Despite fears, a belief in mission

Iraq: As two Maryland reservists learn local culture, they realize the importance of their work.

November 29, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Thanksgiving in Iraq for the policeman and the college student from Maryland did not differ too much from how the U.S. Army reservists would have celebrated the holiday back home.

They had the day off, ate turkey, watched football and promptly fell asleep.

By yesterday, however, Staff Sgt. James Dyson Jr. and Specialist Charles R. Ellison were headed back to their Military Police posts in Karbala, one of Islam's holiest cities, 55 miles south of Baghdad.

Their job: bodyguards.

Dyson, in civilian life a patrolman for the Prince George's County Police Department, and Ellison, a freshman at Howard Community College, were activated in February and now find themselves cruising the streets of Karbala in black Chevy Suburbans, providing security for Coalition Provisional Authority employees who work with Karbala's governor. Dyson drives the lead truck in the two-vehicle caravan, and Ellison rides backward in the back seat of the second car.

Dyson looks ahead; Ellison looks out.

"I make sure no one is following us or is pulling out a [rocket-propelled grenade]," Ellison said. "As soon as you're rolling, your military training kicks in. That fear is evident, but you don't dwell on it. It would be extremely distracting."

Thanksgiving may have provided some familiar trappings of home, but life in Iraq is nothing like their lives in Maryland. In Karbala, they are U.S. Army reservists stationed at a Polish military compound and charged with protecting American civilians working for Iraqi politicians.

In Maryland, Dyson, of Landover, is a 33-year-old police officer with a 16-month-old daughter and a master's degree in criminology and sociology from Ohio University. He joined the Army Reserve while he was a senior at Bowie State University, much to the dismay of his father, who lost a brother in Vietnam.

Ellison is more than a decade younger than Dyson, his commanding officer. The 20-year-old college student was starting college and living at the Elkridge home of his parents, both of whom served in the Army. Ellison joined the Reserve between his junior and senior years at Long Reach High School in Columbia.

Their lives intersected shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks when their Reserve unit, the 400th Military Police Battalion, was first activated and assigned to the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle. The Iraqi tour of duty for Dyson and Ellison began in May, shortly after they were called up a second time. Their first assignment in Iraq was a "law and order" detail in Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad.

Yesterday, a Coalition Provisional Authority public affairs officer offered a telephone interview with the pair, suggesting it would provide an insight into what the 132,667 U.S. Army reservists are doing in Iraq.

The first jobs for Dyson and Ellison were as military police officers called to restore order in Hilla, a city overrun with the chaos that followed after U.S. forces passed through on their way to Baghdad, Dyson said.

"Not to say anything bad about the Marines, they did their job," Dyson said. "But there was no personal interaction, just chaos and destruction."

Dyson, Ellison and other MPs were handed a tall order: Keep the peace and train Iraqi police officers, most of whom were newly hired. They were shocked by some of what they saw.

"Horse stables are better off than some of their local schools," Ellison said. "I believe even stronger in this mission."

Their work was not the standard policing that Dyson knew in Maryland. "No one's going to be throwing a grenade at me in Prince George's," he said.

They taught new Iraqi police officers how to serve warrants, how to control crowds and how to conduct searches for weapons. He said they would often have to chase suspects down alleys and make arrests, mostly for weapons violations. "We saw violence every day," Dyson said. "It happens every night."

Working with Iraqis was not easy, he said. Many were suspicious of American troops because of the destruction left during the war. His best relationships, he said, have been with translators and police officers. "There is fear on both sides," Dyson said. "They think we're trying to kill them, and we think they're trying to kill us."

He said many Iraqi officers are offended when soldiers speak condescendingly to them about how to perform police work. Cultural differences raise other barriers: Dyson was caught off guard by the intimacy Iraqi men show each other.

"The men hold hands and they kiss each other and they talk really close," he said. "That took some getting used to."

He has learned Arabic greetings and taken the big step of hugging other police officers. He even caught himself by surprise when he hugged and kissed on the cheek an Iraqi translator who had been away for two months.

"I missed him," he said.

Ellison said he would try to dine with the Iraqis as often as he could and watch movies and videos with them.

"Their favorite movie was Titanic, and they all really like Shakira," he said, referring to the Colombian singer.

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