William Bickel and David Lemanski filed onto a crammed airport shuttle sometime before 4 a.m. After many hours in-flight together, the Baltimore County State’s Attorney duo gazed out the bus window to see this strange new world, but their eyelids were as heavy as wet sacks of sand and the gloomy early morning sky left them a little disoriented.
“I had no idea where anything was,” says Bickel, who’s only reminder from his life half-a-globe-away, other than his friend and travel companion, was the distinct smell that reminded him of Haiti. “It’s a cool feeling, like ‘Where the hell are you?’”
Lt. Col Sam Riley poses proudly in front of the unfinished Victory Over America Palace that Saddam Hussein started building after the first Gulf War. [photo courtesy of Sam Riley]
At daybreak, Bickel and Lemanski, like many of the new arrivals, reassembled to tour their surroundings. It looked like any U.S. city waking up from its nightly slumber.
Men and women prepared for the start of the work day. The sidewalks, paved roads and fast-food chains resembled any stretch of York Road. And the rows of LSAs mimicked the strings of townhouses found in Baltimore. But though the environment seemed familiar to Bickel, Lemanski, and the rest of the Maryland National Guard members sent in the 2007 surge on Baghdad, they knew they were far from home.
Suicide bombers and sectarian fighting crippled the Multi-National Coalition in Iraq (MNCI) presence in and around Baghdad. The 20,000 deployed American soldiers aimed to restore order.
“I was looking forward to it,” recounts Maj. Bickel, a Judge Advocate General (JAG) for the state Guard since 2001. “I thought it was a good opportunity to test your skills, to put that training to use.”
Rumors of the Guard’s scheduled 2009 deployment being pushed up circulated for some time, but in March 2007 it was confirmed. They mobilized for active duty in a month; in June, they deployed for a 10-month tour in Baghdad.
Lt. Col. Sam Riley, a solo-practitioner in Towson that handles civil litigation, and Maj. Charles Blomquist, a Baltimore City State’s Attorney that currently co-chairs MSBA’s Special Committee on Military Law, prepared to mobilize with Capt. Lemanski, Bickel and the rest of the Maryland Guard members. Their military-rendered survival and defense skills were a necessity while abroad, but the legal prowess of these four attorneys proved far more vital.
The surge disseminated from MNCI’s headquarters, the Victory Base Complex. Bordering the western edge of Baghdad-proper, the Complex wraps like a life-preserver around the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) and is the hub for American, British and Australian military personnel, as well as local Iraqi Nationals and American contractors. If the freedom-fighters were to succeed in the Iraq theater, their HQ would have to be as organized and secure as the hopeful-future they were promising the Iraqi people, a trickle-effect the Baltimore legal-quartet set out to ensure would flow like the Tigris and seep down to Iraq’s Mesopotamian bedrock.
Riley, an Artillery Battalion Commander back home, was assigned as Mayor of Camp Victory, MNCI’s commanding station at the Victory Base Complex. His leadership qualities and tenure in the armed services made him the top choice. Like many roles in his life, Riley wore the title with pride.
“We had the highest concentration of senior ranking personnel, including General [David] Petraeus living on camp,” says Riley. “So literally our biggest tenant was a four-star general. Our next biggest tenant was a three-star general and on down the line.”
10,000 other military personnel called Camp Victory home under Riley’s stewardship, including Bickel, Lemanski and Blomquist. It was the mayor’s job to coordinate and manage the Camp’s life-support functions. Issues ranging from infrastructure to construction to food services amassed on Riley’s desk daily, with force protection usually topping his inbox.
“When we arrived, there were a fair number of concrete barriers in place,” he continued, “but no where near the number that really were necessary to provide an adequate level of force protection.”
Some of the barrier’s 12 foot, gray interlocking t-walls had traveled with MNCI forces down Route Irish, the infamous two-lane highway that runs through Baghdad, to protect the city neighborhoods. Yet, for insurgents wandering the perilous strip of asphalt and looking to disrupt MNCI’s operations, the exposed Camp was simply too tempting. Through Riley’s efforts, $7.5 million went to force protection and nearly 10,000 barriers and bunkers were installed at Camp Victory.
He further secured his domain by bringing in 2,000 more LSAs to combat a housing issue that left some personnel sleeping on cots in the gym.
“In a lot of ways, I think being a lawyer was the single best preparation I could imagine for that job,” admits Riley. “As a matter of fact, my job was very similar to managing litigation in terms of keeping track of a lot of people, a lot of money and a lot of paper and managing it all true to completion.”
But just like he turns down the hall to his wife for legal counsel back home, the Lt. Col. relied on his legal colleagues in Iraq. His strongest crutch came in Maj. Blomquist, who worked in the Department of Public Works at Camp Victory and helped construct numerous roads, buildings and other engineering services.
“In Iraq,” said Blomquist who returned from his Afghanistan-service in early 2006, “my job was technical – reviewing contracts and ensuring project compliance – so obviously the legal background helped tremendously in drafting agreements and proposals.”
As for Bickel and Lemanski, they aided Riley in making sure his actions were on the legal up-and-up. “All procurement that occurred was not only absolutely above board in terms of the ethics of it,” Riley stated, “but [was] the best quality of product money could buy… because not all the product that folks want to sell you over there is top of the line.”
The decade-long working relationship and friendship between the Baltimore County State’s Attorneys lent heavily to their success as Judge Advocate Generals (JAG) for the entire Victory Base Complex. Financial operations for various entities like the Military Police and the Department of Public Works came through the JAG office, but this group was remembered mainly for fortifying Standard Operating Procedures for the entire Complex.
“Before we got there, they really didn’t have a good structure,” laments Bickel. “And [Col. Sean] Casey [the Garrison Commander of Victory Base Complex] was very adamant that he wanted us to leave there the road map, some legacy that could assist others in the future.”
With that, Bickel, Lemanski and their team “put pen to paper” and documented procedures that had been done but never recorded accurately. Issues ranged from internet service to land-use agreements. But it wasn’t all just recordation. Alcohol, which was forbidden for Americans stationed on the Complex, crept its way on base through various avenues. Three liquor stores operated on BIAP grounds, which was still Iraq territory, and soldiers would ride on to pick up spirits or play “Hey, Mister…” with some of the other soldiers on base that were allowed to drink. After threatening the liquor store owners and posting signs reminding Americans they cannot consume alcohol, the JAG officers ended up performing approximately 200 bar-from-posts.
“Being a prosecutor helped me more than anything,” says Lemanski. “We’re problem solvers – gotta think on your feet. I thought we got a lot accomplished. We helped not only the unit but the base as a whole.”
“It’s not like here,” exhales Bickel while the sunset cast a shadow over his satellite map of the Victory Base Complex, hanging on the wall of his Courthouse office. “Here, you have a wife, a child, responsibilities outside the office… There, ya know, you got nothing else to do. You couldn’t leave. You were always working. You just dealt with it. You just did.”
The hours wore on the soldiers. Riley recalls having a fresh pot of coffee brewed each hour for nights he worked till 2 or 3 a.m. Cigar smoke dissipated against the starry Iraq sky whenever Camp Victory residents gathered to wind down their work day.
Stimulants aside, many MNCI personnel, including Bickel and Lemanski, burned off the stress by running in the early morning when it wasn’t too hot. When they stepped out of their LSA, however, certain requirements had to be met. Civilian clothes were not allowed at the Complex. Instead, a military-issued polyester t-shirt had to be tucked in to the issued-mesh shorts. And the uniform was complemented with a fluorescent green or orange reflector-belt, which sometimes came back a little muted.
“The dirt in Iraq is very sticky,” Bickel recalls. “When it rains, any water contact with the dirt, it just turns to like almost concrete. It would just stick to anything. If you walked down the street after it rained, you’d be [several inches] taller. It would just stick to your shoes. It would stick to everything.”
This menace became an all-too-real acquaintance during their leisurely jogs. When a siren would squeal and an automated voice would repeat, “Incoming!” procedure dictated all personnel must take cover. Sometimes diving behind a bush was your only option.
Though rocket attacks were a threat at Camp Victory and the entire Victory Base Complex, more times than not, the siren was a false alarm. And even though that meant you were mummified in dirt after taking cover, no one was complaining about the warning.
“You didn’t know if [the siren] was going to be real or false,” says Bickel, “but you can’t really discriminate cause that’s when you get killed.”
His matter-of-fact attitude comes from the Marine Corp training he received before joining the County’s State’s Attorney Arson Division in 1998. Following his service in the Marines, Bickel joined the Maryland National Guard in September 2001. A flair for multi-tasking is practically a requirement within the ranks of the National Guard.
Riley, for example, spent two weeks sleeping in mud in northwestern Arkansas for his annual military training before flying back to take his law school exams.
“It certainly was a challenge,” the 1990 University of Maryland School of Law graduate says in an even-keel tone, “but it’s just one of those things you have to balance.”
To them its not a job, its their duty.
“[Bickel and I] are working to ensure citizens of Baltimore County are safe,” says Lemanski, “and [in Iraq] we were working to ensure citizens of America are safe. It’s the same thing but on a bigger scale.”
The scale returned to size when Lemanski, Bickel, Riley and Blomquist returned home in April 2008. Smiles and cheers from family, friends and co-workers greeted the Maryland National Guard. With their help, construction of a safer and stabilized Iraq was underway. Now, the citizen soldiers had to begin reconstructing their civilian lives.