Murphy returns home

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The typical sounds -- or lack thereof -- of a Steamboat Springs night felt eerie for Dwight Murphy, a man now used to his sleeping hours being interrupted by the sounds of mortars, gunfire and rockets.

Wednesday was Murphy's first night home after spending a year in Iraq helping train Iraqi police officers through the private company DynCorp International.

For much of that time, Murphy lived in the supposedly secure International Zone. He was housed in a trailer behind the Republican Palace, home to the embassy and press corps. Its green dome made for a frequent and easy target for insurgents who fired mortars and rockets at the building incessantly.

Safely back in Steamboat, Murphy can mimic the sounds a mortar makes as it goes off, flies through the air and hits the ground. It was a familiar noise in Iraq, and after a year there, Steamboat's quiet is what seems strange.

When Murphy left for Iraq last February, it was his first trip out of the country. The Steamboat Springs Police Officer volunteered in 2003 to be among the civilian police officers to help train the Iraqis.

When he arrived Wednesday afternoon at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport, more than 30 people, many in their sheriff and police uniforms and waving American flags, met him.

Next month, Murphy, who has been with Routt County and Steamboat Springs law enforcement since 1994, will return to the police department as a patrolman. Until then, he will relax and plans to take a vacation to the Pocono mountains in Pennsylvania.

It is quite a shift from the past year's fast-paced work laced with kidnappings, bombings, international crime investigations and the building of a national police force.

Murphy worked 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week as a deputy commander of support operations. Within his region, he oversaw the commanders who covered 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 helped set up the model police station in Iraq.

Murphy said after his year was up, he got lucrative offers to stay in his position in Iraq or do other security and police work. But he made the commitment to Steamboat Springs City Public Safety Director J.D. Hays to come back after a year.

If he were ever to return, Murphy said, it would be to train Iraqi police officers in the somewhat safer Jordan.

His wife, Peggi, said the second time around, she would join him. It was not so much the danger that was the hardest part, Peggi said but knowing after he worked long days, there wasn't anyone to come home to.

"If he ever leaves the country again, I will go with him," she said. "It was sad -- him being alone, going through all that."

Although the American police officers are paid well, his work in Iraq was never about the money, Murphy said.

"It was a mission of faith," Peggi said. "It was about the right thing to do."

In the year that he worked in Iraq, Murphy saw his family twice. He was able to return to the United States in June to see his family, and in November, Peggi flew to Jordan to see him.

The first six months in Iraq were the hardest, Murphy said, as he and his company tried to figure out how to establish an effective Iraqi police force.

Murphy's year in Iraq encompassed some of the country's most monumental transformations. He was there this summer when control was transferred from the coalition to the Iraqi interim government. Recently, he saw the success of the first Iraqi elections. And, Murphy has seen his own personal success in establishing police stations and training officers.

But, it also came with hardships.

One of the hardest days for Murphy occurred in October when two suicide bombers targeted the Green Cafe and a market in the International Zone. The Green Cafe was a regular hangout for Murphy, who, at the time of the bombings, was on his way there.

He got waylaid by work, but others weren't so lucky. The bombing killed 13 people, including four people who worked for DynCorp and shopkeepers that Murphy knew.

"It was a common area that we frequented a lot. We built relationships (with the people there), they would tell you things. Several of them got killed. It was bad," Murphy said.

Working hand and hand with the Iraqis, Murphy came to appreciate the cultural differences, but it took some funny and uncomfortable situations first.

Murphy quickly learned not to give out too many compliments about Iraqis' clothes or other possessions, because they would insist on giving those possessions to him, he said. Rugs, clothes, rings, leather coats -- if he complimented it, Murphy said, the Iraqi would insist that he have it.

He was told, too, that the look on his face was priceless the first time he sat down to an Iraqi meal where men used just their fingers to eat a messy lamb dish.

At first, Murphy interpreted the men's emotional conversations as being filled with anger, but was told Iraqis are just more expressive than Americans. He adjusted to Iraqi men greeting him with murmured salutations and kisses on the cheeks.

Tall with dark hair and a mustache, Murphy said there were times he was taken as an Iraqi. When passing through military check points and handing over his identification, guards would ask him questions just to make sure he responded in an American accent.

The police system also was much different from what the United States has in place. The system involves separate police for traffic, the airport, railroads and major crimes.

One incident could require three sets of police to investigate, Murphy said. Baghdad has 104 police stations, he said. Iraqi judges also act as prosecutors and can give sentences just a day after a crime is committed.

Corruption is frequent in the police stations. Murphy said that at one point, they had trouble getting officers to work for them in the International Zone in an environment where bribes were not allowed. In Iraq, it is a common practice for the airport police to ask for money or take jewelry that passengers wear as they pass through security, Murphy said.

The Iraqis also have a strong sense and system of justice and rules within their own tribes and families. Working with the Iraqis was a balancing act of cultures, he said.

"We don't want to go in there and Americanize things," he said. "But, we showed them some of our values and try to instill some of that."

The day of the Iraqi elections, Murphy said, he advised American police officers to stay away from the polls, so there would not be an appearance of influence.

Although two people were killed in a rocket attack the night before the election, he was surprised by the lack of opposition on Election Day itself.

Four months earlier, he said, there had been 60 mortar and rocket hits in the area on a single day, and all seemed to be strategically planned. On the day of the election, that was not the case. The attacks seemed to be petering out and missing targets, he said.

"I thought, if this is all you have, you are finished. They have nothing," Murphy said.

He recalled a conversation he had with a group of police captains before he left the country. He asked the men how long they thought coalition forces should stay in the country. Some said they saw the coalition staying for six months, others said they wanted to see what occurs in the next few months, and others said never, for fear of other countries trying to take over the Iraqis.

Regardless, Murphy predicts the violence won't end any time soon.

"It is just going to take a long time," he said. "I think people expected things to happen a lot quicker than they did."

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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