Postcards from Hell 

A two-week series about the year-long Iraq tour of the Idaho 116th Brigade Combat Team

Capt. Kory Turnbow of the Idaho National Guard was nearly blown to bits in his first week in Iraq. The 29-year-old law student and Pullman resident is not alone in having had a close encounter with an improvised explosive device (IED). Every local soldier who spent 2005 in Iraq with the Idaho National Guard has a bomb story. All are as intense as Turnbow's, and in almost every case, the bombers were never caught. There were a lot more bombs than we've heard about.

Sgt. First Class Kevin Kincheloe, 47, a platoon leader and high school teacher from Harrison, was stationed at FOB McHenry, a rough little fort in one of Iraq's bad neighborhoods--the tip of the Sunni Triangle near Hawijah.

"The battalion that was there before us, the 1-27th Infantry, had 130-some IEDs go off against them during their year," Kincheloe says. "We had 900-plus."

Welcome to Iraq.

Two years ago, hundreds of residents of rural Idaho, Montana and Oregon were tapped on the shoulder by Uncle Sam and pulled out of their ordinary lives to become full-time soldiers. The voices of these citizen-soldiers recounting their observations and experiences are, perhaps shamefully, too seldom heard.

The Idaho National Guard's 116th Brigade Combat Team-- some 1,600 strong--was "federalized" on May 8, 2004, to prepare for a year in Iraq. After years of downsizing, America's all-volunteer military was stretched past its limits with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the National Guard was being activated for overseas combat on a scale not seen in half a century.

In this group were roughly 200 from north Idaho whose deployment swept across the state's panhandle, from Grangeville to Bonners Ferry, in a way that touched many.

Tiny Kootenai High School near the town of Harrison had two teachers called away. A farmer near Grangeville left his crops in someone else's hands. A Post Falls bank lost its manager. The Fighting Creek landfill was short a worker. Customers of a Coeur d'Alene mechanic found someone else to fix their cars. A college student from Bonners Ferry finished her senior project in Iraq. The clerk at the Flying J who poured you that overstrong coffee at 2 a.m. was gone, too.

They are all neighbors, called away to a distant war. So what did they see during 2005? How did they fare?

Like Turnbow, they discovered a war fought in the middle of a civilian populace with no visible enemy and no clear front, where you can't shoot back without evidence that you have the right target.

"It's so frustrating. People get hurt, or you get blown up and there's nobody to take it out on," says First Sgt. Michael Kish, 35, a full-time Guardsman from Coeur d'Alene. "You've got to always be the calm, cool, collected guy.

"Let's say you've got Joe Farmer out in a field when an IED goes off. Did Joe Farmer just happen to be on his tractor, or did he see who set it off, or did he set it off?" Kish asks.

In the shock and high-voltage adrenaline rush of surviving a bomb, solders are tempted to shoot at the first visible target.

"You really had to concentrate on remembering these guys are human beings and not everybody is out to kill you," Kish says.

And when it comes to the enemy, Turnbow's story also reveals it's often not who we think it is.

Who is the AIF? (Part One)

By using the vague acronym AIF ("anti-Iraqi forces"), the military concedes that there is no single, clear-cut enemy in Iraq. Sometimes the enemy is surprising.

Turnbow has a good idea who tried to blow him up last year in northern Iraq--and it wasn't someone on the usual list of Al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, Islamists, jihaddis, Wahabbis, Baathists, Saddam loyalists or common criminals. His hunch is: "Colonel Faisal of the Iraqi Army. He's the battalion commander at Taza and an individual I worked very closely with," Turnbow says. "I was never able to substantiate that with enough proof to reel him in, but I think I came close."

As a former member of the Iraqi special forces, Faisal had the know-how to set up a car bomb; he had knowledge of Turnbow's movements; and, after two quick disputes with Turnbow involving a contract to feed the local Iraqi troops for a year, Faisal may have had sufficient motive. Turnbow says that Faisal created a side company and put in a bid, which was rejected because it wasn't competitive. Then Turnbow learned Faisal was strong-arming the winning bidder.

"First, I reject his bid on the food contract, then I have the nerve to inquire why my contractor is being shook down after leaving the gate and being paid. I think these factors led to his desire for my life," Turnbow says.

Was Faisal behind the bombing? If so, was he acting out of greed, or did he have a family to support? Turnbow came away from Iraq with far more questions than answers--on both this matter and larger ones. He served the remainder of his year without incident.

"The contractor I had I was happy with," Turnbow says. And this was a good thing, because Turnbow ate the same food as the 15 Iraqi soldiers in the barracks. "Except for Monday. Monday was an MRE day for me because they had chicken livers. A plate of chicken livers is only so good. I only ate it one Monday."

Layers of Ambiguity

Almost every local soldier encountered the ambiguous nature of not knowing who's who or where their loyalties lie in Iraq. Soldiers from grunts to generals who had conversations with The Inlander for this story say that there is no sense of an Iraqi national identity--at least in northern Iraq. Family comes first, followed by loyalties to the tribe. Next comes loyalty to ethnicity and sect--Sunni Arab over Shia Arab, for instance, but both over a Sunni Kurd. The Kurds are also split between loyalties to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) or the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)--which were fighting a bitter civil war until they were convinced to join forces against Saddam just months before the invasion.

Working these social fissures to ever-finer lines, Idaho soldiers began to figure out the power players, the back-stabbers, movers and shakers around Riyadh.

"If we were able to speak the language, we would decipher these layers so much more quickly," Kish says.

Kincheloe recommends that units bound for Iraq get intensive training in Arabic, Iraqi history and culture here in the States. Once overseas, detachments from the units they are replacing can give the ground-specific tactical training. It'd be a lot more practical than what the 116th got, he and others say.

"I went over there expecting Fallujah every day. [But] a lot of the job is a humanitarian mission," Kish says. "When we trained to go to Iraq, we trained to fight in the streets every day ... which gives you the expectation everyone you meet wants to kill you. And that's not true."

"The situation over there changes so much. It's so fluid." That training was outdated by the time they arrived, Kincheloe says.

Especially when it came to IEDs, says Spc. Nick Dahmen-Bosse, a 23-year-old from Moscow who joined the Guard to attend the University of Idaho. Dahmen-Bosse nearly lost his legs and was awarded the Purple Heart after surviving a deadly IED blast. For example, the 116th trained for foot patrols and for encountering IEDs set off by detonation cord. In Iraq, soldiers almost always patrolled in Humvees, and IEDs went off by remote control. "All that training was worthless when we got over there," Dahmen-Bosse says.

And even his brigadier general agrees, although not as bluntly.

"In some respects, our training focused on us fighting the Baghdad battle. When we hit Kirkuk, it was so unique," says Gen. Alan Gayhart, the commander of the 116th BCT.

Only near the end of the deployment did soldiers begin to get a clear sense of the political and social landscape they'd been thrown into, Kish says. "But who wants to stay there two years?"

After working through the language, culture and local history barriers, surprising conclusions emerged. "This is an economy-driven insurgency," Turnbow says, citing 80 percent unemployment in the middle of a conflict where both sides pay cash for odd jobs.

The Wild West

Of the forward operating bases established in the Kirkuk sector since the 2003 invasion, FOB McHenry has been the most active and suffered the most casualties. The 116th Brigade Combat Team had nine soldiers die, and all four of the combat-related deaths came at McHenry. In keeping with the trend, according to a recent Washington Post story, the 101st Airborne, which relieved the 116th BCT, has lost 11 soldiers since November--10 of them at McHenry.

"We were the Wild West," Kish says. The locals in Charlie Company, augmented by a platoon of Turnbow's from the Moscow armory, were stationed at McHenry as part of Task Force Griz. The task force was built around an infantry battalion from the Montana National Guard and, instead of going by number as TF 1-163, they called themselves "TF Griz" after the University of Montana mascot. They even stenciled a snarling grizzly on their Humvee doors.

The fort is located in the tip of the Sunni Triangle, roughly 40 miles west of Kirkuk and near the city of al-Hawijah. The Arab city, dominated by the powerful Obeidi tribe, enjoyed favor during Saddam's rule and supplied enough of his senior military officers that several were on the infamous deck of cards listing Iraq's most-wanted.

McHenry is built on a 50-acre field purchased from a farmer after the invasion. Gravel has been spread by the truckload, but during rain-soaked winters, the indigenous mud rises with its own brand of insurgency, as a journal entry by Kish explains:

"It is slimy, pasty, weighs more than I do ... sticks to your boots, gathers rocks and won't come off until you pound your boots against a wall or a tire. If you try to wipe it, it seems to reproduce."

When patrolling off the paved roads, "We spent hours getting stuck, getting unstuck, getting stuck again," says Kincheloe. The FOB is still crude. Speculation is rampant that the military plans to turn it over to Iraqis, so the Pentagon doesn't want to spend much money on it.

The Montanans patrolled Hawijah--a hotbed of anti-American resistance and close enough that the FOB is in mortar range. The mechanic shop--always lit up and with a giant roof--was used by enemy mortar teams to help them find their targets.

Twelve miles down the road, on the other side of McHenry, is the smaller city of Riyadh. More like a farm town, Riyadh was less hostile than Hawijah, and the Idahoans in Charlie Company who patrolled there even made friends. Locals didn't like the occupation, but they also didn't like the insurgents.

"They wanted to take control and do things on their own," Dahmen-Bosse says.

The surrounding countryside -- with rolling farm fields and an extensive irrigation canal network -- reminded some local soldiers of the area around Moses Lake.

"The crops make California look sad," says Kincheloe, who grew a vegetable garden in a shrapnel-catching Hesko barrier with sheep and water buffalo manure picked up on patrol. "But they still use 4,000-year-old techniques."

Who is the AIF? (Part Two)

The presence of Islamic extremist terrorists is largely overstated, even around a city as hostile to Americans as Hawijah. Enemies, at least around FOB McHenry, are primarily locals with homegrown agendas.

There were at least two suicide bombings--unheard of around Hawijah--that bore the hallmark of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq until he was killed in an American air strike last month.

In one instance, a suicide bomber wearing an explosives vest blew himself up at an Iraqi Army recruiting station in Hawijah May 11, killing 32 and wounding 28. At 9 a.m. June 7, three suicide car bombers attacked three IA checkpoints. The explosions were followed by small-arms fire. There were at least 17 dead, 18 wounded. Both attacks included many civilian casualties.

Agence France Presse reported after the second attack that Hawijah tribal leaders made it clear they would kill al-Qaeda operatives in the city. Even though "We emptied the FOB," to try and catch the attackers and rush medical supplies to the hospital after both events, Kish says it was the Americans who got the death stares from locals.

Yet, a funny thing happened the morning of June 8. A local man strongly suspected of being an IED-maker drove to the base and led soldiers to a secret bunker. There, they found seven underground rooms stuffed with bombs, shells and rockets. Soldiers set up camp and spent days clearing out the stash.

"He said he didn't care if they blow us up, but not when it's their own people," Kish says.

Kincheloe says the larger lesson that came out of this was the realization that Americans never found weapons stashes without a local tipoff. The military's insistence on midnight house raids is pointless, he says. Contraband, especially explosives, is never kept in houses; besides, constant raids anger ordinary people. Iraqis become less inclined to view Americans as liberators when they keep crashing down the front door.

"Where Do All These Damn Bombs Come From?"

Turnbow remembers asking this question the day his Land Cruiser was shredded.

"It's kind of embarrassing. [Shells] were literally on the side of the road in the industrial area, and they weren't even making an attempt to hide the stuff," he says.

A sweep of the Taza industrial area turned up 25 tons of ordinance ... and a complication. The bombs weren't there because people hated Americans. The bombs were there because in a Coeur d'Alene-sized city with jobs for only two of every 10, people needed money. The scrap metal trade with Iran was just too lucrative at $165 a ton.

When Saddam's northern armies melted away during the invasion, the former dictator's ammunition stockpiles were briefly unguarded. The stockpiles were looted, and shells and bombs began turning up at local marketplaces. Scrap dealers drill into the shells, then heat things up until the explosives liquefy and can be poured out. It's a crude process, and it doesn't always go as planned. People who want to blow up Americans could just toss a few bombs into a pickup truck--nobody is keeping count--or approach the owner of a particular scrap pile for permission.

"If he was sympathetic, he may just give it to you. Or you could pay the scrap value," Turnbow says. "A commodity is exactly what it was. People had more interest in the scrap value than in the explosive value. It gets back to: Who are we really fighting?"

One man's contraband could be another's next meal.

Sheriffs of Nottingham

Kish still has a card bearing the image of Thaer Hussein, who, along with his little brother Diya, a car dealer, was among the most wanted of bad guys around Riyadh. Charlie Company soldiers insist Thaer Hussein was a simple thug who used his ill-gotten gains to help finance the insurgency. Yet despite a reward of $110,000, no one ever turned him in.

Chasing Thaer Hussein, who had one providential close call after another, became something of a yearlong drama for the local soldiers. One afternoon, soldiers at a traffic checkpoint (set up at random to try and surprise IED placers) had run across a suspicious character riding in a car. Like many Iraqis, the man had no ID.

"I'm from the next village," he said. Soldiers zip-tied the man's hands, placed him in a Humvee and went to the village to check out his story. The village mukthar (headsman) was asked if he knew the man.

"The mukthar was like 100 years old. He put his face right up to the guy, looked him over for a long time and said he didn't know him," Kish says. Red flags went off. Soldiers were certain the man was hiding something.

Just then, one of the village farmers hustled into the room and began berating the handcuffed man: "You lazy dog!

"I am sorry," the farmer told the Americans. "I have hired this man to work in my fields, and he should be out there right now."

Despite their suspicions, the Americans cut the man free.

"Well, the next day the mayor of Riyadh calls and asks us why did we let Thaer Hussein go?" Kish says. Given his close escapes, "People there saw him as Robin Hood." Which, of course, makes American soldiers the Sheriffs of Nottingham.

Charlie Company really tried to make a difference, it seems. Some--such as Lt. Mike McDonald, a farmer from Grangeville working with local farmers to form an ag co-op--are cited even by Gen. Gayhart.

Lt. Steve Arnett, an engineer from Coeur d'Alene, was able to see that one of the early and much ballyhooed reconstruction projects after the invasion--a water treatment plant for Hawijah--was a sham. Impressive pipes went in, impressive pipes went out. "But there was no purifying going on," Kish says. "Our guys, because of who they are, were able to see that." A proposal was made, and funded, to make the plant actually work.

Time and again, in conversations about this deployment, the issue is raised that--even as combat infantry--the Idaho Guardsmen related to Iraqis in a more humane way than active-duty soldiers. Observers emphasize that it's a National Guard thing, a combat engineer thing--perhaps a rural Idaho thing.

"This is not a war, it's a police action," Turnbow says. "We [National Guardsmen] tend to talk more to people. Active duty rolls into town and they lay down the law. I think it gives more of an occupation feel ... I don't think the populace felt so occupied when we were there."

Yet noting the bomb attack on himself and the 900-plus against Task Force Griz, Turnbow says, "No matter how much good you do, you're always the Sheriff of Nottingham."

"Everything Was Broken"

Even Gen. Gayhart was surprised. He went overseas expecting to be a general running a war. In photographs, he cuts a crisp military figure in desert fatigues and carries a pistol in a beautifully polished brown leather shoulder holster.

"I thought I would make a couple of social visits [with political leaders] and spend 95 percent of my time fighting, I guess," Gayhart says. "Instead, I spent the early morning hours worrying about ops, approving plans and reviewing the battlefield."

The rest of his days, Gayhart says, were spent sorting through the layers of complexity, bitter history and political reality in northern Iraq, striving to convince a bewildering array of factions and interest groups to pull together to create a stable government. There were roughly two-dozen combinations of ethnicity, religious affiliation, tribe or political faction that he eventually learned to identify, Gayhart says. Iraqi nationalism seemed a foreign concept, he says. There's history behind that.

"Kirkuk is the only major city in Iraq that didn't have a palace. Saddam wanted the place to go away," Gayhart says, citing Saddam's genocidal campaign against the Kurds, which included the use of chemical weapons on women and children.

"When we got there, 12,000 Kurd villages had been bulldozed off the face of the Earth. Kurds hid in forests on the Iranian border, so Saddam burned the forests. Saddam brought water to Sunni Arab farmers from Kurd areas.

"Across society, everything was broken," Gayhart says.

The 116th was the rare National Guard unit to command a brigade-level sector in Iraq, and Gayhart says they did more than just raids and patrols. "My soldiers were instrumental in starting $500 million of reconstruction projects," Gayhart says. "We did this pretty much independently."

The projects--including Spc. Katy Studer of Bonners Ferry adapting her University of Idaho senior project for Kirkuk (designing women's shelters)--caught the attention of the State Department, Gayhart says, and have since become models.

Is There Progress?

"You ask me a question I ask myself every day. I want to know how my story ends," Turnbow says. "To be honest, I'm not sure how to answer."

There may no longer be a nation of Iraq, he senses, noting that Iraqis cheer the misfortune of countrymen from a different sect or ethnicity. "It took a tyrant like Saddam to hold it together," he says.

After a year of funding Iraqi Army and police projects, Turnbow believes nothing will change until Americans take their checkbook and leave, forcing Iraqis to act on their own.

"We are treating this like a colonial power," Kincheloe says. "Drop the lines and let the people split up into three states."

Gayhart sees forces moving in that direction, but he's also skeptical. "The Shia take southern Iraq and the oil fields; Kurds take from the Tigris north and control the oil; the Sunni are stuck with Baghdad and western deserts? Obviously, that won't go down without a fight," the general says. He adds, "We didn't want to be an occupier."

And yet, American soldiers have been three years in Iraq--living in forts and still reacting to the local populace largely with suspicion. Too much money is spent on military and security issues and not enough on clean water or reliable power for ordinary citizens, Turnbow says. Resistance, in this atmosphere, is viewed with sympathy by fellow Iraqis.

"We have all this high-tech weaponry. I was talking to a guy one night who said he had sensors that could hear a mouse a mile away," Kincheloe says. "We have M4s with holographic sights. We had these little remote controlled [spy] planes called Ravens that flew all over the place. Our answer to the IED is the 1114 Humvee.

"Despite all that, we weren't able to catch these guys," he says.

A Final Betrayal

Two days before Charlie Company left, a bomb went off in Riyadh that did more than rattle a passing convoy. It blew up a year's worth of trust that local Iraqis could field reliable army and police units.

The Idahoans worked hard with their Iraqi colleagues, even forming friendships, several soldiers say, and defending the Iraqis in the face of prejudice at McHenry.

Charlie Company would invite its Iraqi students back to the CHUs--a small gesture to return the hospitality Americans often received when visiting the locals, where a meal would appear or, at least, chai tea for everyone. One of the other units at the FOB complained to Kish that it made them "uncomfortable" to have Iraqis treated so hospitably, which set Kish off on a rant about bigotry.

There were setbacks. One new Iraqi copwas arrested when it was learned insurgents were offering $500 to shoot an American and the new cop was asking around about buying a sniper's rifle.

Iraqi cops and soldiers--police came from one tribe, army from another--were friendly to the Americans, though frustratingly passive about catching bad guys.

"We had black-listers going through all the time, and these guys would never stop them," Kincheloe says, relating stories of tribal loyalties that stymied aggressive action.

All that paled on Oct. 24, when a patrol from McHenry rolled up to a checkpoint in Riyadh only to find 10 Iraqis hiding and two running away. A bomb comprised of two 155-mm artillery rounds went off inside the checkpoint barrier just as the Americans stopped.

The gunner in one of the Humvees "emptied two cans of .50-cal" around the town square, Kincheloe says. "It was frustration and rage" boiling over, he says. "Hawijah had issues all year. But ... these were our guys, and we worked hard with them. Riyadh was a safe haven," Kincheloe says. "This was a real sinking in my stomach."

Recently, the town of Harrison held a dinner for Kincheloe, naming him citizen of the year. But with the ambiguous events of last year fresh in his mind, the dinner was sometimes awkward. "People would come up and shake my hand and say thanks. 'Thanks for what?' I wonder," Kincheloe says.

Democracy is still an American (i.e., foreign) concept, and sewage still runs down the middle of streets, but "people have taken very well to the free market," Turnbow says. Across the Kurdish north, "roadside Home Depots are going up everywhere. There are sinks, Western-style toilets, appliances, air conditioners ...

"When we got there, Taza had six hours of electricity a day. When we left, Taza had six hours of electricity a day," Turnbow says. "But now they have AC and a fridge, so those six hours are better."

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