Building Iraqi GEOINT

NGA Deployment

Gregory M.
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
U.S. Department of Defense

Lt. Paul MacKenzie
Canadian Forces
Department Of National Defence
Government of Canada

Imaging Notes interviewed an NGA Staff Officer and a Canadian Army Lt. who voluntarily deployed to Iraq in support of the creation of their Imagery and Mapping Directorate. We asked about their mission, their use of imagery, and their deployment.

Imaging Notes: Please describe your mission and your role for this deployment.

Greg: I was a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) employee augmented as an Advisor to the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I). Our mission was building, equipping and training the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for the security and sustainment of Iraq. My role, along with the others on my team, was to provide support to MNSTC-I and to the Iraq Ministry of Defense (MoD) by supporting the Iraqi Imagery and Mapping Directorate (IMD). While living and working in the International, or “Green” Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, I saw first-hand the sacrifices that the men and women of our Armed Services are making to accomplish their missions.

Paul: I was on exchange with the U.S. Army 18th Airborne Corps for three years and deployed to Iraq with them. About half-way through my tour, an opportunity arose to assist Imagery and Mapping Directorate (IMD). I was the Geospatial Operations Officer for 18th Airborne Corps in the Engineer shop (C7) at the time. I saw the level of products they were producing and wanted to help reinforce their success. I visited IMD to see where they were and was very impressed at how far they had come in so little time. I immediately petitioned my supervisor to allow me to help out.

Imaging Notes: With whom did you work, and at what level?

Greg: I reported to my NGA Country Lead in Iraq and the MNSTC-I Leadership. On a daily basis I worked with all the United States and Coalition Military Services to the rank of Brigadier General, Senior Executive Service Level 1 (Brigadier General equivalent) and other government agencies’ civilian and contract employees. I also worked daily with Iraqi civilians and Iraqi Army soldiers and officers to the rank of Major General at IMD and the MoD.

Paul: I was embedded with an NGA team. My primary focus was consolidating the data and encouraging the networking of systems — the technical aspects.

Figure 1: This satellite image of Baghdad was taken by GeoEye-1 on Aug. 30, 2009, just a few months ago, and is courtesy of GeoEye. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is in the lower right of the image.

Imaging Notes: What was it like working directly with the Iraqis?

Greg: In a word, rewarding. Working directly with the Iraqis was quite honestly a pleasure. I found them to be diligent workers for the success of the Government of Iraq. They had passions for life, food and family. Business meetings generally began with drinking chai and catching up on family and life matters. It was an adjustment because, as Americans, when on the job we feel that we have to be productive every moment. With the Iraqis, first building the relationships and trust would lead to greater future success with the mission.

Paul: Working directly with the Iraqis was a very rewarding experience. They were very friendly and quickly warmed to you. Every day we would have some chai and get to know them a little bit more. There was great importance placed on learning and they had pride in their work.

Imaging Notes: What sort of training do the Iraqis get in geospatial matters?

Greg: Several of the Iraqis were in the former regime’s Military Survey section. At that time they were using aerial photographs collected by their aircraft to build topographic line maps, so those who had served in the former regime’s Military Survey section had a strong background in geospatial and photo interpretation. The others at IMD had varied educational backgrounds, such as Computer Science, Engineering and even Arabic language. These employees received training in vendor software packages, such as ESRI’s ArcInfo and BAE Systems’ SOCET Set, and GEOINT training that was provided by NGA.

In addition, with the assistance of the coalition, the Iraqis established the Intelligence and Military Service School, which was responsible for training the ISF with more in-depth tiered training in particular disciplines. NGA assisted with a “train the trainer” concept to develop and teach Advanced Geospatial and Imagery Analysis courses.

Paul: The U.S. Engineers and Intelligence Transition Team provided excellent training. Many of the senior staff of IMD were former army engineers who had survey and geospatial training. The 100th Engineer Company set up training in Belad from scratch to instruct the Iraqi Army as well.

Figure 2: This palace in Baghdad’s International Zone was reportedly built for Saddam Hussein’s daughter.

Imaging Notes: Do their ministries cooperate in using remotely sensed data?

Greg: Yes, the ministries were using commercial imagery acquired through NGA by IMD. IMD was the central repository for the imagery, and the other ministries, such as the Ministry for Water Resources and the Committee of the Census under the Ministry of Planning, were using the data for civil purposes. IMD supported both the military and the civil minist-ries; they were the GEOINT provider for Iraq. In addition, the Iraqis had organic airborne collection platforms that were being tasked by the Iraqi Army, Air Force and IMD, to name a few.

The Iraqis wanted to establish a GIS “Center.” We had this discussion only conceptually and only within the MoD, but the intent was to have a ministry responsible for housing all geospatial data. The focus would be to have a standard and updated dataset available to all users. IMD should be the owner of the dataset and be responsible for managing the data, with updates coming from all ministries, services and GIS professionals.

Paul: There was a lot of cooperation between the ministries, and IMD supported everyone they could. In fact, seeing the success of interagency cooperation as well as interoffice harmony was one of the reasons I wanted to help out. I knew there were Arabs and Kurds as well as Shias, Sunnis, and Christians all working together — women and men worked alongside. With a few exceptions, it was an average multicultural office you might expect to see in Toronto.

Figure 3: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is in the International Zone (Green Zone). Its restoration was unveiled in January 2006. The monument was originally built by Saddam Hussein’s regime. It is said to have been inspired by the glorification of a martyr from the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).

Imaging Notes: Do you think that you got proper training for your deployment?

Greg: Yes, NGA prepared me quite well for my deployment. Because this was such a unique role, I suggested additional training, such as working with an interpreter, and a cross-cultural communications course. The organization that I came from here at NGA allowed me to take several courses that prepared me for this role. We received GEOINT training on products and software, customer relations, first aid, weapons qualifications and driving skills.

However, the biggest preparation for all deployers is from a personal perspective — that is, to have a positive attitude and realistic expectations while being in a war zone. It’s very important to listen, observe and adapt when you first meet your counterparts, and use a phrase or greeting in Arabic.

Paul: My pre-deployment training was comprehensive, and included combat-focused training.

Imaging Notes: How often and for what purposes would you leave the Green Zone and travel into the Red Zone? What was that like?

Greg: We travelled daily around the Green Zone in an armored vehicle to an Iraqi Camp, the MoD, other FOBs (forward operating bases), and often to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. We were permitted to travel into the Red Zone only with a convoy, and I did so to travel to the Victory Base Compound near the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP).

When travelling in the Red Zone, we were required to wear our Kevlar (Helmets) and IBA (Individual Body Armor). It was interesting to see the beautiful architecture, the Mosques, and the Iraqis going about their daily business. We also traveled via helicopter to other locations flying relatively low so we gained a great perspective of the landscape.

Paul: My primary place of work was on Camp Victory located near BIAP. When I started to work with IMD, I would commute every Sunday morning through the Red Zone to work in the International Zone (Green Zone). At the end of the Iraqi work week on Thursday evening I would commute back to BIAP.

After the first few times it was like any other commute on the Rhino or MRAP. Truth be told, I’d rather drive through the Red Zone from BIAP to the Green Zone than have to suffer the Washington D.C. beltway.

Figure 4: This monument, called Crossed Swords, is a triumphal arch built to celebrate “victory” over Iran in 1988. It was made from the guns of dead Iraqi soldiers that were melted and recast as the 24-ton blades of the swords. This area of Baghdad, with the Crossed Swords and Tomb of the Unknown Solder, was a military exercise area where Saddam Hussein reviewed his troops.

Imaging Notes: How important is it that those who are deployed understand their culture?

Greg: It varies. In my role, it was more important than in other roles. However, the leadership and employees at IMD were very receptive to the advisors sent by NGA. The deployers who preceded and followed me were high caliber GEOINT professionals with years of experience. To IMD, the consistency that NGA provided in GEOINT professionals was very welcomed and more important than understanding their culture. I did, however, make every effort I could to learn from the Iraqis and participate in their customs to make the relationship and trust much stronger.

Paul: It is extremely important to understand a culture if you want to make any lasting change or to identify what needs changing. It’s easy to show up in any organization and offer advice on how things should be done. It’s much more challenging to understand why things were done. Trying to understand a culture is also a simple and effective way to show respect.

Imaging Notes: Which aspects of their culture did you most appreciate and enjoy?

Greg: I enjoyed starting business with chai or Arabic coffee and conversation about family and friends. At IMD the leadership had a good sense of humor. A joke or amusing anecdote was always welcome, especially when we were having a difficult or stressful week. I also enjoyed being called into one of the offices where a group would be gathered to share a dish that one of their family had prepared.

Paul: The food, personal warmth and the language! We had several opportunities to eat local food with IMD staff. I started to learn Arabic, as well.

Imaging Notes: What was the best thing about your deployment?

Greg: From a professional perspective,the best thing was supporting the war-fighter and our partners, and assisting in building the ISF. When I first arrived at MNSTC-I, the Army Colonel to whom I reported would tell us, “You’re making history.” I pondered that for awhile, and one day when a significant IMD initiative came to fruition, I believed it!

From a personal perspective and as a geographer, I was excited about learning the Iraqi and Arab culture. As I was told, an Arab tradition is providing a guest with more food than you could possibly eat. As I was preparing to leave Iraq, this honor was bestowed upon me, and as I looked out over a table filled with traditional Arab fare, I looked around at the faces in the room, and I felt truly honored to be in their company, in their country.

Paul: The best thing about my deployment was being able to work with this NGA team. We have NGA reps in Canada, but I’ve never worked with them before. Since I became the recipient of NGA support from Ft. Bragg to Baghdad, my respect for them has grown. I was lucky enough to be the first foreigner in a GST (geospatial support team). I really grew to admire NGA as an organization, seeing how focused they are on serving the people they consider partners.

Imaging Notes: What was the most challenging thing?

Greg: The living quarters and conditions of living on an FOB was challenging — not that they were bad, but the close proximity was challenging. I put it all in perspective, though, when I’d see the soldiers return to the base after a patrol. They were dirty and tired and would remove their Kevlar and IBA and catch a quick nap in the shade of their Humvee or MRAP (mine-resistant ambush-protected) vehicles. I really couldn’t (and didn’t) complain!

Paul: The most challenging thing was being away from my wife for 13 months. She’s the better part of me. Strangely, the next most challenging thing had to be going back home before things were complete. I tried unsuccessfully to stay in Iraq for an additional six months. It was with great sadness that I left my friends in the IMD. I fell into a bit of a slump after I came back.

Imaging Notes: Do you think that you are changed from this experience, and if so, how?

Greg: Of course. To be immersed in this culture where my only previous images were through the media brought to me a better understanding of the Iraqi’s daily struggles, their religion, family values and perseverance. To hear their perspective of how they felt the government was operating, something unheard of until recently, the harsh stories of the Saddam regime and how this war had affected them personally, all widened my perspective.

Paul: I grew from the experience by being one of a handful of Canadians. There were other Canadian officers there (general staff planners, squadron commanders, JAG advisors and a pilot with the Marines) but for the majority of the time we did not interact. So you have to grow and learn more about yourself.

Imaging Notes: Will you be deployed again, and if so, why?

Greg: Yes, I will re-deploy. I’d always been in the rear supporting the war-fighter and humanitarian operations at NGA. However, to be up front and really feel like I was making an immed-iate difference was very rewarding and personal for me. Hearing the service members and Iraqis say, “thank you for your support” made it all worthwhile for me!

Editor's Note

All photos are courtesy of Gregory M. of NGA. No sample product imagery was available due to the sensitive nature of the missions.

Paul:I will be deployed again. There’s no question about that, although next time it will probably be to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Canada has approximately one-third of its combat forces deployed there and we as GEOINT Analysts are always in high demand. As a soldier I’m looking forward to an opportunity to work alongside NGA and the U.S. Army again.


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