Beyond  /  First Person

Moral Injuries

Remembering what the Iraq War was like, 20 years later.

June 2006

The second Iraq War produced a handful of legendary battles: the initial invasion (2003), the first and second battles of Fallujah (2004), the Siege of Sadr City (2004), the Battle of Najaf, (2004), and the overall Anbar campaign. The Summer of Death in Baghdad in 2006 wasn’t one of these historically notable campaigns. It was simply hell on earth.

This was before General David Petraeus’s vaunted surge, the Anbar Awakening, and the mythical Sons of Iraq. But it was after Al Qaeda in Iraq hit the Samarra Mosque, one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites, with multiple car bombs, triggering a Sunni-Shia civil war that would nearly break the country.

Amid this internecine fight, my unit was tasked with “training” the Iraqi Police (IP) because 2006 was dubbed the “Year of the Police” in an effort to refocus the coalition’s attention on Iraq’s neglected paramilitary force. Like in Afghanistan, the IPs would be focused on fighting insurgents, not crime. Training the Iraqi Police would come to be known as “The Air Force’s most dangerous mission.” And it would be a nightmare.

Initially, we had been slotted for our unit’s steady-state deployment providing Air Base Defense at Kirkuk Regional Airport. That changed in the spring of 2006, as the Army, stretched thin with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asked the Air Force for assistance in manning Police Transition Teams (PTT) for Iraq.

Initially, we were assigned to Tikrit, Salah ad Din—an overwhelmingly Sunni area in Saddam Hussein’s hometown. This wasn’t paradise, but neither was it an especially kinetic locale. However, while we were in Kuwait, finishing our last-minute quals for the job, we were reassigned to Baghdad due to that city’s deteriorating security.

After learning of our reassignment, I decided to inform my family.

My father, who would pass away during my fifth deployment, followed the war like a seasoned defense analyst. He kept detailed knowledge about the various insurgent groups, their improvised explosive device (IED) methods, and their ideological makeups. So when I called him on a hot June night on a USO phone to tell him about my new destination, an uncomfortable silence enveloped our conversation.

He knew.

There was nothing to discuss, really. My father understood that our unit would be thrust into the inferno. He was a pragmatic man of very few words, so he asked a question most fathers never ask of their sons: “Where do you want to be buried?”

So, connected by phone in the scorching night heat on the edges of the empire, we planned my funeral.