Stories of war |

Stories of war

Gregory Crofton

Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Oliver says he left the military after six years of service for the private sector because political pressure makes being a soldier an even tougher job.

In Iraq the scales are tipped. The country lives with a level of brutality that U.S. citizens cannot fathom. People sometimes kill whole families over a stolen watermelon. And Iraqis who sell PlayStations to American soldiers can end up beheaded.

Chris Oliver, 24, a graduate of Whittell High School, learned these things as a combat engineer in Mosul, Iraq, after Fallujah fell and acts of terrorism in the city peaked.

After four years in the Navy, Oliver enlisted in the Virginia National Guard to pay for college. But he was called to Iraq before his first semester was complete, arriving in Mosul in February 2004 and serving there until last month.

Oliver said he saw the worst of the war while he defused land mines and deployed explosives, but at the same time he found a country that welcomed the help of the United States and wants better for itself.

He wants better for it, too, which is why he is scheduled to be back in Iraq by July to work for two years as an armed security specialist for a U.S. company called Blackwater.

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The job pays well, $250,000 a year. It is also difficult to get. More than 200 people, all with military experience, applied for 32 positions, Oliver said. When shown a story on Monday about the recent kidnapping of an American contract worker in Iraq, he looked for the name of the contract company but it was not identified.

“I wouldn’t hire on to a company where I couldn’t (carry a gun),” said Oliver, his eyes steel blue, his lids low.

Oliver’s strong nerve is apparent in the matter-of-fact way he describes harrowing wartime experiences. Oliver said he was not scared serving in Iraq because he has experienced too many hard things in life to be scared.

His father, a missionary in the Marshall Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, died in 1995 of an infection after being cut by a native plant.

His mother was run over by a car and killed in 1997 while crossing Lake Tahoe Boulevard at Johnson Boulevard. The 16-year-old girl who ran over his mother was not charged with a crime, and he and his younger brother’s civil lawsuit against her family failed in court.

“I felt really used, so I sat back and asked ‘Who is somebody who nobody messes with?,'” Oliver said. “What came to mind were the Navy Seals. That’s why I joined the Navy.”

After training in San Diego, he was sent to work on an aircraft carrier in Norfolk, Va. Looking back he said his decision to join the military was an excellent one because it taught him to ground himself, think before he speaks and take responsibility for his actions regardless of the consequences.

Oliver learned some of those lessons in the tense classroom that is the streets of Iraq. There were many moments he won’t forget. Here are a few:

— When a terrorist packed plastic explosives into a bulletproof vest, filled his pockets with ball bearings, and detonated himself inside a mess hall. It happened at the base where Oliver was stationed. He was out on assignment when the attack occurred, but he knew two of the men who died in the explosion.

— Of the nearly 20 times Oliver almost lost his life in combat, the closest call came when the vehicle he was in charge of tripped a buried land mine. For some reason the device failed and didn’t detonate for a few seconds. The extra time allowed Oliver and three fellow soldiers to drive on and escape the brunt of the blast. The group suffered cuts from flying glass, but no casualties.

— Oliver’s job at one point was to secure an area outside of Mosul so that backhoes and shovels could unearth 10 graves that contained 175,000 people executed under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“Some were 8 or 10 years old,” Oliver said. “Women were pulled out clutching their babies. It was a wholly disgusting process … layers upon layers of bodies.”

Such sights do not seem to weigh too heavily on Oliver, but he has no desire to re-enlist. The Army, he said, is under so much political pressure to act conservatively with their weapons that soldiers have to contemplate jail time as a consequence for doing their jobs. That philosophy in turn has failed to show the Iraqi National Guard how to adequately secure their country, Oliver said.

“We’re setting a horrible example by turning the other cheek,” he said. “You can’t treat a guy who launched (a mortar) at a base like another soldier, another human being. He’s not a human being at that point. But we catch them and let them go.”

Oliver said the jails in Iraq are full, so only the most flagrant criminals or terrorists are imprisoned while many other violators are let go.

For now, political pressure is behind him and Oliver can breath a sigh of relief with the help of Tahoe’s snow. He has been at South Shore snowboarding and staying with friends since the beginning of the month. He’s due on the East Coast for training by the end of the month.

“He has a unique sense of duty to the country,” said Randy Farnes, 34, of South Lake Tahoe, at whose home Oliver is staying. “I really feel as though he doesn’t have a family to spend time with or protect like others of us do, so he’s taken it upon himself to protect what it is that we do have … dedicating himself to the military of this country.”

But Oliver doesn’t plan to be in the military after his two years as a security consultant. Then he will take money saved and pursue a doctorate in Middle East studies and maybe buy a house at Tahoe.

– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at