A helping hand

Local police officer volunteers to help change history in Iraq


Dwight Murphy compares his life in Iraq to the movie "Groundhog Day," where Bill Murray wakes up repeatedly to the same song and the same day.

Only the music that Murphy wakes up to isn't Sonny and Cher singing "I Got You Babe." It's the sound of car bombs going off, followed by small-arms fire. Night falls to the sounds of mortars and rockets.

The music has become familiar to Murphy, who jokes that someone has been in Iraq too long when they can tell the difference between a car bomb and a mortar.

He can.

Murphy has been in Iraq for seven months. He is expected to come back to Steamboat Springs in February.

"You don't get used to it," Murphy said. "It is just one of the things you try to live with and be as safe as you can."

Murphy has worked with Routt County and Steamboat Springs law enforcement since 1994 and has been in law enforcement for almost 25 years. When he left for Iraq, he was an officer for the Steamboat Springs Police Department and had been a project director for the Grand, Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team.

Working in Iraq

In the spring of 2003, Murphy volunteered to go to Iraq for a year to help train police officers with the private company, DynCorp International.

He recently was named deputy commander of support operations. He oversees the commanders within his region, covering internal affairs, information management, Iraqi ministry of interior logistics and staffing, community relations, the International Zone Police, Baghdad Chief of Police, Iraqi Highway Patrol, airport police, traffic police, major crimes, organized crimes and all of the police adviser programs.

He has 30 projects going at once, has traveled across Iraq and said there is no such thing as an average day.

Days off are rare, and Murphy starts working before 7 a.m. and usually works past 9 p.m.

His pet project is working with the International Zone Police. The International Zone is inside Baghdad and holds government offices. Murphy calls it Iraq's Washington, D.C., only with a wall around it.

Talking on his cell phone on the banks of the Tigris River on Thursday morning, Murphy said the International Zone Police, which has about 55 officers, are in the process of moving stations. The department is going from an old bakery to a more central location in the International Zone.

Murphy works with the station's captain, who interprets for him and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the station.

When the group arrived in Iraq, Murphy said it was hard to figure out where the members fit in and what role they should play in training the Iraqi police force.

"There was no blueprint, no page of instructions on what you were supposed to do. We are not only rebuilding police stations, we are building them from the ground up," he said.

Progress has been made, Murphy said, even though he admits for every two steps forward it seems like they take five steps back.

Murphy has been instrumental in two widely recognized cases. He discovered DVDs and CDs were flooding the black market. Most of the items were not copies, but were store bought. He mentored the police in investigating the case and discovered a truckload with $193,000 in goods.

The case ended with several arrest warrants and multiple arrests.

"I was so proud of the officers on how they conducted themselves on these raids and how they followed up on information and building the case," he said.

Murphy also has worked on the Ahmad Chalabi case. Information gathered on the case resulted in his arrest warrant. Chalabi, a former member of the U.S. appointed Governing Council, was accused of counterfeiting old Iraq money.

"I never figured I would be involved in a case of this caliber and that involved international figures," he said.

Murphy does work with the military operations on occasion, but the goal is to set up Iraq police stations. The military can be heavy handed sometimes, Murphy said, and his experience working with them fluctuates.

The transition from American control to Iraqi control continues to be shaky, Murphy said, and he noted he has asked military officers "aren't we supposed to be giving the country back?

"I truly believe we need to get the military out of the rebuilding process, but I also believe they continue to be necessary to assure that certain groups are curtailed," Murphy said.

He doesn't think the American culture should be forced upon the Iraqis.

Cultural differences

For Murphy it has been a cultural exchange. In attempt to build pride among the International Zone Police, he took photos of each of the officers to put on the wall. It was an idea he borrowed from the Steamboat Springs Police Department, but a concept the Iraqis had difficulty grasping.

And Murphy said he has gotten used to going into a police station and not expecting to get a laundry list of items discussed in 10 minutes.

"If I go into a station to visit about something then it is expected to be: arrive, greet everyone, talk for about 30 minutes, have tea, talk some more about nothing, then visit about one problem, not five or 10. Then talk some more, have some tea and then leave," he said.

His group did not realize the danger it would face in Iraq, when it first arrived, Murphy said.

"We drove around in soft-skinned vehicles -- Chevy Tahoes -- and did our work like we were back home," Murphy said.

It took the death of his co-workers for security precautions to step up. He talked about one of his friends, Bruce Tow of the Denver Police Department. Tow died when a sniper shot him while riding to the Baghdad Airport.

Now they ride in armored vehicles, travel in convoys with shooters on each side of the vehicles and follow the intelligence on what routes to take.

Car bombs have exploded in front of police stations where recruits waited outside to sign up, and mortars have been fired at the Iraqi police academy.

He has seen places where lives have been improved for the better and places that are like the Wild, Wild West.

"Sometimes I just want to pack up and come home," Murphy said. "I wonder why I am here and wonder why they don't just kill themselves and get it over with."

He predicts the violence will escalate as the U.S. presidential election draws near. He doesn't see American troops leaving the country anytime soon.

It will be another 10 years, Murphy said, before Iraqis can leave their doors open and have a complete handle on the country.

Living in Iraq has meant more than just adjusting to the car bombs and mortars. It has rained only three times since Murphy arrived in February. The temperatures can reach 120 degrees, and his skin and hair get so hot, he can barely stand it.

"It is like living in a fire. It is so hot, it takes your breath away," Murphy said.

When traveling in Black Hawk helicopters, Murphy said he can look out the window and see lush plant life and palm trees and then nothing but sand. The dust storms are killers, he said.

But it was not just the climate to which he had to adapt. At first he thought Iraqis were angry at him when they were talking, but he later came to realize the Iraqis just used different expressions than those Americans use.

He knows a little of the Iraqi language and can deduce meaning from facial expressions and motions.

Most of his younger police officers know English, Murphy said, but it takes time before they trust him enough to use it.

Murphy was surprised by the friendliness of the people and their closeness. He has not become comfortable with the Iraqi custom of men holding hands.

He recalls a time when he went with a delegation of Iraqi intelligence and major crime police officials to Jordan.

For one man, it was his first time outside of Iraq and his first trip to Jordan. As they walked through Roman ruins, the man insisted on holding Murphy's hand because he was so happy to be there.

The people bring things back to earth, Murphy said, and remind him of the importance of relationships.

"It is a simple, but difficult life here," he said.

Of course, Murphy said he misses his wife, his son and daughter-in-law, his daughter and her boyfriend. He misses his co-workers at the Steamboat Police Department, the congregation at Anchor Way Baptist Church, the cool crisp Colorado air and having breakfast in town on a Saturday morning.

Despite the danger, the absence of his family and the dry, hot days, Murphy does not regret his decision to come to Iraq. If he didn't have obligations, Murphy said, he would have worked for free.

"I would do this in a second," he wrote in an e-mail. "I would come back to ensure that I could be a part of the historical process. I know that there were certain parts that would not have been a success without me, and this is something that has changed my life forever."

He looks at the average salary an Iraqi officer makes -- $250 a month -- and it makes him sick to compare his life with the lives of the families he has met in Iraq.

Still, he said, they are proud and happy people.

"Bottom line is that it's a misconception that we did the wrong thing by coming here," Murphy said. "We need to give them the support we would and have given many nations in the past. There are no politics involved, this is the right thing to do."


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