My 23-year-old cousin, Benji, is serving as a Ugandan guard in Iraq.
Benji is a stick-thin ambitious young man with a passion to serve in the military. After his degree in business management, Benji announced his call to take up arms. His family was dismayed. This didn’t dismay Benji, however.
On several occasions Benji attempted to join the Uganda People’s Defence Forces and the Uganda Police. But whatever strength of conviction he had, whatever zeal, whatever academic qualifications, he was plans were always undone because he failed the physical endurance tests.
On a hot Saturday afternoon in May last year, Benji called his sister and his mother. He told them he was at Entebbe International Airport boarding a flight to Iraq. He confessed that for the past month he had secretly trained to serve as a private guard in Baghdad and had qualified. “Maama, see you when I see you, adieu!”
Benji is a tiny man with a big heart. He dreams of active service, fighting for peace and heroism. He’s not content with hearing about the exploits of the military. He wants to be there at the frontline in the midst of action. He says he has understood his place in the world and he needs to fulfill his destiny.
I think of Benji every morning at 5:00 a.m. when a gang of scraggly men and women jog past my house singing part-nonsensical, part-nostalgic, part-motivational war songs penned by Brig. Gen. Chefe Ali and the NRA. I think of Benji when I hear the instructors yelling at the hapless gang, calling them idiots and children and insulting their mothers. I think of Benji when I hear in the distance, the solitary shot of a trainee firing from an AK-47. I think of Benji when after a month, the guards are deemed ready for service, congratulated at a colorful ceremony in a dusty playground and shipped off to war.
Today I read this:
WASHINGTON (AP) — A commission investigating waste and fraud in wartime spending has found serious deficiencies in training and equipment for hundreds of Ugandan guards hired to protect U.S. military bases in Iraq, The Associated Press has learned.
The problems at Forward Operating Bases Delta and Hammer include a lack of vehicles used to properly protect the two posts, a shortage of weapons and night vision gear, and poorly trained guards. Both bases house several thousand U.S. military personnel.
Concerned the shortages leave the bases vulnerable, the Commission on Wartime Contracting alerted military officials in Iraq and at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.
“Incidents such as this are a concern in their own right, but they are a particular concern to the commission if they prove to be indicators of broader, systemic problems that impede the delivery of critical services to American military forces in a war zone,” said Bob Dickson, the commission’s executive director.
I think about Benji and I weep.