Paying the Cost of Security in Iraq

This is a guest blog and reprint from Todd Rosenfield, a graduate of the UConn EBV in Sept 2011. He published this blog at the NY Times blog At War: Notes from the Front Lines by James Dao.

JANUARY 9, 2012, 12:54 PM

Paying the Cost of Security in Iraq


In 2008, I returned home from Iraq, having served a year tour as a civil affairs sergeant attached to the 82nd Airborne. Back home for over three years now, I have had time to reflect on the war and my role in it, and to search for meaning amid the chaos and destruction of those days. My deployment, during what came to be known as the surge, was quite different than what I had hoped or expected it would be.

I had previously served in the Army Reserves while a college student, during peacetime. After 9/11, and specifically the week of Pat Tillman’s death in 2004, I decided to re-enlist. I had had a good job working for a medical company in the Boston area, but felt I needed to do something more. I thought that my civilian work experience, and desire to serve my country, would make me a perfect fit for civil affairs, a special unit that tries to alleviate suffering by building essential services and infrastructure in war zones.

Before I deployed in 2007, most of my training involved learning about things like opening schools, restoring hospitals and restarting electrical service. At that time, casualties were reaching record levels and the United States military wanted to shift control of the government back to the Iraqis. I thought I would play a role in doing just that.

Todd Rosenfield at Forward Operating Base Justice in Iraq in 2007.
Todd Rosenfield at Forward Operating Base Justice in Iraq in 2007.

But once we hit the ground, it was another world. During my first week in country, my team was sent on a mission to a local health clinic where United States Army medical staff provided medication, food and other essential supplies to civilians. The neighborhood was in a Shiite enclave in West Baghdad. It had been a hot spot of attacks, and we needed to “win hearts and minds.” After the operation, less than half a mile from the health clinic, my patrol came under attack, first with a roadside bomb and then with small-arms fire from militia hidden nearby.

We all made it back to base, leaving the ambush site littered with dead attackers. The idea of being ambushed so close to the health clinic, and the fact that we were attacked in an area usually crowded with civilians, made it clear to us that not only Iraqi civilians but also the military — which had deserted a nearby checkpoint — were probably complicit in the ambush.

Numerous other missions had the same outcome. We would rush in to protect fellow soldiers who had been attacked, only to find crowds chanting anti-American slogans and taunting us in the streets, or children hurling rocks at us as we tried to deliver food and medical supplies to communities.

These attacks occurred despite our best efforts to buy support from local leaders. Indeed, we regularly employed a strategy very different from what I had been taught in training. It was known as nonlethal targeting, and it went something like this: rather than killing or capturing potential insurgent leaders, we tried to buy them off.

My team would routinely pay tens of thousands of dollars a month to various sheiks and warlords. This was supposed to ensure that their tribes did not attack American forces in our area. It was nothing more than protection money. It often worked. But when the money dried up, the blood began to spill again.

I would regularly carry in excess of $50,000 in my cargo-pants pockets to be handed over to sheiks and warlords. To provide a “cover story,” we always said it was for some community improvement program, picking up trash or painting sidewalks and so forth.

But the real story is that the sheiks and warlords would skim half or more of the money for themselves, and, in exchange, provide their tribal support to assure our patrols were not attacked. Cash for safety was the formula.

In the many times I met with those sheiks and warlords, who I knew were wanted in connection with attacks on American forces, and the dozens upon dozens of times I handed over money to keep paying them off, the mantra I kept repeating to myself was that I was somehow, in some way, helping to keep a soldier from getting killed.

This mantra was, sadly, all we had to cleave to, because the killing and maiming simply did not stop. In our last week alone, there were two separate bomb attacks, one within earshot, which killed four more of our soldiers. These four soldiers were from the 101st Airborne, which was the unit I was attached to during the last months of my tour. Two thousand seven was to become the deadliest year for United States forces in Iraq. As an Army buddy once told me, “We went there to win their hearts and minds, and we ended up losing ours.”

In all this, my team and fellow soldiers performed exceedingly well. We were tasked with nearly impossible missions, and asked to serve our country amid sheer lunacy and brutality that I would not wish on anyone. I am proud of these soldiers, and of the work we accomplished despite the odds. These soldiers are the best of our country, our sons and our daughters. They deserve support, recognition and praise for doing exactly what our elected officials asked of them. But I wonder sometimes whether those elected officials learned anything from the war. Do any of them now ask themselves whether they were too reflexive in supporting the war? Do any of them regret not having a clear sense of what victory in Iraq should have looked like, or how we might have achieved it?

Since returning home, I have had time to reflect upon the war and its repercussions. I have learned that the nation’s focus shifts quickly, and that many people are now mostly concerned with the tough economy. The best place I can put my time and energy is helping fellow veterans. I have volunteered with the Veterans of Foreign Wars as a service officer for the last three years, assisting veterans to obtain health care, disability compensation and other benefits. This is now the most important mission for me.

Todd Rosenfield served with the United States Army in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 as a civil affairs team sergeant, attached to the 82nd Airborne Division. He was awarded the Combat Action Badge and Army Commendation Medal, and was honorably discharged in 2010. He is 41 years old and lives in the Albany, N.Y., area, where he works for state government.