(Today I am presenting a guest column from my long time friend, Tom Easterly. Tom and I go back as far as I can remember. We were boys growing up and going to school together in Watson, Louisiana way back when. Life has taken both of us to many places we could not have imagined growing up in the northwest corner of Livingston Parish. Tom is a petroleum engineer, who spent many years working in Iraq and other parts of the world. Today’s column is a remembrance of his friend, Jim Foley, the independent journalist who was captured by ISIS in Syria and beheaded in August, 2014. Well said my friend.)
It is with a hard heart that I write. I have started this essay so many times I cannot count them all. I am not writing an email, or sending a simple text message. It is a story of a young man, passionate beyond words, but he was able to find the words. But part is also of my own experiences. I am not accustomed to writing in the first person, or for an audience. This is for Jim.
I first met Jim Foley like I met many in Baghdad – via telephone. I was under a pretty good bit of stress, as I was trying to hurriedly get out of town. I had somewhat settled into the day to day stress levels of living in Baghdad. After having been in country about 4 months, when I heard a really loud noise I only jumped 2 inches out of my seat instead of 6. It was a Wednesday night, in May of 2008, and I was leaving the next morning for the BIAP headed home. My father was on his deathbed, literally. In making preparations to get home, I went through the exercises necessary to be able to get on the plane. There, it wasn’t as simple as showing up at the airport and checking your bags. Earlier that day I had checked with Major Sayer the head of our PSD contingent, to reserve a seat in one of the vehicles. (Mr. Sayer is, by the way, one of the finest men I have ever met and known). The drive itself was along a road that at one point in that recent time the deadliest road in the world. After that, I started down the path to get clearance to leave Iraq. My group was in a separate compound in the Al Kharradah District of Baghdad, away from our main compound in the Al Mansour district, closer to the airport. The first trip several of us made to the main compound, our PSD’s let us know as we were traveling through Nisoor Square. This was early in 2008, and the September 2007 incident with Blackwater was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Our main compound housed the bulk of our administrative folks, so some of the hurdles I really had to clear myself. In doing this, I had to wait until 7:30 AM in DC, to see what I had to do with the home office. The young lady I got on the phone did not inspire my confidence, but I thought she would have been extremely accommodating considering the prior time she had handled travel and visa arrangements for me. That time was my first trip into Baghdad, where because I had gotten the wrong paperwork, I had one of the handful of experiences where I was truly terrified while in country; not just afraid and my heart racing, but I was taken back to being five years old, and it was the middle of the night, and pitch black, and I heard something under the bed, and I didn’t breathe because I didn’t want whatever it was to know I was there. That’s probably the best and most universal description of a truly terrifying situation. During the first foray into Baghdad I was summarily escorted back onto a plane headed back to Amman. At gunpoint. Your perspectives on a lot of things can really change after being in a situation like that, with a Beretta 9MM knockoff being pointed in the general direction of your head, and a Kalashnikov nudging you in the midsection. I believe the Iraqi government had taken over passport control January 1st. I went in on the 10th. Although I didn’t know him at the time, the head of our security company witnessed it all, and at a later date told me he was impressed that I didn’t piss my pants. I told him that my cold medication was doing the job. I didn’t really get the shakes until I got to Amman. When I got off the plane, I was not really sure where my passport was, or who had it.
Returning back to the night I was trying to wrap up and get out, I go the aide in DC on the phone, explained my situation, asked for assistance, and was told “You know you can’t leave without the kotar’s permission.”
That statement inspired something, but certainly not confidence. My next phone call was to Dick Dumford, who was one of the COTR’s reps. I went through one more explanation of why I was calling, and that I desperately needed to get in touch with Rodeina Abdel Al Fattah, our COTR. He told me that she was sitting right next to him at dinner. He handed the phone to her. I explained my situation, and probably added some derogatory comment about the folks back in DC. She told me “Tom, you’ve got my verbal approval. Tell the people on DC we can take care of the paperwork later.” It’s nice when someone places a stick of dynamite into a mountain created out of a molehill, and lights it with a smile in their voice.
Once that crisis was resolved, I got back to completing a mid-month report that needed to get out before I left. I had compiled the bulk of the report with Jaina Ford, and was told about 2 new media folks in the Mansour compound who could help me wrap the report nicely, and get it into USAID format. I was mostly translating any technical terms for them so that we could ensure the report was understood. After dinner, I went back to the office within the compound, where I got on the phone with Debbi Morello and Jim Foley. I got Debbie’s phone number first, and then called them via Skype so that we could work much easier. As we started into the report, Jim started asking questions to understand what had gone into the report. When we got to the sections I had authored, he picked up on the subject matter quickly. He asked if I had written the section, then said “You write pretty good for an engineer.”
Probably the next experience I had with Jim was waiting on an early morning flight out of Amman to Frankfort. I was sick as a dog, and had stayed overnight in the airport, as I didn’t really like the hotel in Amman. He laughed at how lousy I felt, as I had gone down a pants size in the previous ten days. I was preparing to go through the metal detectors, pulling all metal out of my pockets. I extracted 4 cell phones, and Jim said “Tom, only you. Why the 4 phones?” My rationalization was that I had a US number phone for overseas and a domestic one (Sprint), an Iraqna phone (Baghdad), and as Asiacell phone. I had not yet upgraded to the dual sim card mobile phone, or used the Skype forwarding trick so I could answer 5 telephone numbers on one device yet.
Once we got out of Amman and into Frankfort, I was excited to get comfort food; in that case, McDonald’s breakfast. I had previously never understood the concept of comfort food until traveling into and out of Iraq. My first trip out I had either a Quarter Pounder or Royale with Cheese in the Dubai Airport. I felt my body relax as I was eating French fries, and drinking a diet Coke with ice.
The menu at the Mickey D’s in Frankfort was nearly identical to one in the USA. I had traveled through there before, and my mouth actually started watering once on the ground. I think I ordered 2 orders of pancakes and sausage, with an extra order of scrambled eggs. Jim asked me if I was hungry. I told him I was mad that they didn’t have grits! We were able to sit down and talk a bit more, about what we were going to do once we got home, and plans for the next R&R. He told me he was planning to reconnect with a Marine unit that he had embedded with in the early days of the Iraq invasion. I asked where they were, and he said “Somewhere around Helmand Province.” After realizing that was Afghanistan, I asked him if he’d lost his mind. He smiled, and explained that he always wanted to do a follow-up after having been embedded with them for a period of time in Iraq, and wanted to show the same guys 5 years later in Afghanistan. At that time I realized I was talking to someone who was passionate about what he did, not just doing it for the money. We finished breakfast, and then sat until it was time to go our separate ways, to board planes for home for Christmas.
After we got back from R&R, and things started re-cranking for the New Year, I got a package I had shipped to myself containing among other things an Xbox. Jim & I had talked about it in the Frankfort airport, so I picked up a used one and shipped it over before I left. My children were a little miffed, but I figured their Wii and other Nintendo systems should keep them happy. Just because Papa’s on a different platform with different games I thought was no reason to be unhappy. I had barely dabbled playing except for a bit of time with one of the NFL games on the NS platform, and some experience with the Lin King game when my son got his first Nintendo. Xbox has Halo, which I found the PSD’s liked, but my first pantsing came at the hands of Jim. I don’t remember the score, just the dumbfounded look on my face in the mirror. I wondered how he had become so good with this game, since he didn’t have any kids to practice against. I asked him, and he sheepishly admitted the group he was embedded with were a bit fanatical about Halo, along with other systems that they maintained at their FOB. I quickly ceded any hopes of victories when playing against him. I got to where I could hold my own with some of the PSD’s, but Jim would just smile when he came to our compound, looking for me for another training session. During this time we also would playfully argue back and forth over the best configuration of Moleskine journal to use. He naturally had the reporter’s style, where the cover flipped on the short side of the page. I used the “traditional” style, where the cover flipped on the long side. He would challenge me to record as much as possible about my experiences, telling me to fill up 2-3 pages per day. Many times I did, and I’d share bits and pieces with him. He told me “Hey, you write pretty good for an engineer.” Some time between then and now a couple of those journals have been lost. I am sad that they disappeared.
I spent a good bit of time in Erbil those first couple of months in 2009, and then my base got moved to there in March. Jim & I kept in touch on monthly and quarterly reports. I had left the Xbox behind in Karradah for him & others. When we would go over reporting information, he would always tell me “Hey, you write pretty good for an engineer.” I was in Erbil until September of 2010, in Basrah for a couple months after that, then to Baiji, to Baghdad, then to home in June, 2011. I tried keeping in touch with folks, but it was hard coming home, and readjusting to domestic life.
The next I heard of Jim he was on his escapades in Libya, where he was a guest of forces loyal to Col. Gaddafi for about 6 weeks. During his time in captivity there, one of his colleagues died in prison. That had to affect him. I decline to believe that he converted to Islam while in the care of the bastards affiliated with ISIS. While I was not there, I can only surmise that after repeated interrogation and abuse, he converted under duress. How long he held out, I do not know. I prefer to remember my friend talking about Psalm 18:48 to me after his escapades in Libya.
I went to India in early 2012 to build a facility, and got home just before Thanksgiving. Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas I go the word that he had been captured in Syria. I communicated with a few guys from Iraq days, and asked around why we didn’t get him on a no fly list. I thought he was charmed, and would be out of there in a few weeks. I was mistaken.
My general observation has been that Islam is a religion of peace. My encounters with Muslims have not led me to prejudice against all members of the faith. In early 2011, I was living on a FOB on the grounds of the Baiji Refinery, Iraq’s largest, about 200 km north of Baghdad. At approximately 0400 the morning of February 27th, I heard loud booming noises, which were not of the usual loud booming sort. The refinery had been hit by insurgents, who had placed satchel charges at the inlet piping to the crude tower feed preheaters, probably one of the most difficult pieces in a refinery to replace. They knew where to place their charges. Nevertheless, at about 0700 my phone rang, and it was Sheikh Manaa Al Obaidi, one of the heads of the Obaidi family, and the Emeritus Director General of the North Oil Company. A little over a year before that phone call was made, he had been responsible for approximately 1/3 of Iraq’s oil output. If the NOC had been a private company, I had figured out one time they would be somewhere between number 230 and 245 on the Fortune 500. I answered, and he said “Tom, I have my driver here, and my wife I getting her housekeeper in to get a room ready for you. Do I need to come get you?” I do not believe ISIS members would display such hospitality and concern for an infidel.
Eric Greitens, in his book “The Heart and the Fist”, describes his life as a humanitarian visiting the Balkans and Zaire, and in one instance a refugee asked him “What are the Americans going to do?”. He quickly came to the conclusion that there are refugees because there are wars, and the corrupt prey on the weak, raping, pillaging, plundering, and attempting to destroy hope. He goes on to explain his belief that the ounce of prevention to the issue of refugees should be a strong opposing force, even if it is one that is borne by the international community. Eric went from his erstwhile career as an NGO member, to joining the US Navy, and becoming a SEAL.
Jim took a different approach. His membership in the Fourth Estate, as well as his own conscience compelled him to be on the front lines as an independent journalist. Yes, maybe he was a bit of an adrenaline junkie, but I truly believe it was more important to him to get the truth out. While he would blow off steam with the rest of us, he was one of the most passionate about his work. Sometimes I thought his question sessions took a bit long, but when I saw what he put out, it was worth the time.
I often hear people try and talk about foreign policy, who have not seen our foreign policy apparatus up close and personal. I think it should be a prerequisite for anyone who opens their mouth on the subject to actually have been in a conflict zone, where you can be awakened by the sound of small arms fire in the middle of the night. That can change your perspectives. Jim did not go into war zones to talk about war, he was there to talk about what war was doing to the indigenous population, to real people, not just people gathered for a photo op with a dignitary.
I have not had the stomach to see the video that was posted of Jim’s death. I simply do not want that to be my memory of him. I simply prefer to remember a smiling young man, ready to show me who’s the man in Halo. I have read stories of his torture – crucifixion, being hung by his ankles upside down, depriving him of food and water. Jim was a very strong person to live through that. I am not sure that I am or could be that strong, but Jim is a shining example of courage under adversity. I believe that Jim is one of those people who, though taken from us too young, fully lived. I believe that this quote, spoken in March of 1965, about 8 years before Jim was born, is testament to that.
“Our lives are not fully lived unless we are willing to die for those we love and for what we believe.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Almost as a postscript, I also remember Jim in a different way. In our family, we will name inanimate objects – cars. Some have been Whitey, Strawberry Shortcake, Lady (or Diablo), the Yellow Submarine, Bonnie, Bruce, and others. Now, there is one named Foley, to remind me that an awesome journalist; no, a great man, once told me “Hey, you write pretty good for an engineer.”