Faces of the war: Captain Shaun Riffe

Posted: May 10, 2006 12:05 AM

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."

A long road, but not an unattainable goal. Capt. Riffe's best moment came the day of the January, 2005 Iraqi election. "Leading up to the election, we asked a lot of Iraqis if they were going to vote. They said no, that it was too dangerous. But they lied. They went out and voted, and they were so excited, they were jumping up and down about voting. Talking to them the next day, they were beaming. There's no way to describe what a fulfilling event that was." Capt. Riffe counts among his most treasured possessions an original ballot from the January, 2005 election.

Capt. Riffe's worst moment came the day a member of his platoon was injured by an IED. "About 5 p.m. one day, I was on a landline on the phone with my wife. All of the sudden, one of my guys came running to the phone room and said 'Second Platoon just got hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED).' I told my wife, 'I have to go.' She knew instantly that something bad had happened, and I couldn't tell her. The biggest problem is that we have so much communication. Now every time somebody gets hurt, shot, fired, demoted, promoted, the families know within moments. It makes everything that much more complex."

The immediacy of mass media makes Americans impatient for results, but Capt. Riffe urges patience. "The media might spend a whole day trying to find enough news to fill five minutes of TV time, and all we hear is the bad things. But the rest of the day is filled with progress. You could spend all day every day reporting on every good thing that's getting done in that country. We just have to be patient," he says.

Capt. Riffe returned to his wife and seven-year-old son in April, 2005. He considers his time in Iraq lucky -- his 150 troops patrolled Airport Road in Baghdad but took only six wounded and zero deaths. Capt. Riffe now recruits for the National Guard in Minnesota. "People always ask me whether they'll have to go to Iraq," he says. "Here's what I tell them: 'There are more good days there than there are bad.'"

Editor's Note: Your e-mails will be forwarded to Capt. Riffe by Ben Shapiro