A taxi driver gets the attention of an American soldier manning a checkpoint in Baqubah, the capital city of Iraq’s Diyala province – 45 miles north of Baghdad. The man tells the soldier he remembers seeing Iraqi troops using bulldozers to bury a thousand’ kidnapped Kuwaiti children alive during the 1991 Gulf war. The soldier, Staff Sgt. Robert Plastino, a member of the 649th Military Police Company, investigates the site with members of his squad. A medic confirms that bones found near the surface of the mass grave probably belonged to children because of their small size.
There is no one to cite for drunk in public or minor in possession of alcohol violations in the Iraqi desert. There are gun battles, roadside bombs and raids on suspected terrorists. Plastino, 34, is a long way from the streets of Isla Vista and his normal routine as a Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputy on the Isla Vista Foot Patrol.
On Dec. 14, 2003, Plastino was released from active duty as an army reservist. Two weeks ago, he returned to duty at the IVFP office on Pardall Road after eight months in Iraq. He was married six days before his deployment. As part of the 4th Infantry Division, the division that eventually captured Saddam Hussein, Plastino entered Iraq with the second wave of American troops in April 2003. He spent three weeks in Umm Qasr before heading to Baghdad to train Iraqi police officers. He conducted nearly 100 raids, uncovering weapons caches and arresting bomb makers and anti-coalition guerillas. He made Iraqi friends. He got shot at all the time.
Plastino took his digital camera everywhere. He took over 600 pictures. He has pictures of arrested terrorists – some bloody after interrogations with Iraqi police. He has pictures of dead soldiers and civilians. He has pictures of the twisted aftermath of roadside bombs, and pictures of the bombs’ simple parts laid out on a table: A car alarm circuit board powered by AA batteries attached to a blasting cap via the wires that would usually connect the board to a siren. The blasting cap stuck into less than a fist-sized wad of C4. The whole package wrapped in cardboard with a magnet attached to its exterior for sticking it the side of an American vehicle. The whole device could be detonated by the remote control keypad that normally activates the car alarm’s panic function.
Plastino said he isn’t sure if the bomb left outside his Baqubah police station on Aug. 11 was detonated by remote control or if it was on a timer.
Iraqi Foot Patrol
Plastino said he and his squad occupied an Iraqi police station in the center of Baqubah, a city of around 250,000 people. The station’s interior temperature was often around 150 degrees.
“Our main mission was to patrol Baqubah, arrest guerillas and terrorists, and train up the Iraqi police force,” Plastino said. “[Iraqi police] would go out with us on raids with nothing but an AK-47. They didn’t have Kevlar or helmets. They were putting their lives on the line because they love their country. There’s plenty of people who would want to kill them.”
He wants to start a fundraiser for police officers in Santa Barbara to donate old bulletproof vests and other equipment to the newly formed Iraqi police.
When citizens had problems, they would come to the station and make a report like in any other Western city. However, it often took careful investigation to strain facts about criminal behavior from frivolous family disputes.
“The Iraqi people are funny,” Plastino said. “Sometimes they would come into the station and make up a story about a family member they were mad at to try and get that person in trouble.”
Eventually, when Plastino determined a claim of criminal or terrorist activity to be plausible, he would interview witnesses through an interpreter. He grew a mustache and dressed in a sheik’s robe to conceal his identity as an American soldier in order to conduct reconnaissance in the city with other disguised troops and interpreters. Two to three raids were conducted each night based on information they gathered.
“We didn’t just go willy-nilly out on raids with no evidence,” Plastino said. “We tried that at first, acting on every tip, but it didn’t work.”
Compared to how Iraqi police were used to holding and extracting information from prisoners, methods for controlling prisoners introduced by Plastino and other American troops – like nonviolent interrogation methods – were far less severe.
“The prisoners knew that we treated them well,” he said. “They’re used to having their feet whipped until they talked. There are no Miranda rights over there; there’s just the right of the whip.”
Plastino said cultural differences were the biggest obstacles to training the new Iraqi police to take over security of their country. He described an Iraqi policemen taking custody of a man by holding his left hand firmly rather than using handcuffs. The police officer explained that the prisoner would not try to run if being held by the left hand, based on a mutual understanding that considered the left hand the “bad hand.” In addition, prisoners would often stay silent during interrogation because they are used to being beat in order to extract information from them.
“Western ways don’t work there,” Plastino said, “but that doesn’t mean it won’t change over time.”
Iraqi Public Opinion
“The kids loved us. They don’t have the prejudices that some of their parents do,” Plastino said. “American soldiers treated the kids like gold. We would always give them candy.”
Plastino said he made a lot of Iraqi friends while he was there, and still keeps in touch with many of them by e-mail.
“The Iraqi people love their God and they like Americans for the most part,” Plastino said. “You can find the ones who blame us for their problems, but if you think about it, the current violence makes sense because it is perpetrated by a very small minority of people.”
Plastino said the casualty rate being suffered by American forces – nearly one death per day and a significantly greater number seriously wounded – is not that large, when the size of the Iraqi population is considered.
“There’s way more people that want our presence there than not,” Plastino said. “If people didn’t want us there, the body counts and problems we’d be having would probably be astronomically greater. If the city of Goleta got violent and suddenly decided they didn’t want the Sheriff’s Dept. around anymore, it wouldn’t be too long before we were gone.”
An Improvised Explosive Device
“It only took a little bit [of C4] to kill my friend,” Plastino said. “The blast ripped through the building. We all ran out of there. My buddy was lying in the street there dying. I’ll never forget that explosion.”
Staff Sgt. David Parry died a day later of his injuries.
Plastino said that the firefights were not the scariest incidents he faced. At least in a firefight, one could figure out where the enemy was shooting from and have a chance to make it a fair fight. The unexpected impacts of roadside bombs were far more unnerving.
“I’ve Just Had a Very Interesting Life Experience”
“I’m the same person that I was before,” Plastino said. “My personality wasn’t changed.”
Plastino credits his experience as a police officer with mentally preparing him to be around death and to function in stressful situations. He said he was satisfied with his performance under pressure.
“Seeing death and being in combat is very personal,” he said. “It’s very personal when you see a friend get killed. For myself it’s sad, but I have friends and family I can talk to. I feel bad for the guys who came back from Vietnam and didn’t get any support. The guys who were called baby killers. I defy [anyone] to find a soldier who’s not anti-war.”