Friday, August 01, 2008

Debra Harrison pleads guilty

Before I went to Iraq I never knew anyone who had been indicted in federal court, much less plead guilty. Debra Harrison, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve, 50 years old and a resident of Trenton, New Jersey, plead guilty this week to "wire fraud in connection with a scheme to defraud the Coalition Provisional Authority - South Central Region (CPA-SC) in Al-Hillah, Iraq." She will be sentenced in November and faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Not only do I know Debra Harrison but she worked for me during the five months that we were at the Coalition Provisional Authority South Central Office in Al-Hilla, Iraq. I was her direct supervisor. I wrote about this before in February 2007 when Debra was indicted ( see "A federal indictment hits home" and "Robert Stein goes to jail" in a previous post the same month). How very sad.

The really sad part about it was that she wasn't the only one. Fellow Army Reservists (although not from my unit) Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Hopfengardner, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Wheeler and Colonel Curt Whiteford were also indicted. Hopfengardner was sentenced to 21 months in prison in June 2007. Whiteford and Wheeler stand trial this September.

Curt Whiteford was the Chief of Staff to the Regional Coordinator, a Department of State Civilian named Mike Gfellor. Mike was a good man and a hard worker and I am sure that he is extremely disappointed that so many people under his authority turned out to be crooks. Mike spoke fluent Arabic and was instrumental in implementing a tribal policy four years before the U.S. Army figured out that this might be the best way to control the populace. When I last checked Mike was holding a senior position at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia. I would sure love to have another conversation with him.

I do not want to speak ill of Curt Whiteford because he has not been convicted of any crime. Nevertheless, even if he is not found guilty of the crimes to which he has been accused he is guilty of negligence in allowing so much criminal behavior on his watch. I liked Curt. He is a Mormon from Utah with a large family (the picture was on his desk in Hilla). During the five months that I spent in Hillah I met with him almost every day. When I left Iraq I thought Curt had done a good job in a difficult situation. And now this.

Bruce Hopfengardner and Mike Wheeler were a different story. When I first arrived at the CPA headquarters I had a Civil Affairs Team of five persons: (then) Major Debra Harrison, Lieutenant Alicia Galvany, Lieutenant Tamara Montgomery and Specialist (later Sergeant) Mike Green. Not much of an Army, but it was all I had. At first, Curt Whiteford assigned Hopfengardner to work for me. This lasted maybe two weeks and then Curt informed me that Bruce would be doing "special projects" for him relating to the Hilla police academy.

Then Mike Wheeler arrived under what I would consider suspicious circumstances. His civil affairs battalion was reassigned from Hilla to Al Anbar province to support the 82nd Airborne Division. Mike arranged with his battalion commander to be left behind at the CPA office in Hilla.

When Mike arrived Curt assigned him to work with me. After a few weeks, Curt told me that Mike was now working for Bruce on "special projects."

I didn't take offense at any of this. In fact, I was so damn glad to be sleeping alone in a room on a bed with a flush toilet that I said nary a word. I was quick to note, however, that Bruce and Mike left shortly after I gave them a speech on my expectations of their performance. If they were working for me then I was to write their officer efficiency report (which, for these two characters, would have been irrelevant anyhow). My main expectation of them was to supervise the other three officers and Specialist Green so that I wouldn't have to bother with it. I was a Colonel and I used my rank to delegate the more tiresome aspects of my wartime duties. When Bruce and Mike left I pushed the supervision task down to Debra and she did a good job of it.

Given the facts as stated above I don't have to stretch my imagination very far to imagine why these two officers left my supervision or how they did it. I am sure that they pleaded their case with Whiteford and he felt their pain. Later on I saw them both hanging out together like two soul mates, dressed like Delta Force operators, loaded down with grenades, a rifle, a pistol and plenty of ammunition for both weapons. The wanted to play Army in the war without having to worry about supervising three female officers and Specialist Green.

Obviously, I was unaware of any criminal wrongdoing during the time that I served with CPA in Hilla. Colonel Andy Fishman, from my unit, and Colonel Bede Strong, of Her Majesty's Royal Tank Regiment, were there with me at the same time and they didn't see any of this either. I saved all my emails from the time and after the indictments came out I reviewed them for possible clues. I found one that gives a hint of trouble, but I saw it just two weeks before I left, and Curt Whiteford reassures Mr. Gefflor that he's "all over this." For the record, here is the email.

At the bottom of the thread Peter Wilkinson, an Australian Air Force Colonel who was supervising the contract spending, receives an email from Major Robert Shelton, a contracting officer at Hilla. Maj Shelton raises a concern about Mr Bloom (a civilian, convicted conspirator, and source of all the dirty money) and how he seems to be getting an inordinate number of contracts. In the next part of the thread, Colonel Wilkinson raises his concerns to Curt and Mr Gefellor. The beginning of the thread, starting with "Boss" is Curt Whiteford reassuring Mr. Gfellor that he has it all under control. The story in a nutshell.

When the federal prosecutor called me earlier this year to discuss the case I passed this email to her, although I was sure she already it. Here is the text of the email:

[From Curt Whiteford (I was copied on this email)]


We are all over this. I met with Eric yesterday regarding this specific topic and will meet with the primary players after tonight’s staff meeting. With minimal effort, we should make short work of the ratification/paperwork for the subject projects. If you wish, I will get you a listing from Peter of all the projects currently open.


Colonel Curtis G. Whiteford
Deputy Regional Coordinator/Chief of Staff
CPA South Central Region

-----Original Message-----

From: []

Sent: Saturday, February 21, 2004 4:14 PM

To: Wilkinson, Peter (AUS); Whiteford, Curt (USA)

Cc: Shelton, Robert (USA)

Subject: Laying Down the Law on Unauthorized Commitments

Peter and Curt,

I agree fully with your points. This dangerous situation must be corrected immediately.

For the record, while I appreciate Phil Blum's work, that does not mean I wish to exempt him from our rules. I personally have never ordered him to do any work without it being properly bid. I would be happy to see him bid on future projects, such as the new building at Hilla University and the Karbala' Library, but I have not and will not grant him a contract without proper competition of the job. I do not want to play favorites.

I have also repeatedly told all of our colleagues in the West Wing that all contracts must be properly bid. I am astonished to learn that over 20 (!) requests for work have been made to Mr. Blum, without proper procedures being followed. This needs to stop, as you said.

Therefore, I ask that Curt please instruct all of our staff to cease and desist forthwith from these sloppy practices. Every major project must be properly bid. We must follow all the relevant regulations strictly. If one or more staff members cannot operate with that elementary discipline, then I will fire them.

I also ask that you and your staff refuse to pay out any unauthorized expenses.

Finally, please keep me fully informed of infractions, including the names of the malefactors.

Thanks, MG [Mike Gfellor].

"Wilkinson, Peter (AUS)" wrote:

We have a serious problem looming on the near horizon as explained in the email below. The number of ratifications required from unauthorised commitments is now over 20 projects that we know of, almost all of them involving Phil Bloom. Phil, however, is not the problem. We all know he does good quality, timely work albeit for a premium price.

The problem is CPA personnel telling Phil to do work without the authority to do so. We have spoken about this before but the problem continues. Bob Shelton is rightfully concerned that the effort needed to correct all of these unauthorised commitments actually jeopardises our ability to spend CPA-SC's current funding allocation.

With the $41m we have spent in the past, I deliberately left the contracting folks at the end of the whole process so that they could concentrate on writing the enormous number of contracts required. They achieved this with a minimum of fuss and a great deal of flexibility. However, the large scale projects we have been undertaking have been going off the rails from a contracting perspective which is one sure way of attracting unwanted attention from Baghdad auditors and others who may not want our programs to succeed.

We have proudly stated to Bremer in the past that we like the CPA rules and we can work easily within those rules. Well, we're breaking those rules now.

I can not stress enough that Bob Shelton and Eric are totally on board with the CPA-SC programme. Indeed they deserve a substantial amount of the credit for our success in achieving spending targets. I will continue to work with the West Wing group to bring them around and would appreciate it if you could impress the thrust of this email upon them when the pester you!

Peter Wilkinson
Group Captain
Director of Operations
Coalition Provisional Authority - South Central
Unclass: +1-703-343-9624
Pager: Pager # is 8816-314-72349

-----Original Message-----

From: Shelton,Robert (USA)

Sent: Saturday, February 21, 2004 11:17 AM

To: Wilkinson, Peter (AUS)Subject: Program Plans

Eric [a fellow contracting officer with Bob Shelton - I cannot remember Eric's last name] and I met with Phil Bloom and Fadi yesterday. Eric also met with Fern [Holland, a lawyer working for CPA who was killed in an Iraqi ambush a few weeks later, along with her interpretor, Salwa Oumashi, and Bob Zangas] just before her departure. On the positive side we now have a better picture of what is going on in the region regarding program plans (or lack of). I believe we have a mutual understanding with Phil that he is to not proceed with any work without a signed contract by Eric or myself. He understands that Mr. G or any of the program managers cannot obligate the CPA-SC. The downside is that there appears to be more unauthorized work performed by Phil and others that was directed by Mr. G, LTC Hopfengardner, Fadi, and Fern. Phil agreed to list out every job he is working. It’s unfortunate that we cannot get this information from our own people. Hopefully we can sort through the current mess and move on.

We have a potential problem in that Mr. G wants the dormitory [at the Religious University in Al Hilla} done by 30 May. I am also hearing from our folks that he wants Phil to do the job. That’s fine, but Phil will have to compete just like everyone else. Eric and I will seek sources for this project. If this project goes above $500K then we need to get Jesse Pruitt involved and get the PRB [project document] approved. We have a good working relationship with him which should help expedite the approval. Unfortunately we don’t have a SOW [Statement of Work], drawings, cost estimate or any other specifications. The method that was discussed behind closed doors to phase this project is unacceptable. Had Eric and myself been consulted earlier in the process the potential for success would have been greater. Part of my concern is that Mr. G wants a multi-million dollar facility designed and built within the next 90 days. According to Phil, he can’t even meet that timeframe without using pre-fabricated buildings.

The region currently has approx. 20 known unauthorized commitments that need to be ratified. I’ll have a better picture of all of the UAs when Phil provides me his list of jobs and who directed the work. Eric and I have reached a saturation point where we spend too much time cleaning up messes caused by several CPA-SC members taking shortcuts or bypassing the existing contracting process. We have $40 million to spend in the next two months, but current practices by Mr. G and the program managers will prevent the region from successfully executing this program budget. We are working with Fadi to develop his program plan. However, we need see the region’s overall plan. At this time no region plan exists. Need to know what other large-scale projects are in the works. I know there a several great ideas brewing, but we have to be realistic.

In order to best execute our budget and prepare the region for future success it is imperative that we have a meeting of the minds. Those minds include Mr. G, COL Whiteford, Group Captain Wilkinson, LTC Hopfengardner, Fadi, Fern, Adley, Bob Z. [Zangas, killed with Fern in an ambush several weeks later], LTC Wheeler, Bob Stein [the civilian finance officer for CPA and the first one of the bunch to go to jail] and the contracting team. Eric has briefly mentioned this to the chief. It is also important to know that we have entertained a few investigators regarding reports of wrongdoing or misconduct. I anticipate more to follow. Finally, we should not forget the future visits by the GAO, Army Audit Agency (AAA), and other audit teams. In our haste to execute our generous budget we could potentially take unnecessary shortcuts which could come with negative results.

As always, Eric and I are in full support of the region’s efforts. Our decisions to extend our tours hinge on whether we are actually supporting these efforts while in keeping with the prescribed rules established by Ambassador Bremer and the Head Contracting Authority. We hope to continue to provide value to this organization which has done so much in so little time.


[End of email]

I was sure that the prosecutor already had a copy of this email because much of her case was built on emails. Yes, these fools left a paper trail in the CPA servers a mile long.

In January 2004 Debra Harrison decided to extend her tour in Iraq and stay at CPA in Hilla until the Coalition Provisional Authority was dissolved in June 2004. She talked Tamara Montgomery, her roommate, into staying with her. Within six weeks of my departure at the end of February 2004 Tami Montogomery was wounded in a firefight in Baghdad, leaving Debra alone. I don't know if Debra knew about the money being handed out when she decided to stay. I have often wondered about that - if her decision was based on the opportunity to reap ill-gotten gains. Or did she slide down the slippery slope after I left? I don't know. I doubt that I'll get the opportunity to talk to Debra again to find out.

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Robert Stein is going to jail

[Robert Stein, a] former civilian contractor for the Defense Department was sentenced ... to nine years in prison and ordered to forfeit $3.6 million for his role in a bribery and fraud scheme involving contracts to reconstruct Iraq.

- LA Times, January 30, 2007

Robert Stein, along with an Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel named Bruce Hopfengardner, steered Iraqi reconstruction money to an American contractor named Phillip Bloom. Stein and Hopfengardner worked in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) South Central headquarters in Hilla during late 2003 and early 2004, the time when I also served there. The service of all of those men and women who were there during that time was besmirched by the actions of these men.

Two additional Army reserve lieutenant colonels have been charged but not yet convicted of crimes related to the actions of Stein, Hopfengardner and Bloom during that time. One of the those lieutenant colonels, a major at the time of the incident, worked directly for me. This is one thing about my service in Iraq of which I am not very proud.

I departed Iraq in February 2004 and the officer in question remained in Hilla until June 2004. According to news accounts, this officer allegedly received money for unspecified actions performed. I don't want to reveal the officer's name because of a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. My strong suspicion that the officer's alleged illegal actions took place after my departure is small consolation. Yet in the end my association with this scandal, however indirect, is painful to me.

Mike Gfeller, a State Department officer with experience in the Middle East and a fluency in Arabic, was the man in charge of CPA South Central at the time and, of course, must accept some responsibility. In my judgment he is a good and honorable man who worked long hours and achieved many notable accomplishments during his service in Iraq. His mistake was that he trusted the wrong people.

The big question to the outside observer is: How could something like this happen? I can give some reasons, but these points can by no means excuse the crimes that were committed.

I interacted with Stein and Hopfengardner almost every day but I had no supervisory responsibility over them, nor did I play any role in the process or oversight of the millions of dollars that were spent by CPA South Central for Iraqi reconstruction. The money being spent came from the hoards of cash hidden throughout Iraq by the former regime and seized by the Coalition forces during the invasion. None of these funds were provided by the U.S. taxpayer, yet the CPA had a responsibility for oversight and wise use of these monies.

The money was allocated by Ambassador Bremer to Mr. Gfeller with the objective of keeping the Shia dominated south central region of Iraq peaceful and content. All transactions in Iraq at that time were on a cash basis and CPA South Central had to literally drive to Baghdad, load up the cash in a vehicle and drive it back to Hilla, where it was kept in a safe at the former Babylon Hotel, the headquarters for South Central.

I observed some of the administrative procedures that were used to control the dispersal of this money. Project worksheets were prepared and approved and money was signed for when it was received. The money was paid to the contractors on a % completion basis and a U.S. Army Corps of engineers team was assigned to oversee the projects to verify that the work was done.

A lieutenant who worked for me was a project officer for some of the smaller projects in the Hilla area and I traveled with her as she inspected the projects to verify that the work was being completed. I also traveled with the Corps of Engineers Team as they inspected projects and I could see with my own eyes that work was being done.

There was considerable pressure to get these projects funded, worked and completed. I even felt the pressure because I knew the situation in Iraq. Electrical power was intermittent, gas lines were long and there was very little employment. We couldn't fix the electrical grid or the gas lines so we needed to demonstrate that we were doing something constructive for the long suffering Iraqi populace. To achieve this end, I saw no problem in approving the use of a lieutenant assigned to me on a part time basis to help get the money spent.

At the time (Fall 2003) we were all very frustrated at the progress of the reconstruction. In fact, the institution of spending controls by CPA in Baghdad seemed an unnecessary aggravation. They required that the proposed projects be publicly posted and that at least three bids be received. One source of my aggravation was that some local Iraqi contractors, not fully understanding the bidding process (a radical concept in Iraq at the time) were losing out to more savvy contractors in Baghdad. The results of the spending requirements appeared to be having an effect contrary to our goals.

Why all the rules, why the bids? we asked. We need to put these people to work before they start shooting at us. Someone shooting at us was on our mind every time we left the compound. The fact that I wasn't getting shot at, but others in my area were, was small consolation to me. As the number of attacks progressively increased I knew that the danger was increasing. So the pressure to get the money spent, to put the Iraqis to work and show them that something in their miserable lives, however small, was improving, came not only from my sense of duty in seeing the mission succeed but from a personal sense of increasing danger to myself and my soldiers.

No system or process, however complex, will prevent misappropriation of funds if the persons responsible are unethical. The rules governing oversight of public corporations in the United States would fill volumes but the corporate officers at Enron were able to get around them. Something else in Iraq, I believe, was one source of the problem. Seeing $50,000 or $100,000 written on a ledger is quite different than seeing the cash, in stacks of wrapped $100 bills, stacked on a table before you.

And there were numerous opportunities to see large amounts of cash. One morning, for example, my lieutenant project officer mentioned that she had $60,000 in cash in her bag. To me this was an astounding amount of money, more cash by many orders of magnitude than I had ever seen or handled. I didn't ask to her to open her bag so that I could look because I sensed that that much money displayed in the open was an unnecessary temptation for the others in the room.

I suspect, but not do not know, that the amount of fraud in Hilla increased after I left in February 2004 for several reasons. First, people began rotating out and weren't replaced. Unfortunately, some of these people leaving were involved in the oversight process and therefore weren't there for the plotters to worry about. Secondly, as CPA saw the June deadline approach for the transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government, the CPA employees began to frantically spend money on as many projects as they could. They did not have enough people to properly supervise such a large number of contracts. They saw their ability to influence the course of events slipping away and they had to compress their objectives into a unmanageable period of time.

I wasn't ever worried that my lieutenant would steal any of the money. In fact, at the time, I remember feeling a sense of pride that we were doing such a good job of using this money for its intended purpose. Little did I know.

Little did I know. Should I have known? Should I have done something about this? If I had known then I would have done something to correct the matter. If I had suspected something then I would have investigated. I truly believe that. But I didn't know. I didn't even suspect. I had many jobs in Iraq but auditing the expenditures of CPA South Central was not one of them.

Does any of that make me feel any better? No. Stein, Bloom and Hopfengardner have tainted me. Forever. And there's not anything that I can do about it.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Specialist X

"The reconstruction failures in Iraq, which has been plagued by poor management, corruption, attacks on contractors and lack of oversight, have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. There have been reports of irregularities such as millions of reconstruction dollars stuffed into footlockers and filing cabinets, an American solider in the Philippines who gambled away cash belonging to Iraq, and three Iraqis who plunged to their deaths in a rebuilt hospital elevator that had been improperly certified as safe."

- The New York Times, Sunday, October 29, 2006.

Someone, I think an old soldier, taught me a saying when I was a mere lad that I have used the rest of my life: There are two kinds of stories - "This is no shit" stories and "Once upon a time" stories. Well, this is no shit.

I knew the American soldier mentioned in the New York Times quote above (I don't want to mention his name because he was a a young kid and I'm not really sure if he acted out of malice or stupidity). This American soldier, according to the NYT, "gambled away" Iraqi money in the Philippines. In fact, this soldier was in my unit and worked for me at the time of the incident. Was I then responsible for or did I contribute to this outrage? No, I didn't, and this is a good example of how the New York Times and others misinterpret the news from Iraq.

The quote, from something called the World View Podcast in the Week in Review, was written by Calvin Sims, who is a clear detriment to the quality image of the NYT, and kept making comments like "Wow", "Unbelievable", and "Right," to what ever the guy he was interviewing had to say. The editor of the Week in Review must have had a bad weekend, because he/she also allowed an article on the end of the hurricane season which stated that the season ended on October 31 instead of, correctly, on November 30.

If the Times can't get a simple, uncontroversial thing like the dates of the hurricane season correct, how can they possibly figure out what is going on in Iraq?

But, I digress. How in the world did one of my soldiers end up in the Philippines with thousands of dollars of Iraqi money? The answer is Termite Watkins.

Who? That's what I said when someone in the Al Hilla Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters told me who he was. Then the guy told me to Google his name and I did. Termite had been a professional fighter, in a light weight category, and had done really well in the fight world during the eighties. When I got the chance to talk to him, he explained that he had sought and received a job from KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root) at a time when the company was offering astronomical salaries to go and work in Iraq. His first job was when they were in Um Qasr and he was assigned to be the insect exterminator for the compound. When the CPA team moved from Um Qasr to the Babylon Hotel in Al Hill, Termite went with them.

MIke Gfeller, the Regional Coordinator for the CPA South Central office in Al Hilla, found out about Termite's background as a fighter and hired him to work for CPA. Termite's new job: assemble and train an Iraqi boxing team for the 2004 Olympics. Termite received his new job assignment about the time that I arrived with my civil affairs team at the Babylon Hotel on October 1, 2003.

With Mike Gfeller providing the funds from the pot of Iraqi dollars supplied to him by Paul Bremer, Termite was able to establish a training center in Al Hilla and assemble a group of Iraqi fighters to begin the process of preparing them to be Olympic athletes. Termite had less than nine months to not only get them ready but to somehow get them qualified to even participate in the Games.

Termite was quite a character. He was Mr. Can Do. Mr. Positive. The fact that he had been given Mission Impossible didn't intimidate him but rather motivated him. The man was constantly full of energy and ideas, and was real popular with everyone in the compound. To put Termite somewhere in the organizational chart the Chief of Staff assigned him to me and he moved into the large office where my team worked. Termite and my soldier (let's call him Soldier X) got along well (everyone got along with Termite) and soon Termite came to me with a proposal.

When I heard the proposal I agreed to it because it made a lot of sense. Termite wanted Soldier X to work as a combination body guard and administrative assistant. Termite was clueless on a computer and Soldier X knew what buttons to push on the computer to spit out the paper necessary to keep their little beehive operation humming. Additionally, Termite had to go from the hotel each morning to the training facility to supervise his fighters and he couldn't go by himself. He needed Soldier X and his rifle to go with him.

This part of the deal gave me pause. I didn't like the prospect of sending my soldier out in this situation. But then again, this was Hilla and not Fallujah: the threat was a lot lower than further north in the Sunni Triangle. And there was risk every time we left the compound. The only way to be risk free was to stay in our room with the covers over our heads and there was risk even in doing that.

I wasn't entirely comfortable with the entire situation but I said yes. Soldier X was a young, enlisted man who didn't have a lot to offer to the greater scheme of things in the south-central area of CPA. Here was a useful job for him to do, a way that he could contribute to the war effort, and a chance to do a job where he was wanted. So Termite and Soldier X became a Team and moved forward in their quest for Iraqi Olympic glory.

And for the next two months everything went along blissfully. In my periodic discussions with Termite about the progress of his project, I discerned that Termite wasn't very concerned with the details of any task that he accomplished. It seemed that details were impediments to whatever Big Idea he had in his head at the moment. Soldier X was a big help to Termite because he was able to absorb some of the details of the operation that were a distraction to Termite.

One of these annoying details was money. The only way to pay for items in Iraq at that time (and maybe now, for all I know) was by cash or barter. There was no banking system, and thus no credit cards, debit cards, personal checks or cashiers checks. Most transactions were in cash, frequently American dollars. The American military spent a lot of time and effort hauling truckload's and C-130 airplane loads full of stacked pallets of cash. The money was all in Baghdad and had to be moved out to the provinces to pay the Iraqi employees and the contractors that we were busy hiring to fix the growing list of things that were broken.

It was common to overhear people mention that they were carrying tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in their rucksacks. Consequently, in this environment, I didn't think anything of it when I heard that Soldier X was helping Termite by carrying around hundreds or maybe a thousand dollars from the hotel to where ever the money had to be paid.

Most of this money was to pay for the living expenses and equipment of the fighters that he had assembled at his training facility in Hilla. Once he got this part of the task completed, he started emailing and calling people around the world to find out how he could get his fighters qualified for the Olympics. The answer: they had to compete and place well in regional games. Iraq was in the Asian region, and Termite discovered that the next regional games in Asia were in January 2004 and hosted by the Philippines.

You can see where all this is going. In December Termite came to me, announced that he was taking his fighters to Manila in January and requested that I permit Soldier X to accompany him.

"Manila, as in the Philippines?" I asked. Termite nodded affirmatively, looking at me earnestly, with his ever present smile and bubbly attitude.

Isn't this story beginning to sound a little bit ludicrous? I admit a lot of crazy things happened to me in Iraq and this was one of the crazier ones. So much of what went on in Iraq had an air of unreality to me that this whole episode fit right in perfectly with the environment. The place was unreal. There were always people everywhere carrying guns. I don't even own a gun (I never have) and here I was carrying a rifle and a pistol (loaded!) everywhere I went. The whole thing was like some kind of Epcot exhibit: the desert, Arabic, camels. So why shouldn't someone come up to me and ask me if he could take one of my soldiers from Iraq to the Philippines for a fight competition?

I wasn't immediately warm to the idea, but I didn't reject his request outright. Rather, I knew that there were some administrative obstacles, some I hadn't even thought of, that would prevent Soldier X from accompanying Termite to the Philippines. The biggest obstacle, and the one that I was sure could not be overcome in the four or so weeks left until they had to depart, was that Soldier X did not have a passport. This news took Termite aback, and I could see the wheels turning behind his furrowed brow as he walked away.

The second obstacle was that we needed to run this whole enterprise past our commander, who was in Kuwait. I sent the commander a email outlining the situation, and explaining the passport problem. I was not very definitive in my email, and my commander's response was also noncommittal.

And that was how we left it when I departed on Dec 19, 2003 for the United States and two weeks of leave with my family, who I had not seen in ten months. When I returned, somewhat dejectedly, to my bed in Hilla on January 8, 2004, I found out that Soldier X and Termite were in the Philippines. Evidently, in the two weeks that I was gone, Termite had taken Soldier X to Kuwait, gotten him a passport and a plane ticket, and flown with him to Manila. By the way, he also had to get passports and probably visas for the Iraqis, and bought all the plane tickets, round trip, in cash, plus he was carrying enough cash with him to pay for every one's hotel rooms and food for the duration of the trip.

The story gets a little fuzzy here because I don't have direct knowledge of what actually happened in the Philippines. I do know that I was approached about a week after I returned by Bob Stein (a CPA employee who is now serving prison time for embezzling CPA funds while he was there -but that's another story) about a problem. Evidently, he had just gotten a frantic phone call from Termite in the Philippines. Termite was frantic because he had given Soldier X ALL of the forty thousand or so dollars in cash that they had brought along for expenses and now Soldier X said that he did not have the money. I believe that I am on pretty firm ground here when I say that Soldier X no longer had the money.

I took the news calmly. I mean, what could he want me to do, go to the Philippines and get it back? I hadn't really approved any of this entire operation. I felt like this wasn't really my problem. Rather, in clear hindsight I can see now, I had let it happen through inaction. Yes, there is a twinge of guilt here. I could have told Termite, "What? Are you crazy? Forget it." But I didn't. I dramatically underestimated Termite. I didn't make a decision that got anyone killed in Iraq but I did, through my inaction, allow this kid to be put into a situation that he wasn't equipped to handle. And I think that Termite contributed in his own way to this sorry episode.

I really don't know what happened to the money. The story we got over the phone from Termite was that X met a girl, who introduced him to a guy, who had this really great scam job, and all he needed was some money and he could double it in 48 hours. Or maybe X gambled it all away in the casino. I don't know.

If you want to know how millions of dollars in Iraqi funds got wasted here's part of a story of how 40 grand was lost. There is a moral in this story somewhere. I am still looking for it.

When I got back home to the U.S. I got an email from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction about this incident. I replied that I did not have any direct knowledge about what happened to the money or why. And I still don't. I never spoke to Soldier X about this incident. He was talking to a lawyer and wasn't saying much.

I did see Termite again. The week before I left Iraq, in the last week of February 2004, I was involved in a basketball tournament. 5 on 5 half court. I was the only armed referee for the tournament. The first and last time I refereed a bball game wearing a loaded pistol.

The tournament had three Nepalese Gurkha teams, a Navy team, an Army Military Police Team, a KBR team and two Iraqi teams: one team who worked on the compound and another team comprised of Iraqi Olympic basketball players who participated at my request to Termite. Their fighters may not have known much about basketball, but they, like Termite, were enthusiastic. I actually refereed a basketball game between Nepalese and Iraqis. It was all quite an experience. The KBR team won.

I read in the paper after I returned home that Termite's Iraqi fighters never qualified in the regional games for the Olympics, but Termite was able to get a waiver from the International Olympic Committee and they all made it to the games. I wonder what Termite is doing now?

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