Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Kerry Kachejian, one of the nation’s most qualified soldiers and engineers, having served in and supported reconstruction operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan as well as relief operations during Hurricane Katrina. He is the author of the new book, SUVs SUCK in Combat: Chaos & Valor–The Rebuilding of Iraq During a Raging Insurgency and was recently presented the Literacy Hero Award. Visit his site at kerrykachejian.com.
FP: Kerry Kachejian, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Tell us what inspired you to write this book.
Kachejian: Thanks Jamie.
I had no intention of writing a book when I returned from Iraq. However, I spoke at several conferences and numerous colleagues heard my stories, and they strongly encouraged me – in fact demanded – that I “write a book.”
I wrote the book for several reasons:
 To educate the American public. To let them know that there were many good things happening in Iraq other than sound bites about daily car bombings.
 To capture a piece of American history that was in the making.
 To make sure the hard lessons we learned were recorded and captured so they are not repeated by future generations.
I wrote this book as a private citizen. So all opinions in it are mine and not those of the Department of Defense or the US Government.
FP: Share with us your military experience in general and your experience in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular.
Kachejian: I served on active duty as an Engineer Office for six years following graduation from West Point. I have been in the Army Reserve for the past 23 years. I’ve been trained in combat engineering skills (demolitions, mine warfare, counter IED, bridge building, fortifications, roads, airfields, etc) and the construction of major facilities (Professional Engineer). I hold two Masters degrees in Systems Engineering (Virginian Tech) and in National Resource Strategy (National Defense University). I have several tactical qualifications (Airborne, Ranger). So I have been trained on the tactical, operational and strategic levels of warfare.
In 2004, my Army Reserve team was sent on an unbelievable mission – to rebuild Iraq while the U.S. military was fighting a raging insurgency. The progress of this mission was so important it had to be reported daily to the Secretary of Defense and often the President.
No military unit had ever existed to perform this mission. So the Army had to create a special new unit – called the Gulf Region Division (GRD). We had to organize it, staff it, equip it, deploy it and go straight into combat and begin to rebuild thousands of projects. This special new unit was called the Gulf Region Division (GRD). I served as the Operations Officer for GRD.
90% of the members of this new unit were civilians – all volunteers. They began the largest, most complex and most dangerous post-war reconstruction project ever undertaken by our nation.
Rebuilding Iraq was a team effort that involved multiple government agencies, ministries and contractors. The size and complexity of the mission was only exceeded by its ambiguity and danger, particularly in the early days of the Iraqi insurgency.
The entire mission started as 2300 projects but the list constantly evolved. It eventually grew to over 5000. Over $18B of US funds were appropriated and billions more of Iraqi oil dollars were also committed. After two years, the unit was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation (MUC) by General Casey. Among the projects highlighted in the award justification were:
* 730 schools
* 280 police stations
* 300 water and sewer projects
* 105 village road projects
* 230 border forts
* 90 railroad stations
* 40 public buildings
* 85 fire faculties
* 15 power generation facilities
* 1,400 electrical transmission towers
* 8,600 kilometers of power cable
* Adding 2,000 megawatts to the Iraqi national power grid
* 25 hospitals
* 155 public health care clinics
* Employing an average of 155,000 workers (military-aged men)
Many people put themselves in harm’s way trying to rebuild Iraq, and America should be proud of what they achieved.
Now war is inherently dangerous, and we were not immune from the violence. There were hundreds of attacks and scores of casualties that were part of the daily struggle to rebuild Iraq. I can only remember a few days when our unit was NOT attacked in some form – IED, rockets, sniping, drive-by shooting, or the Iraqi workers kidnapped or threaten. Near the end of my tour in 2004, our reconstruction operations had 45 personnel killed in action (KIA) and 82 wounded in action (WIA). Most of these were contractors supporting the mission.
But by far the most dangerous activity we would perform in Iraq was driving to our projects sites in SUVs. We had little armor protection and few weapons, so we used raw speed to enhance our security. That meant we often drove over 100 mph. We rapidly changed lanes every few seconds to throw off the timing of in IED. We took the tailgate off some the SUVs and placed a security contractor with a Russian machinegun in the rear. He was our “tail gunner”, and he would defend against high speed enemy BMWs that tried to pass us from the rear and spray us with their AK-47 rifles. Driving every day in Iraq was like living in a “Mad Max” movie. We learned many lessons, and over time, the equipment an tactics that we used improved.
I was recalled to Active Duty again in 2007 and I traveled to several countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar, Egypt, UAE and Kuwait. I saw how much improvement happened in Iraq as a result of “the surge.” And I was able to better understand the reconstruction program and challenges in Afghanistan.
FP: Tell us about how much attention the mainstream media gave to your successes and inspiring story.
Kachejian: Unfortunately, very little of this story was considered newsworthy. If there were reports, they were often reduced to a few sound bytes or the reports were focused on perceived failures, not successes. There was some reporting, but the story was largely ignored.
FP: Why did the mainstream media ignore it?
Kachejian: The mainstream media is an industry and makes a profit by selling sensational headlines. Blood and scandals have always been a good recipe for improved ratings. In 2004, “Breaking news, massive car bomb explodes in Baghdad,” helped with ratings. Good stories, such as opening an Iraqi hospital or school, were considered “not newsworthy.” I give specific examples in my book. When I returned to Iraq in 2007 (after “the surge”), I never heard a commentator lead with, “Breaking news, no car bombs again today in Baghdad”.
FP: What damage did the mainstream media do in its behavior?
Kachejian: The persistent and selective reporting of car bombings, prisoner abuse, and U.S. casualties gave Americans a skewed and deeply negative perspective on the entire effort. It hurt the morale of troops, played in the favor of our enemies, diminished the credibility of our military and our nation, and turned public opinion so negative that it I believe it nearly cost us the war.
I am not sure how much of it was intentional, but it wasn’t right.
There were major policy errors that included inadequate troop levels, the complete “de-Ba’athification” of the government and the disbanding of the Iraqi military. Pile on the inadequate armor protection for many troops and there were plenty of issues for the media to feed on.
But while sensational news reports that Americans saw every night on television about Iraq were often true, they were only part of the story. Reporting was not balanced. There were few reports of U.S. tactical successes and little of the valor demonstrated every day by our fighting men, our allies and our security contractors. Only rarely was there a report on the reconstruction program, and few of these accounts were portrayed positively. There were many good things happening, particularly with the reconstruction mission. Hospitals and schools were opening, and electrical power plants were coming on line. But everything in Iraq was hard. The Abu Ghraib abuse was dominating the headlines at the expense of all good news, but that was tame compared to the daily torture inflicted by Al Qaeda and the Shia death squads on their fellow Iraqis.
FP: What do you hope this book will help achieve?
Kachejian: I want the American public to know that there were many good things happening in Iraq other than sound bites about daily car bombings. The reconstruction mission was a piece of American history that was in the making. Many Americans volunteered to perform this unbelievable mission. But we also learned many hard lessons that I wanted capture so they are not repeated by future generations.
FP: Kerry Kachejian, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview. Thank you for putting your life on the line for freedom. And thank you for telling this important story. We wish you the best.
We encourage all of our readers to get their hands on SUVs SUCK in Combat: Chaos & Valor–The Rebuilding of Iraq During a Raging Insurgency.