Friday, December 30, 2016

TOP STORY >> Keeping the faith under fire in Baghdad

Leader executive editor

This time of the year, Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock), a retired Army colonel, remembers serving in Iraq almost nine years ago and celebrating the holidays with Christian and Jewish American soldiers often under dangerous conditions.

House, 63, had a long career in the Army and Arkansas National Guard before he was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012 in Dist. 40, which includes Pulaski and Faulkner counties. He was an equal-opportunity attorney in the National Guard from 1980 to 1986 and had his own law practice. House was an Army colonel and staff judge advocate from 1990 to 2009. Before he was elected to the House, he was the military affairs officer for two years on the staff of former 2nd District Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Little Rock).

House and his fellow service members often came under fire in Iraq, and he credits his survival to his strong religious faith and those around him. He said his faith deepened as he formed a strong bond with Jewish soldiers, who helped him get over the ordeal of serving in a conflict when he was in his 50s.

All they asked of the colonel was a menorah they wanted to light in Baghdad on Hanukkah, which this year ends Sunday night.

He was glad to oblige. His parents, who built metal structures, made a large menorah for the soldiers in Baghdad in time for Hanukkah. Here is his story how that came about:

“Baghdad International Airport was next to Camp Victory, the main base for U.S. troops,” House recalled. “The airport is about 25 kilometers from the Green (or Inter-national) Zone located in the center of the city. Around 1 or 2 on a morning in July 2007, a C-130 landed. About 50 of us ‘surge’ soldiers from Kuwait were offloaded with our gear. The aircraft was reloaded and took off headed back to Kuwait all in less than five minutes.

“We were dead-run herded into a wonderfully air-conditioned tent full of airmen and soldiers and surrounded by 20-foot tall concrete T-walls to protect against blasts. A few minutes later, unguided rockets hit close (within a mile is good shooting).

“Several hundred yards away, one airman was killed and a couple of others hurt. In the tent, the airmen and soldiers went on checking orders against rosters, assigning bunks, giving directions to the dining facilities and getting the next bunch of troops ready to board the next aircraft. I was scared witless, but the other troops seemed unconcerned. Some days later, I learned that everybody else was scared, too, but the sergeants would tell the troops that “if that ****** Army colonel over there is not ****** worried, then you ***** don’t have anything to ***** worry about either.”

“There is a difference between reading about such things (for example, ‘The Red Badge of Courage’) and experiencing it.

“We had about 24 hours to sleep, eat and goof off before reporting in the dead of night to convoy on Route Irish from Camp Victory to the International Zone. Irish was one of the most dangerous highways in the world because of bombs and ambushes. We knew that Sheik al-Sadr’s Shia militia and the al-Qaida insurgents who wanted to kill us on Route Irish were lazy. They were not disciplined to stay awake and alert.

“So our convoys would run fast at irregular times in the early mornings, before the enemy commanders had time to be alerted, wake their soldiers and organized an effective attack. But sometimes they did. Inside our armored vehicles we would hear occasional ‘thwacks’ of rifle fire hitting our trucks, and sometimes our turret gunners would open up.

“Again, I was scared witless but did my job of watching and helping the top turret gunner, in case he needed help. We made the run in the dark unharmed in about 30 minutes. Arriving at the IZ, orders and rosters were again checked, quarters assigned and directions given.

“The surge strategy diplomatic piece had the State Department create provincial reconstruction teams to rebuild utility systems, hospitals, courthouses, prisons, police stations, start essential businesses and farms and generally recreate the civil infrastructure necessary to sustain a society. The military piece was to kill bad people and protect good people. The State Department could not get enough of their own employees to step up to the task (although many did so bravely), so Gen. David Petraeus assigned U.S. military officers and noncommissioned officers with certain skill-sets to fill the teams.

“They found out that I had been a juvenile referee for a couple of years in the 1980s, so I was assigned to the Baghdad reconstruction with one of the missions of reforming Iraq’s juvenile justice system.”

“So we went out into the city to the area juvenile courts/police stations/prisons and provided money, training, and equipment as needed.

“Iraq had in some aspects a very progressive juvenile-justice system under Saddam, with specialized police officers, judges, teachers and others with exclusive jurisdiction over all children under eighteen. Theoretically, a child offender never came in contact with the adult justice system and left the system with a basic education and specialized job skills. But on the other hand, under Saddam the system was successful because if a kid was really bad or did not cooperate, they would drive him out to the desert never to be heard from again. Female juvenile offenders were educated, trained in domestic skills, and then married off. Obviously the United States did not support the darker practices.

“During the second half of 2007, the International Zone was hit often but irregularly with mortar and rocket fire. This tended to make us mad, especially if somebody got hurt or somebody’s ‘trailer’ and stuff were blown up. I am forever grateful to the Air Force because when AC-130 gunships, A-10 Hogs or Predators were orbiting the city, ‘those people’ would not shoot at us. If they did, the Air Force would dispatch a return ‘missive.’

“Faith in God and worship of Him is a critical need of most soldiers, including me. The old saying, ‘There are no atheists in a foxhole,’ is just as true in a concrete city where digging is not an option. Because I was detached from a regular Army unit and on duty seven days a week, chaplain support and Protestant worship services were inconvenient at best. My State Department Foreign Service Officer provincial reconstruction leader was Jewish, and one day he invited me to Friday night Shabbat services. There were nine when I arrived, making 10, so somebody said, “We have a minyan (a quorum), we are a synagogue!”

“I do not know if this was kosher, but we became B’Nai Baghdad, much to the joy of many, and to the consternation of a few of the locally hired Iraqis.”

That December, the group asked House if he could get them a menorah to celebrate Hanukkah, which marks the reconquest of the second Temple from pagan invaders following the revolt of the Maccabean, who cleaned and rededicated the Temple. They found a small amount of pure olive oil, which burned for eight days, and it is this miracle that Jews have celebrated for nearly 2,200 years.

Back home, House’s father, Grover, a retired steel fabricator, and his wife, Mary, built a six-foot tall metal menorah with eight wide branches and a slightly taller middle one called a helper used to light the other candles. They shipped it to Baghdad, where it was lit inside Saddam Hussein’s palace. (For more details, Google “Arkansas menorah.”)

“I saw more combat and terrible things than some, and certainly saw less than others. I still do not want to talk about some of it. It was the greatest and most terrifying honor of my life to walk the streets of Baghdad with young soldiers whose mission was to get me to where I could do my work.

“But through all of this, I credit my Jewish family with keeping me sane and keeping me alive. They welcomed me as a ‘Follower of Jesus’ and taught me many things about Jesus and how Jewish teachings and traditions explain so much of the New Testament. (Get a Jew to explain to you about Passover and the Last Supper.) To them, Jesus was a great rabbi, who was born a Jew to Jewish parents, lived a Jewish life, taught Jewish things, loved God and died a Jew. Many of them accepted it as historical fact that he rose from the grave and ascended into Heaven. Indeed, Jesus may be the Messiah, but for now, He is not sitting on his Father David’s Throne.

“There are three things soldiers must never argue: Politics, spouses and religion. They allowed and supported my faith, and I support theirs. What I know is that we were all blessed to praise and worship and honor and glorify God in both English and Hebrew, a blessing that remains to this day.

“I still follow Jesus, always will, and belong to the Episcopal Church. But I also have a Rabbi, celebrate Hanukkah (as Jesus did, see John 10:22-24: ‘Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade’) and will remain grateful to Jewish people for being there when I needed them the most. Happy Hanukkah and Happy birthday Jesus.”