DEARBORN — Arab Americans are playing an important role both in training U.S. armed forces who are going in to Iraq and actually serving on the ground there, but more of them are needed to join the effort. That is one reason Brigadier General Anthony A. (Tony) Cucolo III, Chief of Public Affairs for the U.S. Army, visited Detroit last week, speaking at a meeting at the Arab American and Chaldean Council (ACC) and later in an interview with The Arab American News on the current situation in Iraq.
|Brigadier General Anthony A. (Tony) Cucolo III, Chief of Public Affairs for the U.S. Army.|
Cucolo is responsible for all communications issues involving the United States Army, including the professional development of military and civilian public affairs personnel. He is charged with the formulation of communications and public affairs strategies, plans, and policies, and serves as the senior advisor to the Secretary of the Army and other senior Department of Defense leaders on communications matters relating to the Army. He reports directly to the Secretary of the Army and said that shows the importance the Army places on communications.
Cucolo is a graduate of the U.S. Marine Corps Amphibious Warfare School, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and the U.S. Army War College. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Military Academy and a master’s degree from the University of San Francisco. He’s been to Iraq five times.
“I can say that the fact that there are Arab Americans in the Army today has saved lives on all sides,” Cucolo said in answer to a question about the importance of their role. “There is no question about it.” Cucola said the Arab American soldiers and O9L translators (Army translators as opposed to contractors) have kept many units from making mistakes and that testimonies to that fact abound among command leaders on the ground in Iraq. Not only do they translate and interpret critical information, they also form relationships with community leaders in the villages and obtain needed information that would not be shared with someone who does not know the language or culture.
There is also a great focus on training here for those being redeployed. In the Mohave Desert and in Louisiana, training centers are operating that have been set up to replicate Iraqi villages and urban areas as closely as possible. In these centers, Arab Americans are role-playing the part of Iraqi mayors, villagers and tribal leaders to get American troops ready to work in that environment.
|Brigadier General Anthony A. (Tony) Cucolo III with Michigan based Army officials and Osama Siblani the publisher of The Arab American News at New Yassmeen Bakery in Dearborn.|
In a clear recruitment attempt, Cucola also said “the Army has always been a place of opportunity.” He said it is an institution built on quality and meritocracy and that everybody who joins buys into that. He said that loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor and integrity mark the members of the service. He said he joined the army 28 years ago for the adventure, the risk and because he truly believed in serving. But he stayed in the service because of the people there who display all those characteristics. “It is a group of incredibly diverse people all with the same values,” he said.
When questioned about how and why the notorious Abu Ghraib and Haditha and similar incidents have happened, Cucola said the soldiers who committed those atrocities “are bad soldiers.” He said 800,000 troops have cycled into and out of Iraq, but when a few do bad things, all the soldiers get painted with the same brush. “I can’t tell you how closely the commanders on the ground watch for events like this … when I hear things like this it rips my heart out, this is not my army.” He said that after the Haditha incident, which involved Marines, commanding officers from the top down went to those below them and reinforced the international laws of treatment of civilians and other laws of war. And he acknowledged that learning and respecting the culture of Iraqis would help to prevent such incidents in the future.
Cucola was asked if the United States was being hypocritical when most of its citizens are against the war in Iraq but the president of the country insists on carrying out the war anyway, in the name of instilling democracy in the country. He said: “The dialogue we’ve seen in this country (over the war), I take pride in it, it’s the reason I’m in uniform, so that people can express themselves, can get their points made, can tell Congress what they think … we have a discussion of accountability, I take great pride in that.”
And what about the soldiers who are coming out in opposition to the war? “There’s a standing directive from the chief of staff of the army that no one, no commander, will inhibit or stop a soldier from talking to the media or to members of Congress.” The general said that soldiers had the right to express their opinion and that many of them are tired and stressed. “People were asking me, are those guys in trouble? We do have standards … about things you can’t do. But expressing your opinion professionally and in a civil manner, that’s fine.”
|Brigadier General Anthony A. (Tony) Cucolo III with Dr. Haifa Fakhouri president and CEO of the Arab American and Chaldean Council|
A soldier accompanying Cucola added that statistics taken of recently returned units showed reenlistment rates of 150%. “Those are soldiers directly in the fight, they do that because of the training they’ve received and their sense of duty. Soldiers that are in the fight are re-enlisted in record numbers,” he said.
According to Cucola, there is a great chance for success in Iraq. ” They have a professional, educated population, magnificent resources, a great land, there’s so much potential there,” he said. “Americans, no matter what the deal, no matter what they do in their walk of life, the hallmark of Americans is that they want to win. The army sees great potential for success in Iraq, we believe strongly that we’ll be successful. You’ve heard from Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus what they think it’s going to take to be successful. This is not the first military operation that we’ve undertaken, we try to give time and set the conditions for a civilian government to establish themselves and govern. Certainly, in my opinion, this has been the most complex, but I think there’s a great chance for success.”
Questioned about the care returning soldiers are receiving, Cucola said that “the signature injuries of this war are traumatic brain injuries and Post Tramatic Stress Disorder.” He said that the country had not done a good job so far taking care of their soldiers but that is improving. He said that they are reducing the stigma associated with PTSD. ACC President Haifa Fakhouri offered the organization’s mental health services to returning soldiers who need mental health counseling.
In an interview with The Arab American News following the meeting, Cucola said the greatest obstacle the Army faces in its recruitment efforts is the war itself. “This is the first time since the Revolutionary War that an all-volunteer army has been involved in a protracted war,” he said. “The other wars were draft wars. So that’s a challenge, you have to volunteer to put yourself in harm’s way.” Another difficulty is that the parents and relatives who generally support service in the war may not support service in this war on political grounds. The economy is doing pretty well, the general said, so there are a lot of options for what to do with your life. Cucola also said that only three out of 10 people in the 17-25 year old category are qualified to serve due to a variety of health and/or social conditions.
When asked about Arab Americans in particular and their response to recruitment efforts, Cucola said: “We are all fighting stereotypes and perceptions. We have got to overcome the pre-judging, both Arab Americans pre-judging service in the war and non-Arab Americans pre-judging Arab Americans.
“I would tell young Arab Americans to consider joining. The military service is a place where it does not matter where you’re from, you can get to the top. Secondly, if you enjoy the freedoms you have right now, then why not defend them? Why not make a statement with your life, no matter how short a time, to defend it with your life?”
Cucola said the perception must be set aside that when an Arab American joins the army he or she will not be treated fairly. “The reality of the units I have served with is that the leaders have taken ownership of the environment and discrimination did not occur. Does it occur at times? I’ll bet it does.” But he said that some brave Arab Americans have to step up to the plate and pave the way for those coming behind them.
The general said that there is an institutionalized diversity training program in the army but no institutional effort that is Muslim-specific, other than what is being done for all deploying soldiers.
How does Cucola see his role in Iraq? “I am there to give the people of Iraq, through their elected government, a chance to build a better life than they had. So I do not have a belligerant state or a safe haven for extremists that lies between Iran and Syria and Jordan.”
When challenged by a reporter on the fact that there were no terrorists in Iraq until the U.S. invaded, Cucola said going in was not his call. “I do not get to pick where I go, we’re ordered and we go.”
As far as any positive stories going on in Iraq that we’re not hearing about, Cucola said there are many.
“Some of the success is the story of reconstruction — of schools, clinics, water treatment plants, the oil industry updating valves and infrastructure. It is incredibly impressive and you don’t hear much about it — the local leaders turning their backs on the extremists. We should tell you more about the successes of the Iraqi military. The commando units are on par with the region.
How does Cucola define success in Iraq?
“Success is a viable credible Iraqi government that can secure itself and protect its people.”