A Day in the Life of Civil Affairs

I served on a U.S. Army Civil Affairs team while deployed to Iraq. Among other things, Civil Affairs soldiers are tasked with evaluating and repairing the local infrastructure and minimizing the effects of battle on civilians. Typically, CA operates in small teams of 6 to 8 soldiers that are attached to combat forces for a designated area on the ground. I kept a diary during the deployment, and the following is an example of a typical day:

June 19, 2003 Baghdad, Iraq

It’s been an absolutely brutal day. The thermometer hit 122 degrees before 1300 hours, and we’re not even into the peak of summer. The team spent the day driving around trying to buy 10,000 gallons of gas for the generators at the Yarmouk Hospital. You would not believe the level of bureaucracy involved in it. The black market is such a problem here that they have devised elaborate systems to prevent large gas purchases.

We started out at the hospital, which serves about half of Baghdad and is considered one of the best around. Right. We call it “Stephen King Memorial Hospital,” since it’s always a horror show. More on that later. We picked up the head of maintenance for the hospital and drove to the Doura refinery to get a permission slip from the clerk to buy that much gas. From there we went to the distribution center, which is across town. No dice, permission slip invalid, must go back to see the distribution manager at Doura. Back to the refinery, meet with the MFIC of oil distribution for all Iraq. Drink tea, make nicey-nicey-smiley-smiley, get his permission, go back to distribution across town. Try to pay for the gas, get told they only take checks. Off to the bank at the Ministry of Oil. Got the check, delivered it to the distribution center, got the receipt. Back to the refinery with the receipt to be told that we’ve been screwing off for too long and that all the trucks are gone for the day. Maybe tomorrow.

Some of these bastards are being needlessly bureaucratic in hope for a bribe. Fine by me, we can arrest the lot of them and they can spend a fun few weeks in the Sauna & Detention Center at the airport.

All things considered, the 10,000 gallons of gas only cost $500. What a bargain. The guy that we helped from the hospital had the nerve to ask us to pass on to his boss that he did a good job and deserved a “bonus”, which our interpreter said is basically another bribe. We patiently explained to him that he needed to file the contract and paperwork from this little adventure so that we would not have to do this again. We’ll see.

After driving back and forth across the city for most of the day, it was back to Yarmouk Hospital to investigate reports of a “garbage problem”. That’s putting it lightly. They throw everything in a pile out back, including needles, bloody bandages, and human body parts. It seems the doctors do not understand the whole “biohazard” idea. What happens to the stuff? They don’t care, but I know a stray cat was dragging a human liver away for dinner. Another had a finger in his mouth and fled the scene as soon as we arrived.

We’re at Yarmouk Hospital almost every day, which will hopefully make a difference because that place is a hell-hole. It’s so over-the-top gross that it’s comical. Bloody drag marks on the floor, and none of the doctors even notice. The morgue refrigerators are broken, so there are dead bodies stacked like cordwood against the back fence. The administrators want a wall built by the morgue, since bodies have started turning up missing every night. Frickin’ body snatchers! Although, it does solve the problem of overcrowding…

Three of us walked in yesterday, and one of the dead dudes had been left in the middle of the hallway. He had frozen in the dying cockroach position with his arms and legs up and fingers in claws. Our team leader, Captain Sinclair, walked right past him on the way in and didn’t notice him, but on the way out she finally saw him, jumped back and exclaimed, “Jesus! Where’d he come from!” We tried to explain that he’d been there the whole time, but she didn’t believe us. It’s not like we would cook that up just for a practical joke (it’s much too hot out for that kind of shenanigans).

CPA (the civilians who “work” downtown ) contracted without us knowing for a company to put in new generators at the hospital. Cool, right? The old ones are on their last legs, and that’s the only back-up system the hospital has for the 12 hours a day the power is off. The shady contractor was lifting one of the generators out with a crane but didn’t unhook the power cable. When the cable pulled taught, the generator swayed to the side and struck another generator, sparked, and they both burst into flames. The contractors all sprinted away, leaving the fire to burn. After somebody went and got the fire truck (you can’t just call 911 here), the firemen showed up in flimsy jumpsuits and sandals, and proceeded to smoke cigarettes while standing in puddles of spilled fuel.

With the generators blown there’s no power to the hospital at all when the grid is off. So, our team arranged a dedicated line from the electrical substation so the hospital would have 24/7 power. Unfortunately, Hadji likes to steal power lines and burn them to retrieve the melted copper, and the dedicated line is exposed where it runs under a bridge. (Of course, trying to cut a power line will get you shot by U.S. troops, no questions asked.) The bridge is like a shooting gallery, but every few days a Hadji will manage to cut and steal the live wire. Six times in three weeks, and people die at the hospital every time the power goes off. It just goes to show that some people can’t be helped. It also goes to show that I never expected I’d advise soldiers that the ROE says you kill people for stealing wire.


Jason Thelen served as a Captain in the US Army Reserve during Operation Iraqi Freedom. This is the one in a series of columns he is writing for Veterans for Common Sense. He can be reached at jthelen294@yahoo.com

Find more articles by Jason Thelen. Read previous columns here:

American Style Democracy in Iraq — Arrogance? March 4, 2005

The Feres Doctrine Prevents Accountability and Endangers the Troops, February 24, 2005

It could have just as easily been me, February 18, 2005

Open Letter to Senator Cornyn, February 9, 2005

Dear America from an Iraq War veteran, February 2, 2005


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