Speaking Out 

One couple's Iraq war saga

One couple's Iraq war saga
Jari Sheese and Douglas Salewsky were married less than a year when Doug’s Reserve Unit, the 350th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, was mobilized in the run-up to the war in Iraq. What was supposed to be a six-month deployment stretched to a year. Jari soon found herself in the unfamiliar role of political activist. Through her association with Military Families Speak Out, she began marching on behalf of her husband and his comrades. In a matter of months, Jari found herself protesting in Washington, D.C., London, Paris and Rome — and appearing on French television as part of a panel that included one of the war’s leading advocates, Richard Perle.

Meanwhile, Doug was on the ground in a war zone, the Al Anbar province of Iraq, which includes the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. He was responsible for helping set up the Iraqi Media Network, a system of television, radio and newspapers intended to provide the Iraqi people with free and vital information.

Jari, who runs Boca Loca Beads on Massachusetts Avenue, has sky blue eyes and a plain-spoken Hoosier tone that makes no effort to conceal her exasperation with the insults to common sense and decency she feels she has been dealing with. Doug, on the other hand, speaks with the laconic irony of one familiar with the protocols associated with military bureaucracy. He has served in various capacities in both the Navy and Army since 1974 and is a Desert Storm veteran. In civilian life, Doug serves as an engineer at WFYI.

Taken together, Jari’s and Doug’s stories form a kind of composite saga of the war so far. When we met in the back of Jari’s store, Doug had been home for almost six weeks.

JARI: We want to tell the truth about what it was really like that year when Doug was there — and what it was like on my end … He transferred to the Reserves in November 2002. We got word of deployment in January 2003. He told me about two days before he was leaving that he was going.

DOUG: That’s all the notification I got. In two days I had to take care of my employer, school — and this was on a weekend so it wasn’t easy. I’m leaving voice messages here and there. I’m sure my boss really appreciated it …

JARI: It was an example of the military being famous for hurrying everything up and then just sitting and waiting. They were down at Ft. Campbell, Ky., for almost three months.

DOUG: That was because we were supposed to go into Turkey and then Turkey said no, you can’t send your troops through here. We were sitting with no place to go. The Army was scrambling, trying to figure out what to do. We sat there until they finally decided to send us to Kuwait.

But when we first got to Ft. Campbell, one of the first things was to get flak jackets [a bulletproof jacket or vest]. So we go in to pick up our flak jackets and we’re looking at them — they had these big orange and red painted fluorescent dots on the backs. Some of them were held together with yarn. Some with dental floss. One of them had “Saigon or Bust” written on it. And we’re like, “How old are these things?” We were told they were about to be buried in a landfill. Then the crisis came up, so they were pulled out of the landfill. We said, “We ain’t taking these.” They were a mess. The stuffing was crawling out on the floor. They were atrocious.

I’m with the 350th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. There’s 20 of us. In some ways, we’re worse off than a lot of people because we’re not a large organization that has a lot of support. We don’t have personnel people. We don’t have payroll people. We’re basically a self-contained unit. A lot of times we’re scrambling to get what we can, however we can get it.

Every piece of equipment we needed was a fight: cell phones, tools, parts. We even went to DRMO [Defense Resource Material Organization] — it’s like a junkyard, but it’s good stuff. We went out there and found a lot of equipment we needed by searching through piles of stuff. Because I was one of the few journalists/engineers for video, I was looking for hand tools — screwdrivers, wrenches. I’ve got editing decks, I’ve got videotape decks, cameras and I’ve got to keep this stuff clean and operating with basic hand tools.

We had to fight tooth and nail to get cell phones so we could keep in communication. At that time, one of our companies had a radio — one. I actually take that back, we had two: One didn’t work.

So out of 20 people, only one of our humvees had a radio that actually worked. We needed basic equipment like tents, tables — things that we were going to need to do our mission for six months once we got there.

Boots on the ground

Like many other Americans, Jari and Doug were alarmed about reports regarding Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons — the so-called weapons of mass destruction. Following Colin Powell’s presentation before the United Nations in which Powell appeared to show that not only were the weapons in Iraq, but that there was evidence their use was imminent, the couple set aside their skepticism and supported the aggressive stance adopted by the Bush Administration. Eventually Doug volunteered to accompany his unit overseas.

JARI: We hadn’t been married very long when he got deployed — less than a year. We’re getting ready to celebrate our second anniversary now. Two years of marriage and one year he’s at war.

I was not a very happy camper. I was a little angry during those three months when he was at Ft. Campbell. Yet, I was conflicted because of the talk about weapons of mass destruction and the ties to terrorism. I didn’t want to protest right away. It really wasn’t until later that I felt, OK, this is ridiculous. I’ve got to do something because I’m going to go crazy otherwise. And hearing, on his end, his frustrations about things that were going on that you never hear about in the media. His not having body armor. It was during that time I got affiliated with a group called Military Families Speak Out.

I remember watching the testimony of Colin Powell. We were getting frustrated because no other countries were willing to help. And Douglas said, because of Colin Powell, because he had respect for him, yes, we need to do this.

DOUG: I think that happened with a lot of people. A lot of us had faith in Colin from Desert Storm. We find out now, of course, after the fact, they were playing a shell game with Mr. Powell.

But I figured there were weapons of mass destruction out there. Oddly enough, when I was in the Navy I was a fire control technician/ballistic missiles on a Polaris submarine. It was my job to launch nuclear weapons. That’s not what I signed with the Navy for and I became a conscientious objector against nuclear weapons then. So I figured if Saddam Hussein is getting nuclear weapons, that is not going to be a good thing.

We were prepared at all times for chemical attack. We carried our masks with us 24/7. At that time there was a large belief that there was going to be some type of chemical weapons action.

Nothing happened.

We got there before the end of the conflict, but when it was winding down. So there was still the possibility — OK, they haven’t used them — the question was why. Are they going to wait and surprise us? Are they going to send a skud like they did into Kuwait before we got there and hit a shopping center? We had 20,000 soldiers there in one big area.

I’d say 60 days after we’d been there we didn’t carry our masks any more. We put our suits away. At that point everybody just figured it ain’t gonna happen. Except for one interesting day.

There was this Iraqi gentleman who came to the gate and said, “I’ve got these funny looking barrels out in my field. Do you guys want to see them?”

And we said, “Yeah. We’re going to send somebody out.” Well, there’s so much going on they got behind and this guy got impatient. He comes back a week later.

“Is somebody gonna come out and look at these barrels?”

After about four days of this, he finally brings one to the front gate and drops it off. Here’s this barrel. Nobody has any idea what’s in it. Panic City. It was an unusually shaped barrel. You see oil barrels. Beer barrels. But this barrel was weird looking. They brought out the chemical truck — the one with the arms on it and the sensors. They never figured out exactly what was in there. It wasn’t a weapon. But it was hilarious because everybody’s grabbing masks, grabbing suits and waiting to see if this barrel’s going to go off. After that we didn’t worry any more.

Getting the word out

Jari and Doug communicated with one another on an almost daily basis using e-mail. Jari learned about the shortages of supplies and equipment — most notably body armor — that Doug was encountering. But it was Jari who first learned that Doug’s tour would be extended by six months; it fell to her to tell him. At this point, Jari’s activism shifted to a higher gear. Through the auspices of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), she was able to participate in a series of marches and demonstrations in this country and abroad.

JARI: I didn’t feel like it would be very appropriate for me to start protesting before he’s even been shipped off to war. But we had discussions about the stories in the papers — look, a million people protesting, trying to make the war not happen. But he felt like he had this responsibility.

I mostly cried every day. Until the moment when he got extended for another six months. He was supposed to come home in October and then, in September, we got the news it was a 365-day deployment, boots-on-the-ground. The three months in Ft. Campbell counted for nothing. When he first left, I thought those three months counted toward the six months. It wasn’t until he left that another wife told me. So then I’m starting at Day One going, “Oh, God, OK, April-October.” I’d been thinking he was coming home in July.

When we got the horrible news it was a year, I said, “OK, they can’t find weapons of mass destruction. They can’t prove there were ties with the terrorists. I can’t take this any more.”

Doug was the one who sent me the information about the Web site, Military Families Speak Out. This was also a time when he was being really frustrated because he was helping set up the Iraqi Media Network to give them free speech …

DOUG: I set up six television stations, four radio stations and a newspaper. Hired reporters and things of that nature. That wound up being my main job.

The Iraqis I worked with were incredible. Resourceful, hardworking guys. We all knew you gotta get the word out to the people. The biggest problem when we first got there, people had no idea what was going on. There was no information for them. Everything was rumor.

Once we started getting stuff up, people calmed down immediately because they were getting information. What to do if you had this problem. When the electricity’s coming. When the water’s coming. Once they started getting information from their own people, people that they knew, things settled down.

But the rumors were flying. One hospital we went to, we were speaking to a group of doctors. These doctors were convinced Saddam Hussein was living in a condo in George Bush’s compound somewhere in Florida. Father Bush put Saddam Hussein in there to soften up the country so we could take the oil. They were convinced of this. And that the CIA took him out of the country before we invaded. These were doctors. Surgeons.

For some reason the Iraqis believed the Americans were going to come in and everyone was going to get a new house and a new car. People were convinced of that. First thing: “Where’s my house and car?” We were going to get rid of Saddam and give everybody a house and a car …

JARI: I told him he was going to be there for a year — they didn’t know. I think it was that day that I stopped crying. That’s when I started my protesting. In October I went to Washington, D.C., and met with lots of other military families that came together for a national protest.

DOUG: Morale went in the toilet. There was no question about it. At that time, ironically enough, everybody started coming to visit the troops. Rumsfeld came. Sanchez came. All these big officials came. Guess who they were allowed to talk to? The guys who had just gotten in-country. Handpicked. The Guards and Reserves were purposely kept away from these people. Being in public affairs, I knew when they were coming. We were running the post newspaper for the soldiers — we were not even allowed to talk to them or interview them for the soldiers’ newspaper. We were kept away from them as far as possible. They didn’t want them intermingling with any Guard or Reserve units because they knew the morale was crap.

For six months we had to build everything. It was probably a month before I actually got a shower. We were taking baths in the Euphrates. Then we went on water ration for three or four weeks. This was in July where we have a liter and half bottle of water per day. That was it. The question was: Do I clean? Do I brush my teeth? Do I have enough water to keep from getting dehydrated?

So you kind of got rid of things. You didn’t brush your teeth. You dry-shaved. You say, “I can wear my uniform for another week.” Then you’re wearing all this equipment. If you were on a mission for maybe three hours at 130 degrees, you peel that stuff off and you are soaking wet. Your T-shirt dries out stiff just from the salt you lose. You could actually make it stand up.

Six months after we’d been there, the 82nd Airborne gets there and boom — they’re talking to all the big-wigs: “Our morale is great! Look at our great chow hall. We have great barracks.” They didn’t suffer through the heat. When they got there we had the barracks livable. There were windows, there were doors. You didn’t have to fight the sand. You didn’t have to fight the mosquitoes. They didn’t have to do anything.

Body armor embarrassment

Through her participation in European protests against the war, Jari was receiving information and finding coverage of events in Iraq that were not available in the United States. George Bush happened to be in London on the day she marched there. He had been on vacation in Texas the day she marched in Washington. When Jari was asked if she felt badly about protesting the war on foreign soil, she answered, “At least he’s here. Maybe he’ll hear me on the BBC.”

JARI: They didn’t have body armor. That’s what pushed me over the edge. I didn’t do anything in Indiana because it seemed like nobody cared in Indiana. But I don’t know how many interviews I did all over the United States. It was all through Military Families Speak Out and their connections with other groups. They would call me up and ask if I wanted to do an interview. I don’t think we have any radio around here that does progressive reporting so there was nothing from around here. I couldn’t even hear myself.

I was on the Internet doing searches to see who made body armor so I could buy it and send it to him. I heard other family members had done that. So I called Military Families Speak Out and was told they had just got a call from Michael Moore’s office. He was interested in trying to get these soldiers their body armor. Then Doug let the story out over there and the next day they give them their body armor because they’re scared to death Michael Moore is going to send the body armor and embarrass them.

In March I went to Rome. It was the anniversary of the war. I was invited by Italian senators who paid my way. They had a million and a half people come to this protest and they asked me to be the first speaker. I just had foot surgery and was hobbling around. At the very end they presented me and the other American there with this huge peace flag. It was a very moving moment.

DOUG: I was working on the Iraqi Media Network. The people I was working with before were very supportive. They wanted this thing up and going and I was basically given a free hand.

Then the 82nd got there. Things changed. We went head-to-head. They wanted it to turn into their propaganda machine. They were going over there in convoys, bringing them stuff and saying, “You will put this on the air. You will play this.” We went at it tooth-and-nail.

A general gave one speech. It was, like, 22 minutes long. At the time, we were only on six hours a day. They wanted it played four times a day — that’s one-third of their programming — over and over for a month.

I gave my reporters three rules when I sent them out: Don’t ask for anybody’s death; don’t incite any riots; have everything you need to report the truth. I don’t care what you report on. If you’ve got truth, and you can support it, I don’t care what it is. I stuck to those three guidelines and let them go.

I tried to make them as free as possible and the 82nd came in and turned them into a propaganda machine. Probably a lot of stuff that’s going on now is because people no longer trust the Network.

Mr. Hammed, my general manager, was invited to interview the general of the 82nd Airborne. There’s a lieutenant colonel and a major in there going, “OK, you can ask these questions. You have to stick to these subjects. You can’t ask anything about this, this or this. Understand? Any questions?” Mr. Hammed raises his hand and goes, “You mean like Saddam Hussein used to give a press conference?”

The look on the lieutenant colonel’s face — I had to leave the room. Mr. Hammed became our instant hero.

JARI: I had the Japanese come here and do a documentary — and the Swiss and the Canadians. But in the United States they could care less. It’s our war, it’s our people who are dying, and they could care less. I have a 14-year-old daughter who was a little frustrated with me always being gone. I was traveling to all these places. Finally, one day, she says, “Mom, one person can’t make a difference.” I felt like I had failed her because one person can make a difference.

People listened to me because I was the wife of a soldier. Public speaking is right up there for me with my fear of death but I felt I have this obligation, I have to do it. For me, being supportive was to fight for him. To get what he needed to protect him and to make the truth come out. People have to know that we were spoon-fed stuff. I feel like we’re being controlled by our fear. We’re like patriotic zombies and we need to wake up.

Michael Moore and ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’
Jari Sheese’s efforts to get body armor for her husband, Doug Salewsky, and the other soldiers in his unit led her first to Military Families Speak Out (www.mfso.org), which, in turn, connected her with Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore. Moore was interested in purchasing body armor for troops, but when Salewsky informed his commanding officer about this, the Army headed Moore off at the pass and finally got body armor to Salewsky’s unit.
Nevertheless, Moore’s office stayed in touch with Sheese. “They called me every couple of weeks, for no other reason, I think, than to ask me, ‘How’s everything going?’”
Then, in May, Moore invited Sheese, Salewsky, other MFSO families as well as a number of Sept. 11 families to be his guests at a private screening of Fahrenheit 9/11, the night before he departed for the Cannes Film Festival where his film would ultimately win the grand prize. Moore personally greeted the families and held the door to the theater open for them as they went to their seats.
“Overall, the move is very straightforward,” Salewsky said. “I thought it was extremely well-done … everything there is truthful.”
At press time, Fahrenheit 9/11 is slated to open on June 25. —DH

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