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Peter Gillies: Candy bombs and the future of Iraq

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Posted: July 25, 2009 6:08 p.m.
Updated: July 26, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
My view of Iraq was from the cockpit of an Army UH-60L Blackhawk helicopter.

Although the days were long and very hot in Iraq, there was always some "down time," during which my fellow soldiers and I would sit around jaw-jacking.

We pontificated about everything from politics to the current state of the war - the one we were in the middle of.

We generally flew only a few hundred feet off the ground trying to avoid being hit by enemy ground fire. As we crisscrossed this ancient land hauling troops and cargo, the one thing we always noticed from the air were the kids.

In open fields and outside villages, the kids always ran out and waved at us as we flew over.

One day we started to build "candy bombs."

Care packages we received from the U.S. were usually filled with lots of candy, always much more than we could consume. Rather than throw it away, we neatly packed it for aerial delivery.

It was easy: just a couple of handfuls of candy into several strong zip-lock plastic bags and, voila, in no time we had air-drop-ready candy packs, ready to be precision delivered from our flying machines of war to waiting kids below.

We hoped our "smart bombs" would change these young minds about Americans. It was our small attempt at diplomacy and nation-building.

On the outside, we Americans looked very menacing and tough, but on the inside we just wanted these people to live free and determine their own future.

One afternoon, we had a mission to transport an Iraqi army general named Ali, a Kurdish general by his brethren in the north. A big summer offensive was being planned to oust the insurgents out of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

We spent the afternoon taking Ali to several small towns and military outposts where he would rally his troops for this offensive.

Like space aliens from a far universe landing on earth, our two powerful UH-60L Blackhawks plopped down in the middle of an Iraqi Kurdish town. This dicey and technical landing caused a huge cloud of dust to spring upward, enveloping the middle of the town.

When the dust and dirt cleared, Ali and his uniformed entourage hopped off the helicopters to go rally his troops. As the aircraft were being shut down, the town's folk began to emerge and surround our helicopters.

Surely a sight like this had never happened in this ancient village, nor would it likely happen again. Soon, armed soldiers from the town appeared and pushed the curious onlookers back a safe distance from the aircraft.

Steve, one of my gunner/crew chiefs, walked up to a young boy and handed him a tightly wrapped plastic "candy bomb." The boy, about 8 years old, was thrilled.

His face beamed as he skipped away and stood next to an armed Iraqi soldier. We were all smiles in the aircraft.

Seconds later, our smiles evaporated. The soldier the boy stood next to was middle-aged and fat, and he glared at the boy, who was still smiling. The soldier looked around and nudged the boy, putting his hand out in a "give me the candy" gesture.

The boy hesitated as the man stabbed his hand impatiently at the boy, emphasizing his demand. Grudgingly, the boy relented.

The soldier quickly snatched the candy bomb from the boy's hand, all the while looking to see if any Americans were watching.

Ali and his boys arrived back and loaded up. As we took off I did a quick check outside the cockpit to clear the rotor blades. My eyes landed back on that fat soldier.

He had moved several feet away and was now standing on the slope of an embankment. To my delight, I watched our powerful rotor downwash slam into this pudgy uniformed thug.

It knocked him backward down the hill, his AK-47 flailing, his beret flying off his head and his equipment pieces flying off his belt.

Best of all, the plastic-wrapped "candy bomb" dropped from his thieving hand as he rolled down the hill. The young boy who had turned his face away from the oncoming dirt blast saw the soldier fly backward and drop the candy.

In a sweet moment of justice, the boy ran over, reclaimed his precious gift and ran away.

As we cleared the village rooftops, I looked over to see my co-pilot's big mustached grin. He had seen the same thing.

We yelled a victory cheer over intercom for this unknown kid and laughed all the way back to our base.

Today's Iraqi nation in many ways is like that young boy and the candy. A gift was given when Saddam was deposed. The insurgency took that gift of freedom away for a few years.

But a powerful military surge gained that freedom back. Like the candy, the precious gift of freedom and self-determination lies on the ground waiting to be picked up.

Like that boy, I hope the Iraqi people snatch that precious gift and run with it to a brighter future.

Peter Gillies is a retired U.S Army chief warrant officer and a resident of Castaic. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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