PRINCEVILLE — U.S. Army Sergeant David Denson, who has served two tours in Iraq, is on leave for a month to spend time with his four daughters in Hanalei.
As a soldier with the 1/27th Infantry, “Wolfhounds” of the 25th Infantry Division based on O‘ahu, Denson’s unit was based in Tikrit, a point in the infamous “triangle of death,” a region of southern Iraq that saw some of the fiercest post-invasion fighting — and was surprisingly quiet this time around.
Denson wanted to emphasize that the relative safety and security does not mean the soldiers can breathe that much easier — but they can appreciate that their sacrifices have amounted to something meaningful.
It was just last week, June 25, that a member of his own 25th Infantry in O‘ahu, was killed in Kunar Province, Afghanistan: Lt. Dimitri Del Castillo, a friend from Florida with whom he completed Ranger school.
“He was from a wealthy family, but he took a lot of pride in serving with the Rangers and for his country,” said Denson.
The best preparation for the year in Iraq, he said, was having already completed a 15-month tour in the Eastern Taji region during “the push” escalation in 2007. That was a time of great transition following the first national elections in Iraq since Saddam took power.
“Tikrit has calmed since my previous tour,” said Denson. “The big difference this time is that the security has gotten a lot better.”
In his first tour, Iraq was in chaos, with people unable to work or move about because the roads were closed. The violence now is limited to fewer high-profile attacks, with less inter-tribal scuffles or strikes against Americans.
The U.S. mission has also changed from combat operations to that of an advise-and-assist role. He said this has meant taking a standby role to support the improved Iraqi police and military, or to escort civilian support workers.
In his previous tour, Denson said the Americans held prisoners for an Iraqi police force that was riddled with problems. They also lacked a court system to try prisoners. This has all changed today, he said.
“In a matter of two years they are going from not having anything to actually having a working judiciary,” he added.
Denson said the Iraqi police now accompany his patrols with the technology to conduct investigations, from gathering prints and DNA evidence to CSI and other laboratory work that did not exist a few years ago.
“The police have stood up real well, and they now have a working court system,” he said. “That is very impressive to put that together in just a few years.”
Denson said the Iraqi military has made a lot of gains in becoming stable and expanding training. He said there are now 300 flight students in a new Iraqi Air Force, and a thousand cadets in the Iraqi Officers Academy.
“That was not the case two years ago,” he said.
IED (improvised explosive device) attacks are at an all-time low, as are explosive form penetrators (EFP), an especially destructive molten metal device that penetrates armor.
The “IED highway” from Bosra to Turkey, once impassible with so many mines, is now busy with working Iraqi cars going about their business.
“There were still some attacks, but the scale and scope of them has been reduced,” he said. “The last time (in 1997) there were 300 attacks in one month — and now there are a lot less.”
From 2002 to 2009, he said the Iraqi agricultural and livestock economy as well as factories were shut down with transportation impossible. There is remarkable productivity there now, he said.
“People were out of work and begging,” said Denson. “The civilian population is back to business.”
The young population is fueling the recovery, and think of themselves as Iraqis first and their ethnic or religious affiliation second, he said, noting that women also have much more freedom to work and to get an education when compared to Afghanistan.
The difference now is a youth movement that wants a transition from the rule of politics as brute force for one’s own personal gain — to politics as the rule of law and the good of all Iraqis. He said the learning curve will take time but that a lot has happened in a short time.
“There is a marked increase in entrepreneurial ventures, from cell phones to newspapers and radio stations, and there is a lot of competition there,” he said.
Denson said that Iraq is no longer an isolated neighbor and that the increasing trade with the region is bustling. In the past, civilians would be caught between skirmishes and now they travel with concern but less fear.
“The roads are filled with people working and driving to pilgrimages,” he said. “The border areas are open and fluid, too. The Iranian border is incredibly busy during pilgrimage to see shrines in Iraq that had been closed for a generation because of Saddam.”
In addition to the U.S., the stabilization has attracted investment from Chinese, Russian, German and others to build agricultural, industrial and infrastructural projects, such as power and water treatment plants.
“I did not think they would be this far along at this time when I was there before,” he said. “We are definitely seeing a big payoff now.”
The infantryman still must go “outside the wire” to do the dangerous missions on the roads and in the hot spots. They train every morning for the scenarios they might encounter.
Denson is concerned for the increased exposure of the civilian workers. The people from U.S. AID and other relief and development organizations are now going out into the community on a daily basis to accomplish the goal of making Iraq an example for the region.
“I hope this ends up being a good democracy in the Middle East, as that was our plan all along,” he said.
“In my opinion, the biggest challenge to Iraq is not al-Qaida, as Iraq never really embraced their theology, as it was more rigid than they liked after 75 years of secular society,” he added. “They are going from a basic theocracy, a kingship under Saddam, with a country evenly split into three parts, Sunni, Shia and the Kurds.”
The openness and progress in Iraq may have had a part in the “Arab Spring” revolts in other corrupt regimes. Young people especially, he added, are using their social media, organizing skills and determination not to live the same persecuted, poverty-stricken lives of their parents under a dictatorship.
Denson compared the young Middle Eastern generation to the American youth of the 1960s.
“Freedom does not happen in a vacuum,” he said. “People travel in and out and one thing I do hear from foreigners in Iraq, is how wonderful it is to be in a democracy, where the local population has a say in what is going on — no matter what region.”
Americans and American soldiers want to do the right thing, he added, and that may mean re-evaluating some of the partnerships that have not been so productive. When the people choose their own form of government, even in the chaos of the Arab Spring, there may be a risk to this change, he said, but that we are better off to let it happen and hope for the best.
“A free democracy seems to always moderate itself,” he added.
Denson said his beliefs were founded from contact with the civilian population, who just want their children to get an education, clean water and a safe neighborhood — the same things that bond all human beings.
“Once this thing settles down, then human nature will take over,” he said.
Denson has lived in Kaua‘i for the past 25 years, coming from Oceanside, Calif., at age 15, to live in Anahola with his father, who was also in the military at the time. He was a tour guide for helicopter and kayak companies for many years.
That work went sour in 2006. There were 46 straight days of rain and he was effectively unemployed with property taxes and bills to pay.
Denson talked to his father, a Vietnam Veteran who retired as a First Sergeant, about joining the Army. He learned that the recruiting age was raised at a time when the Army was averaging nearly 100 casualties per month in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Denson, 40, joined the U.S. Army when he was 35 years old. He has served two tours in Iraq, reached the rank of sergeant and recently re-enlisted.
With his girls in the hands of their grandmother, Denson went off to basic training, infantrymen’s school, the Warriors leadership course, and then completed Rangers school. The next stop was 15 months in Iraq before coming back to Hawai‘i.
As an infantryman and a single father to three teen daughters with a deceased mother, Lei Mahuiki; Denson said he was awarded a hardship status and his orders remain with the 1/27th Infantry at Schofield Barracks on O‘ahu.
Denson’s eldest daughter, Kalei Mahuiki Denson, 16, is a junior at Kamehameha High School in O‘ahu. She is preparing herself to apply for West Point and hopes to become one of a few Native Hawaiian cadets.
His other daughters, Kapua Mahuiki, 14, Kamana, 12 and Kamaile, 10, attend school in Kaua‘i and live under the care of their grandmother Ann.