Shrouded in the darkness of an Iraqi interrogation room, Sgt. Charles Mink couldn’t see much of anything besides the al-Qaida insurgent staring at him.
On appearance alone, the rebel seemed harmless. He was elderly, cordial and clothed in a blanket as he cupped his tea and puffed on a cigarette. But the man, Wahhab, was withholding details about a terrorist attack. So the U.S. Army called Mink, an interrogator, to extract it.
What transpired became one of the most memorable of the 1,200 interrogations he conducted in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. Today, as he reflects on the 10th anniversary of the war that began March 19, 2003, he said the invasion will be remembered as one of the blackest demerits in U.S. war history.
Back in the interrogation room, Mink, or “Huey Lewis” as terrorists knew him, cajoled clues from Wahhab, opting for “friendly persuasion” instead of harsher tactics that he said yielded a greater risk of losing the suspect’s cooperation.
Wahhab capitulated after 10 days; al-Qaida was building a tunnel from a bakery to the Mosul Civic Center. Insurgents planned to fill the passageway with explosives and raze the community center during a ceremony. U.S. soldiers stormed the bakery and prevented the attack by arresting the suspected terrorists.
“I’m trying to convince him that it’s not a big deal to blow up the Mosul Civic Center so he calms down and cooperates,” Mink said. “We tell him he’s a great man for talking to us, even though I know that I’m dealing with a horrible person. It’s all a façade, and you have to be a good actor.”
Mink was part of a surge of young people who enlisted in the military after the September 11 attacks, according to a Pentagon survey. Mink’s impetus for enlisting was fomented by what he described as “Bush administration rhetoric” linking Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with al-Qaida.
Then 23, Mink had just graduated from the University of Arizona when he chose to spend 20 months learning Arabic and interrogation techniques. In the Fort Huachuca interrogation school in Arizona, he prepared to deal with some of the most vicious men on the planet. In an unexpected twist of fate, and irony, he fell in love with another interrogator there.
“My first impression was that he was tall and goofy,” Carissa Pastuch, also a former Army sergeant, said of Mink. “But he was really nice and really smart. So I thought he was a guy I could have a good friendship with.”
Both served at the same base in Balad, Iraq. Pastuch didn’t have much trouble interrogating men, which surprises people, she said, because she was operating in a region where women rarely held positions of authority. From dressing modestly as a courtesy to Iraqi customs to speaking respectfully to her suspects, she treated them fairly and they responded well, she said.
Some of Mink’s detainees boasted about the carnage they’d caused, but most were docile. He interrogated three people every day during his 12-hour shifts. If necessary, he could cross-examine someone for 20 hours straight.
He also worked in Baghdad. Between 60 to 70 percent of the people he interrogated turned out to be “people of interest,” meaning they had information about al-Qaida that the Army deemed valuable.
But within the soundproof walls of the interrogation room, he began struggling to accept the reasons he was given for going to war.
“When I talked to the Iraqis I detained, I realized they had no ideological loyalty to [Osama] bin Laden, they just wanted us out of their country. That was not what I expected. ” Mink said. “I was young and believed the rhetoric from the administration. … It’s hard to admit that.”
Conservative estimates pin the number of Iraqi civilian causalities at 100,000. As the United States and its allies warred with their enemies, millions of innocent people got caught in the middle. One of them was Ezadeen Naji, a teenager living in Baghdad when the invasion began.
He’s now 24 and a college student in Arizona, but he can vividly recount the tumultuous path that brought him to the U.S.
Fear consumed Naji at the outset of the war, keeping him penned up at home. After a few days, he stopped worrying so much because he knew anxieties wouldn’t shield him from walking into somebody’s cross-hairs.
Within a week, he and his friends were playing soccer in the streets as rockets cruised overhead and buildings collapsed around them. On days when the violence was particularly bad, he spent hours at his mosque, reading the Quran and praying for the cataclysm enveloping him to come to a halt.
“Some good things came out of the war. But overall … it was destruction. That’s what I think of the anniversary,” he said. “Destruction.”
At night, Naji could lie on a rooftop and see “all the stars in the sky” because the city’s lights and power stations weren’t functional for months, he said. Water was scarce, so his family had to dig their own wells.
Several of his relatives were killed, sectarian crime increased dramatically, heaps of garbage cluttered the streets and the nation’s overall condition deteriorated beyond anything he endured under Hussein, he said.
Naji and his family left Iraq in 2006. They spent two years in Syria before arriving in Tucson, Ariz., in 2008 as refugees.
He’s studying electrical engineering at Pima Community College and plans to transfer to the University of Arizona next fall.
“When I came here, I knew it wasn’t the American people who wanted to hurt us. The people were very nice and welcoming,” he said. “The war was started by politicians.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee who strongly supported the invasion. He acknowledged in an interview this month that the war has had some very negative outcomes, but he said it is too early to call U.S. participation a failure.
“I’m sure glad I didn’t vote for it,” Sanders said earlier this month.
The quality of life for Iraqis improved in many avenues, particularly through the removal of Hussein and the installation of a fledgling democracy, Mink said. The invasion also opened up trading opportunities for the U.S. with oil-rich Iraq. But, he said, the deaths of so many civilians weighs too heavily on the scale of positive and negative outcomes, rendering the war a disaster.
“Ten years ago today, people lost trust in their politicians,” Mink said, citing a faulty pretext of Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction and being linked to al-Qaida that was used to justify the war. “It was such a folly of waging war to instill democracy, and it will be much harder for an administration to repeat the same routine in the future.”
On the American side, nearly 5,000 troops died, and thousands more were wounded.
“I think if you could ask them from the grave, they would tell you they died for their buddies,” Mink said, before taking a long pause. “That may be the best comfort their families can take.”
Mink and Pastuch had left Iraq by the time President Barack Obama’s administration declared the war over in 2011. They got married and are continuing their studies at the University of Arizona. Mink helps lead Project GO, a university program that teaches ROTC students Arabic and Middle Eastern culture to prepare them for deployment. He plans to become an interrogation instructor working with U.S. allies in the Middle East after he graduates. Pastuch wants to become a librarian specializing in Middle Eastern collections.
They are moving on, but never completely past their memories.
“The casualties in Iraq and the over 4,000 troops who lost their lives deserve for us to understand what happened,” Pastuch said. “We need to remember the anniversary of this war because it had a huge imprint on the history of our country.”
Mink wants to return to Iraq as a tourist with a deep respect for the country’s history and culture. Not only is he unfazed about the prospect of running into someone he interrogated, but he said it would also be a positive experience. At a time when the military’s reputation was stained by its abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison, he said he always made a point of treating the people he interrogated with respect and that he hopes they remember their encounter with Mink as a “friendly experience in an otherwise unpleasant place.”
He views the Iraq War as a book with many pages. The ink still hasn’t dried on Mink’s chapter, and he’s not sure it ever will.
“There’s this intense desire to follow up, ‘Did we get that guy?’ You leave and you’re so into the network because you lived it. And it’s never complete,” he said. “You just want to know what happened to those loose ends that you left behind.”
Reach reporter Amer Taleb at Amer.Taleb@SHNS.COM or 202-326-9867.