[October 19, 2019] It was a tough, brutally hot day back in August of 2006. I was to meet my new “counterpart” in the Iraqi Army. My task was to “Get to know him and see what his problems are.” What I didn’t expect was that one of the Iraqi Brigade engineers had been horribly disfigured by an IED explosion.
Colonel Abdul S. was a man who had done it all. He was from somewhere in Sadr City (within Baghdad), which made him a religious Shia, poor, and an outcast from Saddam’s military. Growing up he had plenty of trouble with the Ba’athist Party, which had been the only real political party in Iraq for more than 30 years. Abdul had joined their army as a private but had to endure years of mistreatment at the hands of officers.
Working your way up in the ranks of any military is challenging and requires a certain set of leadership traits that are difficult to learn and hone. Abdul got his first break late in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). He was leading a large group of men across a minefield to capture a railhead that had given his commanders trouble. Nearly everyone was killed, but Abdul survived and accomplished his mission. Many more successes would follow.
A fellow coalition partner from Australia told me that Abdul was the ugliest person he had ever seen. Ugly was a kind word. I will not attempt to describe Abdul’s face, but it is the kind that gives you an emotional shock when you first see him. I was taken aback, and I’m used to seeing the results of gross war injuries.
Colonel Abdul was, however, a proven leader of men. He was also highly respected because he could get the job done, no matter how dirty, difficult, or thorny the mission. Abdul projected authority like I’ve never experienced. Not surprisingly, he could put the most complex situation into understandable terms and convince anyone that they could tackle any problem with ease.
The dynamics of Abdul’s leadership was not based on his looks. It was based upon his skills and reputation. Everyone knew him. Everyone loved him. The connection he could establish was phenomenal, and to this day I cannot explain how such an outcast, ugly man could get so much done. Colonel Abdul was the kind of man you wanted to be around because you knew – in the deepest part of your soul – that you were on the winning team with him.