“I Didn’t Want Anybody to Go to Jail”

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Army photo / Spc. Jessica Zullig

U.S. soldiers study vehicle maintenance during their deployment to Camp Speicher in Iraq.

Army Major Stephen Bussell served as a personnel officer at Iraq‘s Camp Speicher north of Baghdad in 2004 and 2005. Once again, his recollection serves to remind us that the guys and gals running patrols “outside the wire” in the war zone have a big supporting infrastructure back “inside the wire” that let’s them do their dangerous work. It put Bussell into the middle of everything from mail to pornography to front-line waste, fraud and abuse.

Of course, the folks back at the base don’t always see eye-to-eye with the troops rumbling off post every day to try to hunt down and kill the enemy. Bussell spoke about his deployment in this recently-posted March interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Excerpts:

I entered the Army in May 1991. I came in originally to be Infantry but I was color blind so they made me an Adjutant General (AG) guy so I’m human resources. I stayed in the Army until 1998. I got out and said I was done with the Army because I had some bad leaders. I got out and got my degree and realized between getting out and getting my degree that I missed the military and I could make a difference so I got my commission and came back in as an Infantry officer, ironically enough. I went to Infantry school and got hurt but I wanted to stay in the Army; I was in the Army at that point for 11 years. They made me AG again and here I am. I’ve been AG for the last 10 years coming this May.

Q: What changed in the intervening years that although you were color blind you could now go Infantry?

Back in the 1990s they weren’t giving any waivers and they waived that.
I joined the military on a fluke because I took the ASVAB [ Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] test just to get out of class so I could sleep. I told the guy next to me, “Hey, when there are 10 minutes left in class wake me up and I’ll fill out –” like an good test taker, B, C, B, C down the oval blocks.
I really didn’t have any intention of going into the military. This guy walked into class one day and said, “Hey, you want to join the Army?” I said, “Sure!” He said, “Are you serious?” I said, “Are you serious?” The next day I was raising my hand and here I am. That’s how I joined the Army the first time.
…They said, “You can type; you can do this. You need to be AG.”…
When I hit the scales at the airport [bound for Iraq in 2004] I had 453 pounds of gear on me and that was not me, that was body armor, my weapons; we didn’t get ammunition until we got into theater. I had a Secure Internet Protocol Router (SIPR) and Non-secure Internet Protocol (NIPR) computers. I had to carry 90 days of supply — anything I would need to use for 90 days I had to carry with me. I had paper, pens, as well as my own stuff. My rucksack with all my clothes, food, toiletries, and things like that…
From the mail standpoint we had to go through and screen what was going out because of all the issues they were having with war trophies, pornography; we were just having a lot of problems with that. I wanted to keep my guys and myself out of jail. One of the first things we did was have some very thorough inspections. In one case we found some live mice that the guy had in a box — he didn’t realize they were there but he was fixing to mail them. I can only imagine if that had gotten mailed and sat in a store room for several months. That would have been gross.
Brassfield-Mora was one of our FOBs [forward operating bases] and I didn’t realize this but they set the mortuary up there. Brassfield-Mora was in the Sunni Triangle there in Samarra and at the time in 2004 and 2005 it was taking a whole bunch of casualties. I didn’t realize the morgue was right there. As my guys were going out to get mail they’d catch the smell and see all the dead bodies.
Mentally that’s one of the things I failed on. I was rotating Soldiers through there every 90 days and it should have been only every 30 days. That’s one of the things I failed on. I feel sorry for those guys. One of those guys I had out there, he came back on his own and I was trying to pursue Article 15 on him. I just didn’t understand his side of it and how tough it would be to go out every day and see your buddies in bags…
He said, “Hey sir. I don’t know if you realize it but where they drop the bodies off is right there. It’s like right when you come out of the post office or when people are lined up to get the mail. That’s where they are.” I don’t remember what unit was there, I think it was 1-5 Infantry.
It was just there. A lot of times, unfortunately, combat arms look at us in AG or sustainers or Logisticians or whatever they want to call us these days — being HR is kind of like being the underlings. We’re not as important; it’s not this, it’s not that. Dead bodies and postal obviously was not important…They just put us together. “It keeps the quality of life over here better.” I don’t know. It’s a lot of mentality. Even as I’ve grown up in the Army now, almost 21 years, as an O4 I still experience that stuff today from the combat arms guys. They just don’t get the human aspect of it and how big of an impact it can have on people…
I didn’t want anybody to go to jail. I didn’t want to have war trophies going out and see Soldiers in trouble for that, whether they thought it was or not. My biggest challenge, especially when we’d go out to where the Field Artillery was or whatever and they’d say, “I want to send this shell home.” “You can’t send an artillery shell. Even though it’s used, you can’t do that.” It was for their protection but I’d get commanders who’d want to breathe down my neck, “Hey, this, that, and the other.” I’d stand my ground on it.  “I’m out here just trying to keep people safe. I don’t need you — you go worry about shooting bad guys. I’ll worry about keeping my guys safe and getting the mail out. If that means your Soldiers can’t send the rounds to blow up guys, then that’s fine with me.” It was just getting them to understand the relevance of us and what we do in theater…
When they start getting Congressionals they’re like, “Why am I getting a Congressional for mail?”

Q: Do Congress people actually get involved for constituents not getting their mail?

Absolutely. That’s one of the biggest things we saw in OIF 02 [the second tour rotation in Iraq]. The majority of the Congressionals coming down were, “Why didn’t PVT Johnny get his mail? Why is it taking so long?” Even handling casualty mail — that was a real chore. It would get lost in the system and I even started tracking how many times I saw that piece of casualty mail because we’d have to forward it back. They didn’t have military mail terminals at the time and again, it was the Wild West. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. We didn’t know we needed these things. We were kind of building it on the fly.
I can remember seeing — the kid had been dead five months and we were still seeing his mail roll through so we started writing the dates on it. I wanted to see how many times the box came back through…His family had sent him mail before he passed and it was still working through the military mail system in Iraq. It was never coming out; nobody was actually gathering the mail. We’d write what we had to write on it and then push it back or bag it in a red bag and send it back…
Even for guys who got killed during OIF 01 [the first tour rotation in Iraq]. We were getting mail from that. We’d have to go back and try to find it. They had these big rosters that said where the FOBs were but they were changing the names of the FOBs. Every time a unit came in — 4th ID was in place when we took over and they called it FOB ‘Whatever’ and we came in and called it FOB ‘Whoever’ so it became a big mess. Then they changed the zip codes. When 4th ID left they had zip code whatever and now we had zip code whoever…
When 1st ID was there we had to wear our Kevlar and body armor all the time with our long sleeves down. When you’re pitching mail — it was July in Iraq in a metal connex full of stuff. The ambient temperature outside was 135 degrees. You’re wearing body armor and Kevlar and you’re inside a building. I’d tell my guys, “Take your body armor off. Take your helmet off,” although we shouldn’t have done it. It was against the general order that was put in place, it was just unreasonable to have your guys work in that stuff…
I developed a system to send letters out. I’d send a warning letter out, “Hey, you received a Playboy or Penthouse,” or whatever it was, “in the mail.” I’d send it to the Soldier. They had turn that stuff off because its pornography and its against General Order Number One. We developed a system and after two letters if they got it again it went to the company commander, three letters and it went to the battalion commander, four letters and it went to the brigade commander. We had to hold on to that and go and get Criminal Investigative Division (CID) come over and inspect the stuff.
We’d find guys — really, it was fraud, waste, and abuse. I had a guy try to send out 20 sets of Camelbaks or desert camouflage uniforms (DCUs) or 40 pairs of boots. I’m like, “Come on now.”
They would have 50 of them and they were trying to send all this stuff back to the States. OIF funds were just — the girl I replaced…became our field ordering officer (FOO) and she was given $10,000 a week or a month. Units were getting so much money that Soldiers were just buying stuff and then they would try to mail it out. I just saw it as fraud, waste, and abuse and we developed systems to start pulling that. I was like, “Look, you can send two sets of DCUs because that’s what you got issued but 40 sets? Come on now.” I’d write it down and we’d log it.
That guy would come back at a different time with a different guy working the register and he’d have 40 sets again. We started sending letters out there because I just think it’s an issue, that my tax dollars are paying for you to do fraud, waste, and abuse. That’s just silliness to me. You’re going to turn around and sell them on eBay for $100 a pop because that’s just how much those things were, or whatever it was.
Pornography aside, and weapons aside, that’s just stuff. Even that, these sure fire lights that mount on an Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG) scope and things like that. The unit was buying them and then they were trying to sell them; they were going to ship ass tons of them out. Just crazy amounts of these things…It was in my ability to put a curb on it; I notified CID [Army Criminal Investigative Command]. As an American taxpayer I saw it as an issue…
You go to bed at 2300 or midnight and you’d start back up at 0500. It was always going and you didn’t get a lot of sleep. On top of that, Balad at the time was getting 80 to 100 mortar rounds a day. We were just getting mortared all the time and we’d have to stop operations so we could go sit in a bunker. I had mortar rounds fall within 100 feet of me and explode and there was gravel everywhere. The gravel became like shrapnel and it was shooting everywhere like, “Bing, bing, bing.”…
I started seeing issues and that’s one of the reasons I said, “Look, you can have Sundays off.” I sent guys, and I shouldn’t have done it because it kind of went against the grain, but I sent guys into the Green Zone. It was like a mini-vacation. We know the guys are flying out of there all the time and I coordinated with the sergeants major that were down there at the Aviation.
We’d fly them to the Green Zone and they could crash there. They had a pool and a Burger King or McDonalds or whatever the fast food thing was there, so they could have a break. I didn’t have slots for Qatar or Doha and rest and relaxation (R&R) was too far in between. To help with that I’d send these guys to these places and I’d just suck it up. There would only be two or three of us pitching mail that day but okay. Did I see it as a benefit? Did they have a little more work when they came back? We tried to do as much as we could, but I think it helped reset them…
My biggest complaint, going back to the mess halls, these guys were going out doing combat operations and then they’d come back to a mess hall and they’d be showing a war movie, guys getting shot up and stuff. I just thought that was ‘bass ackwards’. I said, “That’s ridiculous.” I can’t tell you how many times I went to the warrant officer and noncommissioned officers in charge (NCOICs) and said, “Turn that shit off. It doesn’t make sense for these guys. They’re living it and they want to relax. They probably want to watch something funny, not a guy getting blown up.”
That was an issue for me. Being a realist and being a human, that’s what I’d want if I was out there pulling the trigger and seeing enough of the carnage out there. I didn’t experience what they experienced; we experienced things differently…
We flew right out of Balad and straight into Germany. You can feel it. When everybody gets in that plane and that plane went up, it was wheels up — it was this steep climb and the whole plane erupted in cheers and clapping.


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