Blainenative returns after duty in Iraq

Published on Thu, May 20, 2004 by olly Ernst

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Blaine native returns after duty in Iraq

By Molly Ernst

Not many Blaine natives can talk about seeing, let alone sleeping in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. Captain Jason Delmarty of the U.S. Army recently returned to his hometown for a quick visit after a year of deployment in Iraq.

Delmarty, Blaine high school alumni (class of ’96) and West Point graduate in political science served as a member of the First Armored Division. Delmarty says their main mission was to secure Baghdad International Airport and conduct offensive operations in their assigned zones. “This was a challenge the commander took on. We were successful because no one penetrated the airport.”

Delmarty’s specific assignment was to be “the commander’s liaison to the Iraqi citizens.” He said his mission was threefold: to develop and assist local governments, to assess reconstruction projects and to serve as a sounding board between the political leaders, religious groups and normal citizens.

Delmarty found starting local governments is a lot harder than it appears. “I knew government, but didn’t know the specifics to teach it. I had to study myself.”

Making it harder was a lack of interpreters. “We had to find people who spoke English. We paid them three dollars a day, now they’re getting 15 dollars. They make dramatically more than the average person there,” Delmarty said.

The first step in creating councils was to find potential political leaders. “First we had to go out and ask ‘take me to your leader.’ We had no clue of the culture except what we were taught.” said Delmarty.

Most people were receptive in the search for potential leaders, Delmarty notes, but some were hesitant. “They said ‘Hey, I don’t want to be in the spotlight.’ They felt that bad things could happen.”
Delmarty said attendance at the council meetings picked up slowly. At the first meeting one woman showed up only to complain about the damage her house received during a bombing. She was told by a council member “We’ll fix it.”

Listening was key to starting the democratic process. With one council member named Thabit and nicknamed The Mayor, Delmarty says he would “spend hours around him, watching to how he sees things.” Thabit said after making a suggestion, you needed to allow the Iraqis to speak their mind. “The point is not to say this is democracy, but to point and suggest ways and give examples of why it is effective.”
One year later, three local councils are functioning in the area. The Abu Ghraib council has 30 council members, Airport Village has three and Radwania has 10. Council attendance at the meetings has expanded from the one woman to an average of 30 to 40 citizens.
“The majority of Iraqis are pro progress, very vocal and have opinions,” Delmarty said. “They are true patriots and they continue to push for progress.”

Delmarty said as he was leaving he was approached by one Iraqi, who he thought hated him, to compliment him. “He said ‘you’re very even and we appreciate you,’ and then he gave me a big hug.”

Detained family members, war damage, utilities, employment, education and access to villages and schools were the main issues facing the local councils.

Delmarty said it was crucial to simply listen to the people. I learned a lot directly from them about the Arab culture and the Arab way. They would tell me something about the family and Islam. I would tell them how it fits into democracy.”

Delmarty noted that family is very central to the culture. “You imagine homeless and poor people after war. You won’t find a homeless Iraqi because of the family structure.” Delmarty said you may find homeless foreigners and refugees outside Baghdad, but he didn’t see any in his area.

Delmarty says trust from the Iraqis is fragile in the current atmosphere. “It was non-existent in the beginning. It’s earned. Through positive interaction you gain it.”

Delmarty said he believed the security situation was greatly improving when he left Iraq. He said the creation of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps helped because it uses local Iraqis who have a better knowledge of the area and, because they were local, they could get better intelligence.

Delmarty was enthusiastic about the economic progress with $2.5 million going into local projects. While he was there, three water purification stations were built, 30 kilometers of a canal were cleaned, 12 mosques and 30 schools were refurbished and four medical clinics were built.

All the work was done by Iraqis. Delmarty says the local political leaders would hire local contractors who were required to hire local people. Delmarty remembered one contract for a water purification station was denied to a Baghdad contractor with a better bid and better product because he had an employee from India.

One source of employment was a result of the Baghdad Civil Employment Program. Locals were paid to clean and remove rubble for three dollars a day for three months. “This was good money,” said Delmarty, adding it costs less than a dollar a day to live in Baghdad.
Delmarty said, “People were smiling and digging. They were working rather than shooting.”

“One of the first signs of freedom was the satellite dish,” Delmarty recalls. “They could see the outside world. They know they can’t leave. It was the fastest way to bring it to them.”

Delmarty said for soldiers, letters and care packages from home were huge morale booster. “It kept soldiers going. It kept me going.” He says he got a lot of support from many of his old friends and neighbors in Blaine. He suggested any future care packages to the troops should include lots of baby wipes, cookies and magazines. He adds sunscreen is not needed, “We had enough sunscreen to last 20 years.”

Adjusting to life back at home, Delmarty says he loves it when people talk about the trivial things like floors or draperies and not of bombs and rifles.

Delmarty is now back at his base near Frankfurt, Germany for the next year. Of his time in Iraq, he said, “It was an adventure, an experience I’ll never forget.”

And of the Iraqi people, “I met a lot of great Iraqis. They’re true patriots.”