Captain Shaun Riffe, 36, joined the Army National Guard at age 19. "Dad was in the National Guard for 30 years -- all my grandfathers served during WWI and WWII," Riffe told me on May 9. "I joined for the tuition waiver at University of North Dakota. It turned out to be something that I really enjoyed. I was enlisted for eight years and rose to the rank of staff sergeant. Then I went to Officer Candidate School (OCS) and became an officer.
Capt. Riffe's unit was activated in October 2003. He arrived in Iraq on April 1, 2004. Capt. Riffe spent most of his time in Iraq patrolling the area surrounding Baghdad. "We got there right at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom II, and we were in the first rotation. We were at Camp Victory the first day we got there. And the very first day, we took mortars into the compound. I thought, 'This is going to be a long year.' What happened is that the insurgents had realized that a transition was going through, so they started hitting our convoys. The main supply route around Baghdad was attacked by squad-sized Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) groups. We were in our first engagements within the first five days of being there."
Naturally, Capt. Riffe's first perception was that Iraq was a "war-torn country." But Capt. Riffe's perspective changed the more he got to know the people he was protecting and liberating. "Within a month, my perceptions had changed," Riffe states. "We had a security mission outside of Baghdad International Airport; we watched for antiaircraft missiles. There were a lot of small villages, rural areas. It was very green, very agricultural, the people were very friendly. There was no hostility toward us from 99 percent of the population … Thumbs up all the time -- they invite you in to eat or have tea."
Capt. Riffe also realized, however, that the introduction of democracy in Iraq would be a long process. "Their system had been in place for thousands of years -- everything ran through the local sheikh. Here's how far they are from the democratic system we've got: During the January 2005 elections, I was with one of my interpreters checking a polling station. I asked my interpreter to find out when the ballots were supposed to show up. And my interpreter looked at me like I was from a different planet. He asked, 'What are those words you just said?' And I said 'Ballots and polling stations.' … That's when I finally realized how new democracy was to them. Their language didn't even incorporate the words."