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Iraqi Defenders Feel Part of This Man's Army

A U.S. sergeant bonds with trainees through humor, respect and learning Arabic. Patriotism and pride are in the curriculum

October 10, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The formality of the graduation ceremony was over, and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps recruits were back out of uniform when a group of them suddenly hoisted U.S. Army Sgt. Dujon Moss on their shoulders and began to chant and sing as they carried him around.

Moss looked embarrassed at first, then started enjoying the kind of frenzy that might be associated with a spectacular soccer victory. One of the chants even came from the sports world, with the words changed to honor Moss.

These were mostly former Iraqi soldiers or military college students, praising their American drill sergeant at the end of boot camp as they prepared to join the foreigners in providing security for a new order.

Moss had clearly gotten something right.

"They treat me as one of their own, as a best friend and a brother, because I related to them," Moss said when he'd set his feet on solid ground again. "I treated them with respect, treated them as I wanted to be treated. I was hard but fair. Respect and honor is what they live off of."

Moss arrived in Baghdad in May, and one of the first things he did was try to pick up Arabic words and phrases, learning from his contacts with Iraqis. "We're in their country, and it's important for us to relate to them if we expect them to relate to us," he said.

During a six-day crash course at a camp about 20 miles southwest of Baghdad called Logistics Support Area Dogwood, the Iraqis got an introduction to American military ways.

"They learn everything from weapons maintenance and the use of the AK-47 to basic soldier skills such as marching, first aid and personal hygiene," said Capt. Steve Selman, commander of the training school. "They also learn part of the job that will be required of them, such as maintaining a checkpoint and doing searches of houses."

The U.S.-led coalition plans to recruit and train about 21,000 corps members by February. They will staff checkpoints, protect convoys and try to root out loyalists of ousted President Saddam Hussein, who are still well-armed and mounting daily attacks in some parts of the country. After Iraq has a constitutionally elected government, the corps is likely either to continue as a national guard or be folded into the new Iraqi army.

At the recent ceremony, 228 men graduated. Moss helped train 55 of them.

But Moss -- who is with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based in Ft. Polk, La. -- didn't just teach. He took a student role as he studied their language.

"I just learned by listening to what they said and speaking it back to them, asking questions and writing it down," he said. "When they see that I'm relating to them, they start to teach me. They say I have a tongue for Arabic.... As I talked back to them, they were able to teach me the correct word. And then they'd come back later on, and it would be like a little test: 'You remember? You remember?' "

As an instructor, Moss wanted to teach more than just military skills. "I wanted to give them hope," he said, "to let them know they are somebody and they can be successful if they just apply themselves."

Haydar Hussein Abid, 30, a recruit from Baghdad who is a former soldier, said Moss "used to help us and be on our side all the time. Even in the training, when somebody made mistakes, he would repeat the drill for him until he learned well."

Moss also hung out with the men and made them laugh. They responded by giving him a typical Iraqi name: Ali Darraji. "Ali" is a common name, and "Darraji" refers to a dark-skinned tribe of southern Iraq. (The 33-year-old Moss is African American.)

The revised soccer chant they shouted in Arabic after the graduation ceremony went like this: "Look, look, ayaya, what Sgt. Moss has taught us! Look, look, ayaya, what the dark brown guy has taught us!"

The men sang in Moss' honor too. They apparently couldn't think of a song about Ali, but there's a popular tune about Allaya, which is the feminine equivalent. So they sang it in Moss' honor as they bounced him around on their shoulders.

"O Allaya, O Allaya. Your face is like a mirror. O Allaya!"

The recruits carried Moss out of their building, triggering the concern of mystified American soldiers standing guard, who firmly ordered them to proceed no further. The raucous celebration quickly ended, but that didn't spoil the mood.

"He's a good guy with a very good sense of humor," Abid said. "He was telling us to be patient and continue our training. When we needed help, we would go directly to Moss, not to anybody else, because Moss is very understanding with us and he appreciates our circumstances."

The graduates, who signed one-year contracts and are initially paid about $60 a month, were slated to get two more weeks of training with the American or Polish units they would be helping. Then they will work alongside the foreign troops. Civilians were eligible to apply, but preference was given to recruits with some military or police experience.

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