Courtesy photo: Donna Russell
By Darrell Todd Maurina
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — When Donna Russell, a project engineer from Cannon Air Force Base, volunteered to be part of a special forward engineering support team in Iraq, she didn’t know exactly where she would be going or what she would be doing. She wasn’t even sure she agreed with the decision to invade Iraq, though she emphasized that she supported the decisions of President Bush as the commander-in-chief once they were made.
Any doubts ended after she saw conditions on the ground.
“Once I got over there, the only thing I could say was we should have gone in earlier. (Saddam Hussein) needed to be stopped and we did it the best way it could have been done,” Russell said. “The majority of the damage we saw was not from American bombs but from looting. The ones who went in and did this were so angry they just wanted to destroy symbols of Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
As a civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers, Russell normally oversees the construction of facilities at Cannon. Her work in Iraq centered on determining whether government buildings in downtown Baghdad could be rebuilt and, if so, how much it would cost.
As potential targets, Russell’s work was dangerous. Her team traveled with armed military escorts and occasionally took incoming fire while traveling through the streets.
“A lot of the buildings we went into were still smoking,” Russell said. “We had one building where the fires burned so hot that the I-beams had warped. We were standing outside and heard a firefight and had to decide, ‘What do I do, do we go inside that building we have just condemned or stay out here?’”
“Take away the heat, take away the bullets, it was a fun time,” Russell said. “It makes you sound really demented to say it, but we enjoyed it.”
That enjoyment came from the fact that while some Iraqis were trying as hard as they could to kill her, most of Russell’s contacts with Iraqis were very different. One of her projects was to determine how many schools there were in Baghdad — no one knew for sure — and that required on-site visits to see the conditions of the schools. What she saw horrified her, especially after seeing the opulence of Saddam Hussein’s palaces and government buildings.
“From what we saw there, very little money was put into the country,” Russell said. “We went to schools where kids were walking through raw sewage in bare feet and glad to do it, just to get there to school.”
“We went into a country where people were basically forbidden to think or make decisions unless they were part of Saddam’s clique. The police would take reports of crimes and take them to a judge and the judge would decide which ones they could investigate,” Russell said. “From what the Iraqi people told me, the police were there not to protect and to serve, they were there to terrorize.”
From May to August, Russell rarely worked less than 12-hour days, sometimes clocking 120-plus hour weeks. For much of that time she worked closely with Iraqi engineers and got to know many of her colleagues well, some of whom paid a severe price for working with the Americans.
“The majority of the people there love the Americans, especially when they saw a civilian,” Russell said. “However, we were working with a woman who was, of course, cooperating with the Americans. She opened her front door one day and she was shot.”
Stories like that led Russell to an even stronger conviction that the American military is doing the right thing.
“We want to get the message out that the majority of the Iraqi people are wonderful,” Russell said. “A lot of people, when I came back, said, ‘Shouldn’t we get out?’ I say, ‘No, we need time to make this work, and we are training the Iraqis to do what needs to be done.’”