Mission in Iraq far from over

CAMP BABYLON, IRAQ - Lieutenant Colonel Michael Keller sets foot outside his temporary home in a former presidential palace in Iraq. What meets his eye isn't pretty. All the windows and doors in the building were broken out or destroyed during the looting and riots that followed in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

There is destruction from the war and years of neglect by those in charge.

But that's not the worst of it. As Keller looks out across the desert, he knows he is within walking distance of two mass graves - the handiwork of Saddam Hussein's 30-years of tyranny.

"Realizing that where I stood lay thousands of bodies of men, women and children was a horrible sense," Keller said. "As I stood there, I could see their bones, some with bullet holes in the skull. Men, women, children, entire families lay in this common mass grave. Within these two mass graves lay the remains of approximately 20,000 Iraqis that Saddam executed after the Gulf War. They were executed because they wanted to be free of Saddam's regime.

"It convinced me that Saddam was Iraq's most potent weapon of mass destruction. If that alone does not justify the war and the loss of American and coalition soldiers, I do not know what would."

Hussein's reign has been earmarked by stories of unbelievable cruelty and brutality to his own people. But when a statue of his likeness was toppled by American soldiers in the center of Baghdad, what remained was a country staggering from years of neglect. And it is just now that the world is starting to see what Hussein was capable of doing to his own people.

"Saddam was a criminal tyrant of a magnitude not seen in the world since Adolph Hitler," Keller said, taking time to answer questions via email.

Keller is among the many coalition forces that have begun the long, tedious process of rebuilding a destroyed nation. A nation whose infrastructure is virtually non-existent, whose people's life expectancy at birth is 58 years, according to a July 28 press release from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), far less than the 65-year average for the least developed countries around the world.

It's a rebuilding process that will take time.

Keller has been in the U.S. Army Reserve for 16 years, working as full-time military for the past year. He lives in Plainview with his wife Candace, an art professor at Wayland Baptist University, where he received his Master of Business Administration degree specializing in Health Administration in 1987. They have a 16-year-old daughter, Meredith, who is a junior at Plainview High School.

Keller has no timeline for his return home, but he knows what he is doing is important and necessary. He is serving in Iraq as the Public Health Chief for the 358 th Civil Affairs Brigade in Camp Babylon on the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon, adjacent to Al Hillah, on the banks of the Euphrates River. His job is to advise the Civil Affairs Brigade and the commanding general of the First Marine Expeditionary Force on "issues, trends and interventions in public health pertinent to the Area of Responsibility (AOR).

"The Health Chief must remain current and well-versed on all national and local health issues, as well as potential resources and solutions to these issues," Keller said. "I provide the Civil Affairs Brigade Commander with a daily briefing on the health situation in our AOR and offer suggested courses of action for solving current and forecasted problems."

Keller has been in Iraq since April 2 and has seen first hand what kind of leader Saddam was.

"Saddam is directly responsible for the murder of millions of Iraqis," he said. "I have read estimates of over 3 million people that were murdered during his almost 30-year reign."

While the war is officially over, Keller knows there is a long road ahead for the coalition forces and the people of Iraq. Every day soldiers face the danger of retaliation from Iraqi troops and Saddam supporters. As of July 27, Keller had been through more than 24 scud missile attacks and has had several shots fired in his "immediate vicinity by unseen and assumed Iraqis."

On several occasions, Keller has had his weapon locked, loaded and aimed, ready to fire if necessary.

"The times, thus far, that I have aimed my weapon were times that I felt that a threat existed for my team and myself," Keller said.

Most people will never know the feeling that comes over a soldier as he prepares to squeeze the trigger.

"During these times I find that I often have tunnel vision due to extreme focus and concentration on the situation, yet I'm very calm," Keller explained. "It is really all about training and implementing what you have been trained on."

To date, Keller has not fired a shot, a statistic for which he thanks God.

"I credit the power of prayer for that," he said.

Even though the conditions have been less than ideal, Keller maintains a positive attitude and said his stay in Iraq hasn't been too bad. While the weather is extremely hot and dry (more than 100 degrees at sunset), and the troops must drink approximately two gallons of water a day to stay hydrated, Keller has yet to spend a night sleeping on the ground thanks to a cot he carries with him.

"Living conditions for me have been good. It is a lot like an extended camping trip where you move sites from time to time," he said. "I live in Saddam's Babylon Palace, which was looted after coalition forces moved north in the war effort. I guess you could say that I live in the finest house in the Babyl Governate (county)."

The palace is built on a man-made knoll standing 300 feet high. It doesn't quite have all the comforts of home, however. There is no running water in the facility. Drinking water is purified by reverse osmosis and served to the troops by tank trailers known as "water buffalos." The soldiers bathe with the aid of a solar shower that makes 2 ½ gallons of hot water in just two hours. A generator supplies electricity for the troops, but there is no air conditioning.

"During the looting of the palace, every window was broken out and all the doors were stolen," Keller said. The result is a mosquito net blanket for protection as he sleeps and a mouthful of sand when it is time to rise.

Still, Keller said the troops' morale is generally good. The soldiers were even treated to T-bone steak and Maine lobster on the 4 th of July. Keller has also seen the power of the human spirit as people pull together, working toward a common goal.

"The medical community of Iraq worked tirelessly during the initial combat phase of OIF, providing care to the many patients that came through their doors each day, along with the added burden of those who were injured by the war activities," Keller said. "During this time virtually all of the doctors and nurses worked 24/7 with diminishing supplies and no relief of manpower or supplies in sight.

"Yet those I have talked to worked tirelessly and looked forward to being free of Saddam Hussein's regime and the rampant corruption associated with the Ba'ath Party."

USAID has been able to accomplish a lot since the fall of Hussein's regime, including providing millions of doses of vaccines for measles, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus and polio; establishing regular immunizations for children; establishing a system to monitor cholera outbreaks; educating people on hygiene and health; working to bring medical training and facilities up to date; restoring medical clinics and providing essential drugs and medical supplies.

But the list of things to do far outweighs the list of accomplishments and no one knows for sure how long the rebuilding process will take.

"A lot depends on the Iraqi people and their ability to adapt to systems and organizational structures of self governance," Keller said. "Iraq, as a nation, has recently made some great strides in this area, but I believe that it will take 4-to-6 years for Iraqis to be up and running the country on their own."