Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Student to Soldier

Camel spiders got the most attention when former student and Iraqi veteran, Lieutenant Monroe Mann visited my classroom last week. A continuous play of three hundred photos taken during his Iraq tour showed on the screen at the front of the classroom. Three showed large spiders crawling inside his tent. Lieutenant Mann delivered prepared remarks while the photos changed every five seconds or so. When it was time for Q&A, the first questions were about spiders.

“They can run at about 15 mph - faster than a human, so you can’t get away from them,” Mann explained. When asked if they bite, he said they didn’t, but they were creepy-looking. Students all nodded agreement.

“When I was a student in this class fourteen years ago, the first Gulf War was going on. I had no idea that I’d be a soldier in the second Gulf War, but there I was.” A mutual friend had given me Monroe’s email address in Iraq last summer and I contacted him. His tour was ending in October and he agreed to come in and speak about his experiences as a military intelligence officer in northern Iraq, where his job included training the Iraqi army and gathering intelligence from captured terrorists.

Monroe started by explaining why he joined the military. He had finished college and was pursuing an acting career in New York City when he saw “Saving Private Ryan.” When Tom Hanks’s character said to Matt Damon’s character (Private Ryan), “Earn this. Earn it,” he realized that it was American soldiers who had given him the freedom to live the life he chose and he felt compelled to “earn it” - to do his part in this war we’re in now. He joined New York’s Army National Guard, went to basic training and officer candidate school, and then his unit was called to Iraq. “I had to put my life on hold for eighteen months, but it was worth it,” he said. “I served my country and I learned a lot while doing it.”

Pictures of Mann holding various kinds of weapons showed on the screen as talked. Students asked if he ever shot at anyone. “No, not personally,” he said. “When we were riding in our Humvee, my men would have to fire at some bad guys sometimes, but I never did myself.” When asked if any of his friends were killed, he told them about an Iraqi friend he worked with named Muhammed. “One day, I came in asking where Muhammed was, and they told me he had been burned to death,” Mann said. “Not a good way to die.”

“Most of our causalities there are from IEDs,” he explained, “Improvised Explosive Devices.” He described how terrorists take mortar rounds and wire them up to explode when American vehicles are going by. “There are car bombs, which we call VBIEDs or ‘Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices,” and there are SIEDs or Suicide IEDs, etc. We get shot at, but we don’t often get to shoot back, at least not where I served most of the time.

Students asked about pictures of men wearing blindfolds. Mann said they were captured terrorists he interrogated. Then he explained that 90% of those terrorists were not Iraqis, but were from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries in the Middle East. Most students were surprised. Several asked if the Iraqi people want us in their country. “Definitely,” said Mann. “About 300-400 Iraqis told me they were very grateful for what we were doing. Only two said they were not. I’d say about 90% don’t want us to leave until they’re ready to take over against the terrorists.”

Many students indicated they were surprised by his description of what it was like in Iraq - that what they saw on television
led them to believe that things were going badly for us. It was Mann’s assessment that reports by the media were not fabrications, but they were not showing the whole picture. They tended not to show good things that were happening there as a result of the American effort.

Lt. Mann ended on a lighter note. He taught students a few words from some of the languages spoken where he was. In Iraqi, “Shaku Maku” means, “How are you?” or “What’s up?” In Kurdish, “Choni” means “How are you?” and “Bashi” means

“Good.” He spent a lot of time with Kurds in northern Iraq.

Since he’s been back in the states, Monroe has reopened his business school for artists in Manhattan ( and is promoting his new book, “Battle Cries for the Underdog” which he wrote in Iraq.

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