Staff Sergeant Timothy John Westphal, who served in Iraq for one year, recalls raiding a sprawling farm on the outskirts of Tikrit in 2004 and the screams he can still hear of the man he woke up inside. Sgt. Westphal says, “He was so terrified and so afraid for his family. I thought of my family at the time and thought 'If I was the patriarch of the family, if soldiers came from another country and did this to my family, I would be an insurgent too.'” We also speak with Sgt. Dustin Flatt who describes unarmed civilians being shot or run over by U.S. military convoys. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: One of the soldiers quoted in The Nation article is Sergeant Camilo Mejia, a National Guardsmen from Miami who served in Iraq for six months, beginning, yeah, April 2003. While on a two-week leave in the U.S., Mejia refused to redeploy to Iraq. He was the first U.S. soldier court-martialed for desertion, was ultimately sentenced to a year in jail. We interviewed him in March of 2005. Here, he describes a typical U.S. military raid on an Iraqi household.
CAMILO MEJIA: Well, you would get information on people setting up improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, and people mortaring Army bases. And based on this intelligence, you would set up — you would come up with a plan and, depending on the size of the target, you know, it could be down to a squad level all the way up to a battalion level, and you would pretty much surround the whole place and go in there, you know, set up a security element, a casualty collection point, and then go in there with your squad, depending on whatever mission you had, and just raid the home. You go in there 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, put everybody from the household in one room and then take the owner of the house, who is usually a man, you know, all through the house into every room, open every closet and everything and look for weapons and look for, you know, literature against the coalition. And then get your detainees and move out.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you read the literature?
CAMILO MEJIA: No. Because it was in Arabic. So it’s really hard. And the intel was really bad, too. Sometimes they would tell us, you’re looking for a man, you know, who’s 5’7”, dark skin, has a beard, which is like about 90 percent of men in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Sergeant Mejia also described the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by the U.S. military.
CAMILO MEJIA: […] areas made by concertina wire, which is worse than barbed wire, and they had military police units bringing in detainees. And then you had what we call “spooks” in the military, which are people that no one knows who they are or where they come from. They wear no unit patch or anything. And they pretty much made an initial assessment, and they decided who was or who wasn’t an enemy combatant, and then we separated these people into groups. And those who were deemed enemy combatants were kept on sleep deprivation. And the way we did that was, when we arrived there, we relieved another unit, and then they told us the easiest way to do that is just by, you know, yelling at these people, telling them to get up and to get down — they were hooded prisoners — yell at them, tell them to get up and get down, let them sleep for five seconds so they’ll get up disoriented, bang a sledgehammer on a wall to make it sound like an explosion, scare them, and if all of that fails then, you know, cock a 9mm gun next to their ear, so as to make them believe that they’re going to be executed. And then they will do anything you want them to do. And in that manner, keep them up for periods of 48 to 72 hours, in order to soften them up for interrogation. And these were the kind of things that, you know, they were asking the infantrymen to do.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Another soldier quoted in The Nation article is Army Reserve Specialist Aidan Delgado. He served in Iraq from April 2003 to April 2004, where he was deployed in Nasiriyah and Abu Ghraib. Soon after his arrival in Iraq, he sought conscientious objector status and turned in his weapon. We interviewed him in December 2004. He described witnessing U.S. soldiers abusing in killing Iraqi detainees.
AIDAN DELGADO: I found some things that were just really disturbing, like I discovered that the majority of prisoners at Abu Ghraib weren’t even insurgents. They weren’t even there for crimes against the coalition. They were there for petty crimes: theft, public drunkenness. And they were here in this horrible, extremely dangerous prison. That’s when I began to feel, oh, my God, I can’t believe, you know, I’m participating in this. And then there was sort of a series of demonstrations or prisoner protests against the conditions, against the cold, against the lack of food and the type of food. And the military’s response to these demonstrations was, I felt, extremely heavy-handed. I’m not going to say it was illegal. I don’t have the background to bring a legalistic challenge, but I will say that it was immoral, the amount of force they responded with. I mean, I think I shared some images of prisoners beaten to within an inch of their life, or dead, by the guards. And five prisoners that I know of were shot dead during a demonstration for what amounted to throwing stones.
AMY GOODMAN: Aidan Delgado did get conscientious objector status. Camilo Mejia served almost a year in jail. Before we go to break, Laila Al-Arian, co-author of this almost full magazine piece in The Nation, “The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness,” your quick comment?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Following up on what Sergeant Mejia said about the poor intelligence on which these raids were based, several of the veterans told us that, in fact, on a number of occasions raids were based on Iraqis trying to settle family feuds with each other. They would approach the U.S. soldiers and tell them that family members or their neighbors were insurgents, and that would simply be enough to raid a home. And in one case, a son told the soldiers that his father was an insurgent, and they raided the middle-aged man’s home, and only to find out that the son actually just wanted the father’s money that was buried in the farm.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you also — some of the soldiers indicated that the Army was paying for information — right? — so that there was also the monetary incentive for people to give tips that may or may not be accurate.
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Definitely. That was something that also troubled some of the soldiers.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to Denver after break to speak with two more soldiers. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to two other soldiers, two other vets of the Iraq war quoted in The Nation article. Staff Sergeant Timothy John Westphal served on the outskirts of Tikrit for a yearlong tour in Iraq. Sergeant Dustin Flatt served with the 18th Infantry Brigade in Iraq also for a year. They both served from February 2004 to February 2005, joining us from Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver, Colorado. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. I’d like to begin with Sergeant Dustin Flatt. We’ve been discussing a lot of the house raids that occurred by U.S. soldiers, but also many violent incidents occurred around convoys with civilians. And in your interview, you talked about some very chilling situations that you were involved in: deaths of innocent civilians as a result of them coming into contact with U.S. convoys. Could you talk about that?
SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: Yes. The innocent deaths happened at different times, different places and different occasions. Convoys were commonplace. The only incident I have firsthand knowledge of was a convoy that was actually not our convoy. It was a convoy had just driven by us. And an Iraqi vehicle with a mother, three daughters and an older teenage son who was driving the car were following a convoy too close. It got too close, and they shot into the car. It was a warning shot, and it ended up killing the mother. And they actually pulled the car over, or the son pulled the car over right next to us, and we just happened to be near a hospital in Mosul at the time. And the mother was obviously dead, and the children were just crying and asking if they could actually get into the hospital.
AMY GOODMAN: So the mother was dead. The three little girls, what happened?
SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: Right. The three little girls, we just — we took them and just — the last time I saw them they were on the side of the road just crying. They had no idea what had just happened. And it was funny — it was with another unit — it was a unit actually that we were attached to in Mosul, and on the back of their last Humvee in the convoy, they had a sign that read, “Stay back 100 meters.” And after that, we took our interpreter, our Iraqi interpreter, up to the sign to see how far away he could read it, and he had to be within about 30 or 40 feet before he could read it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You also mentioned, I think, a checkpoint situation, where an elderly couple was killed at a checkpoint, and then their bodies were just left for several days, that you would drive back and forth and you’d still see them there?
SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: Yes, depending on — that happened in different cities, too. Again, up in Mosul, there was an instance where one of our platoons — I think an elderly couple just stumbled upon one of our — an area where some of our guys were, and they had gotten too close and were driving, you know, just a little too fast, and that’s it.
You know, our rules of engagement — we’ve got, you know, set rules that you follow, you know, verbal commands, using signals, shooting warning shots, and all of that happens very quickly when somebody’s coming at you at 50 miles an hour, which I can see happening.
In any of these circumstances, I don’t necessarily fault the soldiers who did it. I don’t think it’s — they’ve been put in a place where they have to make these split-second decisions on whether someone is a threat or not. And in a place where you don’t understand anything and can’t tell the difference between an enemy and just a regular civilian, I can see where soldiers are making these decisions.
AMY GOODMAN: In both cases, Sergeant Dustin Flatt, in the case of the mother being killed with her three little daughters in the car and the case of this elderly couple, what was your response and the conversations you were having with the other soldiers? How did this affect you?
SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: I believe — well, actually, we were part of a very — TJ and I were part of a very disciplined unit, or at least we believe so. Our chain of command was fantastic. We very much admired them. We talked about different things all the time and about our rules of engagement and that sort of thing. And it got to a point — at this instance, actually, up in Mosul when we were attached to a different unit that a different mentality, it was —- we didn’t come to blows, but there were many times when it came close, when we were actually screaming at each other, telling them to knock it off, that they were just shooting indiscriminately at people. You know, I think that -—
AMY GOODMAN: Like when?
SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: There were times when you were just driving down the road, and another car — just like we would in America — would come at an intersection, and they wouldn’t see you coming. You’d be in a convoy of four Humvees. And, of course, everywhere you went you went at, you know, at a pretty good clip. All of the sudden, a car would come up on an intersection, and they would fire on a car just because they approached the intersection. They would literally directly fire into the vehicle.
There were times when we had to — there was one specific time when the Humvee in front of me from the other unit fired into this car, continued to drive past it. We stopped right in front of it, jumped out to see if the people inside were OK, because they were obviously of no threat. We jumped out, looked. Windows were shattered by bullets. I grabbed the guys inside, and I grabbed our interpreter, and I’m screaming at him, going, “Ask them if they’re OK!” Somehow they lived through it. But the fact that they just shot the car and continued to drive on was pretty much a daily occurrence.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And when these accidents occur, and civilians are shot or killed, what were the rules or the orders that you had, as to what the responsibilities were of the soldiers who were involved with these people who were shot or killed?
SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: I think with our specific company, we’d do whatever it took to help the people in the first place. If there was any way that we could evac them to a point to get medical attention, we would. It depended on the circumstances at the time, too. If we had been in the middle of battles or firefights at the time, I think it was a completely different situation. You know, mission first, and then take care of the, you know, collateral damage, I guess you could say, at that point. We did our best to take care of the innocents. I don’t know about other units. I had a completely different feeling about the unit we were attached to in Mosul. Our other times in Tikrit or Samara or any other place was usually with our unit, and our unit was very disciplined when it came to that sort of thing.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Staff Sergeant Timothy John Westphal, TJ Westphal, who served on the outskirts of Tikrit for a year-long tour with the 18th Infantry Brigade, First Infantry Division, beginning in February of 2004. Talk about that summer night in 2004, the farmhouse you raided.
STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: That summer night will stand out in my mind for the rest of my life. That was really the turning point for me, when I realized that our involvement in Iraq was something that I wasn’t proud to be a part of. You know, you understand that as an American soldier, we’re all volunteers. We love our jobs, we love our country. We grew up watching John Wayne storm the beaches of Iwo Jima and idolizing World War II heroes, and so forth. So there’s a tremendous amount of pride that we all felt and that we all had in our jobs. And for me, that eroded that summer night in Iraq.
I was the patrol group leader in charge of a raid, which we conducted on an Iraqi farm. And it was the middle of the summer, very hot outside, definitely over 100 degrees, had about 40 or so guys. My particular squad, our job was to jump the wall — every Iraqi home has a wall — my job was to take our guys over the wall, infiltrate the compound. And there were several houses within the farm compound. And we were told that there were insurgents, bomb makers, living at this residence.
So my men and I jumped over the wall. There were 15 or so other guys outside pulling a cordon, or perimeter security. We went inside and found a big — basically a big cluster of people laying outside. And in Iraq during the summer, many Iraqis sleep outside, because it’s just too hot to sleep inside. We weren’t sure what to expect. We just saw a big clump of bodies. It’s dark. There’s no exterior lighting in the compound. So I told my guys to get their flashlights ready. All of our flashlights are mounted on our weapons, so anywhere your flashlight is pointed your weapon is pointed also. I had my guys surround the clump of people who were sleeping outside and told them basically, “On the count of three, we’re going to light them up and see what we have under here. Be prepared for anything. These guys could be armed. So just be on the lookout.”
So I counted to three. I basically just kicked the clump of people there to wake them up, turned on my flashlight, and all my guys did the same thing. And my light happened to shine right on the face of an old man in his mid-sixties. I found out later he was the patriarch of that family. And as we scanned the cluster of people laying there, we saw two younger military age men, probably in their early twenties. Everybody else — I’d say there were about eight to 10 other individuals — were women and children. We come to find out this was just a family. They were sleeping outside.
The terror that I saw on the patriarch’s face, like I said, that really was the turning point for me. I imagined in my mind what he must have been thinking, understanding that he had lived under Saddam’s brutal regime for many years, worried about — you know, hearing stories about Iraqis being carried away in the middle of the night by the Iraqi secret service and so forth, to see all those lights, all those soldiers with guns, all the uniform things that we wear, as far as the helmet, the night vision goggles, very intimidating, very terrifying for the man. He screamed a very guttural cry that I can still hear it every day. You know, it was just the most awful, horrible sound I’ve ever heard in my life. He was so terrified and so afraid for his family. And I thought of my family at that time, and I thought to myself, boy, if I was the patriarch of a family, if soldiers came from another country, came in and did this to my family, I would be an insurgent, too.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you say that that was a turning point for you. In what way?
STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: It was a turning point for me in the sense that — you know, prior to going into Iraq, both Dustin and myself, we talked about this many times in the days leading up to the war. We came into Iraq after the initial invasion, so we had a chance to see a little bit of the buildup to the war, as well as the actual invasion piece. And several of us, including Dustin and myself, were very much opposed to the Iraq War. However, we chose to go, number one, out of a sense of loyalty to each other and our unit; second, because we were hoping as leaders, as combat leaders, leaders of soldiers, we would be able to influence those young men to make good decisions and not do things like kill indiscriminately or let their emotions get into their decision-making abilities. So that’s why we chose to go. And again, because this is our profession, we were very proud of what we were doing, even though we opposed the mission itself, are proud to serve with our brothers and to be a part of something like that.
However, that night — and that was about halfway through my yearlong tour — that night I really admitted to myself — and it was a very hard thing to do, but I admitted to myself that America is not the good guy in this thing. And, you know, if you factor in that you have these young men who most of them are high-school-educated — some have a bit of college, some do have college degrees — but the education level, for the most part, is high school graduates only.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Sergeant Westphal, we only have about 30 seconds left. I’d like to ask you: You went in in February 2004. Did you ever expect that we’d be in this situation now, more than three years later?
STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: I never imagined that America would ever get to this point. I never imagined that the American public would be so apathetic as they have been, in my estimation. A lot of them don’t listen to the stories we tell. There’s a reason that all these guys got together for this article, because they have a commitment to the truth, and we definitely want the truth to be out there, that America has brought terror to the country of Iraq, and that’s something that we have to deal with.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the U.S. soldiers should be brought home now?
STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: Absolutely. You know, I support the United States military. I’m a soldier. I always will be. I’m tremendously proud of the men I served with. However, yes, I do believe that we need to bring our troops home right now, because all we’re doing is making more terrorists and more people who hate America.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Staff Sergeant Timothy John Westphal, TJ Westphal, and Sergeant Dustin Flatt, speaking to us from Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver Colorado. And that does it for our broadcast. Also special thanks to Laila Al-Arian, who’s the co-author with Chris Hedges of this magazine-long piece, “The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness” in The Nation magazine. Thank you for joining us.