On ground level
Chico soldier has served on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan
Army Staff Sgt. Doug Ferguson was nearly killed by a roadside bomb in 2003 while patrolling the streets of Baghdad in a Humvee. He was a 19-year-old Chico High graduate, fresh out of basic training and on his first tour of duty in Iraq.
“He called us and told us, ‘I almost died today,’” his mother, Terry Ferguson, recalls. “It was about three weeks before Christmas, and we hadn’t decorated the tree yet. He said if they had detonated the roadside bomb two or three seconds sooner, he would have been killed. My husband and I were in shock—we never did decorate the tree that year.”
Ferguson has seen plenty of combat since, deploying twice each to Iraq and Afghanistan and once as part of the Haiti earthquake relief effort in 2010. Now 29, he hesitates to tell his parents about his experiences in the field.
“I don’t talk with my parents about the stuff I’ve done in the military too much at all,” he said from his station in Williamsburg, Va., during a recent phone interview. “It’s just too hard on the parents when their son goes away to combat. I’ve had a lot of close calls, and I don’t want to call or email my mom every time I almost get shot or blown up.”
As a military police officer tasked with training the Afghani and Iraqi police, he has been on the ground level of the American occupations in both countries. While he acknowledges the relationship between Afghani and American soldiers has been strained by a series of public-relations disasters—a videotape of U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghans, the alleged 12-soldier “kill team” that hunted Afghan civilians for sport, the burning of the Koran, and, most recently, the rogue U.S. solider who massacred 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children—he believes the attitudes of individual Afghanis toward the American occupation varies depending on geographic region.
In many cases, Ferguson and his 12-man squad have lived with police trainees on their own turf, in mountain villages based on a religious hierarchy. Often the viewpoint of the community’s religious leader dictates the attitude of an entire village toward the American forces, he said. Depending on where they are in the country, Ferguson and his men are met with open arms or with open hostility.
“They could welcome you and try to learn as much as they can and go kill some Taliban,” he said. “Or you might go there and they don’t want to learn anything from you. They really don’t care because they know after you train them for a month or two, you’re going to leave and the Taliban are going to come back.”
Though he does not condone the hideous actions mentioned above, he said he does think that soldiers look for a form of release following the intense stress of combat.
“A lot of people get caught up in the moment,” he said. “You’re with a bunch of your buddies, you just made it through a firefight and you won, you have a bunch of adrenaline pumping through your veins. I’m not saying what they did was right—hatred and getting even aren’t going to accomplish anything.
“Obviously, something like that is not going to help our image,” he continued. “Hopefully, everyone is aware that we’re there trying to rebuild and drive the insurgency out by gaining the people’s support. But things like that aren’t going to help.”
Ferguson also recognizes why Afghanis in police and military uniforms have so often turned their weapons on the American soldiers training and patrolling with them (47 such attacks since 2007, according to website TomDispatch.com).
“You have to realize the reality of the situation,” he said. “You’re in someone else’s country. You have to flip it around. If we had an occupying force in America, how would you feel about that? I’m sure there are some people who would fight for what they believe in.”
Ferguson enlisted in the Army at 19, seeking change and life experience. He wanted to pursue a career with the California Highway Patrol, and joining the military seemed like a good way to get started.
“It was kind of sudden,” he said. “I felt that I needed to change my life, and the most drastic way to do that would be to join the military. I wanted to work with CHP, so I figured if I joined the military and got some experience as a military police officer that it would help me.”
Terry Ferguson remembers how she felt as her son went off to war for the first time.
“The first time he was deployed, they sent him to a hot spot,” she said. “A lot of soldiers were dying in the area. I had to take a long walk. I looked down and I saw a rock with a perfect little cross on it, and I picked it up and carried it in my purse ever since. It was like a message from God that everything was going to be OK.”
At the time, Ferguson did not suffer from homesickness. By his account, he was ready for war, and didn’t hesitate to go back when the opportunity arose. His first tour in Afghanistan came in 2006, and he returned from his second tour in February of this year. Despite reports of a deteriorating situation preceding the U.S. withdrawal scheduled for 2014, Ferguson has seen positive development in the country’s infrastructure.
“I’ve seen a lot of improvements with the police and the army there,” he said. “They’re a lot better equipped and trained. They’ve come a long way, and I think we’re on track. I don’t see any issues that would prevent [the withdrawal], barring anything extreme.”
For someone who has survived roadside bombs, countless firefights and the grueling Afghani countryside, the hardest part of his job has been the long stretches in between seeing his family and friends.
“It’s depressing coming home and everyone’s a little older because you haven’t been home in years,” he said. “It’s hard to catch up and then leave four or five days later. I’m going to visit my family more often.”