I find iDonald Trump’s comments about has said about us in Iraq. He has apparently said at least twice that U.S. soldiers were stealing money while deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He even mentioned the soldiers who did indeed travel around the country carrying cash. “How stupid are we,” he joked? See Politico report. He said some soldiers are living “high on the hog” now.
Well, ok, first, neither Iraq or Afghanistan had a banking system. They had and still have cash based economies. Cash is the only option. That caused many logistical headaches. Trust me, Mr. Donald, we would love to have been able to make payments by check, or even, debit card. Sigh. There is just so much an army can accomplish in a given time period in a third world country.
Sure, some very few soldiers did steal money. But, at least to my knowledge, most or perhaps all of those convictions were of soldiers who were working back in the relatively safe areas of Kuwait and other Middle East countries. Those soldiers were operating with high dollar contracts.
The people carrying the cash, those were my people. We dealt in CERP money – Commander’s Emergency Response Program. I was a CERP manager of sorts at Division level near Tikrit, Iraq. I did not supervise but did help train the PPO’s – Project Pursing Officers – at the battalion and Brigade level. As the name suggests, CERP was strictly a fly by the seat of your pants operation. We created it when the two wars were started. No one, not one person was trained on CERP before the wars. It was way beyond anything any of us had ever imagined could occur in a war. Yet, there we were spending huge some of money. at Division level, we spent some $90 million per year. At the Brigade level, they were managing budgets of $10-15 million per year. It was a huge amount of money for lieutenants, Staff Sergeants, and Sergeants First Class to be monitoring. But, this was war. War is all about adjusting to the plans and moves by the enemy. We deal with the unexpected. Some famous amatory historian once said, all war plans fail to survive first contact with the enemy. Plans change. So, we had to deal with reconstruction projects.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were pubic relations wars. Yes, in theory, we could kill all the bad guys – but only if we could find them. To find them, we needed cooperation from the average Iraqi citizen. To build trust, we had to spend money.
I cannot remember his name. He was a former Brigadier General in Saddam’s army. When I got to Tikrit in 2005, he was now the Deputy Governor for Salahadin Province. He was a key guy in a key province. He told one of the Civil Affairs officers: “I like you. You Americans fix schools and build medical clinics. But, if you stay too long, I will kill you.” We appreciated his honesty. But, he also encapsulated our strategy. If we simply chase bad guys, then we are no better than the British imperialists from a 100 years earlier. We had to prove we were different. It was CERP money and the larger multimillion dollar projects that showed we were different.
We may never know how many U.S. lives were saved by CERP money. CERP was not supposed to be used in a straight tit-for-tat deal. We could not tell a Sheik that if he makes sure no attacks are launched from his tribal controlled area, then he would get a new medical clinic in his town. But, I am sure some deals like that were actually made. As the CERP guy at Division level, I was the one person who as supposed to ensure no such deals were made. We were required to abide by a series of operations orders that required we spend CERP money and any other money in accordance with Civil Affairs doctrine. That meant each reconstruction project had to be sustainable. It could not be a project that would end once the U.S. soldiers left.
The PPO’s had no training on CERP until my predecessor devised a very good three hour block of instruction on CERP. I was the main person to organize the classes. But, the classes required a JAG officer for a small portion, the CERP money manager and I forget the fourth person. We would travel from FOB to FOB giving our class. Apart from the class, I would personally travel to a FOB once a month to check on a project.
Yes, it was possible fro one of the PPO’s to create a nonexistent project and pocket the money. An NCO or young lieutenant could conceivably create on paper a project and pocket the money. The only control on something like was me. I deliberately would pick a random project once a month and ask the PPO to show me that project. I prayed every time that the project would indeed be there. And, thank goodness, those projects were always there. They did exist. But, I checked less that ten percent of the projects. There just was not enough time to check on all these projects. The PPO”s themselves could not check any given project more than a few months. Here in the U.S., when you are the government and you are spending $50,000 to rehabilitate a school, you would check it everyday or close to everyday. In Iraq, we were doing well to check every few months.
The PPO’s had to go outside the wire about 5-6 days per week. They were the brave ones incurring the risk of IED’s everyday. One PPO team I rode with looked back after some 11 months and recounted the number of IED’s they had driven through. They could could recall about half a dozen. The roadside bombs were big, but not big enough to stop the convoy.
Yet, no PPO ever asked me if they really had to go outside the wire to check a project. No one ever even asked if there was a minimum number of checks they had to make. Non one ever suggested they need not go outside the wire as much as they were.
No, the PPO’s never asked about his or her own personal safety. On the contrary, the only fear they conveyed to me in my 12 months was liability. Some were very concerned about getting into trouble for losing money. What could happen to them, they wondered. My lawyer background helped. They would listen to me when I counseled them to follow these CERP procedures and they should be okay. And, I have to add that when I would go outside the wire with these very brave and bright young men and women, you could feel their pride in their projects. They were doing exceptional work in a very constrained environment. I was very proud of all those PPO”s with whom I worked.
Did some of those PPO’s take home some of that CERP money? It was possible. We just did not have the time to implement controls. I heard that yes, early in the war, the pay agents would travel around with backpacks full of cash to pay Iraqi contractors. All the contractors and builders were Iraqi. The minimal level of controls we had were developed slowly with each year of the war. But, in my time, at least, midway through the third year of the war, it was indeed possible for a young sergeant or lieutenant to pocket $5, 10 thousand.
At the time, while wearing the uniform, I would have indeed turned in anyone I found doing that. As I mentioned above, my biggest fear was that we would get to one project and nothing would be there. In fact, I depended on the PPO teams completely when I went outside the wire. If they claimed to be showing me the Mohammed School for Girls school project and it was actually the Ibn School for Boys, I would have no way of knowing that. That is, if they showed me a project other than the one named, I might not have known.
So, Mr. Donald has a point. But, really, from a man who never served, who appears to have no knowledge regarding the limitations of the wars, his comments are quite offensive. Those PPO’s are the ones who could have taken home money. And, those PPO’s had no training, no background for this sort of work. They were exposed to liability issues and physical safety issues for which Mr. Donald has no appreciation. All of us wanted to take care of Uncle Sam’s money. None of us wanted to be subject to investigations after the war. But, even more important, we all wanted to come home with all our fingers and toes. Unless Mr. Trump wants to talk to someone who was there or has actual knowledge of our limitations, he should keep his comments to himself. It is not too late for the candidate to become educated about what it was truly like over there. Until then, in my opinion, he remains an arrogant blowhard.