By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Few Americans served in Iraq longer than Army Reserve Capt. A. Heather Coyne.
She arrived in Baghdad with the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade in April 2003 and was in the military in Baghdad until June of the following year. She stayed on to head the U.S. Institute of Peace's mission there until earlier this year.
Coyne's personal saga in many ways tracks the broader American disillusionment in Iraq. When she got to Baghdad, she was a strong supporter of the invasion. "I bought into the vision of an alternative Middle East," she said.
But by the time she left Baghdad in February, she was heartbroken. "I'm terribly anxious and depressed about it," she said in a recent interview in Washington, where she continues to work for the Institute of Peace.
Coyne doesn't see any easy answers. "I don't even know what to do," she said. "There are enough people [in Iraq] who want a good option. I just don't know how they're going to get there."
It has been an odd trip for Coyne, now 33. She is the daughter of California semi-hippies. The "A" in her name stands for nothing -- it was intended by her parents to commemorate a friend who, when Coyne's mother was pregnant, died in an avalanche while mountain climbing.
Having earned a degree in strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, Coyne was working on counterterrorism and Special Operations issues at the White House's Office of Management and Budget when she decided to join the Army Reserve. "My parents were pretty much horrified but supportive," she said .
Army recruiters weren't exactly thrilled with her inquiry either. "They just didn't know what to do with me," she said, especially because she wanted an unusual direct commission to be an officer in civil affairs, specializing in the interaction of military units with the local civilian population, especially in peacekeeping and similar missions. "They finally stopped returning my calls," Coyne said.
After two years, and an appeal from the White House to a general at the Pentagon, Coyne was allowed to join the Army in 1999. She was shipped off to the service's basic course for military intelligence officers at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where the instructors were leery of the young expert in terrorism. She was dismayed to find that in four months of instruction, only four days were spent on her specialty. "I kept saying there needs to be more study of terrorism," she said. "They laughed."
When 9/11 hit, Coyne was studying Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. "It was pretty clear to me that we were going to war," so on her own dime, she polished her language training in Cairo and got ready to deploy.
She was an enthusiastic supporter of the invasion back then. "Iraq wasn't the problem, it was the solution. It had all the right things," such as an educated population and rich natural resources that would enable it to bring democratic change to the Middle East. And, she said, "I felt strongly about getting Saddam Hussein out."
She lived in a former villa of the Special Republican Guard in Baghdad. "We spent a lot of time sweeping out the dust from the JDAMs [precision-guided bombs] that had landed in the front yard," she said. It was a time of optimism and euphoria. "It wasn't just us -- every time we met Iraqis, they were just so thrilled with this second chance we'd given them. They had such ideas for their country -- huge levels of enthusiasm and energy."
Coyne's first suspicion that the occupation wouldn't go as she hoped came on her first mission, which involved looking into the possible theft of archaeological finds. She came away worried by the confusion inside the U.S. military about the task and how to do it. "We just didn't understand what was going on, and we couldn't coordinate our own people," she remembered.
But she kept her hopes through the summer of 2003, until she transferred to the Coalition Provisional Authority, the civilian occupation office headed by L. Paul Bremer III. "It wasn't until the fall of 2003 that I really began thinking, 'This is a disaster -- we are never going to pull this together,' " she said. "It was amateur hour."
That unhappy thought occurred to her when she was looking into a successful street-cleaning program in Sadr City, where locals were being paid a few dollars a day to collect garbage and other refuse. As she made inquiries, it became clear that the people greatly appreciated the program, but that they were giving all the credit to radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters had infiltrated the management of the effort and were telling the workers that it was his program.
Her view of the U.S. effort became "bleaker and bleaker," she said.
For Coyne, the breaking point came in the spring of 2004, when news of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal emerged. "I assumed I was going to stay with the Army in Iraq for three or four years," she said. But after seeing the torture inflicted on Iraqi detainees by U.S. soldiers at the prison on the western fringe of Baghdad, she said to herself, "I want to take off the uniform. I'll be in Iraq, but the Army is the wrong organization to do this."
At about the same time, Coyne was approached by the U.S. Institute of Peace -- an independent conflict resolution office sponsored by the federal government -- to run its Baghdad office and work on reducing sectarian violence through dialogue. She did that for the 18 months, leaving earlier this year as she felt her energy wane.
Coyne is still in the Army Reserve and wants to go on at least one more deployment. But she is pessimistic about the military's ability to handle nation-building missions such as the one it faces in Iraq. She likens it to a person who can't swim diving into the water to try to save a drowning man, but instead being able only to stand on the poor man's shoulders.
Even so, she said she thinks the U.S. military probably needs to stay in Iraq: "The troops are resented, but they also may be the last bulwark against a total meltdown."