Saturday, April 26, 2008

Paint by Numbers

April 25, 2008

Soldiers in Iraq are called upon to do some pretty thrilling things. All of the dangerous, exciting stuff—dropping from the sky, raiding buildings, chasing bad guys—that is what they trained for. And maybe even what they signed up for. That is the stuff they look forward to. But most of the tasks soldiers are called upon to carry out are not dangerous or exciting, not the stuff of Go Army commercials.
Sergeant Jonathan Fondow settles claims. Although he may spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, Sergeant Fondow has a deep and unique understanding of the consequences of war. As a member of the JAG (Judge Advocate General) office, Sergeant Fondow works with soldiers, providing them with assistance in legal matters, but he also spends one day a week working with the Iraqi people, processing their claims. He meets the Iraqis at a building called the CMOC (Civil Military Operations Center) at Anaconda, a large base in Balad. He listens patiently to their stories, and treats everyone with respect and courtesy.
The nature of the claims varies. Some people come to the CMOC because a member of their family has been injured or killed as the result of American operations. A condolence payment of $2500 for the death of a relative will be awarded to a family if the claim is approved. The rules and regulations governing the claims process are complicated, and do nothing to explain why a life is valued at $2500, but the 101st Airborne Division does what it can within these parameters to help the Iraqi people.
One visitor to the CMOC had been approved for a condolence payment, and she was given a specific day to come back to receive it. All payments are made in cash. Two other claimants were seeking compensation for damage done to their homes during combat operations. Sergeant Fondow cannot just take their word for what has happened. He has to conduct an investigation, which includes determining whether or not Americans were working on that day, in that area. This is not easy to do, and sometimes claims are filed months, even years, after events happen. It would be tempting to deny these claims immediately, but Sergeant Fondow gently persists with questions that often unearth details that make a claim easier to substantiate. Both homeowners remembered that the Americans had detained their neighbors, an odd coincidence, but, with the names of the detainees, it would be much easier to prove that American forces were in the area.
Paying Iraqis for losses or damages that occur while we are fighting a war against their bad guys may seem strange, even wrong. But the philosophy of the soldiers who work at the CMOC is that this is a relatively small group of people, and the payments, in the scheme of things, are also relatively small. By meeting with people, the soldiers are building goodwill. Even those whose claims are denied feel better knowing that they were heard by the Americans.
Lieutenant Brian Reynolds counts people. He does a lot of other things too, but one of his missions is to conduct a census of the people living in the area the HHB (Headquarters and Headquarters Battery) of the 2-320 Battalion is responsible for. There is something quaint about a group of soldiers wandering door-to-door, avoiding angry, barking dogs, the lieutenant shuffling through forms on his clipboard, all so they can collect data.
In addition to learning how many people live in each house, Lieutenant Reynolds gathers information about how basic needs are met. Electricity is only available for part of the day. Water is fetched from the canal. Fuel is usually bought on the black market. Some families have no phone or car. This is the simple life.
The most complicated aspect of census-taking is, it turns out, turning down offers of hospitality. If every offer of lunch had been accepted, the soldiers would have enjoyed several meals, but with the temperature already over one hundred degrees, and the desire to finish the task pushing everyone forward, most offers were politely declined. Iraqis are very serious when it comes to sharing their food and opening up their homes. They had a hard time taking no for an answer.
It began to seem unfortunate that the soldiers couldn’t stop what they were doing, fan out all over the village, and break bread with all of these generous people. But they are soldiers first, diplomats second. A very close second. They can’t let down their guard because it is always possible someone is watching, waiting for an opportunity.
At one of the homes the soldiers entered, most of the family was present but one of several brothers went to collect another from his shop. The soldiers knew this man when he walked in the room. They considered him a terrorist. Did he know how the soldiers felt about him? Did his family know about his reputation? He joined his family in trying to persuade the soldiers to stay for lunch. Would having lunch with him have changed anything?
A civilized and meaningful interaction with an Iraqi citizen, whether it is a widow filing a claim, or a farmer reciting the number of people in his family, has to be considered a small victory. An Iraqi who has had a positive experience with the Americans is an Iraqi who might think twice about turning a blind eye to insurgent activity.
Sergeant Jonathan Fondow and Lieutenant Brian Reynolds, and all of the soldiers they work with, do their best to treat the Iraqis they encounter with courtesy, even if some of them might be terrorists, even if the task at hand is sometimes tiresome. They know everything counts. Everyone counts. The work they do, assigning numbers or values to people and events, may not be what they signed up for, but they are helping to paint a very detailed picture of Iraq today.

No comments: