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"The All Star Five"

This is a happy photo.


These young lads, “The All-Star Five,” named by me because they look like it, proved to be just that. I sat them down one brilliant spring afternoon after a long workday and pressed the shutter. No instructions like “smile” or “say cheese.” English not spoken here. No, they weren’t smiling for the camera. They were just … happy.


This was Al Hillah, Iraq, which also places us in the heart of Babylon and by any stretch, Babylon is a very cool, happiness producing place. The All-Star Five worked the Al-Hillah grain silo, one of 40 silos that dotted Iraq’s countryside. These gargantuan structures stored more than 2 million metric tons of wheat to be milled into flour then baked into Iraq’s essential staple, a delicious flatbread sometimes called “samoon.”


We were all smiles on this day in 2003. It was May, about two months after “shock and awe” and the short-lived coalition ground invasion of their country. Today, we of the coalition invaders, were now occupiers. As occupiers, we could also claim that these wheat stuffed silos were now ours.


One might therefore ask, “What is the happy part of occupation?”


Rewind.


In November 2002, I began work with the U.S. government to game the civilian and humanitarian roles in the event of a non-invasion, invasion of Iraq. We were all told we were not planning to invade Iraq, so let’s start planning.


Yes, I know.


We knew very little about Iraq, the Saddam regime, Islam or living conditions countrywide. I was assigned food supply. The United Nations (UN), which did know Iraq, the regime and the living conditions, educated all of us on what was what in Iraq. Food supply was a problem.


For years, international sanctions put the entire population of Iraq under an absurdly corrupt food ration system (Remember Oil for Food?) and now most Iraqis depended on that food.


My job for Uncle Sam? Answer the question: “What happens to this lifeblood food ration when we eliminate the government and flatten the country?”


Damn, Sam.


Of course, I wasn’t alone. The Pentagon, State, USAID, the UN and many other fine folks were working it. But I will ignore them now because it takes away from my importance in the whole mess.


Now fast forward to shock and awe in March 2003. I was in Amman, Jordan with Team West, a disaster relief team assigned to prevent a humanitarian disaster after we non-invaded Iraq. Great team with very smart people and because I was now the UN-trained food supply expert, I became the Iraq food dude. Yessiree, Bob. Any food question you have, you just ring me up and leave a message.


By mid-April, while felling the Saddam statue in Baghdad, the coalition declared the environment “permissive” for civilian occupation. Soon after, at 03:00 Amman time, we loaded three, up-armored Chevy Suburbans (shipped mysteriously to us from the Balkans) with cases of water and MREs, comms equipment, med kits, worthless spare tires, gear, luggage, etc., and struck out on Highway One for the 10-hour adventure ride to Al Hillah.


Woo-hoo! Life was goooood.


This is where the happy part comes into play.


We sorted ourselves upon arrival in Al Hillah and within days we were off and rambling about the Babylon countryside. Team West rolled. Among the remnants of battle, we visited hospitals, schools, government buildings, UN offices, Marine bases and my favorite, silos.


We self-drove, carried no weapons, had no security details. Totally independent. With few exceptions, the Iraqis welcomed us. They met with us. Talked to us. Detailed the pain everyone suffered under Saddam. Offered us tea. Despite all the dangers and unknowns, Team West delivered.


And we found the food. Yay!


Fact is, the food never left. The ration system was so entrenched and vital that the food supply chain, from the open ocean wheat vessels, to the UN truck drivers, to the silo working all-stars, to the flour mill owners, to the village bakeries, remained intact and functional. They worked their posts during the non-invasion. The food ration system stood tall.

Back to The All-Star Five.


Yes, we were occupiers, but on this day to these young men, we were liberators. The murderous Saddam thuggery machine was history. The ominous veil of fear lifted and it was palpable. You can see it in their eyes. I remember that hope. That is the hope you get when you open the doors.


These were not our silos.


This was not our wheat.

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