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Alumni Voice
From Capitol Hill to Saddam's Palace
by Brendan W. Wheeler '99

This morning I received an email from my father asking if I was still alive. Last night's news back home reported that a helicopter carrying U.S. civilian and military personnel had been shot down north of Baghdad. All aboard were lost. The news brought an abrupt halt to dinner as my parents turned to the television, wondering whether their son had been on that flight.

I get these sorts of emails from family and friends frequently. I am the economic and reconstruction officer for the U.S. Embassy's regional office in Iraq's northern governorate of Kirkuk. This is my second tour in Iraq. Last year I was an advisor to Iraq's Ministry of Finance. Service here, military or civilian, is dangerous. The mundane can become deadly in the blink of an eye. The words “government budget job” and “adrenaline” aren't ordinarily linked, but nothing is ordinary in Iraq, the “Wild West of the East.”

For instance, most mornings during my first tour I commuted to work through an active combat zone, downtown Baghdad. Driving an unarmored SUV, my colleagues and I wore heavy body armor and Kevlar combat helmets as we accelerated out of the protected Green Zone and into the old part of the city for our top-speed journey to work at the Ministry of Finance. When necessary we drove across medians, bounced through city parks, and swerved from one side of the road to the other while going through underpasses to disrupt the aim of potential bomb-throwers and snipers overhead. One curved underpass on our routes was a popular ambush site affectionately named “The Tunnel of Death.” Driving into its darkness was a true take-a-deep-breath, white-knuckle experience.

“Are you crazy?” is how most people reacted when I told them I was going to quit my comfortable congressional staff job to return to such a place. “Why?” they all asked. Good question.

Budgets in Baghdad
My Iraq experience began when I was a congressional staff member involved closely with drafting the $18.6 billion reconstruction assistance packages for Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries. In November 2003, the offer to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the post-war administration established following the fall of Saddam's government, came from a U.S. Air Force general who showed up at my office unannounced. He said dramatically, but truthfully, that if I decided to accept the job, the phrase, “the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air” would take on a whole new meaning. Within weeks, I was sitting anxiously on a plane to Baghdad.

The CPA was a hybrid, temporary entity brought to life by a motley mix of gunslingers, diplomats, soldiers, police officers, bankers, lawyers, academics, contractors, and otherwise normal government civilian employees like me recruited from around the world. Nothing symbolized better the modern-day frontier mentality that characterized those who served with the CPA than the sign hung on the dining hall door at Saddam's Presidential Palace where I lived and worked: “NO LONG WEAPONS ALLOWED; PISTOLS AUTHORIZED.”

My colleagues and I at the CPA did our best to do business in a place where business as usual simply wasn't possible. My office was responsible for formulating and executing Iraq's national budget. In the spring of 2004, the difficulty of working with Iraqi banks, which can't make electronic funds transfers, led to a mission where I was issued $120 million in cash and assigned to deliver it to a Kurdish official for payments to contractors who had threatened to stop work due to late payments.

I loaded seventy-five $1.6 million packages of $100 bills, triple sealed in blue plastic wrap by the New York Federal Reserve Bank, onto a waiting Blackhawk helicopter and flew north out of Baghdad. I was to meet a man I had never met before in a field adjacent to a rural hotel in Irbil, Iraq and transfer the funds to him. A lot of things can go horribly wrong on a mission like this. And I was on the hook for $120 million. What followed was something out of Hollywood.

We got to the rally point first. Soon my contact and his guys arrived in three SUVs and stopped 30 yards from the helo. I switched off the safety catch on my weapon, exited the helicopter and walked out from underneath the turning rotor blades into the open area between us. We met halfway and shook hands. He was sweating, fidgeting, and kept looking back over his shoulder at his gunmen. If I hadn't been wearing my heavy body armor, my heart would have pounded its way out of my chest. I told him firmly he had to cooperate with me, stand still, and not make any sudden moves while I verified his identity. I was scared I'd find it was the wrong guy. I was also scared that I wouldn't live long after making that conclusion.

Satisfied it was the right guy, I had him sign the paperwork transferring custody of the funds for deposit in a local bank. We unloaded the bricks into the back of his SUVs and 15 minutes later, he drove off. I doubt I will ever do something like that again. Perhaps once is enough.

A Call to Return
At 10:26 am on June 28, 2004 the interim Iraqi government became sovereign, the CPA dissolved, and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was established. Thirty days later, I was on a C-130 military transport aircraft flying out of Iraq. I was going home.

By mid-August, I was back wearing a dark suit, starched blue shirt, red striped tie, uncomfortable black dress shoes, and marching from D.C.'s Union Station to work in the Senate. Soon, boredom had me in its grip. The challenge, the camaraderie, and the strong sense of purpose that had driven my days in Iraq was gone as seven months slowly passed. I was back living a life I had outgrown.

One day in late 2004 when the Senate was out of session I was staring thoughtlessly at a blank wall in my office (and had been for some time) when the phone rang, a call asking me if I would return to Iraq. For me, the choice was clear. For my family and friends it was a difficult decision to accept.

My reasons for being in Iraq trace back to my early days at UVM, where I was a somewhat aimless and mediocre student. I enrolled in Professor Stoler's diplomatic history class as a sophomore. I became fascinated by the subject matter. I focused my studies on diplomatic and military history and U.S. foreign policy and, in doing so, found my life's passion, foreign affairs.

Now I have the rare opportunity to participate in the biggest foreign policy challenge our country has faced in a generation. Day to day, I work with local Iraqi government officials in Kirkuk and help them budget for and integrate U.S.-financed infrastructure and economic development projects into their operations, and assist Iraqi leaders in planning for future projects.

While the dangers are still ever-present, the Iraq mission is much different a year later. The marathon sprint that characterized life and work under the CPA is no longer. The U.S. Embassy has a more conventional role in Iraq's affairs than did the CPA; we're no longer running the country.

The Iraqis are, by and large, truly committed to getting their affairs in order. What people back home may not understand fully is that these things take time and patience. Instant gratification is rare.

Perhaps the transition of sovereignty on June 28 and the elections on January 30 are the only instances Iraqis and the Coalition realized overnight success. Everything else is a daily grind. Nothing comes easily. In my opinion, it's going to take a generation for this country to truly be set firmly on the right path. However, the first big steps and many smaller ones on this path have been successfully taken.

Whether one agreed with the decision to liberate Iraq or not, one must concede that what's happening here is historic. Iraq is a nation once abused and terrified into submission by the will of one man. Since 2003 it has, with assistance, established a fledgling democracy that is eagerly taking on the challenge of pluralistic rule.

I not only have the opportunity to watch this process unfold, but I also get to live it. This is why I joined public service - to be a part of and, if possible, shape the history of my time. This is why I came back to Iraq.
The author is a 1999 graduate of the University of Vermont. He welcomes comments via e-mail, bwheeler77@hotmail.com.