E-Mail from the Front

 

Lt. Adam Cote reports of life in Mosul, casualties, cause for hope

 

Adam Cote '95 is a first lieutenant with the 133rd Engineering Battalion of the Maine Army National Guard stationed in Iraq, where he has been since March 19, 2004.

In civilian life, Cote is an associate with Portland-based Pierce Atwood, Maine's largest law firm. His practice involves regulation of electric and telecommunication utilities, overseas energy sector restructuring, and reform and privatization issues.

Cote earned his B.A. with honors in international studies from Colby and went on to earn a J.D. cum laude in 2001 from the University of Maine School of Law, where he was articles editor of the Maine Law Review.

The 133rd Engineering Battalion is a large-scale construction unit working in northern Iraq, from Tikrit to the Turkish border. Cote and the 133rd started Adopt an Iraqi Village (adoptaniraqivillage.org), a voluntary, grass-roots project that provides building supplies and basic household materials for impoverished families in northern Iraq.

The following is an e-mail conversation Cote had with Colby in January.


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Lt. Adam Cote, left, with children of Hamzan Village in northern Iraq. Cote and his National Guard unit built a new school for the village.
Where were you when the base dining hall in Mosul was bombed?
I was in there when it happened"I'd just sat down to eat when the explosion went off, knocking me out of my chair. Thankfully I was unhurt. I was literally saved by the salad bar, which absorbed much of the blast coming in my direction.

It was a terrible experience as you can imagine. There were nearly 100 casualties. As you know, we lost two very good soldiers, and about a dozen in our battalion were also wounded.

If there was a good thing that can be pulled from that day, it was the tremendous effort of those who were there to help those that had been injured. I was proud to see so many from my platoon that were there to help. The immediate action of so many certainly prevented the death toll from being much higher than it was. And you've got to remember, this wasn't like a train wreck or a plane crash; it was a highly coordinated attack in a combat zone. So those of us who remained on the scene fully expected that a follow-up attack would be coming at any moment by way of mortars, rockets, whatever. That certainly added to the stress and sense of urgency and vulnerability. But the soldiers who were there stayed to help others despite this fact. That left me with a feeling that I could count on these people to do the same for me should the need ever arise"and that's important in a place like this.

I saw a lot of courage displayed that day. For example, I was working with a couple of others on a soldier who had shrapnel wounds to his abdomen and legs. After we treated him, we loaded him on a stretcher and four of us lifted the stretcher to walk the wounded soldier to the medical-aid truck for evacuation to a field hospital. I noticed one of the soldiers carrying the stretcher with me kept coming close to dropping his end. I was about ready to say something to him about this, but then I realized the reason"he had a severe wound to his leg. Yet all this time he had been with us treating another soldier and never once mentioned he had also been wounded. Since then, I've found myself thinking a lot about his sense of duty and selfless service. There were a lot of people there that day doing similar things and that really has had a profound effect on me.

Is it difficult to tell friend from foe there?
It's funny you asked that question because it is something I've thought a lot about. This really hit home to me last April. I had just spent several hours on the phone and Internet organizing donations and fund raisers for the Adopt an Iraqi Village program I'd started. I was really feeling great, thinking of all the wonderful things the program could do. That's when I returned to our company operations center to hear the radio traffic coming in that one of our convoys had been ambushed by insurgents in downtown Mosul and one of the soldiers in our battalion had been killed (SPC Chris Gelenau). My initial thoughts were filled with anger and frustration at this whole place and I seriously thought about canceling the whole program. But after thinking it over, I knew in my heart that for every insurgent out there, there are far more wonderful people in Iraq, many of whom live in extreme poverty and want the same things that we do as Americans: schools for their children, jobs, running water and electricity, and most importantly, to live in peace.

What impact do you think you're having?
I think our battalion has made a very positive impact here. We are in charge of all engineer operations north of Tikrit, covering a very large area of Iraq. We have built schools, roads, and medical clinics and improved infrastructure throughout all of northern Iraq. More importantly, we have made a concerted effort to employ the local Iraqis in our missions and provided them with hands-on job training skills in engineering and reconstruction efforts. This is particularly important because of the high unemployment rate and lack of job skills in the area.

Of course, Iraq remains a very dangerous place. In my opinion, the chance for democracy to succeed here will turn on the ability of the Iraqis to learn to take ownership of their own futures. It's clear that we can't simply try to do everything for them. Just pumping money into this place will merely create further graft and corruption and encourage their dependency on the U.S. Rather, we must teach the Iraqis to do for themselves. They, in turn, have to begin to stop thinking for the moment and start planning for their future"to rebuild their infrastructure, improve their educational systems, and strengthen their military and governmental organizations. There's a fine line between helping the Iraqis steer their own boat and actually doing the rowing for them.

How do your legal and academic backgrounds apply?
I was an international studies major at Colby and spent a semester in San Sebastian, Spain, where I studied the Basque separatist movement. At Pierce Atwood, I specialize in international energy law. I work primarily in Eastern Europe, assisting countries like Albania and Bosnia to adopt open processes [and] privatization and to create an environment with which to attract outside investors. Likewise, one of the bedrock principles in working in this arena is to help these governments help themselves"not to do the work for them. This is where the primary intersection of my legal skills and training translates to the work I'm now doing in Iraq.

When are you due home?
I should be home for good this spring. I'll return to a new daughter (our first), Anna Grace Cote, who was born November 10, 2004. My wife, Paulina, found out she was pregnant a few weeks before I left for Iraq. I can't wait to get home!!!