by Major Russell Chun, ESL Instructor

Col. Leonard Hawkins, Major Russell Chun, & Warrant Officer Rafael Geba

Baghdad, 2003:

It seems a lifetime ago that this picture was taken.  We were standing on one of the walls of ancient Baghdad braving the 110 plus degree heat.  In the background was a campsite where we just left our Ukrainian ally to visit with team members. 

Iraq is a place of mixed feelings for me.  Through the lens of time, I am forced to ask.  Success or Failure? At the time it seemed like success.  Flying into Baghdad Airport with the V US Corps out of Heidelberg, Germany the task of rebuilding was at hand. 

As part of the Civil Affairs Force, I and a host of other soldiers worked with the US Coalition Provisional Authority to start the nation building process.   I liaised with 25 Iraq Ministries (Departments of Health, Electricity, Water, Transportation etc…).   We took a hand at framing the new constitutional debate, printing new money (minus the figure of Saddam Hussein) and started training up a generation of young Iraqis on the concept of a free press. 

Perhaps that task stuck with me the most.  I started recruiting young men and women who were volunteering to rebuild Iraq.  They were assigned out to various government agencies bringing enthusiasm and talents.  I remember a group telling me that during the old regime that “knowing” someone was the only road to success.  Now based on their skills, talents and college degrees, the door was wide open.  

The older generation Iraqis warned the new generation against making themselves visible.  We were recruiting television, radio and print media speakers at the time.  We started training them how to speak in sound bites, how to relate the “stories” of progress and freedom.  I thought all was well.   Sadly, the visibility also made them targets.  One student “Nahla” was working with the Ministry of Museums. Although she refused to go on television, she was brilliant on the radio.  She spoke of how “her ministry” was saving the tremendous legacy of the Iraqi people.  As I said, I thought all would be well, that Iraq was safely in the hands of a new generation. 

Later my team relayed to me a tragic phone call.  Nahla was leaving the museum and her car was hit by a roadside bomb.  On purpose? Wrong place? Wrong time?  She called in to say that her car was hit, that she was bleeding. She died on the phone while the team listened. 

Success or failure?  

This year, I saw Pope Francis arrive in Iraq.  It was covered by all the news sources.  I read, “Why is Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq significant?  His visit brought the triple significance of hope, courage and peace to those in need. It comes at a time when the world continues to face the dual threat of terrorism and the COVID pandemic. Entering Iraq — where COVID is still rampant and there was the risk of attack by Islamic State — was powerfully symbolic.” (

Hope and courage.  That is what I remember about Iraq.