Voices From Iraq

Three alumni—a State Department officer, an Army chaplain and a hedge fund manager—talk about life and loss in war.

By Renée Olson

Pasquale “Pat” Capriglione C’82

Team Leader, Provincial Reconstruction Team, Ramadi, Al-Anbar, Iraq Special Agent, U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service

Capriglione, second from left, is the civilian equivalent of a one-star general

Age: 48.

Arrived in Iraq: March 2008.

Why I serve: As the son of immigrants from Naples, I thought it was my patriotic duty to volunteer for this assignment.

Job description: I’m in charge of governance and tribal relations. I work with the mayor of Ramadi and the city council and various tribal leaders.

My challenge: Establishing local governance they’re trying very hard, they want this very bad—where they’ve never had it.

Why that’s new: In the Saddam era, everything was centralized, everything came directly from Baghdad. Take your hometown and get rid of the school district, the mayor, the city council, local property taxes, and imagine all the needs of your town being supplied by Washington, D.C.

What makes my work easier: Anbar is the home of traditional Sunni tribalism. It’s a very homogenous society, and there’s no religious or ethnic split.

My team: 24 military and civil personnel in about 10 different lines of operations, including fuel, electricity, health and education.

Capriglione and his Drew rugby jersey in a sandstorm.

Recent accomplishment: Since March, we’ve doubled capacity and employment in the state-owned ceramics factory, the largest employer in this town, and they are now producing at prewar levels. It was very satisfying to pass that threshold.

Home away from home: I live on Camp Ramadi. Life is pretty spartan, but we have an excellent gym.

What scares me: Rockets and mortars.

Close call: When I first arrived in Baghdad before going on to Ramadi, we took a lot of rocket and mortar hits in the Green Zone, the home of the coalition forces and the U.S. Embassy three or four days of sustained attacks. I was helping security officers put everyone in a safe location. Although I’m not a State Department security officer here in Iraq, I am one by trade. That’s what I’ve done for 22 years.

What I’ll be bringing home: An Award for Heroism for going to the aid of colleagues with “complete disregard for personal safety and under heavy fire.”

Major at Drew: Sociology and international relations. I was in school during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. That spurred me to study international relations.

Previous postings: Panama, Liberia, Beirut, Kuwait, Doha and Seoul.

High point of being in Iraq: When we turned over provincial control to Iraq in August. They are now taking the lead.

Low point: Burnt Chinese food in the dining facility. (Laughs.) I never saw Chinese food that color before.

I talk to my kids: Every day.

What they ask: Virginia Lauren, my 14-year old, asks about the children and schools and when I’m coming home. Salvatore, 13, asks about the political and military developments and how the progress is coming.

My tour ends: In March, but I’m staying until June.

Why I extended my stay: In years of traveling around the world, a lot in war zones and most of it in the Middle East, I’ve seen some pretty bad things. We still have a ways to go in Iraq, and there are a lot of people who have suffered, or are suffering. But the sustained progress inspired me. I believe in what we’re doing and I want to continue to contribute to the progress.

What I look forward to when I get home: Italian food. My wife cooks very well.

Nana Egyapaye K. Bassaw T’89

Brigade Chaplain, 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, Iraq

“In war, you have to find the time to talk to people,” says Bassaw, left, with a soldier before being deployed to Iraq.

Age: 51.

Home: Sekondi, Ghana.

My citizenship: I have dual Ghanaian and U.S. citizenship.

Joined the U.S. Army: 1996.

Why the U.S. Army?: As a former cadet, I have always had an affinity for the uniformed services. The U.S. Army became a logical choice because it affords me a whole range of opportunities, particularly to minister to a large pool of young adults.

My rank: Major.

Why I serve: I see this as an extension of my ministerial calling, especially as I strive to fulfill the chaplain’s core mission: “To nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

Where I’ve been stationed before: Georgia, Korea, Missouri, South Carolina and Germany.

Arrived in Iraq: April 2008.

Where my base is: In the middle of nowhere. (Laughs.) From here to Baghdad is about a 20-minute helicopter ride.

Job description: To keep the morale of the soldiers high, watch out for suicidal thoughts and come up with programs to reduce stress. As the bridge between them and God, I walk them through their daily struggles. Ultimately, my goal is to take all my soldiers home alive and whole.

I’m responsible for: 4,200 soldiers and civilians on eight bases, plus six chaplains and seven chaplain assistants.

Another reason I’m here: To meet Iraqis in the area so that we have a better understanding of each other. Some of them don’t know that we have a religious figure in the group—it puts another face on the military. They see that we have common needs. That’s what I hope to be able to do—to bridge the gap between us and them.

What I never thought I’d do: Meet sheiks and imams.

What makes me groan: We have some variety in food; some of the cooks are Indian, so we have some Indian food, but oh, you wish you could eat food you prepare yourself. You don’t have that luxury.

What scares me: Everyday movement. You never know what is out there. I pray that we come home safe.

High point of being in Iraq: War brings people together in a different way than when you are at home. Every encounter is a sacred encounter. Because of the nature of war, it may be the last chance to talk to that person.

Low point: Every time I lose a young soldier.

On withdrawing from Iraq: Every soldier desires that there should be no war, but the bottom line is that we hope our leaders think through these things before they commit us. Once we are here, we want to make sure that what we’re asked to do is done right. We’re not concerned about when we get back home. When all is said and done, and the soldiers are home, then we can do the second-guessing as to whether we ought to have been here.

What I brought from home: All that I have is in Germany, with my wife and children at the U.S. Army Garrison in Baumholder.

My family: I have three girls:Maame, who is 16 years old, Maabena, 4, and Nana-Ama, 1.

What I miss about Ghana: The beach. (Laughs.) It’s a desert here. Since April, it’s rained once.

What I realize now: Ghana is so blessed. We have rain almost throughout the entire year—we can turn it into a breadbasket. It took coming here to see what we really have.

What not everyone here knows: In Ghana, I’ve been selected as Paramount Chief-Elect of the Sekondi Traditional Area, home to some 100,000 Fanti people, though the area’s economic and strategic role affects more than a half million people.

Why I was chosen: My mother is a member of a royal family there.

My double life: I am torn between having to leave the Army, which I feel called to at this time in my life, and responding to the needs of my people. I am hoping to work out a plan with my people to permit me to serve my time with the Army and appoint one of my divisional chiefs to act as president of the Traditional Council during my absence.

Work to be done at home: I hope to build a cement factory to help with downtown revitalization, which includes building a 12-story convention center, a resort on the lagoon and a modern stadium to host intercollegiate sport championships. I am also very interested in developing a vibrant agribusiness made up of beverage, dairy and meat processing plants and fish farms.

This summer: I’ll go back to my unit in Germany. But first, I’ll go to Ghana for a month or so.

What I’m looking forward to: My coronation, which the president of Ghana may attend. I will be carried shoulder high, symbolizing the high office to which I have been elevated. When the council is satisfied that the right candidate has been selected, I will be showered with talcum powder, which signifies victory and a bright future.

Frank Lugo C’00

Civil Affairs Team Sergeant, Jameela section of Sadr City

Lugo (far right) put Wall Street on hold to reconstruct Sadr City.

Age: 36.

Arrived in Iraq: January 2008. I was in Diala Province, then I got to Sadr City when the fighting started in May.

Back in New Jersey: November 2008.

Before deploying to Iraq as a reservist: I was an associate portfolio manager for Sailfish Capital Partners, a $3.8 billion hedge fund on Wall Street.

My double life: I love working on Wall Street. I love the fast pace, I love the markets, but I certainly enjoy putting on the green suit and fulfilling an obligation to my country.

Why I serve: My father came to this country from Cuba and served in the Army nearly 10 years. It’s something that was ingrained in me since I was a child.

Job description: One morning, I was handing out 600 backpacks and helping school children. In the afternoon, I was engaged in firefights against the insurgents. We were in a very unique situation, my group. It went from nonlethal to lethal in a very short period of time.

After the fighting last spring: We put in generators that power up to approximately 120 homes each. Homes get around 10 amps of electricity, eight to 10 hours a day, if they’re lucky. You can imagine that when it’s 130 degrees, that can be a problem. At night, when we did our patrols, there’d be people asleep on the roofs of their homes.

Recent accomplishment: A lot of businesses were destroyed in the Jameela market, one of the largest in the Middle East. We’ve given out $2 million in microgrants issued by the U.S. government. We needed to flood the market with money so we could get these people up and running again.

My challenge: This area was a complete safe haven for the Mahdi Militia, Mutqtada al-Sadr’s army. They used the market as a revenue source. They would extort $1.5 to $2 million per month, not unlike what the mob had done in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. Under the Saddam regime, corruption was a common practice. I had contractors give me brown bags with $100,000 and say, “Listen, I want to buy this contract.” They assume that’s acceptable.

In 2008, Gen. David Petraeus presented an Excellence in Combat coin to Lugo.

Sadr City as barometer: If we can get things right here, we believe we will be well on our way to significant troops withdrawal in Iraq.

High point of being in Iraq: Seeing the look on children’s faces when we put them back in clean schools. And watching them play in parks that were filled with debris and used to launch attacks against American forces.

Low point: Losing Major Dwayne Kelley at a district council meeting. There was a bomb placed just outside the room where he was having a meeting. He was the 100th soldier lost in Iraq from New Jersey.

Major at Drew: Political science.

Age when I started at Drew: 24.

Before that: I was on active duty in the Marine Corps.

How friends describe me: Very intense. I take things too seriously, and that’s why I’m glad to be married to someone who doesn’t.

My family: I have a 5-year-old named Oliver, and William, who is 1. I missed his entire first year.

My feeling on them enlisting in the military: I don’t know if I would be comfortable with that. I get an enormous amount of pleasure out of leading men, but I don’t necessarily think it’s for everyone. It’s a decision that Oliver and William will need to make for themselves.

What’s next: It would be incredibly difficult now to find a job in trading. (Laughs.) I’ve interviewed for a position as deputy global head of protective intelligence for a large bank.

My name: Francisco is only used by my great-grandmother, and my mom, when she’s real upset.

My reaction to being the ABC News Person of the Week last summer: I didn’t like the piece because it portrayed me as some sort of jetsetter. The reporter made assumptions about my life based on my profession.

That’s not me: I’m a family man. I wish I did have a fast life, but I don’t. I change a lot of diapers when I’m home.

With reporting by Brooke Goode

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