Photo By David Robert This photo of Phil Chrystal was taken at the N&R office in March 2005 when he was home on leave from Iraq.

A Reno man is attracting worldwide attention as one of a group of veterans who talked about their experiences in Iraq to a U.S. magazine.Twenty-three-year-old Philip Chrystal had difficulty getting to Iraq, so much so that he had to transfer to a different guard unit to accomplish it. He returned in November 2005.

Last week, the Nation magazine carried a cover story on the experiences of 50 U.S. servicepeople in the war. Chrystal talked of his frustration at having political considerations override his on-the-ground assessments.

On one occasion, he and two Iraq police officers were searching a compound, escorted by a resident. He made a search that turned up nothing but a chat with the cooperative resident, who lived there with his wife and children. Chrystal concluded that the location was not a threat. He was confronted by a lieutenant who said, “What the hell were you doing?”

It seems that the resident had been named by a U.S. informant in some way and someone had neglected to tell Chrystal that the man was “one of the targets” of the raid.

“Apparently he’d been dimed out by somebody as being an insurgent,” Chrystal told the magazine. “For that mission, they’d only handed out the target sheets to officers, and officers aren’t there with the rest of the troops.”

In spite of the on-scene assessment, the man was arrested, a scenario reminiscent of problems during the Vietnam war, when informants would name Vietnamese as communists to U.S. forces who had little means of assessing the reliability of the information.

Another GI interviewed by the Nation, Larry Cannon of Salt Lake City, had similar experiences. He said searches of a hundred homes in Tikrit—or of several cities where he served—were pointless. “We would go on one raid of a house, and that guy would say, ‘No, it’s not me, but I know where that guy is.’ And … he’d take us to the next house where this target was supposedly at, and then that guy’s like, ‘No, it’s not me. I know where he is, though.’ And we’d drive around all night and go from raid to raid to raid.”

Jesus Bocanegra of Weslaco, Texas, told the Nation, “People would make jokes about it, even before we’d go into a raid, like, Oh fucking we’re gonna get the wrong house,” he said. “'Cause it would always happen. We always got the wrong house.”

Chrystal, who served in Kirkuk and Hawija, said there was another joke on these raids: “This is, you know, Thirty-One Lima. Yeah, I found the weapons of mass destruction in here.”

One raid in particular upset Chrystal.

“And we were approaching this one house,” he said. “In this farming area, they’re, like, built up into little courtyards. So they have, like, the main house, common area. They have, like, a kitchen, and then they have a storage shed-type deal. And we’re approaching, and they had a family dog. And it was barking ferociously, ‘cause it’s doing its job. And my squad leader, just out of nowhere, just shoots it. And he didn’t—motherfucker—he shot it, and it went in the jaw and exited out. So I see this dog—I’m a huge animal-lover, I love animals—and this dog has, like, these eyes on it and he’s running around spraying blood all over the place. And like, you know, What the hell is going on? The family is sitting right there, with three little children and a mom and a dad, horrified. And I’m at a loss for words. And so, I yell at him. I’m, like, What the fuck are you doing? And so the dog’s yelping. It’s crying out without a jaw. And I’m looking at the family, and they’re just, you know, dead scared. And so I told them, I was like, Fucking shoot it, you know? At least kill it, because that can’t be fixed. …

“And—I actually get tears from just saying this right now, but—and I had tears then, too—and I’m looking at the kids, and they are so scared. So I got the interpreter over with me and, you know, I get my wallet out, and I gave them 20 bucks, because that’s what I had. And, you know, I had him give it to them and told them that I’m so sorry that asshole did that.”

Military intelligence?
The bad information on which the raids were sometimes conducted is also reminiscent of Vietnam, where U.S. soldiers complained of being unable to tell friend from foe.

“I can’t really fault military intelligence,” Garett Reppenhagen of Manitou Springs, Colo., told the Nation. He served in Baquba. “It was always a guessing game. We’re in a country where we don’t speak the language. We’re light on interpreters. It’s just impossible to really get anything. All you’re going off is a pattern of what’s happened before and hoping that the pattern doesn’t change.”

In a statement to the Nation, a U.S. military press officer in Baghdad wrote, “As a matter of operational security, we don’t discuss specific tactics, techniques or procedures (TTPs) used to identify and engage hostile forces. Our service members are trained to protect themselves at all times. We are facing a thinking enemy who learns and adjusts to our operations. Consequently, we adapt our TTPs to ensure maximum combat effectiveness and safety of our troops. Hostile forces hide among the civilian populace and attack civilians and coalition forces. Coalition forces take great care to protect and minimize risks to civilians in this complex combat environment, and we investigate cases where our actions may have resulted in the injury of innocents. … We hold our soldiers and marines to a high standard and we investigate reported improper use of force in Iraq.”

In the article, Chrystal’s recollections were some of the milder experiences. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote of the article’s “disturbing detail about the brutal treatment of Iraqi civilians by some U.S. soldiers and marines.”

In a column headlined, “Give GIs support, not accusations,” Chicago Sun Times columnist Steve Huntley faulted the GIs for speaking up. Huntley also sought to link the Nation article to recent “Baghdad Diarist” reports in the competing New Republic magazine whose authenticity are under challenge.

The Nation carried a sidebar on the methodology used in producing its article. It said it verified military service by obtaining a copy of each interviewee’s DD 214, a form given to each servicemember separated from active duty, or a Certificate of Release of Discharge from Active Duty and confirmed their service with the military. Specialist Chrystal served with the Third Battalion, 116th Cavalry Brigade.

The testimony of Chrystal and his fellow GIs has been picked up and posted on hundreds of Web sites around the world, from Military Families Speak Out to Al-Jazeera to the Montreal Gazette.

Chrystal’s name, when linked to Iraq, produces 1,350 hits on Google.

Paradoxically, given the visibility he now has, he had difficulty getting to Iraq. He was originally working in a Reno guard unit doing anti-drug education activities, speaking in schools and to community groups. It troubled the young soldier that many of his fellow guard members had gone to Iraq while he did not.

“I kind of felt embarrassed because I was wearing the uniform every day, and I hadn’t gone over yet, while everyone else had gone over at least once,” he told the RN&R in 2005. “I just didn’t like that. I kind of felt embarrassed, so I pursued it.”

Servicepeople and their family members have complained about misrepresentations and tricks used to get enlistments to keep the troop force in Iraq, but here was a soldier who couldn’t seem to get there. So he transferred to a different state guard that would send him over.

“I was in the Nevada Guard here. I was with the armor unit, and they were getting ready to mobilize to Fort Irwin for a year to train people that were going over. And I’d been trying to go overseas for about a year, so I hooked up with the Oregon Guard in May … and then we got mobilized in June.”

Chrystal’s parents, Mary King and William Chrystal of Reno, have been steadfastly supportive of their son.

Phil Chrystal received an angry reaction from the Oregon guard after the Nation article appeared, according to his father, who retired Sunday as pastor of Reno’s First Congregational Church after 16 years. There has been no negative reaction so far from the Nevada unit.

The elder Chrystal, a former military chaplain, posted a message on the Web site of Military Families Speak Out: “Specialist Philip Chrystal is a fine American—he volunteered to serve in Iraq not because he thinks that this war is just or can be won but because he was in the National Guard and believes it is a soldier’s duty to serve. He’s holding up his end of the Social Compact. The nation, on the other hand, according to our Social Compact, must only send young Americans to war when there is absolutely, positively no other alternative—a standard that certainly was never even remotely met before the invasion of Iraq began.”

At his first visit to First Congregational when he returned home for good in November 2005, Phil Chrystal told his fellow congregants—many of whom had known him since he was seven—that the packages they sent over to the servicepeople were very much appreciated. “They really are, and so are the prayers you have said for us. They meant so much. The last time I was blown up, I could feel the power of prayer.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...