American forever indebted to Iraqi friend
Bravery and a spare battery help save a life
By Kelly Gyenes
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Scott Erwin credits his brave Iraqi friend and a spare AA battery for his MP3 player for saving his life during an ambush in Baghdad, Iraq.
The extra battery was in an ID pouch that hung around his neck and over his heart.
"It just happened that the day that I was shot that I actually did have that extra battery still in my pouch, and so one of the bullets actually hit a battery, as if it was probably going for my heart," Erwin said.
The 22-year-old delayed his senior year at the University of Richmond to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. In his spare time, he launched a program to educate Iraqi university students about democracy.
Erwin experienced firsthand both the joy of the connections he made with Iraqis and the hardship of losing two new friends in the June 2 ambush, in which he also suffered four gunshot wounds to his arms and abdomen.
As he recovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, Erwin said, "I feel very lucky just to be here today."
Ambushed on the way to the Green Zone
It was June 2 when Erwin got into a Nissan SUV with two Iraqi policemen and an Iraqi translator to travel back to the Green Zone.
"We pull[ed] up to an intersection, I'd say around a third of the way back to the Green Zone and a car pulled out in front of us and blocked our way," Erwin said. "After that, another car pulled around that car and started opening up fire and it was AK-47 fire on fully automatic. I'm afraid that just the burst of fire caught both [Col.] Mohammed and his driver -- they were in the front seat."
Erwin and coalition officials requested that the last names of the Iraqis not be released to protect their families.
"It caught me pretty well ... I received four gunshot wounds, two in the left arm, one in the stomach and one in the right arm. The Iraqi translator, who I worked with on a regular basis, was sitting in the back right of the car ... He was able to kind of pull me down and pull me from the car, until I was actually pulled to the opposite side outside of the car, so the car itself was almost blocking myself and him from the fire.
"I was afraid perhaps that those who were firing the rounds would come around and finish us off," Erwin continued. "Luckily, the Iraqi police showed up right after that and were able to fire rounds as well to scare off those who ambushed us."
Iraqi police put him and the others into the back of a pickup truck and sped off to the Green Zone. Erwin recalled that on the way to the hospital he tried to talk to his close friend, Col. Mohammed.
"I realized he wasn't answering, and then the translator, who saved my life, I believe, said that he had passed away."
While in a state of shock, Erwin said he remembered feeling deep disappointment and sadness for the loss of Col. Mohammed's life, because he had a family -- a wife and two children.
He said he thought about how Col. Mohammed "would never get to see a prosperous Iraq, which he always talked about and he always dreamed about."
Erwin remembers being put on a stretcher and taken into the hospital and then he said he thinks he was put under for surgery.
The driver of the vehicle, also named Mohammed, was killed in the initial gunfire.
"As soon as we all heard that Scott was shot... Anyone that could leave immediately went to the office to go see him," said Lt. Col. Rich Diddams, chief of staff in the Coalition Provisional Authority's Ministry of Interior and one of Erwin's supervisors. "The Iraqis were all ... thinking of him like their own family."
"We used to hang out with those guys all the time," Johann Jones, who worked with Erwin, said of the driver and Col. Mohammed. "We had lunch with them, you know, and they were friends of ours."
"I must say that the one incident that has affected me and still affects me was when I saw my friend Scott in the hospital, bedridden, with bullets in his body," said former Ambassador Joseph Ghougassian, who served as an adviser in the authority's Ministry of Higher Education of Iraq. "I felt bad, because he did not deserve that. He came to help the Iraqis, to give the best that he had.
"Those who did it are cowards, faceless, they are very few," Ghougassian said.
Building democracy by building connections
Erwin gave up a very comfortable senior year on a very comfortable campus to go work for the coalition in Iraq, said Akiba Covitz, Erwin's adviser and professor at the University of Richmond. "Of course, Scott being Scott, he made much more out of it than it was."
Erwin went well beyond his job working for the Coalition Provisional Authority and created Ambassadors of Democracy, a program which empowered Iraqi college students to understand, learn about and then go teach other people about how democratic government works, Covitz said.
On June 2, Erwin went to Mustanseriya University to attend one of the last sessions of the Ambassadors of Democracy program before school was out for the summer. The students impressed him.
"I saw myself as a facilitator," Erwin said. "They knew specifically what freedom of speech was -- they could give you the textbook definition -- they had never had the opportunity to practice it."
Scott Erwin says he plans to continue his involvement in Ambassadors of Democracy from the United States.
"By the last few sessions ... I didn't even speak, because the Iraqis that I worked with had already taken over the program," said Erwin.
Diddams said that he found Erwin working late one night on spreadsheets for a class, explaining "how he had this initiative to teach some of the young Iraqis about the democratic process."
Erwin modeled Ambassadors of Democracy on a program he created back in school, called the Veterans Engaged in Teaching Service and Sacrifice, using the "train-the-trainer" concept, Diddams said.
The Mustanseriya University students were preparing to become teachers themselves to teach the basic tenets of democracy at centers throughout the city of Baghdad, Erwin explained.
"His purpose was to then teach them on how to do research on candidates so they can make the choice for themselves on helping to mold their own country," said Diddams.
"When he came to me and he proposed the idea, I immediately sensed that Scott was on the right track," Ghougassian said. "He was indeed promoting the mission for which we are here in Iraq -- and that is to promote and to bring democracy and to build democratic institutions in Iraq."
The bonds of friendship
Erwin said he lost two close friends in the attack. He said another good friend of his, the Iraqi translator, was shielded a bit from the fire, but was wounded.
Col. Mohammed worked in the Iraqi police department and also served as a contracts officer in the CPA's Ministry of Interior.
"Friendships are very intense over there," Erwin explained. "Those that I really came in contact with and became close with -- I had the feeling that ... they would protect me to the death. And in the case of Col. Mohammed and Mohammed, his driver, they did that."
Erwin said he has between six and 12 months of rehabilitation to try to overcome the nerve damage likely caused by the bullet diverted into his left arm by the battery. He is left-handed and is learning how to write, eat and do other things with his right hand.
While he is now an outpatient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he has said he is looking forward to returning to his hometown in Kansas City, Missouri, to rest and be with his family. He said he'll return to college in August to finish the classes he needs to graduate.
There is an investigation into who was responsible for the attack. Erwin said there have been a number of theories put forward, including him being a target for the success of the Ambassadors of Democracy program, the Iraqi police for their work, or Col. Mohammed for working closely with the coalition.
"When you're with an American and you're Iraqi, you're putting your life at risk," said Diddams.
Erwin believes that Col. Mohammed wouldn't have any regrets, because he was dedicated to seeing Iraq succeed and prosper.
"He was very brave and I'll miss him always," Erwin said.
However, Erwin said he feels indebted to his good friend, the Iraqi translator, who pulled him to safety from the back seat of the vehicle.
"It was his cool nature and calm head which instructed the Iraqi police to, you know, take me to the Green Zone, which was able to pull me out of the car and save me from further bullets. Believe me, four was plenty," Erwin said. "And for that I'll forever be in his debt."