- Sgt. John Bruhns
served in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib with the Third Brigade, First Armored Division, First Battalion, for one year beginning in April 2003.
- Spc. Garett Reppenhagen
cavalry scout and sniper with the 263rd Armored Battalion, First Infantry Division, who was deployed to Baquba for a year in February 2004.
Two Iraq War veterans, Sgt. John Bruhns and Spc. Garett Reppenhagen, recount their experience in Iraq, particularly describe the brutal house raids they conducted on a regular basis in Iraq. Spc. Reppenhagen says, “You could see the frustration on [the Iraqis’] faces, the anger, the sadness, the worry, the fear. You know, it was very hard to see the faces of the Iraqi people when you took their family members away … especially when you know most of the time you have bad intelligence and you are raiding the house that usually the people inside are innocent.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go now to Washington, D.C., to speak with two of the soldiers: Sergeant John Bruhns, again, serving in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib with the Third Brigade, First Armored Division, First Battalion, for one year beginning in April of 2003, and Specialist Garett Reppenhagen, with the cavalry, scout and sniper with the 263rd Armor Battalion, First Infantry Division, deployed to Baquba.
Specialist Garett Reppenhagen, let’s begin with you. Tell your story, what you saw, what you experienced, what you participated in.
SPC. GARETT REPPENHAGEN: Well, you know, I was a sniper, and I operated in the Diyala province, which is a pretty active region right now. And the thing about the article is, all those stories are very much true. Those things happened. The situation is that most soldiers, most marines are professional soldiers, they’re professional marines, and they’re going to do their job to the best of their ability. And, unfortunately, Iraq is a very complex, untraditional battlefield, and it’s very difficult to operate in that terrain and not have civilian casualties and not have these, you know, these incidents occur, because we’ve developed very brutal techniques to be able to operate safely and conduct our missions in that theater, and ultimately the soldiers are going to stick together. We feel very much like we’re out there and all we have to look for, you know, to protect ourselves is each other. And the bottom line is, you know, we want to come home alive, we want to come home safe, and we’re going to conduct ourselves as the best of our ability to do that, and sometimes that means that, you know, innocent civilians, Iraqi people, are going to get in the way, and they’re going to get hurt.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Specialist Reppenhagen, in reading the article and the accounts, what most struck me was the massive number of searches that were being conducted of individual homes in the middle of the night and the enormous psychological impact this had on those people, who, when a group of soldiers burst into their home in the middle of the night, were not — had nothing to do with the insurgency, obviously, and the impact on them. Could you talk about that and the impact on you being involved in those kinds of raids?
SPC. GARETT REPPENHAGEN: The house raids were a very difficult piece of my experience in Iraq. We conducted a lot of house searches. And, you know, we felt we had to. We didn’t have the initiative in Iraq. The U.S. military, nine times out of 10, are on the defensive. We’re being attacked, and combat is usually initiated by the enemy. So a lot of times we’re just — we’re searching homes. We’re going on whims, hoping that we can catch the Iraqis, the ones who are trying to do the U.S. forces harm. And, you know, we search a lot of houses. We kick in the doors, and we separate the people.
And, you know, we had a checklist where we went through — did they have contraband? Yes/no. If they did, we apprehended them, and we would put a bag over their head and marked it with an “A.” You know, did they have an identification card? If they didn’t, we’d mark them with a “B,” we take them. If they didn’t belong in that house, if they didn’t live in that house, we’d mark them with a “C,” and we’d take them. So we take a lot of these people out of their homes. And a lot of these people, we push out through the chain of command, and they get interrogated, and they get pushed up further. And a lot of these people never make it home the following day or ever again.
So it’s very difficult. It’s hard to see the people, to go into their homes, especially when you know that most of the time you have bad intelligence and you’re raiding a house that usually the people inside are innocent and have nothing to do with the insurgency or any harm to U.S. soldiers.
JUAN GONZALEZ: About how many houses do you estimate, roughly, that you participated in raids of during your tour there?
SPC. GARETT REPPENHAGEN: Well, I can only guess. I’m thinking about 30 — probably around 30 houses are ones that I raided personally. I was involved in cordons on the outer edges of a lot of these raids, where I didn’t actually go into any of the houses, I just pulled security on the outside. A lot of my sniper missions, I did overwatch and just stayed in a heightened position and gave intelligence to the people on the ground. So, you know, I saw a lot of them, but I was only actually entered probably about 30 houses myself.
AMY GOODMAN: And the response of the families whose homes you raided? Were they able to understand what you were saying? And your feelings when you would go into someone’s home?
SPC. GARETT REPPENHAGEN: Most of the time we didn’t have interpreters with us, so, no, there was a huge miscommunication, really problems with the language barrier. A lot of times we found that once we started these raids, we would get to the second or third house, and the family would be awake, the lights would be on, the men and women would already be separated. The men would have their shoes on. They would be dressed and ready to go and be taken by the U.S. military. So they got almost accustomed to it. And it was constantly — you could see the frustration on their faces, the anger, the sadness, the worry, the fear. You know, it was very hard to see the faces of the Iraqi people when you took their family members away.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and we’re going to come back to this discussion and also speak with Sergeant John Bruhns, who was at Abu Ghraib and in Baghdad beginning in April of 2003.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest in studio in New York is Laila Al-Arian, who together with Chris Hedges wrote the cover story of The Nation magazine this week, interviewing scores of Army war veterans from Iraq talking about their experiences. We are joined in Washington, D.C., by Specialist Garett Reppenhagen, as well as John Bruhns, Sergeant John Bruhns, who served in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib with the Third Brigade, First Armored Division, First Battalion, beginning in April of 2003.
Sergeant Bruhns, talk about your experience. You participated in how many raids?
SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: Well, Amy, thank you very much for having me on. I just want to make one small correction. I invaded Iraq on day one, March 19th of 2003, so I just want to, you know, make sure I put that in the record. So, having —
AMY GOODMAN: What was that first day like?
SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: It was very confusing. You know, we were — in my unit, along with 150,000 other soldiers, were massed on the border of Kuwait and Iraq. And finally, our commander said, “OK, go,” and we went into Iraq. And we went into the southern Iraqi desert, and it took days to find civilization.
And at that point in time I had a lot of reservations, because I was looking around, and I saw 150,000 troops making their way to Baghdad in the open desert, and here’s President Bush, and he’s accusing Saddam Hussein of having a massive stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, possibly a nuclear weapon, saying that he’s a homicidal dictator addicted to these weapons and we have to stop him now. And I was thinking to myself, I said, you know, what would be a better time for Saddam Hussein to use these weapons? He has 150,000 troops in the southern Iraqi desert, and he could launch these weapons on us directly and kill nobody but us.
So it was very frightening, especially because our military commanders were telling us that he has these weapons, this is his last stand, we’re coming to kill him, to take over his government, and he will use these weapons. And we were anticipating at least 50,000 casualties that day. That’s what we were being told. So it was very frightening.
But once I started to make it into populated areas and the weapons were not used at a time that was ripe for Saddam Hussein to use them, I just — I totally came to the — I was completely convinced that President Bush either made a complete and total incompetent decision to go to war or he deliberately misled us into war.
AMY GOODMAN: The number of raids you were involved with?
SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: The number of raids I was involved with, I estimate probably about a thousand. What we would do — how these raids would occur and why we would go on the raids is this: Let’s say there’s a roadside bomb, an IED goes off in our sector one day, and then the next day there’s an RPG attack, and then the day after there are some sporadic gunfire at U.S. troops. Well, a battalion commander reasonably would call a mission, and he would say, “You know, let’s go into the sector. We’ll quarantine it, and we won’t let anybody in or out. And we’ll send the infantry in, and we’ll do cordons and searches,” which are raids, “and we’ll go house to house, and we’ll look for weapons, we’ll look for bomb-making material, we’ll look for anti-U.S. propaganda, any intelligence at all that would lead to the insurgency.”
So you go there in the middle of the night, and you want to catch them — you want to catch the Iraqis off guard. So you enter the house fast and furious. You kick down the door, and you run upstairs, and you get the man of the house and you get him out of bed, and his wife is laying next to him. It’s Baghdad, it’s July, it’s August. His wife sometimes may be exposed, because of her night garments in the middle of the night, which is humiliating for that woman and for that man and for that family. And you separate the man from his wife, and if he has children, you put his family in a room, and, you know, you put two soldiers on the door, outside the door, to make sure that his family stays in that room. And then you get — we had interpreters, so we would take interpreters with us throughout the house. And we would have the man of the house, and we would interrogate him over and over again. “Who are the insurgents? Do you know who they are? Are you with them?” And, you know, basically we would tear his house apart. We would, you know, take his bed, turn that upside down, dump his closets, his drawers, if he had them. I mean, just anything.
And I would say eight out of 10 times we never really found any intelligence at all within these homes that would lead us to believe that these people were members of the insurgency. What they were was just Iraqis in their own communities. And we came in there, and we came in uninvited. And I believe — and I don’t blame this on the U.S. military at all. I don’t. I blame this on George Bush. But when you’re involved in a military operation like that, you enter these homes as if you’re going after the enemy, as if you’re going after bin Laden himself, when, for the most part, they’re just families living in their homes, trying to get a night’s rest before they get up and go to work in the morning, if there is work for them. And it’s just — I believe that this created a lot of resentment among the Iraqi people, causing them to join a resistance movement against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the impact on you and your fellow soldiers of having to conduct these constant raids and realizing that many of the people that you were dealing with were perfectly innocent? Did you — in your times when you were off duty, did you talk about it among yourselves? And what kind of conversations? And the impact that it had on you psychologically?
SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: Well, it had a tremendous psychological impact on me, because, you know, a lot of these raids and a lot of these cordon and searches did not — you know, they were not very productive. Now, there were times when we did catch people that we would, you know, label so-called terrorists. But like I said, for the most part they were just Iraqis, Iraqi people, Iraqi families in their communities, you know, carrying on their daily activities, their lives. And we would go in there and disrupt their lives and make life difficult for them in our hunt for an unidentifiable enemy. That’s the problem.
When you’re in Iraq, you do not know who the enemy is. They know who you are. If you’re on a patrol in a market and somebody opens fire on you and the U.S. military, I mean, if we respond — if we return fire in that direction with overwhelming firepower and, let’s say, a 13-year-old girl gets killed, you’re just going to have to assume right then and there that her father and her brother and her uncles — they’re not going to say, you know, Saddam was a bad guy and thank the United States for coming in here and liberating us. They’re going to say, “If the United States never came here, my daughter would still be alive.” And that’s going to cause them to join the resistance. And when they do join the resistance, President Bush says, “They’re al-Qaeda. They’re al-Qaeda.” But they’re not. They’re just regular Iraqi people who feel occupied, and they’re reacting to an occupation.
AMY GOODMAN: Sergeant Bruhns, talk about the day you were sent into a house that you believed there were Syrian terrorists or insurgents inside?
SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: Yes, ma’am. Well, we were — my squad leader called a meeting and said that he had gotten word from the company commander that there was a Syrian resistance movement within a home in our sector and that there were Syrian terrorist fighters in the house and that what we were going to do was that our squad was going to, you know, basically kick in the front door and go in and apprehend these Syrians, who supposedly were in there with weapons waiting to shoot at us. And that just didn’t sound right to me.
And it was getting very close to the time that I was supposed to be leaving Iraq. So I said to my — I was the — see, when you have an infantry squad, you’ll have your squad leader, then you’ll have Alpha Team, and you’ll have Bravo Team. I was Alpha Team leader, and my job was to go in the front door, arrest the Syrians, while Bravo Team conducted the cordon outside. So I said to my squad leader, I said, “Hey, you know what?” I said, “If you’re so sure and if our commander is so sure that there is a Syrian resistance movement in this home, I’m going to go in there, and I’m — I mean, if you’re just going to send me through the front door two or three weeks before I’m going to go home, I’m going to shoot everybody in there. I mean, if you’re going to put me in that situation, they’re not — they’re probably not likely to — they’re probably unlikely to be willing to turn themselves in.” And they’re like, “No, they’re in there, and we have to get them.” So I sarcastically said, “Well, you know what? You might as well just pull a Bradley up to the front of the house and fire a TOW missile through the front window, if you’re that sure.” Like I said, I said that sarcastically.
And when the raid went down — and I actually was selected to stay outside that night, because my squad leader could tell that I really wasn’t too happy about the intelligence report that we received — they sent in a different team. And when they went inside, it was just a family. There was an old man inside, a few children and a woman. There were no Syrians.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Garett, a final comment from you. I’d like to ask you, this whole issue of an occupation force — you have a situation where United States soldiers obviously, from a religious standpoint, racially, linguistically, have nothing in common with the Iraqis that they are there supposedly to protect. Could you talk about that sense of being totally a fish out of water in Iraq?
SPC. GARETT REPPENHAGEN: Well, I mean, it was obvious, you know, that the majority of U.S. soldiers do not fit in. I mean, the military, U.S. military, is made up of a lot of different people, and there are Iraqi Americans in the U.S. military, there’s Lebanese Americans, there’s a lot of Middle Eastern Americans in the military, so some people do fit in. But the majority of us, yeah, you know, we don’t speak the language. You know, most of us are not Muslim. Most of us, you know, do not look Arabic.
So the contrast is very real, and the division, once you’re there and you’re being told to give these people democracy and they’re shooting at you and trying to kill you, it creates a lot of tension, and the American soldiers begin to hate the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people hate the American soldiers. And the bottom line is, we’re not seen as peacekeepers. U.S. forces in Iraq are no longer seen as peacekeepers by the Iraqi people and most of the Muslim world. We’re seen as occupiers and invaders, and that undermines our ability to keep the peace there, it undermines our ability to do our jobs, and it undermines our national security here at home. So right now it’s a very complex situation, and the animosity is growing. And there’s no cure other than removing ourselves from Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Final question to Sergeant John Bruhns: You were at the news conference yesterday with Senator Harry Reid. What do you want to happen right now? What do you want the U.S. government to do, the Bush administration, Congress?
SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: I would like Congress to draft binding bipartisan legislation that requires President Bush to bring our troops out of Iraq. This is a man that does not understand the meaning of the word “bipartisanship.” We have to fight fire with fire when it comes to President Bush. He’s stubborn. He refuses to acknowledge his mistakes. And he’s in his own little world when it comes to Iraq.
So now, Congress, as a co-equal branch of government, has to do — they have to do their job. They have to carry out the will of the American people. Over 70 percent of the American people want an end to this war. So my message to Congress is: You can stand with Bush, or you can stand with the American people. Bring our troops home.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. We’re going to be heading to Denver next to speak with some soldiers. Sergeant John Bruhns served in Baghdad with the Third Brigade, First Armored Division, First Battalion; Specialist Garett Reppenhagen, cavalry scout and sniper with the 263rd Armored Battalion in Iraq. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.