A final day's mission and a farewell to Iraq

Editor's note: A few weeks ago, Mary-Denise Tabar finished her last tour in Iraq as a State Department public diplomacy adviser. Hired as a civilian contract employee, she was assigned to a Provincial Reconstruction Team, which was embedded with a combat brigade. The program followed the surge to bring reconstruction efforts to each of Iraq's provinces. Each Provincial Reconstruction Team comprised an interagency mix from federal departments such as Justice, State, Agriculture, military civil affairs and engineers, and Iraqis. How did she end up there? After a stint in the Peace Corps in Gabon, Tabar completed grad school at Georgetown to study communications and Arabic. As a new hire in D.C. for a contractor that oversees U.S. Agency for International Development programs, she received a cable seeking information officers for the reconstruction programs, people who could write reports, handle the heat and harsh conditions and speak Arabic. She took the cable to the Iraq desk and said, "I can do all of that." It was August 2003, and she was 29. Nearly seven years later, she is home in Tampa. Here is the story of her final day of duty in Iraq.

At Camp Taji, in northern Iraq, the cacophony of Black Hawk and Chinook rotors whoomping and combat boots crunching on gravel before dawn is my alarm clock. For the past 15 months, this tactical symphony of the U.S. Army has awakened me for my daily routine of a run and a shower before getting dressed to head to the office of my embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team, an interagency group where I work as a civilian.

Located in a converted warehouse, the team office smells like dust and generator fuel. It is bifurcated by bundles of hundreds of computer cables, desks often held together by duct tape, and the massive hooks on which we hang our 35 pounds of body armor. The sounds of a dirty coffee pot percolating and the ripping of the Velcro straps on the body armor mean the crews are preparing for today's mission. On any given day, civilian team members roll outside the wire accompanied by a protective detail of soldiers and armored military vehicles. It is May 4, my last mission. My task is to bid farewell to one of my key Iraqi counterparts before I return home to Tampa.

My Iraqi linguist and I heave our body armor over our heads, strap it on, and head to our waiting convoy. The young soldiers on our personal security detail are anxious — the situation is less stable because recent Iraqi elections produced no conclusive results. And today we will head north to Tarmiyah, the site of recent attacks.

In the belly of our armored Stryker, I reflect on the past 15 months. During my tour, I focused on teaching skills that can't be blown up, looted or taken away. I ran programs to train teachers, to administer summer education programs, English courses, academic exchange programs, women's vocational training in agriculture, midwifery, sewing, computers, and health. I supported the development of a fledgling radio station, provided humanitarian assistance for widows and orphans; and my greatest pride, an adult literacy program for men and women.

With my linguist, soldiers and other teammates in tow, we have site-checked the results of our programs, to see Iraqi women, children and men reading, writing, broadcasting, speaking English, making honey, delivering babies, writing poems and using computers. To accomplish these tasks I needed to ensure safety and support for the location, the participants, for my team. To do this required negotiation and engaging some of the same Iraqi men who once fought the very soldiers who protect me. To one of these men in particular, the local council chairman of Tarmiyah, I must say goodbye.

This man is like a mayor. In Tarmiyah, like much of rural Iraq, the local council chairman is tied in to every aspect of life — tribal, commercial, political and military. In the rural areas of Iraq, whether the project is a courthouse, a library, assistance for orphans and widows or an agricultural program, obtaining support and Iraqi participation requires sitting with the local council chairman and other Iraqi leaders, such as tribal sheikhs, to negotiate approval, support and participation.

The embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team operates at this rural level with the simplest unit of community, the farmers, local shopkeepers, factory workers and widows. At the provincial capital level the larger reconstruction teams are less embedded with the military and mostly deal with governor-level counterparts, oil company executives and state-level universities. But at the rural level we deal with sheep herders and illiterate teenage boys.

Negotiation is a painstaking process. It requires respect for the profound dignity and honor of the poor in a religiously conservative environment. It also requires stepping away from one's prejudices. A man in a headwrap may be very well educated, the man standing next to him in a suit may not know how to read.

In many ways, this work seems suited to a Southerner like myself. Southerners know how the heat governs the rhythm of life. Southerners also do not take easily to strangers, and we don't like to be rushed along. And we are just as stubborn. I do not wear a headscarf. I do not wear overly long or baggy clothing. I did not give in to requests for bribes or visas. But I did give Iraq my time, my effort and my hope.

The Stryker lurches and grinds to halt, jerking me out of reverie and into action. The soldiers park at the joint Iraqi-American security station, soon to be handed over to the Iraqis. By stopping here the soldiers avoid having their massive armored vehicles tear up the market, streets and precarious electrical wires (the routine destruction deeply angers Iraqis). We walk the market street, waving to the shopkeepers who know us. The soldiers are wary and watchful, but still manage a friendly knuckle bump with a few Iraqi boys along the way.

The market street is a hot stretch of road, a potentially deadly funnel, half a kilometer to the local council chairman's office. On this last walk I inhale deeply and look more closely at the places I have been so many times. Our team covers an area of north Baghdad province that stretches from Sadr City and Rusafa inside Baghdad city and crossing the Tigris to the rural outlying areas of Istiqlal, Taji, Mushada, Sab Al Bor, Tarmiyah and across the grand canal to Shatt Al Taji. Of all these areas this one street in Tarmiyah affected me most deeply. This street witnessed public executions in the not-so-distant past.

My team and our military colleagues earned the right to work and walk safely in Tarmiyah through intensive diplomacy and hands-on reconstruction efforts over a period of three years. (I was in Iraq before the inception of the PRT program, but only served in the rural areas the last 15 months.)

The most successful example of that time is the Al Huda Girls School. In 2007, al-Qaida in Iraq had rigged several walls in the new U.S. Army-built school with explosives. The school could not be made safe; it had to be imploded. But Iraqis and Americans together rebuilt the school with a full perimeter wall and locked gates. Discovering the explosives in the school was a watershed moment when the locals really realized that al-Qaida in Iraq had such a lack of respect for life — and Iraqis — that they would blow up an entire school of hundreds of girls (the largest girls' school for the area). That disgusted the local population, and when it was rebuilt they were heavily invested.

By last summer it had become one of several schools in a State Department-funded summer program that gave 3,000 Iraqi girls and boys art, drama, English, computer, poetry and music classes. Still other schools we passed near the market would hold three-hour adult literacy courses a few hours later.

Of all the members of my team, I was the longest-serving in Iraq. It would be difficult for me to leave, to let my projects go, to leave my Iraqi and U.S. military colleagues and teammates behind — both the living and the dead. Our projects had been progressing well for over a year, finally, after six years of hell. I would rejoice in this achievement if the market were not a little more tense and quiet than it usually is.

We know this walk, the shops, the fruit stands, the gold souk, and the pharmacy. We know when it does not feel right. My linguist worries aloud that the potential fallout from the elections might undo the work that we completed with our Iraqi colleagues in the restive northern Baghdad province.

We take seats in the office of the Tarmiyah council chairman and wait. The local council meeting ran over time because of a locked-door emergency security session. A particularly vicious assault on a local family took place in Tarmiyah the night before.

Finally, the council chairman greets us with tired eyes as he sits down. I watch my Iraqi linguist begin, as I have watched her so many times, the dance of the diplomatic engagement. Only this time, it is less urgent. There are no more promises or deals to be made and broken. No sharp wit and innuendo. All the programs I could run are running. All I had to give, I gave. I am going home now.

Instead of negotiating, this time we eat kabob. We talk about life, health insurance, erupting volcanoes in Iceland, and the U.S. Constitution. The chairman tells me I am still a young woman and I should start a family.

When the kabob trays are cleared and the sweet Iraqi chai is served, the chairman leans forward across the table. He says he is sad. He recounts briefly how he resisted the Americans after the invasion. Then he resisted al-Qaida in Iraq for ruining his country. When the Americans built the joint security station and supported the Sons of Iraq he helped bring stability to the area.

Now, he tries to ensure water resources, electricity and adequate school infrastructure for the children. His job is a tough one, of constant community responsibility in war and in peace. Lighting a cigarette, he says it is up to the Iraqis now, as America withdraws, to deal with their own government. I can see in his eyes that this will entail a difficult and perhaps violent settlement between Iraqis, a deep cultural reckoning for which the outcome is uncertain. Exhaling smoke, the council chairman says, "Seven years after the invasion I can say that you Americans and your soldiers, you were mostly simple, mostly kind. In Tarmiyah, you built more than you destroyed."

Since returning to Tampa, Ms. Tabar began 8 to 10 weeks of doctor-ordered rest. She has been re-organizing the closets in her parents' house and visiting the chiropractor to realign her back from carrying 40 pounds of body armor, Kevlar and pouches and backpacks. At the end of summer, Ms. Tabar will return to work in Washington, D.C., where she will expand her professional horizons, work on development programs in different regions of the world, and ultimately, learn to live without Iraq.

A final day's mission and a farewell to Iraq 06/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 25, 2010 5:49pm]

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