"Do you like sand?"
It was 7:30 the morning of July 28, 2003, and Monte Fitch was three years into retirement from Montgomery County's fire department when his friend and colleague Scott Graham posed the question over the telephone.
"Yeah, I like sand," Fitch recalls responding, not sure whether Graham was joking. "We got a place at the beach . . . "
"No, not that kind of sand," Graham said.
Seven weeks later, Fitch was overseas for the first time in his life.
A six-month tour of duty as a civilian fire administrator transformed Fitch's calm life as a retiree into a perilous and heady brush with the forces that shape history. Working for the Coalition Provisional Authority to restore Iraq's fire service brought Fitch back into the fray of rescue work, back into the close contact with unexpected injury and death that he knew from fighting fires for more than four decades.
Reconstructing Iraq's gutted fire service proved a task, still unfinished, that would tax Fitch's 42 years of experience in Montgomery. Six months of wearing a flak jacket and helmet to work would turn a retired assistant chief of a suburban jurisdiction of 925,000 into an administrator in a war-ravaged nation of 24.6 million.
After three years away from firefighting, Fitch, 60, was eager to get back -- especially after seeing news footage of Iraqi rescuers, wearing insufficient gear, picking through the wreckage following the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Iraq weeks before he departed for the Middle East.
"You want to be there right now when you see something like that," Fitch said. "You want to be there on the scene."
It was just after 6 in the morning on Oct. 26, 20 days into Fitch's tour in Baghdad, when a barrage of rockets ripped through the 14-story al-Rashid Hotel, where he was living.
The blasts jarred him out of bed. He stumbled over shattered glass, put on a Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service T-shirt and headed out the door.
It took a little while for the training to kick in, Fitch said, but after descending a couple of flights of stairs, he remembered his job.
"I can't leave," he remembers thinking.
He raced back up the marble stairs, which were splattered with blood, and helped pull several people to safety. In the end, 17 were injured and one U.S. Army colonel was killed.
During Fitch's six months there, 296 American soldiers died. Explosions were commonplace, and Fitch became adept at discerning a blast's distance from his office, Room M217 in a presidential palace nestled in a bend in the Tigris River -- one of the dozens of palaces Saddam Hussein used.
Fitch and colleagues worked in the office without protective gear until an explosion hit nearby. Then they would don Kevlar vests and helmets. When they left the office, they carried rifles. In the early days of his duty in Baghdad, Fitch left the office armed only with a briefcase, leaving the firepower to his military counterparts, Air Force Chief Master Sgts. Gene Rausch and Glenn Robinson. But as violence escalated and kidnappings became commonplace, Fitch began carrying a pistol.
The work was essentially nonstop: no days off in the 172 Fitch was there and often 14-15-hour workdays.
"He's got more energy, probably, than two people," said Rausch, 48, in a telephone interview from Hawaii, where he is stationed. "Even though he's 60, he was going strong."
Fitch said he believes that the war in Iraq is just and that the United States has a moral obligation to foster democracy in Iraq.
"It will take some time for the Iraqis to not only get over the war and Saddam, but to learn to be free," Fitch said. "It's probably very difficult for people to see right now, but if we look back in some years, this will be a beautiful country."
Fitch repeated this theme many times at a recent visit to Twin Ridge Elementary School in Mount Airy, where he gave a 30-minute summary of his voyage to a group of students with whom he had corresponded by e-mail.
"Most of the people we met with were very, very happy we were there," Fitch said in response to a question from a fourth-grade girl asking whether the Iraqis were afraid of him.
"I was never scared, but I was concerned, especially when they rocketed my hotel," he said, responding to a boy who asked, "Were you scared?"
"What was your favorite part about being in Iraq?" asked another girl after Fitch finished a slide presentation of photos, maps and videos from his trip.
"Making a difference," Fitch said.
Fitch fought his first fire when he was 18 years old, and he worked as a firefighter in Montgomery County for 37 years. The office in the basement of his Damascus home, where he returned March 31, is filled with memorabilia, including glass shards from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, where, as a member of Montgomery's urban search-and-rescue team, Fitch was assistant task force commander for the mission to recover bodies after the 1995 explosion that killed 168 people.
Fitch, whom friends know as "Lennie," his middle name, gained respect and admiration as a levelheaded commander and adept administrator during his long career.
"Lennie is a legend," said Pete Piringer, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service spokesman. "He's highly regarded."
When White House aide Katja Bullock called Scott Graham, a battalion chief in the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, to ask whether he knew anyone who would want to help rebuild the Iraq fire service "from the ground up," Graham thought of one name, he said.
"I said: 'There truly is none better in the country. Lennie is the cream of the crop.' "
He called Fitch. Fitch said yes. Then White House officials started calling, and after a series of interviews and a formal application to the Department of Defense, he was hired.
Fitch landed at Baghdad International Airport on Oct. 3 as violence was escalating. Iraq seemed to be getting more dangerous by the day.
In the Iraqi fire service, Fitch encountered what he said was a startling lack of the most basic firefighting equipment and a training system that had atrophied years ago. Firefighters weren't learning any new techniques but instead relied on knowledge, much of it outdated, that was passed down from veterans, he said.
Most firefighters had no protective clothing, helmets or breathing apparatus. They fought fires in street clothes. There was no emergency dispatch system; fire stations usually learned about fires by seeing the smoke, Fitch said.
Montgomery County has 33 fire stations for 925,000 residents. Compare that with Baghdad, which has more than seven times the population -- about 6.6 million -- and just 25 fire stations. Many firetrucks had been destroyed by looters looking for spare parts or were simply in disrepair after decades of use.
Often, when firefighters arrived at the scene of a blaze, the fire had burned out.
"The one thing that probably saved Baghdad from burning down was the extent of concrete construction," Fitch said. "You would find whole high-rise buildings that were completely gutted and burned out after the war, but the fires didn't spread."
Fitch set to work, along with Rausch and Robinson. They soon learned that they lacked even the most basic information about the Iraqi fire service. Information came in dribs and drabs, especially for three Americans accustomed to getting facts instantly.
"We went in like this," Fitch said, putting his hands over his eyes, "and every day a little bit more would open up. It was like a scavenger hunt."
With no central map showing all of the fire stations, no single person could say where, precisely, the stations were.
So one of Fitch's early missions was to map them. The first several weeks were spent gathering basic information -- locations and what sorts of equipment were in each fire station. A fleet of more than 300 new Mercedes firetrucks arrived not long after Fitch landed in Baghdad, but it took much longer than expected to distribute them throughout Iraq.
The $500 million initially budgeted by the United States to upgrade fire stations and equipment was slashed to $282 million by the time Fitch left.
Much was left unfinished when Fitch left Iraq at the end of his commitment, but much was also accomplished: Firefighters who previously worked with only the shirts on their backs now have protective jackets and helmets -- or at least some of themdo. Many stations have new firetrucks. A program has been set up to recruit and train 4,000 firefighters in the next two years.
"If a lot of other things fail in Iraq, the fire service will survive," Fitch said while sitting in the backyard garden of the home he has shared with his wife, Becky, since 1972.
When Fitch returned, friends and relatives say, he was in many ways the same old Monte -- a man respected by his family and peers, soft-spoken but firm, proud but also humble. But there were also changes: He was exhilarated yet exhausted. He was thinner.
He was optimistic, but concerned. Hopeful, yet wary of new dangers.
Not unlike the country to which he returned.