Plato High School teacher builds trust while deployed to Iraq
By: Michelle Queiser, Missouri National Guard
Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 1:53 pm
SALAH AD DIN PROVINCE, Iraq (Feb. 19, 2009) – Among of the most encouraging and visible aspects of soldiers’ performance on deployment are the relationships and trust they form while working daily with the Iraqi police and populace.
Courses throughout the pre-mobilization training and deployment of the 1175th Military Police Company, a unit of the Missouri National Guard, reinforced that the soldiers should learn the Arabic language and Iraqi culture to encourage that trust and respect.
One soldier, Staff Sgt. Justin Copley of Plato, had a dedication to learning the language and culture that had a profound impact throughout the Ishaki district. Over the course of his deployment, Copley earned ‘rock star status’ amongst the Iraqi police and his fellow soldiers, said 2nd Lt. James Tucker.
“‘When Justin?’ is the common greeting when I arrive at Iraqi police stations throughout this rural district,” said Tucker, Copley’s platoon leader. “Almost every Iraqi policeman asks it within five minutes of beginning a conversation. A tug on my arm will garner my attention to ask the question if I am not paying attention.”
‘When’ is the Arabic way of asking “where is.”
Copley, a Plato High School teacher, is a team leader and a soldier so admired and loved by the Iraqi policemen that he has been adopted into the local Iraqi tribe and given the name Hussein al-Mujamai.
In May, Copley’s squad was assigned to help manage the Ishaki district’s headquarters and four police stations. As a part of his duties, Copley took care of payday operations, filling out trip tickets, and collecting intelligence. Interacting and communicating with the Iraqi police was vital to completing his mission, but within the first days and weeks this proved to be a difficult task.
“The company was starved for interpreters,” said Tucker. “Without many bilingual Iraqi police, communication was impossible, but Staff Sgt. Copley capitalized on the opportunity.”
Copley spent hours with the Iraqi policemen in the district learning the most mundane phrases by pointing at objects from the entries or rooftops of the police stations. Each visit produced a few new words or phrases.
“Initially my learning consisted of some serious games of charades,” said Copley. “It eventually progressed into studying words out of an Arabic-English dictionary, memorizing flash cards, watching Arabic movies with subtitles and listening to conversations between what interpreters we had and the Iraqi police. More effective than any of these was that I forced myself into situations where I had no other option but to try to understand what a person or group was trying to say.”
Copley spent night after night with the interpreters practicing Arabic as they puffed on their hookah pipes. His personality and dictionaries became the flashpoint of conversations and source of excitement for the Iraqi police during visits.
Phrase by phrase, Copley became more fluent and proficient as the deployment proceeded. High-ranking officers began to notice his accomplishments, giving him fame throughout the chain of command, and more importantly Copley began to earn the respect of the Iraqi police and citizens.
“This respect transformed into confidence, trust and friendship,” said Tucker. “In turn these relationships have helped save the lives of our Soldiers. One remarkable event comes to my mind.”
On a scorching hot July afternoon, the squad visited a police station in a rural area known for its trafficking of weapons and terrorists on back roads. For days, the squad had planned to perform a joint patrol with the Iraqi police through a nearby village. Prior to announcing their intentions for the patrol, numerous Iraqi police approached Copley and told him, ‘Do not drive on the road today’ and ‘It is not safe to be out today.’ The squad canceled the patrol. The next day it was reported that a hole had been located where a roadside bomb had been laid and removed overnight.
“There is no question in my mind that danger was averted that afternoon and is directly attributed to Staff Sgt. Copley,” said Tucker.
For Copley, incidents like this one are simply a part of being a soldier. Some of his most rewarding experiences are those beyond the unit’s stated mission - experiences including helping eight young teens and two adults build a secondary school next to one of the police stations where his squad was based.
“With my gear on and the outrageous heat, it was hands-down the hardest that I’ve worked since arriving in Iraq,” said Copley. “I had a member of my team take a group picture that first day. As we pulled up to the station the next day, I looked into a bunch of eyes that were genuinely excited to see us and gave each of them a simple piece of paper with the picture that read ‘Justin and Friends.’ I can’t describe the look that I witnessed on their faces at that moment.”
The impact of that indescribable moment truly hit Copley a week later while driving through the city with his squad as they passed a group walking along the street.
“As the first three vehicles passed them, I noticed a kid holding an object in the air,” said Copley. “As our vehicle passed, I looked over to the smiling kid and he was holding up that same picture that I gave him a week prior.”
The relationships Copley has forged go beyond pictures and words. They are in the faith of an Iraqi policeman who came to Copley for help finding his wounded brother-in-law, or a Iraqi police captain asking Copley to return to America and tell people about the Iraqi people.
“Incorporating his teaching experience and respect for the Iraqi culture and humanity, he has turned around an entire station and developed a new, tremendous respect for all Coalition Forces,” said Tucker. “All this while putting my attempts at Arabic to shame.”
Despite being away from his family and friends, Copley has no doubt that he’s exactly where he needs to be and is making a difference even on such a small scale.
“I have no doubt that we are winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, one individual at a time,” said Copley. “It’s not by forcing our system on them and it’s not by a lot of the common practices that may occur.”
Indeed, Copley said it is precisely the differences between him and his new friends that has made those relationships so strong.
“I am often reminded of the competitive spirit in American society: high school seniors don’t generally like freshmen, Army doesn’t like the Marine Corps, colleges rival other colleges, and Iraq may not like America,” Copley said. “But with that thought in mind there is good news. I was a senior who liked a freshman. I am an Army soldier who befriends a Marine. I have family and friends who attend different colleges everyday. And I have made some great friends who happen to be Iraqi.”
Copley’s success is just the tip of the iceberg to the accomplishments of his squad and unit.
“The things everybody has done are more noteworthy than anything I’ve accomplished,” said Copley. “They’ve done so many positive things for these people and this country and are a great representation of the military and America.”
After nine long and hard months, the unit has helped operate and validate the Ishaki Police District, assisted in hiring and training approximately 730 new Iraqi police, opened new police stations in Samarra and Hawijah, played a crucial role in stability operations in Mosul, and provided school supplies for over 800 Iraqi children.
The Iraqi District Directors of Police openly ask for the soldiers’ assistance and presence at major events, said company commander Capt. Mollie Keith.
“We have given and earned respect for the professionalism in which the soldiers conduct themselves,” said Keith. “We have fostered a relationship with the Iraqi police leadership who now seek out our experienced guidance in order to help them police what once was uncharted territory within cities that, just a year ago, were torn apart by violence.”
Education, teaching, and learning have been the core foundations for these successes and the enthusiasm of every soldier to learn a new language, a new culture, and a new way of life.
“It’s the willingness to step out of your comfort zone and build a positive relationship with one person at a time,” said Copley. “It doesn’t have to take a lot of energy, knowledge, or even knowing the native tongue. It takes a person to genuinely respect an individual.”
The 1175th Military Police Company returned from Iraq to its home station in the Missouri city of St. Clair earlier this month.