Paul Rieckhoff spent 11 months in Iraq as an infantry platoon leader, leading 38 grunts on patrol, ambushes and raids and training Iraqi police and soldiers, until his unit returned to the United States in February 2004. All his men made it back home alive, although one of his sergeants lost both his legs.
A first lieutenant in the 3rd Infantry Division of the Army National Guard, Rieckhoff, 30, wrote a book about his experience, called "Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier's Fight for America from Baghdad to Washington." Rieckhoff, who worked on Wall Street as an investment banker, volunteered to lead a Florida guard unit in Iraq when his National Guard Unit in New York was not activated.
Rieckhoff is still in the National Guard and expects to be sent back to Iraq in a year or two. He founded an organization called Operation Truth, a nonprofit group that advocates for veterans.
Staff writer Rob Christenen caught up with Rieckhoff when he was in Durham recently to promote his book.
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: I wrote this book because I wanted to wake America up. I wanted people to understand the soldier's perspective, which I think is sorely missing in the dialogue right now. You hear from policy wonks. You hear from Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly. You don't hear from the sergeant or lieutenant who is on the ground in Ramadi or Fallujah. I also wrote it so people understand how policy affects those people on the ground. When Paul Bremer makes a decision to disband the Iraqi army, it impacts my platoon immediately. We see violence go up. We see an increase in attacks. We see looting problems.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you found out?
A: The most surprising thing was how little planning was done for what would happen after the fall of Baghdad. I write in the book about a squad leader and my sniper team, and I went up to the top of the Ministry of Finance when we first got to Baghdad in May. It was one of the highest buildings in the city. You could look all over the landscape, and there were still some fire fights still going on. ... We looked all over the city and one of my sergeants said, "Hey sir. Where the hell is everybody else?' "
That is when it kind of crystallized in my head that we were going to be facing an uphill battle. It just totally surprised me that they didn't have the pieces in place to be able to establish the security and at the end of the day be able to provide a better quality of life to the Iraqis.
They were expecting us to be able to turn their lights on, clean their drinking water and wave a magic wand. When we couldn't do that, it got more and more difficult. Little things like water. It should not be hard for a platoon to get water. If we can have laser-guided missiles who can do a surgical strike 7,000 miles away, we should be able to get guys water and body armor and vehicle armor and interpreters and things like that.
Q: Tell me about those shortages.
A: My guys were amazingly innovative and creative. For example, they found some SUVs in an abandoned garage and turned them into gun trucks. It was kind of like a scene out of "The A-Team." We had crappy body armor that wouldn't stop an AK 47. We had to buy radios from WalMart out of our own pockets. We paid Iraqi citizens to get double-A batteries, which there was a huge shortage for night vision goggles and optics.
These were systematic failures. When a guy in a suit back in Washington screws up the paperwork and doesn't put the right pieces in place, guys in camouflage in Baghdad bleed and die. It was one of things that really motivated me to get involved and get other veterans involved to make a change.
Q: How do you think the war is going?
A: I don't think it's going according to plan. I think we are behind where we hoped to be. I think we are behind where the Iraqis expected us to be. It's tough to find a matrix for success. Oil production is down. Water availability is down. The security situation is continuing to deteriorate, or at least be at a standstill. Our military, I would argue, is dangerously overextended. This thing may turn around, and we may be able to say it was a great move and a good choice, but right now I think it's looking pretty tough.
Q: Do you think we should still be there?
A: Yes, I do. I don't think there is an easy solution. I don't think there is a silver bullet. If we stay, it's going to be bad. If we leave it's going to be bad. But I think what we need to start to work toward is developing other options other than George Bush's stay-the-course or Cindy Sheehan's bring-them-home-now.
I think a precipitous withdrawal would be catastrophic because we would totally leave the Iraqis hanging out to dry. There are thousands of Iraqis in the police who have committed to working with us and who have risked their lives to work for us. If we pull out tomorrow, many of them are going to be slaughtered.