for a fifty thousand dollar education, I paid thirteen thousand dollars. So because the way the GI Bill works is, it’s based on time on Active Duty, I think altogether between all the years that I served, according to my DD214, I had eleven months in country and then I probably had another year and change of Active Duty service through my schools and whatnot. I had thirty-three months of sixty percent coverage. But it’s either sixty percent or up to a certain amount of money the way that it works, I think. I probably would not have gotten my second degree if it was not paid for by the Army. And they paid me as an E5 for the credits while I went to school. So they were paying me to go to school and they were paying me, I think, twelve hundred dollars a month to go to school which was awesome and if we add everything up, that twelve hundred dollars that I was getting as a stipend for BAH or whatever probably paid for the thirteen thousand dollars.
But it was a lot of work because I was going to school, teaching full time, and then I was the teacher leader in two schools for two years. Those were probably some of the most unhappy times of my life, to be honest with you. Not the immediate redeployment but the grad school, working full time, I was getting married and I was the teacher leader. I was definitely stressed out. And it explains why now, I’m trying to take on the least amount of responsibility as possible because I just would’ve killed myself, I think.
RH: Have you joined any veteran-related organizations?
MS: I’m part of the VFW. I joined that while I was over there. I paid like four hundred dollars for a lifelong membership.
RH: Do you still communicate with anyone that you deployed with?
MS: I stay in contact occasionally with my friend Bill who I went to Basic Training and was in the 1302nd with. He’s a cop down in Yonkers. But he didn’t deploy with me. He’s just close. I have two very good friends, they were enlisted guys, because in our Reserve unit it was so small. The officers were in charge but we were all on a first name basis. Unless we were in front of other soldiers outside of our DET, we were on a first-name basis. It was a great unit because we made decisions collaboratively. I made the final decision but decisions were basically made collaboratively. My friend Jeff and my friend Ted who were pretty close. I’m going to try and get together with them soon but I probably haven’t seen them in a year and a half, maybe two years. So we need to figure out a time to do that but I’m friends with a lot of these people on facebook. That’s how, mainly, I just know what they’re up to. But in terms of who I talk to, probably those two guys.
RH: Cool. Alright. Let’s move onto Iraq’s current state. How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
MS: It’s just disappointing. We were there for so long and invested so much in terms of blood, sweat and treasure. We know who these guys are, we’ve known who they are. We’ve known what their objectives are. The fact that we did not stop this in Syria when Al Assad had the chemical weapons, we drew a red line, we didn’t act on what we said we were going to do, I feel like a lot of this stuff could have been somewhat prevented, at least in terms of their expansion into Iraq. It might have been if we had gone into Syria, or went in as a UN resolution into Syria, we probably could have contained it more in Syria but the fact that we let things kind of exacerbate and spread into Iraq, it has really turned that country upside down.
I’m just disappointed. I feel like the foreign policy underneath the administration – though I personally agree with a lot of the social and political views that the President deals with – I feel like his foreign policy in terms of dealing with extremism, specifically Islamic extremism in this part of the world, has been a catastrophe.
RH: Are there any lessons that you learned while over there that are relevant to the current situation?
MS: What did I learn over there that we could apply to what’s going on with ISIS?
MS: Do you mean also Yemen and Iran and all that stuff?
RH: Let’s talk Iraq first then regionally second.
MS: If we look at the Sunnis, what was so successful about the surge in 2007 that General Petraeus and President Bush at the time kind of did was we surged troops and we won over the Sunni tribes and turned them against AQI. Basically the Sunni tribes started killing Al Qaeda, they started chopping off their heads and putting them on sticks, basically saying, “Al Qaeda is not here.” We gave them a voice. We gave them a say in what was going on in terms of the government and what was going on in Anbar. Of course we gave them money. We started building up infrastructure and things like that. Schools and hospitals. We won them over winning the hearts and minds thing and if you’re going to defeat the ideology of ISIS, you need to win the hearts and minds of the people so that they understand that there are alternatives to this brand of extremism.
So I think that we need to support those that already are against ISIS, mainly the Kurds, the Saudis, the Jordanians. We need to embolden the Sunni tribes that are against ISIS. And then at the same time we need to limit the amount of Iranian influence because what ends up happening is – and this happens leading up to the time that I got there – you give the Shia militia the power over these Sunni areas and that just disenfranchises the Sunnis even more. There are these Shia death squads that end up killing Sunnis which turns more into the hands of ISIS. We need to limit their role in the Sunni areas. We don’t want to turn more and more extremists. There’s no way that we’re going to prevent the Iranian influence in the southern part of Iraq but we just need to do more to embolden the Sunnis in the west and other parts of Iraq to basically give them other options besides ISIS.
RH: Alright. Anything else about Iraq’s current state before we move on?
RH: No? OK. So we’re going to move onto a couple of spiritual questions. Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
MS: When it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. I mean, that’s what it really comes down to. I think we had maybe one or two, maybe three deaths on VBC while I was there and they were indirect fire. A rocket came into your CHU in the middle of the night, what are you going to do? One of the Colonels that I did my investigations with came home to DC and killed himself. Not to sound morbid or anything, I just think that, even when I was over there the only way that I think a soldier who is in danger can really function in that environment is if you understand that if it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. If you’re going to get shot, if you’re going to get wounded, there’s not much you’re really going to do. There’s not much you can do to prevent it from happening unless you’re just going to hide or neglect your duty. I try everything I can to prevent my immediate death but if you’re going to be in a car accident or whatever is going to happen, it’s going to happen.
RH: Has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
MS: I feel like I was definitely more spiritual. I mean, I got out of the Army in 2012 so it’s been a few years. Based on the state of the world I’ve become less religious – I was never really religious – but I am more anti-religion now than I have probably ever been in my entire life just because I feel all the pain that is going on is based on religious divides. I question the motivation of religion in a sense that men use it to hold power over other people or take advantage of those who are uneducated or desperate. Not to say that I don’t believe in God or something that created life in some manner shape or form, in whatever form you choose God to be. But I just have a lot of reservations on the motive of religion. So, I don’t know.
I’m spiritual. But more than spiritual I believe in America. I believe in the values that our Constitution upholds. I believe in democracy. I have more faith in those tangible things that mankind has created and has control over opposed to just simply having faith in something where there’s very little proof of that can be manipulated. The Constitution is a document that I can touch and feel and read and it is concrete and it can be changed. So in terms of spiritual, I’m spiritual. I just have issues with religion in general.
RH: Alright. Let’s move on. We’ll lighten it up a little bit. What’s the happiest memory of the entire time you served?
MS: That I served?
RH: This could be the entire time.
MS: The eleven years that I was in the military? In general, drill weekend was a fun weekend. I loved the guys and girls that I served with. Most of them were guys. There were a few women in there. After we did drill we’d go out and drink, party, have fun, go to work. AT was two weeks away from the girlfriend and everything else. I loved putting on the uniform. I felt a lot of pride in being in the military. It’s something that I miss a lot. In an eleven year span there are so many funny circumstances and characters that you meet. I don’t think that there is necessarily any one particular situation that was the funniest. Basic training was full of ridiculous shit that went on. It was a shit show for sure. But I don’t know if there was one particular thing.
RH: What, if anything, do you miss about the military?
MS: As I said, I miss the guys. We did it one weekend a month but every time we got together during that month or for training, it was like I saw them yesterday. I miss the guys. I miss the camaraderie. I feel like it was definitely part of my identity, the fact that I was a soldier. It brought me and my wife and my family great pride, for me to be in the military. I just think that I miss that alter ego. I was a teacher which means a lot in the civilian world. I know I’m making a difference there and then on the military side I was doing important intelligence work that definitely was being looked at by people and taken into consideration. I just miss the relevance of being in the military.
But I’m happy I’m out. The quality of my life is better now that I’m out. I don’t have to worry about deploying. I spend more time with my wife and my dog. It’s weekends. I remember every time I wanted to do something fun with friends, weddings even, sometimes I had to miss because I had drill weekend. So I do miss it. I would have been to Afghanistan and back by this point if I had stayed in. My unit redeployed to Afghanistan and I wanted to go but if I went my wife was like, “well, we’re not going to have a house, we’re not going to have kids.” She was like, “I’m not doing this shit by myself.” So it was more of an ego thing for me than it was, “I have to do this.” One tour should be enough for anybody. I joined the military to go to Afghanistan so the fact that I was sent to Iraq kind of pissed me off and I really wanted to go to Afghanistan but that never happened.
RH: What was the best MRE?
MS: There’s no such thing.
RH: [laughs] Alright. What was the worst MRE?
MS: Hot dog.
MS: Hot dog was the worst thing. The best MRE to me was the enchilada. First off, you never have time to heat up an MRE. Very rarely were you in a training situation where you could sit around and dick around. Especially on the Reserve side where everything is being crammed into a weekend. Especially on the Reserve side a lot of our shit was marmites so they’d bring out heated food to you for stuff. But I liked the enchilada. Tuna was very basic. You knew exactly what you were going to get. I liked the things where you just knew what you were going to get. There was no deviation, it was very consistent so the enchilada I liked because I could eat it cold and it came with tabasco and anything you can put tabasco on tastes better. So the more the tabasco, the more you could hide it with tabasco, the better it was. Even the tuna. I put tabasco in tuna. It spiced it up. It was good. I liked m&m’s. I liked the MREs that had m&m’s and skittles. But those were probably my best two. There was a chicken cacciatore or there was a tortellini that wasn’t bad. But yeah, enchiladas. What about you?
RH: I liked the chicken cavatelli which was really good.
MS: yes, that was really good. That was like tuna?
RH: It was like chicken parmigiana and pasta in there.
MS: Yeah. That was good. I did like that.
RH: The tortellini was really good and then I’d get the peanut butter with the hard ass bread and then I’d just put it on but that was really, really, really good.
MS: My only issue with that one is you know what you’re going to get but it was dry as all fuck. You knew that your shit was going to be a brick after that. [RH laughs] You might not shit for a day after you eat those. I liked the milkshakes which was weird.
RH: You know, I did at first but I got sick of them really, really fast. Sometimes when it was too hot and you were drinking hot milkshake [RH and MS laugh] it was like, “Oh God!”
RH: What was the best chow hall in Iraq and the best chow hall stateside?
MS: Stateside they were all the same, in my opinion. But Victory Base Complex, because of the level of officers that were at Al Faw, the food was no joke. Understand, VBC was seven bases in one complex. When I was there, there was eleven thousand personnel that were there between, I think it was, Slayer, Liberty, Prosperity. There were a few different ones. But VBC, Camp Victory, had the best chow hall. Every Friday it was either steak and lobster or steak and crab legs. You might have had the same thing.
RH: A handful of times we got that. It was nice.
MS: Every Sunday was Soul Food Sunday.
RH: Ah nice. Very cool.
MS: So they had ribs, but I’m talking about dope ribs. [RH laughs] The real deal and you could go up for more. You could eat as much as you wanted. They had everything you wanted. They had ice cream, they had cake, they had desert. You will not hear me complain about the food. The food was excellent. I did not take lunch meaning that I would literally go and get food and eat at my desk and do work. And breakfast? I stopped in the chow hall on the way to work and I ate when I got to work during our turnover. And then I ate dinner after work. My days on a daily basis seven days a week were twelve to fifteen hour days. I would eat after work and then I would run eight miles. But the food was fucking good. You could have cheesesteaks, you could have burgers, you could have whatever the fuck you wanted. They made it for you.
RH: What’s the funniest story you have?
MS: My New York unit was just a bunch of knuckleheads. They were smart dudes. They were great intel people but they were just knuckleheads. In basic training the funniest thing that I remember was being in reception and, you know, you get all your shots, right? So when they give you the penicillin shot which is that thick shot, they put it right in your ass, was they had everyone in this room bent around tables with their pants down. And after they inject you with the penicillin which is a long, hard injection – it’s not like it’s a quick shot, they’re pushing this gelatin into your ass – they tell you to run in place. I don’t know if you remember that at all.
So you look around the room and the person gets the shot and their face is agonizing pain. You had all these characters from all over the country making these faces and then everybody jogging in place with their pants around their ankles to me was just one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen. Then afterwards everyone is sitting, leaning to the side. I don’t know if I ever laughed as hard as I did during that experience because to me there was just something so extraordinarily comical about it.
We had some parties during AT where people got drunk. We made up frisbee games where part of the job was to hit people in the head with frisbees when they weren’t looking. We’d play with five or six frisbees and, if you caught it, the other person was out but if you hit someone in the head you got points. I remember people running trying to catch frisbees and falling into garbage cans. One guy was so fat he caught the frisbee in the back of his neck, [RH laughs] like he ate the frisbee with the back of his neck. That was pretty fucking funny. People falling into bushes.
We would hit golf balls off the palace using the top of the palace as a driving range. That was pretty fun. In general, my experience in the military was very positive. I miss it and I loved it. I think that everybody should serve in the military or at least do something. Do either voluntary work or whatnot. I think the military has taught me so much. To me it means a lot because we’re from Westchester. I didn’t need the military. We come from a place where there’s money. I didn’t need them to pay for my school necessarily. But I learned so much about me. It was humbling. I realized that you are not the smartest person in every situation, that there are better people than you, that there are smarter people than you and that you should never judge people because of where they’re from or how much money they have or what they do because everybody brings their own unique talent to the table. I thought that it was a great experience.
Things like fucking ironing, doing your laundry, making your bed, keeping your shit clean, were things that college and living around here wouldn’t have taught you necessarily, you know?
RH: If you could communicate something to young soldiers that will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
MS: Just listen to your NCOs. [laughs] Listen to the experienced people. Listen to the people that have been there and have the experience because there were Colonels that had never deployed before and just because they were a Colonel, they didn’t want to necessarily listen to the Captain who was there for a year who brought something to the table. There was time and time again where that Colonel was wrong about shit because they just couldn’t be humble enough to listen to what the experienced people said and that goes for the Captain listening to the E4. That E4 might have done two or three tours already and though they’re just an E4, they have more experience than most enlisted or officers combined. Just listen to the people that have experience. And be humble.
RH: Is there anything that I left out that you’d like to address?
MS: No. Thank you for your service. I think your story is great.
RH: Alright. Last question, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your entire service?
MS: That’s a good question. I mean, look, I’m proud of my entire service. I like the reason why I joined the military. I’m proud that after our country was attacked, I said I was going to do something and I stuck to it and I stuck with it for eleven years. I’m proud that I went to Iraq and served with distinction. I did receive accommodations that I’m proud of. I’m more proud that my parents and my wife are proud of me than anything else and I think I served that one year overseas with distinction. I know that my parents will die proud of me and my wife will always be proud of me and that when I have children, they’ll know that I was a veteran and that on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, those patriotic holidays they’ll say, “my dad was a veteran and he served in the Global War Against Terrorism.” It’s really more for them than it is for me.
RH: Anything else?
RH: Alright. Thank you!