Ryan deployed to Kuwait in 2002 and moved up into Iraq in March of 2003 during the invasion. He served as an intel analyst but worked primarily with intel communications system. During his time in Iraq he visited numerous bases setting up communications systems including bases in Al Anbar province and Abu Ghraib prison.
Interview conducted on March 13, 2016 in Bryant Park, Manhattan
Present: Richard Hayden and Ryan Jamieson
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Ryan Jamieson: Ryan Andrew Jamieson.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
RJ: I was in the United States Army. I enlisted in April of 1999 and I got out of active duty in October of 2003.
RH: What was your rank when you got out?
RJ: I was an E5.
RH: OK. And what was your MOS?
RJ: I enlisted to be a 96B [pronounced ninety-six Bravo] which was an intel analyst but once I got to my first duty station and they saw that I knew how to use computers, I ended up getting sort of sideways transferred into doing all of the comm for the intel units that I was a part of.
RH: You stayed as a 96B the whole time?
RJ: Yes. My MOS never changed but I never did any intel analysis work. I just did all the signal work for the intel unit that I was attached to.
RH: Got it. Cool. Alright, so what was your unit?
RJ: I was part of Fifth Corps. My first duty station was Seoul, Korea and then after Seoul you got to pick where you wanted to go and I said Germany. So they sent me to Germany. I was at Fifth Corps and my unit was the 302nd Military Intelligence Battalion.
RH: Alright. What motivated you to join the military?
RJ: Oh man. [laughs] My experience in high school was less than stellar so I was looking for an escape. I got out and went to college, went to the University of Georgia, and over the course of one year in Georgia my college career went up in flames like the Hindenburg. I moved back home with my tail between my legs and realized that I needed a structured environment where I could learn a lot of the skills that I didn’t have that wasn’t home because that was too big a blow to my pride. Obviously I failed at college so what’s the other alternative? It was the armed forces. So I went and talked with all the four branches and picked the Army and figured, “Hey, it’s four years. I can do this. Let’s go for it!” So I joined the Army.
RH: Right on. Actually, that kind of leads into my next question. Why did you pick the branch of service that you did?
RJ: So I went through all four. You know how all the recruiting stations are set up, it’s one after the other. So I went through and talked to each one of them and tried to figure out what separated them from each other. So after process of elimination it was like I wanted to get promoted at a reasonable pace so scratch the Air Force. I didn’t want to be on a boat for six months out of the year so scratch the Navy. I wanted to be able to choose what I wanted to do so scratch the Marines and that left the Army.
RH: Right on. Why did you pick the MOS that you did?
RJ: Because it sounded cool. My recruiter lied to me. [both laugh] I mean, I had been a tech nerd forever but I didn’t know necessarily about what that was going to be like. I think recruiters get bigger bonuses for hiring the higher MOS classes so if they could pull in someone to do intel work then that was a big win because they’re harder to find. So he fit me in and it was like, “Hey cool! It’s like James Bond stuff,” when it really isn’t. But I was really happy with the path that I ended up taking because doing comms work and technology work within the intel space was lots of fun.
RH: How did your family feel about your decision?
RJ: My dad was super stoked he didn’t have to pay for college. [laughs] My mom said, “I disagree with your decision but I respect your ability to make it.” So she stuck with me. Everybody else was just sort of floored but it all worked out.
RH: Good to go. Where were you on September 11th?
RJ: I was stationed in Germany so we were a little further on in the day. When it happened here in New York, it happened early in the morning but it was like midday in Germany. We were in the skiff which is where we worked and a bunch of different rooms in there based on what people were doing. Working on the systems team we had our own little room that we were doing stuff in. The all sources intelligence group, they had a big screen TV in there that was always playing CNN so I remember my friend rolled in from the all source floor into the systems floor and was like, “Did you guys see the news? Some asshat ran into the Twin Towers in a Cessna.” Because that’s what the original reports were. So I was like, “No. That’s crazy.”
So over the course of the day kind of wandering around, I wandered back into that room where the big screen TV was and there were a couple of people that were kind of clustered around and you could see the first tower was on fire. I remember watching it and standing right there next to my friend and some other folks and a fair group of people had gathered around like, “This is crazy.” And we watched because CNN had the camera right on it as that second plane hit the second tower and it was just silence. Nobody said anything. And then I remember distinctly our Chief in the back simply saying, “Some motherfuckers are going down.” Immediately it was like, “I don’t care what you’re working on, I don’t care what the priority is, all that gets dropped. We are currently under attack. We are the intel unit. We need to figure out who the hell did this.” The wheels just sort of started in motion and everything else just kind of came as a result of that. We were immediately put on lockdown. We started shift work immediately. They were issuing out weapons and ammunition. Patrols. We’re overseas so we’re a little bit more exposed or we feel that way. So things definitely changed on that day.
We had to march home in formation with our weapons. We didn’t know what was next. We didn’t know what was going on. That night we got assigned guard rotations for all of the different kasernes all over Germany and I remember waking up the next morning and leaving the barracks. Being an American serviceman in Germany you’re there and it’s kind of a love/hate relationship for the Germans. The Germans know that you’re there. It’s kind of a reminder of what was and what happened but sometimes you’re looked down upon for being an occupying force. Some people are OK with you being there but it’s never cut and dry.
I remember leaving the kaserne and seeing just flowers outside of the gates. Just rows and rows and rows of flowers and candles and memorials and it was all from the Germans in Heidelberg. It was at every single place – Patton barracks and Patrick Henry Village and all the different little places. They all had flowers out front and it spoke so much. And being a serviceman, I was the living embodiment of America right there in somebody else’s backyard and the Germans were nothing but graceful in the face of all of this. It was really amazing to see.
RH: What base were you on exactly in Germany?
RJ: I was stationed in Heidelberg. I lived in Patton barracks and then I worked out of – what was that other one called? – I forget what it was called. It was a while ago. But Patton was where I lived. But did I work in? I don’t know. There were so many little kasernes all over the place but it was in Heidelberg.
RH: And in the weeks and months that followed, how did the mood on the base change?
RJ: Well, immediately everybody was pissed off. Everybody wanted to know what was going on and everybody wanted to take somebody out. It was a lot of rage. Being a part of the intel unit meant that we were digging deep and trying to figure out what was going on. Nobody was really quite sure about what was happening. I remember Osama bin Laden claimed the whole thing and then it was like, “Holy shit. What’s going on?” We knew that we were going to go kick somebody’s ass. It was just a question of whose ass we were going to go kick and when it was going to happen. That was really what it was. We knew that the shit was definitely going to hit the fan. And then when orders came down for Afghanistan, it was interesting because we weren’t the ones that were going to Afghanistan. A couple of people here and there were going to go because of unique skills or unique systems that we were able to provide in the theater but on the whole we were not – Fifth Corps didn’t go to Afghanistan. We got spun up for Iraq.
RH: When you started getting spun up for Iraq, when did that begin?
RJ: Spun up for Iraq? I got sent in ’02. So the end of ’02, I want to say that we already had some people down there in autumn into Kuwait. I think it was October-ish because I got down there in November. It was cold and there really wasn’t a whole lot going on. I remember the UN and all the meetings where Colin Powell was up there giving the briefing about chemical weapons and trying to build the case. So I was in Kuwait for all that stuff, prepping all the ground work for all of our comms infrastructure so in the event that everybody came in, they could all talk to each other.
RH: You know what? Let’s go ahead and let’s jump right into it. Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
RJ: Just Iraq.
RH: Just Iraq? OK. Including Kuwait, what were the dates of the deployment?
RJ: I was down there for ten months. I left on my birthday, July 31st. So I got down there in October so I was there from October of ’02 to July of ’03. I got to leave on my birthday.
RH: Good to go. [laughs] What was the mission of your unit?
RJ: We were Fifth Corps so we were Corps intelligence for the whole thing. Fifth Corps was the grand puba. We were the G2. Period. We also interfaced with the Brits and the Aussies and the coalition of the willing so at our level we were in charge of all of the American forces. At least at the Corps level, that’s what was happening. Considering our company was providing all of the intelligence and support for Fifth Corps, we were the G2.
My role was to make sure that all of our comms were connected with everybody else’s. What I discovered while we were in garrison back in Germany was that everybody had messenger architecture that was built for unclass stuff. It was all public and nobody had ever bothered to refresh their super-secret squirrel classified version of all these unclassified things. There was a whole process that you had to do with Fort Belvoir to get all these codes and your crypto and all that other stuff online. I realized before I left for Kuwait that none of this stuff had been done. Nobody had any idea how to do it so I had to go through the paces and actually rebuild all of our classified message architecture so that way everybody could talk on the right channels. Otherwise, we’d be talking on comms that may have been exposed. So that was my big thing trying to get all these things put together and making sure that we had all our codes that were set up correctly and that all of our supporting units all had the same kind of stuff. So thankfully these were people that I had been exercising with before whenever we went down to graft so I knew who to call and let them know and be like, “Hey, these are all the bells and whistles that you’ve got to do in order for us to be able to talk in the event we go downrange.”
RH: Got it. So you got into Kuwait in October 2002, correct?
RH: So what was it like arriving in Kuwait initially?
RJ: There was nobody there. We were part of a bare bones force. I think I was the first or second person from our unit to go down there to make sure that all the systems had been set up. Basically, I left all of my gear back and all of my comms gear back in Germany and I packed two duffel bags and got on a plane and flew down there. So I was only there to be the subject matter expert and be like, “Hey, these are all the things that we need. This is what’s going on.” Eventually they shipped down another Trojan so that way I could set all that stuff up and we started building the little nexus of communications down there.
Our junior chief was down there and she was a Major. It was basically her and me and a couple of other intel nerds floating around. As a buck Sergeant, it was basically me and a whole bunch of junior officers floating around. [laughs] It was an interesting experience.
RH: Alright. When you arrived did you guys have a feeling that we were going to go into Iraq?
RJ: I assumed that’s was what was going to happen. Sure, we might not have but all the signs were pointing to we were going to go over there. We were ramping everything up. There was a whole lot of war gaming that was going on. Everything was getting prepped. The machine had started to move in that direction. Once you start the machine it’s hard to stop the machine. So for me it was an inevitable sense that we were going.
Before I left though, there was a lot of consternation because for Afghanistan everybody was like, “Alright. We’re going to go kick some ass.” And it was easy for everybody to get behind that because we weren’t the unit that was going. When it came down to Iraq and we got orders like, “Hey look, we’re supporting this,” and were probably the people that were going to be going, a number of people got pregnant. A number of people had sudden maladies. There was a lot of stress about going downrange which is interesting because it impacted personal relationships that we had. There were people that were like, “Yeah, we’ve got to go. Part of the deal.” And there were people that were like, “I’m not going for this bullshit thing.” So it caused some stress there.
RH: How did you feel?
RJ: I mean, I joined the Army. Did I want to go to war? No, but that’s what they trained me to do. That’s what I’d signed up to do. It’s part and parcel of being in the Army. Obviously, when I joined in ’99 I thought the idea of me going to a war was remote but the world changed. I had a responsibility not just to myself but to everybody in my unit because I was the guy that did the comm stuff. So if I went down, am I going to leave them with my junior guys? That’s no good. So I felt responsible for going and making sure that everything was going to work right.
RH: Alright. Good to go. As time went on getting closer to March of ’03, what was happening and how did everything change?
RJ: More and more people started showing up. Folks started showing up and one of the first things that we realized is that nobody had any idea what was going to be going on. We’d all exercised before. I mean, the buildup was all Active Duty. All the active guys were starting to roll in and what had been happening back in Germany was everybody was getting reserve units that were dropping in and they were cross training each other. Our unit, the 302nd, got a whole different Reserve unit attached to it. So that means we basically doubled in size. Everybody got a reservist for their buddy to cross train on all their stuff so that way you could have night shift and day shift and continuous operations all the time with no reduction in your abilities. So we had the time to do all that and these mixed units were coming in. It was interesting because all the ground work that I was doing previously around getting comms architecture working was exactly what I would do when a new unit showed up and I got notification from the H Chief. “Hey, we need to get these guys linked in.” I would go over there and knock on the door and say, “Hey! I’m from Fifth Corps. I’m here to help you guys get connected to everybody else.” And it was when we would start having those conversations.
RH: So eventually you did go into Iraq, correct?
RH: Do you remember what night, specifically, you crossed the border and what was that like?
RJ: So we had the invasion and then I remember getting Scud attacks. We did Scud drills all the time. We made up Scud drills. We knew that Saddam was going to shoot Scuds at us so we just drilled Scud drills. I remember the invasion happened and we immediately started crossing the border and Saddam started shooting Scuds at us. One of the first things that I remember when everything went hot was my OIC banging on the door to my truck and he whips open the door and he looks at me and I look down at him and his eyes are like dinner plates. He’s like, “Scud attack.” Not Scud drill. Not like, “Hey! Scud drill.” Scud attack. OK, shit just got real. You grab your gear, you turn off the lights, you run out there and get in the bunker and you just sit. You sit and you hear the BOOM, BOOM from the Patriots doing counter battery fire and that’s it. And then you wait and you wait and you wait and then and you get the all clear and you’re like, “Holy shit!” OK. I guess I now have to slow my heart down and go back to work.
So the way that we worked it is that Fifth Corps had the main and then you had the TAC which is essentially the tactical operations center. So you basically spawn off this little mini-me from a headquarters perspective, pack up all their stuff, toss it in a bunch of vehicles and you send them up the road. So I was responsible for comms at the main and a guy named Zivic was responsible for TAC. He and I were essentially team A and team B for our communications trucks. So you had a Trojan Spirit which provided comms – all the high side and low side comms so that’s TS and secret comms – and then you had a different truck called the CTS which managed all of the different messaging. So all of the SALUTE messages that people would generate and send back and forth all over the place, those would get routed by these CCS trucks and get sent all over the place. So that truck packaged our team that was associated with the Trojans and with the CCS.
So Zivic took those and went across the border pretty shortly thereafter the invasion. I stayed back in the main to make sure that all of our comms were good because we were actually running the whole show. We were running the battle. As forces moved up, they set up the TAC. OK, great. So now the TAC is set up, we’ve got a front. It’s up there. They’re starting to kind of figure out what’s going on so. Immediately what happens is once the TAC is set up they take me, put my ass in a helicopter with mail from like a week for fifteen guys – which is basically me and six trunks worth of shit – and stick me in the back of a Chinook and we fly all the way up to the TAC and drop off all my stuff and drop off me. I immediately take over in the TAC to make sure that everything there is running hunky dorey while they shut down the main and jump the main all the way up.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What were your initial impressions of Iraq like?
RJ: It was weird. What happened for me is we had the invasion and rolled everybody forward and you would hear about these things. It was funny because we were watching CNN while we were also getting the intel feed. So we could see what our buddies were doing on CNN because of all the news feeds and everything that was happening and we could hear what was actually happening [RH laughs] and we could hear what the Iraqi official version was for everything and it was like three different wars that were going on. It was amazing. Obviously the G2 works with the G3 and they’re like peas in a pod talking about where everybody’s at and where everybody’s going to be and what’s going on. So we’d be watching the news and we could just look at the map and be like, “OK. Here’s the lay, here’s the feed, this is where everybody’s at. What’s going on?” So my first impressions of Iraq really came from watching CNN like everybody else.
Then when I got there, the TAC was in BFE in Anbar. I landed and it was just dust. Sand and dust was everywhere. I remember just being like, “Wow. Who the hell would live in a place like this?” But that’s like judging America by landing in the middle of Death Valley and being like, “What the hell is this?” It was dirty and dusty and just gross. I remember my second or third night there – because all of our trucks were still painted green from Germany which everybody was like, “Seriously, guys? We’re going into Iraq with green trucks? This is a great idea.” So we had this huge dust storm that rolled in and the dust in Iraq is like talcum powder. It’s super fine. So when the wind kicks up it just goes everywhere. And then there was this huge torrential downpour so it picked up all this mud in the air and rained it on all of our trucks which was great for us because now we had brown trucks. [both laugh] But my first impressions were just hot and dirty and gross.
Reality didn’t really sink in about being in Iraq until we got into Baghdad. So like I told you, I went to the TAC and kind of made sure that everything there was hunky dorey and everything was good. Then I flew back from the TAC, got another ride back to the main so that way I could back into my truck and drive that truck north from Kuwait all the way up to Baghdad which was a hellish convoy in and of itself for a multitude of reasons.
RH: Could you talk about the convoy a little bit?
RJ: So, Army convoys are always a shit show. It’s basically follow the leader and you’re in a vehicle that’s designed to put you to sleep as quickly as possible because it vibrates, it’s warm, it’s like, “Brrr.” It’s a steady drone and we’re driving in a war zone and there’s a lot to be desired about this length of a drive because I think the whole drive ended up taking thirty-six hours or something like that. So I look at my co-driver and I’m like, “Hey, how about I’ll take the first shift and when I get tired you can drive the second shift so that way we can go back and forth and then we’ll rest and everybody’s going to be OK.” She’s like, “OK. Great.” So I drive all day and the weather is not great. Because the dust there is so fine, every vehicle in front of you, as their tires kick it up it just creates this giant cloud. So, in effect, for thirty-six hours you’re driving in the middle of a sandstorm because all the vehicles in front of you are just going nuts. People get bored because it’s not like you’ve got your in dash stereo or anything like that and you’ve only got two people and there’s only so much shit that two people can talk about over the course of a thirty-six hour drive. So people were falling asleep at the wheel and getting off the road. There’s accidents and people rear end each other. It’s just a goat rope.
So dusk falls. I’m feeling a little sleepy. I’ve been behind the wheel for pretty much all day. I look at O’Keefe and I’m like, “Hey, the next time we have the opportunity to stop, I need to switch so that way you can drive.” She was like, “Sergeant Jamieson, I can’t see at night.” I’m like, “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me this when we set out and say, ‘Well, I’ll drive first that way you can sleep because I can’t see at night.’” I was so angry [RH laughs] which was good because that anger fueled me to be awake for at least another four hours.
So we’re driving and as Saddam had pulled back, he ordered his troops to start lighting all the oil derricks. So it is dark. I can’t see the moon, there’s a whole bunch of dust in the air and this storm rolls in. So we’re getting thunder and lighting. It’s raining. The mud is like this red powder so it looks like there’s blood coming down my windshield. Thunder and lightning and these pillars of fire with these giant plumes of black smoke are coming up out of the earth and I’m like, “We must have taken a left somewhere because now we’re driving into Hell.” We’re going directly into Hell. It’s raining blood, there’s fire everywhere, this is awful. Jesus.
So we end up making it through that and we get to our refuel point. I wake O’Keefe up with a nice [makes a knocking motion] kevlar to the head and promptly fall asleep on the back of the vehicle. We finally get into Baghdad and it was crazy. Baghdad itself was huge, this big sprawling city. Our guys had moved in a few hours beforehand and had taken everything. We kind of came in through the airport and all the infantry guys had rolled in and taken the airport and then immediately raided all the duty free stores. [both laugh] There was already booze circulating around because there was a no booze rule. You couldn’t drink but duty free? Yeah, we’re going to get us some of that.
So we roll into the airport and then we move into Saddam’s palace complex which became Camp Victory. So we’re there and we get out of the vehicles and we’re one of the first folks to show up. We’ve got the MPs and an infantry unit that are providing perimeter. We bombed parts of it already so we felt pretty safe. We probably arrived, I’d say, a day after our guys had taken that place and everything had been stripped bare. If it wasn’t bolted to the ground or to the wall, the Iraqis had taken it. As soon as Saddam’s folks had beat feet out of there, they were in like Flynn stripping everything out of there. Air conditioning units and every stick of furniture had been removed from this place. It was just barren.
We ended up setting up shop and did all of our regular setting up tents, set up the vehicles, setting up ops and all those things that you normally do. So we set all that stuff up and everybody’s just exhausted and we started our shifts and I remember just crashing. Just sheer exhaustion. I’ve actually got a picture of our First Sergeant giving us a briefing at the very beginning of this. We all pulled in and parked so Victory was barren. There was nothing there and he’s just giving us this speech about what the plan is and what we’re doing. It’s funny because I look through these every once in a while and I’m like, “Wow. That was a while ago.” Because I see pictures of people that were there recently and it’s like this whole city that’s there. Man! I remember when it was nothing.
One of the most poignant memories – to finally get around to answering your question – was waking up in the morning that first morning in Baghdad and hearing the call to prayer. I had never heard the call to prayer before. It was the first time for that. I mean, I’m from Atlanta. There’s not a lot of mosques in the northern Atlanta suburbs. I remember that and thinking, I am truly in a strange place. This is just an alien kind of endeavor. It was crazy – the architecture and the differences in seeing the people on the convoy, seeing the road signs for all of these different places. The Germans had evidently built all the roads in Iraq so they were great roads when we were on them. Seeing the people in their different garb, I had a sense of that because I’d seen these same people on TV but waking up and hearing the call to prayer gave me such a visceral sense of being in Baghdad and being in the Middle East. That’s what sticks with me.
RH: Did you have a chance to interact with any Iraqis?
RJ: Not really, not very often. I didn’t really leave the wire that often. I interacted with a bunch of EPWs when I was flying around. We dropped off a shitload of MREs in one place and picked up a bunch of EPWs and that was like, “OK.” That was really crazy because we were up north and a lot of northern Iraqis are white. White guys with red beards because they are from the Caucasus region and that’s just what they look like. It was like, “Holy cow. You don’t fit my idea of what an Iraqi should be.” But obviously there’s a significant language barrier. Culturally there was really nothing in common. Our CI teams would go out and do investigations and chat with people and stuff like that but I was never really a part of those things. So it wasn’t ever something that I dealt with.
RH: Alright. Aside from what you already told me, what were some of the notable events that occurred during your deployment?
RJ: The invasion was notable. Do you mean notable in a geopolitical sense?
RH: Either/or. We’ll do notable to you and then notable in a geopolitical sense.
RJ: I mean, the whole thing was kind of crazy. Just trying to get people to work together. I flew around a lot because I was the guy that was responsible for setting up all the intel comms. When we started rotating units in and out, I had to go and set up all their stuff. I was like, “Hey, here’s your new toys. Here’s your new crypto. Here’s the stuff you need. Let me talk to whoever I need to talk to.” So that was cool. I mean, flying around in helicopters with your feet hanging out in the breeze, that’s kind of fun.
RH: Are any of those places memorable? Did anything memorable happen on any of these stops?
RJ: Getting shot at is memorable. I freaked out but the guys in the helicopter were like, “They can’t hit the broadside of a barn with those things.” [RH laughs] I’m in the back of a Chinook, my legs are hanging out and we’re flying over. I’m sitting next to the .60 gunner on the back and we fly by these Iraqis that are there and they pull their AK-47s and start shooting at us. I pop on his head and point because you can’t hear anything in the back of those things and I’m not on their little radio network. He looks at me and kind of motions that it’s not even worth his time. So then I asked him when we landed and he’s like, “There’s no way they’re hitting us. It’s a waste of ammo.” I was like, “OK.” So yeah, that was memorable.
So our unit got caught up in that whole Abu Ghraib thing.
RH: What happened?
RJ: We were in charge of it. When we had taken a significant number of EPWs and needed to figure out what to do with them because they were overflowing a lot of the camps that we had set up, we were looking for a suitable replacement place somewhere where we could stick them. So Abu Ghraib was obviously a notorious prison that Saddam had used but we felt that it might hold promise to repurpose that for our own needs. I was tasked with going out with some of our reservists who’d been kind of tasked in our unit. Like I said, we got augmented by this Reserve unit. Well, like six of the guys in our Reserve unit were corrections officers. They obviously understand detention centers and how all these things work so we rang it up with a bunch of them and I rolled out to Abu Ghraib with them to go and scope these things out.
We convoyed out there. We looked around and they did an assessment. I was just kind of looking around and stuff. Nobody was there because Saddam opened it up. When we invaded, he opened up the doors at Abu Ghraib and let everybody out, both good and bad.
I remember seeing the torture chamber there, walking into that.
RH: What was that like if you don’t mind me asking?
RJ: You could smell it. You walk into this big area. It’s this great big room and there’s like a viewing area and then the floor slopes down. Above the sloped floor there’s essentially this concrete deck and above the concrete deck on the ceiling are these massive metal rings and below those massive metal rings are grates. So you could understand where they would tie someone up in the air on those rings and float them above these drains that would then go into the slaughter floor almost like and abattoir. The floor slanted so all the blood could flow out so as they were torturing people and they bled out or they shat themselves or they were pissing themselves, all that would flow away and it would be easy to clean up. You could just smell the awful and the terror in that place. Yeah, it wasn’t pleasant.
I remember finding vials, little vials where you would get injectable drugs out of. You would put the needle in there and pull it out. Seeing those all over the place. I couldn’t speak Arabic so I couldn’t read it but it was still like, “Holy shit! What the hell was going on in here?” One of our reservists found a key, one of the keys in there, and kept it as a keepsake. But yeah, that was a pretty heavy trip seeing all that, seeing what had happened there.
Then what happened on the backside of that, I had no idea. We were just looking for a solution to the problem of holding people out in tents outside surrounded by concertina wire. This was purpose-built for that sort of thing so it seemed like a good place. When we set it up and we started putting prisoners there, our unit had basically put a comms truck out there. That means all the intel that was gained from the prisoners, we could then funnel back into the food chain of intelligence so that way we could continue to hunt all of our high value targets. But nobody, nobody, really had an idea about what was going on in there. There was nothing concrete but – what was that guy’s name? That whistleblower guy?
RJ: No. Not Snowden. He was responsible for –
RH: Oh! Bradley Manning.
RJ: No, not Manning. This was during the invasion. There was a guy who basically blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib. He went to the press and said, “Hey. Something bad’s happening.”
RH: No. I don’t remember his name.
RJ: Well, he was in my unit. I bunked right next to the guy. He was a weird fucking dude. He was a weird dude. He spoke with a moral conviction that he felt was totally on board. He didn’t know shit. He thought a lot of stuff was going on but he didn’t know anything. We’re just trying to keep everything together out there and he was an extremely divisive figure while there. Yeah, he was a weird cat. He was a weird cat. Not exactly somebody that you would say had a lot of unit cohesion.
RH: Interesting. And you said all the prisoners were released? Saddam let them all go?
RH: Were there any left?
RJ: No. We walked into an empty facility.
RH: Alright. Interesting. Anything else about Abu Ghraib before we move on?
RJ: Well, he leaked to the press all that shit that was going on just before I left and then I saw the rest of it play out in the news and it was just bad. All that stuff was bad. I mean, I’m not trying to say that all the behaviors that people did in that space were good. They weren’t, they were reprehensible. We should be better than doing the things that happened in that place. Part of the problem is – and this is endemic to war – is you feel that the people you’re fighting against aren’t human so you feel justified in treating them like dogs, or worse than dogs. So it’s awful. But, yeah. That whole thing was tough.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Moving on from Abu Ghraib, any other notable events during the deployment?
RJ: Remembering that all the National Guard units that they rotated in were woefully undertrained. It was like weekend warriors coming in like, “Ahh! We’re going to go take part in the war!” And all the Active guys that had been there for a while were like, “These guys are gonna die!” Like, “What are you doing? You can’t do these things.” After I got out I went and joined the Arizona National Guard as a way to prevent myself form getting back door drafted and it was like Weekend at Bernie’s. [RH laughs] It was so stupid. I mean, nobody had any respect for what was actually happening. Everybody thought it was this great big adventure. Seeing these guardsmen come in with these bright eyes ready to kick ass, it reminded me so much of how people in World War I were excited to enlist and go off and fight this valiant fight not realizing that war is a shitty endeavor.
So seeing these guardsmen come in being all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I was like, “You guys are toast. You guys are either going to make a wrong decision or something.” The Iraqis were already starting to get better at ambushes, at figuring out how to takes us out. Our ROE was getting more restrictive. It stopped being shoot first and ask questions later and it was more like, “Well, we should probably make some good decisions about who we’re going to engage.” So you had kind of an inverse relationship there where people became better at killing us and also our hands became tied more tightly around how we could engage them. So then you get a bunch of cowboy National Guard guys coming in and I’m like, “this is a recipe for disaster.”
RH: What do you remember most about the soldiers that you served with?
RJ: So it’s really funny. One of the guys, Whitman. Whitman got a video recorder, a video camera, just before we deployed. His parents sent it to him. His parents sent it to him and said, “you’re going to be part of something that hopefully nobody has to go through ever again but it’s a really unique experience. You should record as much of this as you can.” And Whitman is a clown and loved to joke and stuff like that so he immediately spun up “Whitman Films” and recorded a whole bunch of things that we did while we were down there. I still watch these videos from time to time and every time I’m like, “Oh my God. We were so young!” [RH laughs] That’s what strikes me. We were so young when we went and did these things.
But I remember being there really separated the wheat from the chaff. Who were the high performers? Who were the people that were really willing to double down and get it done? Who’s going to be in charge of the mission? And who’s a slacker? Who’s not willing to put in the effort? Who doesn’t take this whole thing seriously? Who doesn’t remember that the work that we do impacts the people that are on the front lines? That was a huge take away from that. Seeing who was motivated and who could actually operate under lots and lots of pressure. Some people, they couldn’t do it. They just couldn’t figure out how to manage that level of responsibility. Some people became total adrenaline junkies. Whitman, for instance, after he went back he went SF. He doubled down. Other people, they were like, “I can’t deal with all this. This is just way too much.” And they immediately got out. It was interesting to see just how everybody dealt with that level of adversity differently.
RH: Good to go. What was the most challenging period of the deployment – and I guess this would include Kuwait as well – the beginning, the middle or the end?
RJ: The longer it went on, the more bureaucratic things became. That was really probably the most challenging. I know that talking with people that have been on there for multiple tours, they were like, “It only got worse.” Our ROE in the beginning was if they are in uniform, they die. If they make threatening actions toward you, they die. If you don’t even feel good, shoot first. Just don’t fuck around. The longer you were there, the more rules got set up about who you could engage and who you couldn’t engage and how these things were supposed to be working. In the beginning it was very clear cut. The longer it went on, the muddier things became. So for all of the difficulty that may have happened on a tactical sense, It was all something that was achievable because the decision makers that went into what you were doing was pretty easy to understand. The longer you were there, the weirder it got.
RH: As you gained more experience and the deployment went on, did you change at all?
RJ: Holy cow! Yeah. Just from the point in time when I enlisted to the time that I got out, I grew up significantly. When I got back, when I got out of Iraq and I was back in Germany for my mandatory three month cool down, my dad flew out to Europe and we did a weekend in Edinburgh. He was happy to see that I was out of a war zone. No extra holes. No deep emotional scarring. So we got together, father and son kind of weekend, and celebrated. Over beers I remember he was looking at me and he said, “You know Ryan, when you joined the military you were definitely a boy and you needed to do a lot of growing up. I’ve seen you over the course of the last four years and how you’ve matured and I am proud to sit across from the man that I sit across from today.” And hearing that from your father was such a huge thing for me. But, yeah. That’s really what it was. It was the accelerated adult program where I was handed a whole shitload of responsibility in rapid succession. The stakes were high and I needed to make it happen. So from a personal growth perspective, I was a Sergeant barely by the time they sent me to Kuwait and then I got sent down four more people. I was responsible for their lives and their performance, to be able to make sure that they excelled and were making sure that people downrange were going to be able to survive. So it was like, “I need everything out of you. I need to motivate you guys. I need to make sure you’re doing the best that you’re doing. I need to be able to make sure that you guys are doing the best you can to stay alive and help everybody else out. The rubber had hit the road and I just grew up so much as a result of that.
RH: What was the most challenging non-combat aspect of deploying?
RJ: I had a particular soldier who I did not get along with and he didn’t get along with me. He wasn’t very bright and didn’t really see a lot of the consequences of what we were doing which is super annoying for me. Trying to figure out how to manage him was difficult. Thankfully I had a Sergeant Major who liked me a lot so I offloaded a lot of the management responsibilities directly to her. Being a Sergeant Major she was a bit of a battle axe and knew how to deal with a lot of different people. [laughs]
It was so much about the work. Everything was about the work. The work was everything. Sure, I worked crazy hours sometimes – twenty hour days, sometimes, in succession. It was always about what the mission was and getting the work done and making sure that everybody could drive things forward. So I mean at this point, Jesus, it’s been thirteen years since then and I don’t necessarily remember a lot of the difficult periods that were not directly related to the work. It basically subsumed my entire world. I didn’t have any family back home. I mean, I had my parents and my brothers and sisters but I didn’t have a wife that I had to worry about. I didn’t have a long-term girlfriend or anything like that. I didn’t have to worry about a house getting foreclosed or anything crazy like that. So a lot of the extra baggage that a lot of the other soldiers may have had, I didn’t have it. I just took my paycheck and it went directly into my bank account. Occasionally I’d call my mom on the sat phone and lie to her and tell her I was still in Kuwait. [RH laughs] That was essentially it.
RH: Did you have any transformative or significant events that informed your deployment?
RJ: The whole thing was transformative. Just the stress of being there and the responsibilities and providing what we did. Our job, we didn’t generate intel but the G2 generated a ton of intel. At that level you get data from all over the battlefield and that could have relationships with other pieces of data all over the battlefield. So they guys that worked at the H were the ones that were able to put those things together. Once they got that, it was our responsibility to make sure that comms were up and we could send that intel out to the appropriate people so that way they could make the right decisions. So it was just super important. Making sure that we had as much uptime as possible was a key component. There’s no such thing as downtime when Bobby from Kansas is out there with a rifle trying to figure out whether or not he’s going to go left or go right. That’s a big deal. We were responsible for teaching the people how to use the GBS which is essentially like a little one and a half meter dish, a one meter dish, that you could use to download live UAV feeds. So that means the commanders could sit there and have an eye in the sky over what their units were doing and mark out bad guys. This was new voodoo at that point in time. It was like, “Hey, you’ve got bad guys twenty meters up the street in a window. Watch out for that.” That was brand new sort of stuff. So being able to provide that and make sure that all the stuff was working and people knew how to use it, that was super important. So I mean a lot of it was just a lot of things all at once. There wasn’t necessarily a singular event that was like a definition moment. Maybe if there was a definition moment it was when I realized that none of our comms architecture would work when I deployed unless I fixed it. But that was back in Germany. So building all of that and making sure that all that stuff rolled forward, that was probably it.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before we move onto post-deployment, is there anything that we left out about the deployment that you want to address?
RJ: People ask me what it was like and I’m like, “It’s the best time of my life that I never want to do again.” [RH laughs] It was a crazy experience. I was bummed that the petty politics didn’t necessarily go away. I remember getting a full court press from the Battalion Commander on reenlisting. He was trying to make me feel like dog shit because I wasn’t going to reenlist while I was downrange, like I wasn’t part of the team. I was like, “Dude, mission accomplished, man.” But the whole experience was really, it was amazing. It was interesting that so many of the political things maintained themselves but it was also interesting to see where politics fell by the wayside. Where, if you were having problems or if I was having problems with somebody that outranked me, I was like, “Screw you. I’m just going to escalate. I’m going to go right around you.” I don’t even care. What are you going to do? Shoot me? Jesus. We’re in a war. [laughs] I care about getting stuff done.
There was a rather disastrous attack helicopter mission that went through. We tried to tell the attack helicopter unit, “Don’t do this. This is wrong. The ADA is all up in this corridor. If you take this route that you’re planning on taking, you guys are going to get shot to shit.” And they just told us that they didn’t believe us. They thought that we were talking shit, that we were trying to favor some other unit. We were like, “No! We just don’t want you to get shot. That’s stupid.” But they went ahead with it and they got the shit shot out of them. What’s funny is that when I got to my National Guard unit in Arizona which was actually an aviation unit, one of those guys from that unit ended up in my unit and was talking shit about us! [RH laughs] I was like, “Sir, you totally got that ass backwards. I will defend all the intel guys at Corps because we saw where all that ADA was. We told you where the ADA was and you just ignored us!” [RH laughs]
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was your last night in Iraq like and what was it like going back to Germany?
RJ: I spent three or four days at BIAP. So I was originally slated to leave on July 29th, July 28th, because I had been stop lossed. You know when 9/11 happened everybody got stop lossed. Everybody got stop moved. It was like, “You’re fixed in place until we say otherwise.” So obviously it threw a lot of people’s plans in the pail. After Bush had done his photo op on the carrier for mission accomplished, people were really clamoring like, “Look, we need to end stop loss. We’ve got some people in that have been in for way too long and need to move on with their lives. If we are accomplished here, we should be able to let these people go.” So the door was open and the exodus happened and then they closed the door again real quick because they were hemorrhaging people but I was part of that initial group of people that were authorized to get out in that first opening. So my paperwork came down from up on high and I got orders to head back to Germany and I was like, “Sweet! This is great.”
So I went around and talked to everybody and let them know that this was going on pretty much everybody was supportive in the unit. They were like, “Dude, good on you!” It wasn’t like I was leaving everybody early. We had firmly entrenched ourselves in Baghdad at that point. It was time for me to get out. Everybody was like, “Alright. Cool.” It was the beginning of business as usual again except for Battalion Command staff. Battalion Command staff, they were fucking irate which is so annoying. So I get the full court press a couple of days before I was due to ship out and I’m like, “I’m just not going to do it.”
So I go to show up to BIAP with my two bags full and I’m like, “Alright. It’s time for me to fly.” The Air Force is managing all that traffic in and out and they were like, “OK. We got your name on the list. Just park it over there and we’ll let you know.” I’m like, “OK.” You come and check in every once in a while and I kept on getting bumped. They’re like, “Nah, you got bumped. Nah, you got bumped. Nah, you got bumped.” I’m like, “Motherfucker.” After the first day your tolerance for this sort of thing is huge in the Army already. So after the first day I’m like, “This is fucking bullshit.” So I go over and I’m like, “What the hell? What’s bumping me?” And he’s like, “A lot of people are going back to Landstuhl.” And immediately I was like, “Dude, you can bump me for as much as you want. I am in good health and good spirits. If you need to keep bumping me for people that are going back to Landstuhl because they’ve got holes in them, you go ahead and you just do that.”
RH: And just for posterity, Landstuhl is where a number of wounded service members were assigned if it was a serious injury.
RJ: Yeah. Landstuhl is the regional medical facility in Germany. It’s the closest real hospital. We’d set up decent stuff downrange but Landstuhl had all the bells and whistles. If you were seriously injured you were stabilized and then shipped to BIAP and then you got put on a plane and flown to Germany and immediately sent over to Landstuhl. So there was a steady enough stream of injured to significantly push me back a couple of days.
I just hung out on the tarmac. It was interesting seeing people come and seeing people go, seeing people just kind of hanging out, the Airmen doing their thing, watching the planes coming in and out. Just the efficiency of the whole operation and thinking about how all these things fit together. Finally getting on that plane – it was a C-130 – I was sharing it with a Humvee and a bunch of other dudes. There were no seats. I’m like, “Where do I sit?” He’s like, “That cargo net over there looks good.” I’m like, “OK.” [both laugh] I got my woobie and I’m all wrapped up in my woobie. We’re going. And at that point, nobody was checking anything. People were bringing back disassembled AK-47s and all sorts of questionable material.
When we landed in Germany, we’d taxi and we’d park, the ramp comes down and the first thing everybody does is gets out and it’s raining. Everybody comes out and it’s raining and it’s not mud. It’s twenty degrees cooler and everybody’s like, “Oh my God!” A couple of people got down on their knees and kissed the asphalt right there on the tarmac. They were just like, “I’m so glad to be home!” I walked out and we walked directly to the terminal and there were so many families that were there to welcome home their loved ones and people that they knew and lots of hugs and kisses. There wasn’t anybody there for me because I was a single guy. That was pretty depressing. I grabbed my bags and got on the bus. The bus took me back to Heidelberg. I went and banged on the door of the orderly room and said, “Hey guys. I’m back.” They were like, “Hey!” And I was home. That was that.
RH: Good to go. What was the best and worst part about coming home?
RJ: The best part was I could go out again. I wasn’t in Iraq anymore. I could go out and drink beers. My alcohol tolerance was like one beer and I was like, “Wooo!” [RH laughs] That was obviously fantastic but the problem was that the acting commander got caught up in all of this stupid bullshit. It was all about little things and playing gotcha. And you’re whole perspective on what’s important and what’s not important from a readiness perspective changes when you actually were down there. So basically, everybody that was left over. And the acting commander was non-deployable status. Just coming back, having someone that’s non-deployable telling you what to do, I’m like, “Fuck you,” without saying so many words. It was like, “I’m going to ignore ninety percent of the things that you’re telling me to do.” [RH laughs] It’s like, “I just got a bronze star for being awesome out there and you can’t deploy because you’re fat? That’s not my problem. I’m going to keep on doing what I think is important.” So that was the hard part, really getting back into the garrison mindset because it’s so different than the operations mindset.
Coming back I was a beanpole because you lose a lot of weight when you’re down there. I was out every weekend. I had three months left in Europe. I went to Paris, I went to Ibiza, I went to Edinburgh, I went to Czech. I mean, I was all over the place. It was really interesting because that was all I ever talked about. I just got back from the war so people asked me, “What’s going on?” “I’m just back from Iraq.”
In Europe it was a very jaded view about what had been happening. Hearing other people’s perspectives once I was outside of the Kool Aid zone about what was going on really informed my whole view on the politics of the situation – why we went and what was going on. And was it worthwhile? Was it justified? So my views on the whole activity started to evolve at that point because when you had to go you just had to go. That’s it. I didn’t care about all of the other songs and dances that were associated with the deployment. Dude, I’m in the Army. That’s part of the deal.
Coming back and having conversations with a lot of different Europeans about what the hell is going on really made me start thinking about, why are we there? What’s the purpose of these things? How does it play into a larger geopolitical picture? How is this going to affect the world? Was this necessary? That sort of stuff.
RH: What were some of those conversations like and how did your perspective change?
RJ: A lot of the Europeans were like, “We aren’t on board with this. That was not cool. Afghanistan we understand. Iraq was completely a war that was unnecessary.” And me being be where I was at, they were like, “Why did you do that?” I was like, “Well, the weapons of mass destruction.” And they were like, “Did you find any while you were over there?” I was like, “Well, I can’t talk about that because that’s classified.” But knowing we didn’t necessarily find anything right off the bat. There were a lot of theories about why that was the case but you’re still wracking your brain thinking about these things. When you think about when our TAC at Ghraib got hit with an inbound mortar round, we lost a guy and a couple other people had to get shipped home because they were injured, you’re like, “What’s the purpose of this? Why are we there? What are we accomplishing?” You read about the Abu Ghraib stuff and you’re like, “Really?” We weren’t being the stewards that we should be. We weren’t behaving at the level that we should be. Is this the right thing to be doing?
At this point now I am staunchly anti-war. You better have some clear and present danger before you start sending people over somewhere. Stabilization efforts? Nation building? No. Fuck that shit. There’s no reason to send some kid from Kansas halfway across the world to fight somebody else’s fight for them. I don’t care what your rationale is. Unless you’re suiting up to go with him, no. Negative, Ghost Rider. So going through that and seeing the downside – and we were there forever! Now, we’ve had ground troops in the Middle East for most of the last twenty-five years. To what end? It’s diminishing returns, I think, at this point. Being there I was very much in the moment and about what was happening. When I came back home I came to the decision that we did the right thing for the wrong reasons. We went and deposed an evil dictator that was oppressing his people and saying this was a really difficult situation for them and we are attempting to build a better world this way. And now I am of the opinion that going there entirely was a mistake because of all the bad shit that happened with ISIS, a destabilized neck of the woods and just so much more conflict that’s happening right now in the world. We caused more problems than we solved.
RH: Perfect. We’re going to get to ISIS in a little bit too. Before we do, you got back to Germany and you were in Germany for three months before you got out?
RJ: Yes. It’s like a mandatory cool down period before you get out.
RH: What was it like immediately after you got out of the military?
RJ: I did a weekend here in New York City on my way home which was fantastic. I flew down to Georgia. I was in Georgia for two weeks to basically reorient myself to the US and then I drove across the country to go start school at Arizona State. I was busy the whole time. There was no sitting on the couch wondering what my purpose in life was. I had applied for college while I was still deployed to Baghdad. So when I got my notices and stuff through the ever slow Army post saying that I had been accepted to Arizona State, I was like, “Great! That’s where I’m going.” [RH laughs] So I already had a plan so when it was time for me to get out, I was in Germany. I found an apartment while I was in Germany, I figured out my roommate situation. Everything was already in motion.
When I actually got out of the service and got to US soil, everything was planned until January. In January I start school and I’m living in Phoenix and I’m starting school and I’m a college student and that’s it. Straight up. Looking back and reading stories about what had happened to other people, how they just got out and were like, “Now what?,” that was not me. So I’m really thankful that I didn’t have to deal with a lot of that stuff. I knew what I wanted to go do.
RH: What was college like as a veteran having immediately having gotten out?
RJ: Easy! Eight AM classes? Great! I get to sleep in and go for a run before I go in. [both laugh] Everything is cake. And I still say that. After Iraq, everything is easy. Even now. I do computer security for a publicly traded company. We’re a victim of cyber attacks on the reg. Dude, this shit’s easy! I worked for AMEX before that. This shit’s easy. Everything’s easy. Nobody’s getting shot at, nobody tried to blow you up on your way to work today, you don’t have to worry about inbound mortars. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? You’re going to blow a deadline? OK. So then you reset your deadlines. You overspend some money? OK, great. Seriously, the worst thing that you can have happen is I lose my job. That means I just have to find a new job. That’s something that’s certainly achievable. You know, it’s all easy. I don’t have to get stressed about anything. Fantastic.
RH: Right on. Do you still talk with any of the guys that you served with?
RJ: Yes. Facebook, man. It’s worth its weight in gold. I keep in touch with a bunch of folks. Probably about a dozen people. One of the guys I served with, I’m going to his wedding next year – no, it’s this year, I should say. It’s in October. Columbus Day. I’m doing that. My NCOIC that I went downrange with, he lives down in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I catch up with him. He’s got a thing annually called Crabtoberfest so we go down there and drink beer and get silly. I keep up with a bunch of folks.
RH: Did any of the people you served with change after they got out and, if so, how?
RJ: You know, I grew so much from that experience of being down there and I’ve done really well for myself. I had super high expectations for many of my peers that I deployed with and I was really disappointed that a lot of people just didn’t do it. One of my peers got out and he and I were doing very similar work. He went back to Mississippi and worked as a manager at a retail store. I’m like, “Dude, why? You could do anything you want right now. You’ve been through the hell. You’ve been through the furnace. Why are you settling to be a retail manager in some small town in Mississippi?” I think I’ve always wanted more out of my peers than they’ve oftentimes given.
But as far as changes, thankfully nobody in our unit that I’m aware of – we had one person that had to really struggle with PTSD but he kind of got everything back on track. So I’d say we’re all kind of getting by. Some of us stayed in, some of us got out. I’ve lost track with some and kept in tune with some others. Thankfully nobody’s killed themselves that I’m aware of, anyways. I haven’t kept in touch with everyone. Life goes on.
RH: Alright. Good to go. You kind of touched on this but how has your military experience shaped your life since you got out?
RJ: It was the best decision I ever made. Joining the service, it gave me a lot of the tools that I needed to be able to succeed in the rest of my life. I still leverage those tools, sometimes to the detriment of my direct subordinates right now at work because sometimes if I get frustrated I’ll just revert back to Sergeant Jamieson which nobody likes. [laughs] But just being able to assess what’s important and what’s not important, being able to make decisions in the absence of orders and drive through with those, to be able to assess the situation and understand what’s important and what’s not, a lot of those things are skills that I honed while I was in the service. Public speaking – having to give a brief to forty people about the state of our systems over the last twelve hours, “This is what’s up, this is what’s down, this is what’s going on. If you have problems talk to this guy. If you have other problems, talk to that guy. This is what’s going on. Shift change. Let’s go.” All these different things that I’ve been able to do has been fantastic.
RH: Alright. Good to go. How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
RJ: Well, it’s a shit show. I mean, there’s nothing I can directly do about the rise of ISIS. A lot of it has to do with poverty. It’s globalization. There’re so many different factors in play right now with ISIS and it’s not just good versus evil. You got the Russians supporting Assad, you’ve got the Turks fighting the Kurds, you’ve got the Alawites trying to maintain some level of control over Syria. It’s not one sided. It’s not a one v. one. It’s like a two v. two v. three v. two. It’s just a chaotic battle of five armies out there. I don’t think that us getting further involved over there would make any sense. There’re no clear victory conditions. Colin Powell always said, “If you’re going to go anywhere, make sure that you have overwhelming force and clear victory conditions and you can beat feet when you’re done.” None of those things apply right now. So us going over there makes no sense. The New York Times ran an article today or yesterday talking about the systematic rape that they do there. I mean, that’s awful. It’s abhorrent. But we pay all this attention to ISIS because it’s in the Middle East and it’s somewhere that we’ve traditionally paid attention to. Shit’s been awful in Angola and Uganda for years and nobody gives two rats. So it’s all about selective attention. They certainly don’t pose an existential threat to the United States. There’s no force projection. There’s no ability to hold an occupied territory. Anybody that claims ISIS over here will get mobbed by a dozen people that will beat the shit out of them. Plus, we’re highly armed so you’re likely to get shot. I’m not concerned about their negative effect on the United States. I’m more concerned about their effect on their region and a lot of that is just Europe needs to nut up and get in the game. Turkey needs to nut up and get in the game. It doesn’t necessarily directly involve them yet so it’s complex.
RH: So this is a question for you. As a computer guy, what do you think of their use of social media and their twenty-first century penetration with social media and some of the messaging that they’ve been using?
RJ: They’re super savvy on social media. Their PR wing is really good. I say this not in a sense that I support them but in a sense that I can identify work that is well done. They know their market. They target disaffected youth. They can spin the right tales to get them involved to feel like they’re belonging. The same mental dynamics that go into joining a gang are what get people to join ISIS. You’re feeling isolated and lonely, you need some sense of belonging. This is a group of people that gets you and understands you. All that stuff kind of fits together.
Their ability to do that is two things. One, they’re super savvy and it’s a direct indictment of the deterioration of community in America and in the West in general. If they had been doing the same sort of thing in the ‘50s when community was a really strong sense in America, you’d never find a foothold. It wouldn’t work. But I think as people are increasingly isolated, it becomes more fertile recruiting ground for them. As far as what we can do about that, I am hesitant to say that we can do anything other than targeted strikes against things that we know about. Besides, from my perspective it’s better to have them out there on the web and then know where they’re at so we can monitor it rather than shutting all these things down and having them go back channel. Because if there’s anything that you learn on the internet, nothing goes away. It’s there forever. We’ve been trying to eradicate child pornography on the internet for decades at this point and that’s not anywhere close to being done so what makes you think we’re going to be able to stop extremist views on the internet? It’s better to identify them and monitor them than it is to try and take them out.
RH: Alright. Good to go. So I have a couple of spiritual questions for you. Has deploying affected you spiritually and if so, how?
RJ: I used to not think about religion and now I’m staunchly atheist. I mean, there’s just no reason. I read a lot of holy works while I was out there because you’ve got a lot of free time and none of them made sense so I just said, “This is all stupid.” I’m not going to take this from a literal sense. I think that if someone wants to look at the Bible and say, “I’m going to follow the teachings of the Lord Jesus and try to be nice to a lot of people,” great. If you want to use that as a barometer to do good in the world, that’s fantastic. There’s so much bullshit that people use in those holy books to justify awful things like the systematic rape of women or stoning gay people or whatever. Using religion as an exclusionary device just totally puts me off. And I fail to believe that if there is some sort of all-powerful being that he would be down with any of that. That’s just my two cents.
RH: Alright. Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
RJ: I guess it’s not something that I really thought about much while I was a young teenager. I mean, I can go at any time. You just never know. So make the most of it.
RH: Alright. Good to go. So we actually touched on this a bit too but now that we are a few years out, how do you feel about the war?
RJ: In retrospect, twenty/twenty hindsight, it wasn’t a good idea. We shouldn’t have gone to Iraq. We should have left Saddam be. We should have figured out some way to deal with him and left him there because he was maintaining control over that whole shit show that it became. He was between a rock and a hard place. He could either say that didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction and then chance the Iranians, his neighbors, coming in and trying to take him out or he could tell us that he does have weapons of mass destruction and risk us coming across the ocean to be able to come and kick his ass. Escalating to that point was stupid. I don’t necessarily know why it was such an important thing. Lots of other countries have weapons of mass destruction and we don’t bother them. It’s like, why did we go into Iraq versus North Korea? Well, because Iraq is politically expedient.
RH: Alright. Let’s switch it up a little bit. What’s your happiest memory of the entire time you served?
RJ: Getting my Bronze Star. I was super proud of that.
RH: What did you get it for?
RJ: It was for maintaining comms. It wasn’t a valor thing. It was just general service during the course of the deployment. A lot of it had to do with being able to rebuild all of that message architecture and start that from scratch and make sure we were up all the time and getting everybody set up and flying all over creation. I was on the road half the time when I was there. I was either in helicopters or in convoys with transit boxes to be able to set up people’s shit.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What, if anything, do you miss about the military?
RJ: The sense of mission and camaraderie. When we were there everybody had the same mission. It was like even though I was doing X and you were doing Y, our work, when combined, would be taking us in the same direction. That’s something that I definitely miss. Working in a big corporation you don’t really get that sense of mission and certainly working where I’m working at now I don’t get that sense of mission. So the idea that I can go and work in a team and everybody’s aligned to go and hit the same goals, that’s like perfect to me. That’s so cool. Then the camaraderie that you get but that’s not something that you can replicate easily.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Toughest question of the entire interview: what was the best MRE?
RJ: Chicken and rice. I’m not a five fingers of death guy.
RH: [laughs] Alright. Actually, this is going to be a four part question for you. What was the best chow hall in the US, the best chow hall in Korea, the best chow hall in Germany and, if you had one, the best chow hall in Iraq?
RJ: The best chow hall in the US was at Fort Jackson. I was in basic training so I was hungry all the time so I didn’t care what they fed me. Everything was delicious. That was it. I was just hungry all the time. In Korea I was at the J2 so I just remember that’s where they got me into fried eggs and rice which was really cool. But I ate off post all the time because I like Korean food. In Germany I would never go to the DFAC. I would either cook or I would go off post because we had our own kitchen in the barracks so it was easy to do. And then downrange, the best DFAC? The one in Baghdad kept getting better and better and better. So the one in Baghdad, I think, at Victory was the best one there.
RH: Good to go. What are some of the funny stories that you have?
RJ: Well, having O’Keefe tell me that she couldn’t see at night, that was just like, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” The Whitman Films stuff was all hilarious.
When I went up to the TAC the first time, the whole thing was ringed with concertina and there’s Bradleys on the perimeter and you had infantry guys that were out doing patrols. So I get up there late afternoon, I’m exhausted, it’s been a full day. I’m asking for places to sleep. They’re like, “Everything’s full.” I’m like, alright. I’m just going to go in the back of a five ton and set up my cot and just sleep in the back of the five ton. They’re like, “Alright. Cool.”
I pass out and wake up the next day. I don’t have my glasses on so I’m waking up and I’m rubbing my face and I’m in my boxers and that’s it. So I sit up and I put my glasses on and I look out. Across the way I see a guy in MOPP 4 on perimeter and I lose my shit. I think that there has been a chemical attack and I slept through the chem attack. [RH laughs] It’s like eleven o’clock in the morning in Anbar province. It’s like a billion degrees outside. There’s no reason that anyone should be in MOPP 4 so if this guy is cruising around in MOPP 4 then that means that we’ve been hit with something. I just assume that I’m twenty seconds away from doing the kicking chicken. So I start grabbing all of my MOPP gear and I’m hauling shit up left and right. Do you know how they say it takes six seconds to put on your mask? I think the whole thing got onto me in two point five. [RH laughs]
So I’m like halfway done and I’m zipping things and I’ve got my rifle and I’m just squinting into the intel tent. So I’ve got my stuff on and I’ve got my crazy boots and I rip open the first thing and I rip out the second one and I go in there. People are all looking over and I’m like, “Ahhhhh!” Everybody’s sitting there and nobody else is in MOPP gear. [RH laughs] They’re all looking at me and I’m looking at them like, “There wasn’t a chemical attack.” They’re like, “No man. There was no chemical attack.” I’m like, “OK. I’ll be back.”
So I go and change all my stuff out and come back and then I go and ask the Bradleys guys, “Who’s responsible for patrols? Where’s their HQ?” So I roll over there to their tent and I ask for the First Sergeant. I ask, “Did you have a guy out earlier today that was in MOPP 4 doing perimeter?” He was like, “Yeah! Yeah, I did. He kept on forgetting his MOPP gear so I made him do a patrol in full MOPP gear.” [RH laughs] And I’m like, “I need you to know, that might not be a good idea.” I told him the story and he howled with laughter. He was like, “Alright. That’s important. That’s good to know. I did not mean to terrify you.”
RH: [laughs] That’s funny. Good to go. Alright, last couple of questions. What are some of the common misconceptions that the average America might have about the conflict?
RJ: Well, we’ve had some movies about it now so everybody views it in the scope of the movies. What I really try to do is balance things off of what it’s actually like versus what the movies are like. A lot of people think that everybody’s fine upstanding citizens, citizen soldiers and warrior poets and shit. I’m like, “It’s not that way, guys. It’s really not that way. It’s kind of coarse and it’s kind of stupid.” There’s a lot of things that happen over there that are questionable at best and reprehensible at worst.
A lot of people think that when we send people over there, they’re invulnerable. We’re just going to go kick ass and that’s going to be it. It’s easy peasy. Most civilians have zero respect for the people that we face. By the time I left and certainly over the course of the years since then, the insurgents in Iraq are fucking amazing fighters. These guys are talented. They’re skilled. They’re veterans of their own battles. They’re no slouches. People here think that, “Oh yeah, we’ll just get rid of them.” You don’t understand. These guys are fine living in the dirt, living in caves. You have nothing left to take away from them other than their lives. That’s it. They don’t understand the scope of what’s actually happening over there. I think that’s probably the biggest disconnect.
RH: Alright. Good to go. If you could communicate something to young soldiers who would be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
RJ: Pack more socks. Care about your team. It’s all about your team. And make sure you trust your team because it’s all about the person that you’re there with. It’s all about your team and who you’re functioning with and making sure you work together. That’s probably the biggest thing. But that’s what they told you in basic training. They say, “The hardest thing about these whole nine weeks is learning how to work together.” And that was true. But that’s really it. If you needed to hammer it home even more it’s all about being a team player and working together as a team. That’s what I would say. Always focus on that.
RH: Alright good to go. Before I ask my last question, is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
RJ: So while I was in college I studied abroad in Australia. It was a really interesting experience because I took political science courses almost entirely. Political science in the States is very much viewed through the prism of Democrats and Republicans. When you go abroad, it’s very much an internationalized view of things. So taking these classes which were like Foreign Policy of the Third World and Middle Eastern Relations as it Relates to the US, I had such a unique viewpoint as being the only person in these classes that had been in the Middle East in this capacity and could speak about what had actually happened and some of the things that had gone on. It was such an interesting experience because half of the classes that I was in viewed me as the ugly American because at that point I was very much a realist as it came to foreign policy. They’re like, “Why do you do these things?” And I’m like, “Because there’s nothing that’s going to prevent us from doing it. We can do what we want, essentially, because there’s nobody there that’s going to say no.” They’re like, “That’s awful.” I’m like, “That’s just the way the world works, man. This is kind of the nuts and bolts of things.”
So half the class thought I was the ugly American. The other half were like, “This was super enlightening to see this other viewpoint that we never understood and looking at things and understanding how other Americans view these things.” And I wasn’t particularly arch-Republican or arch-Democrat. I tried to give a nuanced view but I’m only a human. I thought it was really, really cool to be able to have these conversations with other people that were also studying political science around that whole region and kind of giving them insight about what was going on. That’s probably the only thing.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Do I have any other larger political questions? I studied international affairs and I’m just trying to think if there’s – I’m sure I’ll think of a thousand things as soon as I walk away. Alright. Last question. What specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your entire service?
RJ: Setting up all that comms shit. That was huge. There was no way for everybody to talk. I mean, if we deployed and I hadn’t taken care of that, we would have all been on public unclass nodes. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened there. I’m sure we would have glued something up together but it would have been everybody flying by the seat of their pants. Every time a new unit came in I gave them a handbook about, “Here’s all your shit. Do what you’ve got to do. Go.” It’s written at a fifth grade reading level because this is the Army. [RH laughs] That’s probably what I’m most proud of.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Anything else before we wrap it up?
RJ: No, man.
RH: Alright. Thank you.