A Voice of Experience, A Voice From Iraq

By Mitch Traphagen (mitch@observernews.net)

SUN CITY CENTER - Many South Hillsborough County residents are worrying about their children or grandchildren serving in Iraq.

In the case of Sun City Center resident Elmer Snow, however, the tables are turned. It is Snowís adult son that is worried about him.

On the surface it would seem unlikely for a 61 year old resident of a retirement community to sign up for service in a war zone. But it would only seem unlikely for those who do not know Elmer Snow.

He has been a police detective, a bodyguard, a private investigator, a small-town mayor and most recently an author. Snow was featured in the Observer News earlier this year when his first book, Overkill - A Detectiveís Story, was released.

His second book, Revenge Served Cold, will be released while he is in the Middle East.

Today Snow is working with the U.S. military at the border of Iraq and Kuwait. His job is to investigate the Third Country Nationals (TCNs) who drive the main highway to Baghdad.

It is the ultimate definition of a full time job. There are no days off and Snow routinely puts in 105 hours each week.

In addition to the hours, the conditions are brutal. In the early morning when Snow travels to work, the temperature will likely hover around the 100 degree mark - and it will rise throughout the day. There are also poisonous snakes, wild dogs and camel spiders to think about on top of the constant fear of a bullet or a car bomb.

"In this environment fear is an ally. It forces you to concentrate on the what-if," said Snow. "I gave a security briefing once and told people that if there is anyone here that is not scared, then go to the airport and go back home. I had a new person ask me once if it is OK to smoke in the jeep he was assigned. I thought, later this afternoon some SOB is going to want to shoot you and you are worried about smoking in a jeep."

"One thing I tell people is to forget the government car. If somebody wants to stop you they donít intend to kidnap you. They are going to do one thing and that is kill you," he continued.

Snow was back in Sun City Center on leave. As he talked, a late model Oldsmobile and a golf cart drove by on the quiet street on which he lives. It is difficult to imagine that a place so quiet and a place so dangerous can exist on the same planet in 2003.

Life In The Desert

Back at the border there is a constant stream of large semi-trucks crossing into Iraq carrying food, water and supplies into Baghdad. Those trucks, owned by private companies in the Middle East, provide a tempting target along the mostly lawless region just inside Iraq.

For Snow, the lawlessness is becoming a major part of his job.

"I live out in the desert, literally," said Snow. "It is such a secret location that I canít even find it half the time. There are a couple of landmarks but the landmarks are things like old tires and missing roads. You get back in the area, though, and itís like a little city. There are a lot of people and an airfield. Itís about 40 miles from where I actually work - they have me there because I need internet access."

Although a part of the larger military operation, Snow is a civilian. He does his best to blend in, to become a part of the environment. He is eagerly learning to speak Arabic. He does all of this out of respect and for survival.

He is also trying to learn the culture and taboos. He discovered that men can have up to four wives. When asked if he had added any more wives to his current marriage, Snow laughed and said, "Who wants to add any more? I've got one in the States that can drive me nuts at times!"

That statement was clearly made in jest about his wife Donna, who holds down the fort in Sun City Center. The youthful looking and energetic woman is Snow's support system.

He began his work performing investigations for lost property such as passports and ID cards. Today he is in charge of the TCNs, making sure, through investigative resources, that they do not represent a danger.

But the TCNs who drive the trucks en route to Baghdad seem to have become more than just a job to Snow.

"When they cross into Iraq they are fair game for hijackings and shootings," said Snow. "When we went into Iraq, Saddam opened up his jails and released the criminals. We are dealing with a crime situation as well as a military situation."

Living And Dying On The Job

There is no shortage of work for Snow. "On a typical day Iíll have four to five truck hijackings - big 18-wheelers," he said. "The big trucks create a problem because the drivers are up high and the hijackers will be in little pickup trucks so they are shooting up. Weíve got a lot of gunshot wounds that enter the left rear back and go up through the right shoulder [of the driver]."

Although the trucks leaving Kuwait drive in a convoy with a military escort, the TCN drivers, who are paid by the trip, usually want to get back as quickly as possible to begin their next load.

"The TCNs are pretty much the casualties of war or the casualties of crime that you donít read about," Snow said.

"You can find yourself getting so angry because I have pictures of the hijackers getting paid off for the trucks. The driver was shot and killed and the hijackers are getting paid for murder," he continued. "A guy I work with is a Chicago detective and he said the same thing - they are getting away with murder. Eventually they wonít, though. I spent a career wearing a gun when I was confronting people like hijackers and now Iím watching them get paid off."

The situation with the TCN drivers has had an effect on Snow. "There is no value to human life there. I take it more to heart that the TCNs were killed than the other TCNs do. My training is to never fall in love with your car because it may be the only weapon you have to get out of a situation. But the TCNs, they fall in love with their trucks. They arenít armed and they donít resist. And then they get killed."

In The Army Now

While Snow is clearly concerned about the TCNs he has nothing but the highest compliments for the U.S. service men and women stationed there.

He mentioned a story of a female staff sergeant who cared for a badly wounded Syrian driver. "For an hour she stayed with him and held his hand in the back of a truck while waiting for a helicopter," Snow said. "It had to be 130 degrees in there. Another sergeant was helping the medics. The first thing I did was to write a letter of commendation for those two. I mean this man was a Syrian, not the greatest ally that the U.S. has."

The Syrian driver lived and he wrote a letter praising the sergeants and the medics. It is likely that each of his 14 children will now have a far more favorable view of the United States and our military. The story was also written up in area newspapers.

"The diplomacy part is a big deal for me," he said. "Sometimes I'll be looking at a person's passport, looking at the picture and then looking at them and thinking, Oh my God, what has Allah done to you? But you treat them with respect and the next thing you know, that driver is the one that is happily waving to you the next time they cross the border. For me, watching them go is a little like watching the troops go off into battle. Sometimes they come back, sometimes they are shot up."

What Lies Ahead

As a child, Snow spent a number of years growing up in Turkey. He recently learned that he will be transferred to Iraqi - Turkish border. Unfortunately for him the border with Kuwait is like a utopian paradise compared to that part of the country. In many ways, the war is still raging there.

Since he can still speak Turkish, however, that could be a benefit for him. "I can scream for help in the native language," he said.

"I am very excited about being transferred to the Turkish border," he said. "Iíll be doing the same job but in a different location. It  also means that Donna can meet me in Ankara or Istanbul on my next leave."

When he completes his contract, Snow is hoping to write his third novel, which will likely be based on his experience in the Middle East. "Iím going to come back and write another book," he said. "Itís not going to be from a political aspect. Some of these drivers who are getting shot are probably making $30 a month - they are getting killed for that."

For most people, particularly those who are 60+ years of age, signing up for service in that part of the world is unthinkable. Even without the danger, the long hours with no days off would make the job grueling. For Snow, however, the experience seems to be something of a catharsis. Since meeting him months ago about his first book, he looks to have become 10 years younger. The constant work and the continual threat seem to be healthy for him.

Despite the snakes, dogs, spiders, snipers and car bombers, Snowís biggest concern may be how to return to the quiet of Sun City Center.

Extending The Tour

Snow has already extended his own tour of duty - he plans to remain on the job a few months longer than originally planned.

He also has a few first hand comments about the effect of having tours of duty extended for the service men and women in the area.

"Thereís one thing that I'd like to say as an observation," Snow said. "Parents, grandparents and everyone can certainly be proud of their armed forces over there. Morale is fine, they can still joke and they look forward to coming home. There is a big to do here about the reservists being held over, but most of them know that they had a job to do, that they'd be there a year. It really isn't that big of a morale thing over there. For me, I still get choked up when I see the troops coming back across the border."

Elmer Snowís second novel, Revenge Served Cold, will be released in the coming weeks. As with his first novel, it will be available from www.publishamerica.com and in bookstores nationwide.

Of course the story doesnít end here. In the coming weeks and months, look to the Observer News for updates from Snow in the Middle East.

Top photo by Mitch Traphagen

Lower photo courtesy of Elmer Snow

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