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Starting from Scratch

Starting from Scratch

Recruiting Iraq’s new military in the ‘red zone’ is no stroll
through the mall

The explosion was huge and devastating.

In a millisecond, the blast’s shockwave sent Master Sgt. Greg Elmore and Capt. Pete Ellum tumbling through the air like leaves in a hurricane. Knocked flat, the two were lucky to survive.

A brief silence followed, which Sergeant Elmore said was surreal.

“It felt like I was under water,” Sergeant Elmore said. “I knew my hearing was screwed up.”

Debris and body parts rained on the men, and an acrid and dense smoke cloud stung their eyes and lungs. As they tried to make sense of what happened, they began to see the carnage around them. Miraculously, the Airmen only suffered ruptured eardrums, cuts and bruises. Then came the screams of agony from the victims of what had been a massive terrorist car bomb.

Sergeant Elmore was 30 yards from the Feb. 11 blast that killed 47 Iraqis and wounded scores of others. Dazed and temporarily deaf, he struggled to get up. He thought of bolting for cover. First he looked around for his friend and fellow recruiter, but didn’t see him. After a moment of panic came recognition. A faint voice pierced the loud ringing in his ears.

“Sergeant Elmore. Greg!” yelled Captain Ellum. “Greg, where are you?”

Sergeant Elmore remembers the relief of knowing his partner was alive and looking for him.

“I’ll never forget that,” he said.

Captain Ellum wondered how his buddy had survived. He’d been so close to the blast. But there he stood, in one piece — alive — though he looked like a train had just run over him.

It was a grim site. Around them, what had been the Baghdad Recruiting Center was in shambles. The blast damaged the building and shattered all its windows. There was a huge crater where the gate had been. Dead, wounded and dying Iraqis littered the ground.

The terrorists struck in the early morning — a busy time. A time when recruiters began sorting out the men lined up outside the gates, hoping to join Iraq’s new military. If it hadn’t been for the earth-filled barriers ringing the compound, the damage — and death toll — would have been worse.

Both Airmen were in a mild state of shock. Yet their years of military training took over, and they reacted instinctively. They regrouped with their fellow military and civilian recruiters. They spoke with their eyes mostly, and soon the recruiting team set up a defense in case of a follow-up attack — a common practice in embattled Iraq. Luckily, none came.

“Then we ran into the smoke and debris to help the survivors,” Captain Ellum said. On his way, he grabbed a cell phone from an Iraqi and called for help. Soon, a security team of Soldiers and Marines arrived, followed by tanks.

Recruiting in the ‘Red Zone’

Not a typical day for Air Force recruiters. And not a typical recruiting location, either. Their “office,” the Baghdad Recruiting Center, was in the “red zone.” The unsecured — bad part — of downtown Baghdad. Yet there they were, doing a big job.

Their daunting mission: Recruit a new volunteer Iraqi military. It was a tall order. When they volunteered for the job, neither knew what they were getting into.

Captain Ellum volunteered because he said working in Iraq would be a life experience. He didn’t know how true that would be. The job wouldn’t be a simple task for the operations officer from the 319th Recruiting Squadron, Portsmouth, N.H. Still, he was optimistic.
“We were there to build an army from scratch,” he said. “And to help rebuild a nation is an opportunity that only comes along once in a lifetime.”

Sergeant Elmore is the command standardization and planning manager with headquarters Air Force Recruiting Service, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. He volunteered to be part of the coalition mission. And, “I fit the bill for what the Air Force was looking for,” he said.

The two first met at the airport in Baltimore, as they headed for Iraq. Sergeant Elmore was first to spot his new partner. Captain Ellum was wearing an Air Force hat and T-shirt.

“Only a recruiter would travel with all that Air Force stuff on,” he said. After that first meeting, he knew they would become fast friends. He was right.

Two days later, they were the first Airmen to ply their trade in Iraq. They joined the nine-nation Office of Security Cooperation. It was a division of the then-Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq until the country regained its sovereignty in June. Part of the office’s mission was to recruit, train and equip a new Iraqi military and police force. They gave the task to a team of Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, coalition forces and civilian contractors. By the time Captain Ellum and Sergeant Elmore arrived, recruiting was already going on.

“Our job was to open more recruiting stations,” Sergeant Elmore said. “We worked alongside our civilian counterparts, wrote policy and trained Iraqi recruiters to take over the job.”

Their headquarters was in Baghdad’s now famous “Green Zone,” the secure compound that was home to the Office of Security Cooperation and other coalition units. But the recruiters spent half their time working in the danger zone. Their center was in a building that was once the office of the architect building the biggest mosque in the world for Saddam Hussein. Many times the two Airmen spent the night there during their five-month tour of duty.

Their job was to recruit the military from the ground up — from privates to generals. It wasn’t easy. The team interviewed thousands of potential recruits and qualified them for service. Applicants went through a thorough qualification process. First was an identification check to ensure they didn’t have a criminal record, served with the Republican Guard, held high posts with the Ba’ath Party or were documented “bad guys,” the captain said. However, despite security precautions, the recruiters knew the bad guys sent people through the recruiting process to learn about the operation. Applicants received a medical exam and asked about their education level — which helped determine their rank.

Once recruited, the team worked with other coalition agencies to transport recruits to Jordan for officer and noncommissioned officer training, or soldiers to boot camp in Iraq.

Many applicants wanted to be officers because of the status it brings in Iraqi culture, Captain Ellum said. Some obviously joined for the money. Many wanted to serve their country.

But, Sergeant Elmore said, “Most joined because they wanted to make a difference in Iraq.”

The team paid particular attention to recruiting members from all of Iraq’s major groups — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — to ensure the military is ethnically diverse. Besides the Baghdad center, there were also centers in Basra and Mosul to ensure a proper mix. Sergeant Elmore and Navy Master Chief Gregg Rabung also spent 30 days in northern Iraq scouting and setting up recruiting offices in Irbil and As-Sulaymaniyah.

It was a dangerous time. Because it’s while traveling in convoys that most coalition troops come under attack or fall prey to improvised explosive devices. Traveling alone, as the two recruiters did, is even more dangerous. But they traveled by day to set up the new centers. Sergeant Elmore said they worked closely with local Kurdish leaders who helped provide them security. At night, however, they stayed in coalition outposts.

The pact

In Baghdad, Captain Ellum worried about his friend. He wished he could have gone up north with him. So while Sergeant Elmore traveled, the captain made sure to provide him all the support he needed from Baghdad. It was a way of keeping an eye on the sergeant. The two made a pact when they arrived in country: They’d go home together.

“We watched out for each other. If he went somewhere, I went with him. And if I went somewhere, he came with me,” Sergeant Elmore said.

By the end of their tour in May, the Airmen had helped the coalition recruit more than 20,000 Iraqis, including some women. And by that time the team was also recruiting the nation’s air force, navy and marines. Both believe they helped make a difference in Iraq’s future. They have many fond memories of their tour, of the people they worked with and the Iraqis they met.

But it was the day of the car bomb they’ll remember most. Not just the horror, but that the events of that day reinforced the reason the coalition is in Iraq. And it demonstrated to the recruiters that Iraqis are not so unlike the Americans they recruit back home.

“These people want a good life for themselves and their family. And they want to feel proud about what they’re doing,” Captain Ellum said. “They’ve been oppressed for so long that, for many, this is their first opportunity — first taste of freedom — to decide what they want to do.”

A case in point, he said, was an enthusiastic young Iraqi recruit headed for noncommissioned officer training. His shipment day to a training camp was the day of the explosion. When the recruiters returned three days later, he was waiting at the gate — his clothes tattered from the effects of the car bomb. He’d showed up every day after the bombing to make his shipment.

“Talk about brave,” Captain Ellum said. “He risked his life every day so he could help preserve his country’s new-found liberty.”
But the car bomb — and the horrors they’d seen that morning — lefts scars that the Purple Hearts the two Airmen received will never heal.

Right after the blast, Captain Ellum walked past a man who’d lost his legs in the explosion. He was alive, but there was no hope of saving him. So the captain and the other recruiters helped the people they could save. But he felt propelled to comfort the man, so he knelt next to him and held his hand until he took his last breath. He doesn’t know if he was able to comfort the man, and the thought still haunts him.

“If you saw what we saw that day, you’d remember it for the rest of your life, too,” he said. “Iraqis are just like us, willing to die to preserve their freedom.”

Back in the Green Zone, Sergeant Elmore stayed awake until the wee hours of the morning, unable to sleep. Captain Ellum said it was because his boots were covered in blood and bits of flesh and he couldn’t bring himself to take them off.

Sergeant Elmore was pretty skittish after the bombing. Each time a mortar or rocket exploded, “my knees buckled a bit or I’d hit the dirt,” he said. So in typical GI humor a co-worker nicknamed him, “Shock and Awe.” Today he sees the humor — brought by the horrors of war.

One night several recruiters were returning to their Green Zone billets and were walking through a barrier. A black cat ran in front of them.

“I saw the cat out of the corner of my eye and it scared me to death,” the sergeant said. “The guys said I jumped about five feet in the air and screamed like a kid. They got a kick out of that.”

His companions, Captain Ellum included, jumped, too. Both men still react to loud noises.

Three days after the blast, the recruiters were back on the job. There was a long line of several hundred Iraqis waiting for their turn to join the army. And they shipped recruits, too.

The recruiters went back because they didn’t want the insurgents to think they’d won. Besides, the Iraqis showed up. Like the Iraqi recruiter who was a lieutenant colonel. He showed up for work even after being shot at and after two rocket attacks on his home — which killed his 4-month-old daughter and blinded his mother.

Going back to work sent a clear message to the insurgents that their tactics weren’t going to stop the coalition from fulfilling its mission, Captain Ellum said.

Though back home with their families and friends, the events of their tour in Iraq are still fresh in their minds. They worry about the friends still serving there. And the two keep in touch. Sergeant Elmore said Captain Ellum calls him frequently — still checking up on his pal.

“One day he called me and said, ‘hey war buddy, I try to tell people our story every now and then, but nobody believes me,” Sergeant Elmore said. Their families and friends sure do.

The Airmen will always see their Iraq duty as one of the best things they’ve done while in uniform. Still, many people will never understand why Iraq needs a strong military, given its track record of the past 25 years.

But the recruiters understand. That’s why both said they’d go back to Iraq, if needed, to continue their recruiting mission.

Starting from Scratch
Capt. Pete Ellum (left) and Master Sgt. Gary Elmore — here at the Baghdad Recruiting Center — donned war gear before going to work each day. Not a normal procedure for recruiters. Deep in the heart of the city’s “red zone,” they helped interview and recruit hundreds of Iraqis for the country’s new military.

 

 

 

 

Starting from Scratch
Shaken by the car bombing, Capt. Pete Ellum called his best friend, Capt. Jerry Brooks, and asked him to tell his wife, Lisa, he was OK. Captain Brooks, of the 66th Mission Support Squadron, Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., said, “He yelled a dozen times: Tell Lisa I’m OK. I’m not hurt. Tell her I love her. My buddy was definitely on an adrenaline overdose.”

 

 

 

 

Starting from Scratch
Both Airmen received the Purple Heart for the wounds they suffered Feb. 11. Sergeant Elmore received his medal at a ceremony before Air Force Recruiting Service’s top officer and enlisted leadership — and a standing ovation.