Miles from home

Published 11:55 pm Monday, November 10, 2008

New Covington County Probate Judge Ben Bowden will probably see his share of conflict in his new position in county government, but it’s not likely that conflict will approach the level he saw during a trip to Iraq this past summer.

Bowden, a local attorney who is with the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps, spoke to the Kiwanis Club Monday of his experiences in the Middle East.

“There’s a real complicated, complex, lethal war going on there right now,” Bowden said. “But things are really going well. You don’t read about it in the papers or see it on the TV news much anymore because there’s no bad news to report anymore. The Iraqis are starting to form a national identity and are excited about getting a country of their own.”

Bowden lived and worked in Balad Air Base, located about 62 miles north of Baghdad. He primarily served as an attorney, instructing new soldiers about the proper “rules of engagement” and other legal matters.

“In my opinion, the military is the most heavily regulated organization in the world,” Bowden said. “I spent a lot of time reminding the new arrivals about what you can and can’t shoot at, the proper protocol for combat, that sort of thing. Of course, all the soldiers know what the rules are, so I just educated them to try and do the right thing when they are out in combat.

“When you’re in the heat of battle, it’s too fast moving to call in an attorney to say what the proper rules are. So my job was a lot of education to help them try and make the right choices later on.”

Although Bowden was not involved in combat, he said that mortar rockets did regularly hit Balad. He explained that the base contained its own factory, which did nothing but produce concrete barriers called “T-walls,” which served to barricade the perimeter of the base from attacks. These walls weigh anywhere from four to 15 tons.

“The one thing about the insurgents was that they were not very good shots,” Bowden said. “They’d fire on us maybe once or twice, and then by that point we’d figure out where they were shooting from and take care of them. But we were getting shot at at least every other day, so those T-barriers really served us well.”

Bowden said the base had many of the modern amenities of home, including television, electricity and air conditioning — which he said was “the single most important piece of equipment we had.”

Bowden added that morale is high among the soldiers still serving in the Middle East. He said evidence of the country’s improvement is everywhere.

“The only thing that anyone was worried about morale wise was that we might not stay long enough to finish the job,” he said. “There is a lot to be optimistic about. Because the country is so rich with oil, they have the money to improve their infrastructure and build roads, schools and churches. A lot of countries are deciding to reopen their embassies in Baghdad, now that the violence has died down some.”

Bowden said that his time in Iraq offered him a newfound appreciation for the organization and intelligence that has gone into fighting the war.

“We know now where the terrorists are even before we’re attacked,” he said. “We are always very, very careful not to hurt the wrong people. We’re really made progress over there, although there are still a few bad areas of the country.

“Right now, it’s really just a few troublemakers who are making things rough for us. I think there must be a long-term military presence to keep additional violence from happening.”