Home again after year in Iraq

Cassilly focused on family, not politics

May 13, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Seeking a little peace and quiet, Robert G. Cassilly settled into a seat in the garden of his 140-year-old farmhouse near downtown Bel Air. But the calm was frequently chased away by the din of traffic that featured blaring car horns and the abrupt backfire from trucks.

The clamor failed to faze Cassilly - the former County Council member recently returned from a year in Iraq, where the sounds of explosions and gunfire were part of the daily din.

It was welcome neighborhood noise for a man who had just returned from war.

After months of combat training and a year in Iraq, the Army major is taking a few weeks off for rest, relaxation and reconnection. With his combat tour complete, he could return to his civilian job in the legal department of an insurance company, but he is making no career commitments yet.

Since arriving home last weekend, he is finding respite in tending his garden, catching up on chores around the house, and reconnecting with his wife and five children.

"I think I worried most about how much they were worried about me," he said. "This year was a great challenge for me and a big stress on my family."

Cassilly, 48, a Bel Air town commissioner before becoming a county councilman, was called to active duty last year. An attorney who serves as judge advocate in the Army Reserve, Cassilly trained at Fort Bragg for a yearlong tour of duty. Barred from running for re-election in absentia last fall because he did not file campaign paperwork before his mobilization became official, he is a private citizen for the first time in 12 years.

Harford County politics is far from his mind for now, although he is still receiving and responding to daily e-mails about Iraqi politics.

"I am getting back into my life and back with family," he said. "Those are my priorities now. I am not in a political vein."

During the past year, Cassilly helped Iraqis establish a local government in Salah ad-Din, one of 18 provinces in the war-torn country. An agricultural area along the Tigris River about 80 miles north of Baghdad, the province is home to about 1.5 million people, many of whom reside in the capital city of Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein.

"[The province] is about the size of Montgomery County, and my job was to work with leaders to build a government," he said. "Under Saddam, all government was centralized in Baghdad. We are trying to empower the provinces so that they can run their own show."

Cassilly drew on his experiences from 12 years in office - eight on the Bel Air commissioners board and four on the County Council - to assist local leaders in the effort. He and his staff worked with the Provincial Reconstruction Team, he said.

Cassilly filled a scrapbook with photos of groups meeting to write local laws, draft a budget and set up a judicial system. Many of those photos ran in Arab newspapers and on Web sites, he said.

"These people took great pride in developing local governance," he said. "There were a lot of basics for them to tackle, things we take for granted. They are really into all this and they were the first council in Iraq to adopt rules of procedure."

Still, security issues complicate every aspect of life, he said. He could not travel anywhere, even to a meeting minutes from the camp, without a heavily armored combat patrol.

"Success is just under the surface, within their grasp, but breaking that surface is tough," he said. "Because of the level of violence, the cost is terribly high."

Death threats to Iraqis involved in the new government effort were common, and the danger from roadside explosives and suicide bombers was constant.

"These people are strong and determined to have a better life, not in an absolutist Islamic state, but in a democracy," he said. "They want it for their children, and they are determined to succeed, with us or without us. I saw them displaying great courage."

As he worked in the country, he was struck by the pull of a national history that precedes the United States by millennia. The Code of Hammurabi, one of the first recorded set of laws, was written in Iraq about 1760 B.C.

"We think 1776 was the establishment of democracy, but the 1776ers were standing on the shoulders of giants," he said. "Iraq had laws and a functioning court system thousands of years before us. We can think of ourselves as modern disciples of Hammurabi, bringing rules of law back to the country that gave them to us."

He will continue to reply to those e-mails from his military successors in Iraq and to those from the local populace with whom he worked. It seems that everyone has access to a computer, he said.

He said he feels strongly that he made a difference.

"What we are doing now will matter for a long time," he said. "We have to support the people who see a different way for Islam, people who are not succumbing to the tirades of maniacs.

"I am betting on the Iraqi people," he said.


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