Battleland

Hunting for Our MIAs

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the last American service member killed as the U.S. pulled its final troops out of Iraq. Since then, I’ve been haunted by one fact that is sadly overlooked by the media (and even by the Commander in Chief in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night): U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Ahmed Kousay Altaie, kidnapped by Shiite militia in Baghdad on October 23, 2006, remains the only U.S. service member still missing in action in Iraq.

There are few things in military life more frustrating than searching for a fellow Marine or soldier you are unable to find and bring home. I know, because I’ve tried, and failed.

SSgt Altaie, an Army Reserve linguist assigned to the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baghdad, was born in Iraq, and later immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. A resident of Ann Arbor, Mich., Altaie worked in aircraft maintenance before deciding to enlist in the Army Reserve in December 2004 as a translator. His ex-wife Linda Racey described his decision to join: “He’s hardworking, very ambitious, and wanted nothing more than to serve his purpose in the Army as a translator and use his skills of English to help out the US as well as his beloved Iraq.”

To me, his service to our country represents the best of America – an immigrant, from Iraq no less, that was willing to trade his comfortable life in Michigan for the dangers of the battlefield. Fighting to protect the country that he adopted, and that adopted him, is the epitome of the very courage that keeps our country free and strong. This dual love for America and Iraq makes his abduction that much more difficult to bear.

Although rare in comparison to the number of MIAs during Vietnam, the stories of the small cadre of US troops (like Altaie) that went MIA in Iraq, and the subsequent efforts to find them, are every bit as harrowing and heartbreaking.

Thinking about Altaie’s experience unleashes a wave of emotion that reminds me of the multiple MIA incidents that touched my life during my service.

My initial exposure to the haunting status of “MIA” occurred before I even deployed to Iraq. Upon checking into my first Marine unit, I met two men that would prove to be polar opposites in their respective roles in MIA situations. The first Marine was a hero — his Iraqi source was credited with finding Jessica Lynch.

The second Marine, a linguist named Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun, was a fraud – after being seemingly abducted by insurgents in Iraq in June 2004, and rumored to have been beheaded (following a video being aired on al-Jazeera with a masked man holding a sword over his head), Hassoun was later charged with desertion and his abduction was subsequently deemed an elaborate hoax. He remains at large, and is thought to be hiding in Lebanon. His despicable acts have tainted the true horror of every American MIA since.

Soon thereafter I learned first hand what it meant to be charged with the somber mission of finding MIAs, when during both of my tours to Iraq there were standing intelligence collection requirements for my team to generate information about the locations of Scott Speicher, a Naval aviator shot down on the first day of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and Matt Maupin, an Army soldier that was abducted near Baghdad in 2004. The remains of both these men were eventually recovered, but not until years after my final tour.

I always considered not being able to find these men and return them to their families sooner a personal shortcoming, which has since remained a source of grief and regret.

The gruesome purgatory of what it means for a warrior to be labeled “MIA” was made real for me on October 21, 2005, when Captain Tyler Swisher and Corporal Benny Cockerham, III, both hardworking and dedicated Marines from Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, were killed when their vehicle was struck by a massive IED in Zaidon, Iraq.

The explosion was so powerful that it threw the two Marines into the adjacent canal. After Cpl Cockerham’s body was retrieved, the search intensified to find Capt Swisher’s remains. Swisher was pronounced Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown (DUSTWUN), which refers to missing service members that can’t be located but have not been confirmed captured or dead, for two days as the canal was drained and our battalion searched for his remains. Once his remains were located and his death confirmed, Captain Swisher was finally pronounced killed in action (KIA).

Common to all of these tragedies was a prevailing sense of disgust, horror, anguish, and frustration amongst those of us who searched for the MIAs. We let ourselves maintain enough hope during the recovery operations to help us press on, but not enough to expect a miracle. For as Nietzsche said, “Hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man.”

It is through this lens that I consider the plight of Altaie’s family throughout this entire ordeal. Altaie has not been seen or heard from since a proof of life video from his kidnappers aired in February 2007. In February 2010, the Shiite terror group Asaib al-Haq claimed they had received Altaie’s body from his captors – however, since his death has not been confirmed, and his body has not been recovered, Altaie remains classified as “missing-captured.”

While we still had troops in Iraq, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) and the Hostage Working Group were responsible for recovering our missing personnel. Since we no longer have a military presence in Iraq, it remains unclear (or classified) what organization is currently commanding the efforts to retrieve Altaie, and whether their capabilities were handicapped as a result of the withdrawal. Let’s hope not; we must bring this American soldier home.

Altaie’s family calls him a “forgotten soldier,” and describes their ordeal as “so frustrating you can’t even imagine.” How maddening it must be for Altaie’s family to see news reports of “all” US troops leaving Iraq, knowing that their son and husband has been left behind.

Bingham Jamison served two combat tours as a Marine Corps officer in Iraq. He earned his Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation after leaving active duty, and has worked combating terrorism financing and managing investments for non-profit endowments and foundations. A captain in the Marine Ready Reserves, he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two children.

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