THE INTERPRETER LOOKED AT ME with a straight face. “The contractor was just telling you what he thought you wanted to hear.” My friend Major Greg Scott and I were talking with some of our Iraqi interpreters, lamenting to them our difficulties with some of the construction contractors in Najaf. A few days earlier, one of our contractors had told us that his project was finished and that he was ready to be paid his final allotment. My team and I always conduct visual inspections of all the projects, so we had gone to check on his. He was supposed to have renovated the restroom at a girls’ high school in the Missan quarter. But when I arrived at the school, I became furious. He had done zero work. The contractor had lied to me, thinking I wouldn’t check up on him. Now, as Major Scott and I related our frustrations to the group of interpreters, they were trying to explain away the contractor’s behavior. I couldn’t believe it. Major Scott turned to them and said, “I don’t care what he thinks I want to hear. It’s still a damn lie!”
As my time in Iraq draws to a close—my team’s replacements will be arriving soon—it seems that disappointments like these come in waves. The struggle is to learn from them without becoming cynical. A few weeks ago, I experienced another letdown when my noncommissioned officer and I had to fire my team’s interpreter. This was a man who had worked with the coalition since 2003 and who had served with the Marines during the battle for Najaf against Al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia. (In that fight, he nearly lost a finger in a mortar attack.) He had become our go-to guy. One day we discovered that a satellite telephone had gone missing from my Humvee, and we spent the better half of a day looking for it. My team tore apart the vehicle twice trying to uncover it, and as they feverishly worked to find it, I asked our interpreter if he had seen it. I described the device very clearly, and he said he had no idea where it was. Later that day, not knowing that I had already asked him about the phone, two of my soldiers went into his room to see if he knew anything. There was the phone, sitting on his shelf. They questioned him about it, and as his story unfolded, it became a mass of tangled inconsistencies. My guys had caught him red-handed. So I had to let him go. I think that after all this time, he was burned-out and desperate. But it was a shock; he had become like a member of the family.
Unfinished bathrooms and stolen phones: The news coming out of Iraq may be about bombings and fighting, but my day-to-day work involves more-mundane struggles—and the truth is, I’m ready to go home. Still, I look for encouraging signs. The other day, we got a report that another of our contractors had been receiving threats while he and his workers renovated a school in a rural town just outside Najaf. It seems that the mayor of the town is less than honest, and he had demanded a huge bribe from the contractor. The contractor refused, and now the mayor was stepping up the pressure. The contractor is one of our favorite fellows. He renovated two schools last year in the southern part of the province, and they’re beautiful; large murals adorn the exterior walls, the courtyard is filled with colorful stepping stones, and the furnishings are all of good quality. He did a great job. So the day after we received the troubling report, we convoyed out to visit him. Four of his workers had already been hospitalized after a scuffle with the mayor’s goons, but the contractor was undeterred. Despite having received death threats, our friend had almost a hundred workers hard at it, and he told us, “Sirs, if God wants me to die here doing this work, then that is how it will be.” We assured him that he was secure and that he had our guarantee.
Immediately afterward, we paid a visit to the mayor. After all the local Iraqi policemen and other municipal leaders were shuffled out of his office, I stood at the door while Major Scott communicated to the mayor how important it was for him to make sure the contractor and the workers were safe. I tried to make the most of my presence and kept a menacing look on my face; my hope was to use a little drama to emphasize our point. We didn’t threaten the mayor, but our message was clear: If things are ever bad for our friend the contractor, then things will become more difficult for you. I think he got the idea. Since that day, no problems have been reported. The contractor’s courage during all this will always be an inspiration to me. The biggest problem I’ve ever had with a school is affording my children’s tuition.
As I count the days until I’m back home, I’d like to believe that, as we rebuild the province, encounters like this one are victories. The majority of the work is being done by the Iraqis, but they are also the source of the majority of the problems, and it’s our role to provide a certain stability and security. I think that for many of the residents of Najaf, having us here is reassuring. It gives them a reason to be patient and to look toward a future where the system could begin to work in their favor. Especially the children; the positive impression will remain strongest with them. They’re the innocents here, and they’re less likely to perceive us with a jaded attitude. Who knows. Maybe someday they’ll grow up and turn this place into something we can all be proud of.
In the meantime, I’m pushing through the setbacks and hoping for the good days. With our replacements almost here, the time is fast approaching when I’ll finally be sitting barefoot in the backyard with my wife, watching my daughters play. Knowing that makes any disappointment bearable. It’s funny, though. As the end gets closer, my life here seems to take on the emotion and energy of a really great college basketball game. With all the time-outs, turnovers, fouls, free throws, and agonizing commercial breaks, the last few moments feel like an eternity.
As of April 30, 2006, 216 Texans have died in the Iraq war. To read continual updates on our fallen heroes and to post your condolences and tributes, go to texasmonthly.com/fallenheroes.