View Full Version : Former Chico recruiter says he'll never forget toppling Saddam statue

06-15-03, 06:43 AM
Former Chico recruiter says he'll never forget toppling Saddam statue
By GREG WELTER - Staff Writer
When Marine Corps Sgt. Dave Sutherland decided to help pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad, he didn't think it would become a major news event.
Then I looked around and saw all the cameras and the huge crowd," Sutherland said. He remembers thinking "Oh no, everybody back home is going to see this."

The premonition that struck Sutherland, who once served as a recruiter in Chico and was here visiting friends on Friday, was right on target.

The event was hugely symbolic, and nearly became an international incident - primarily because tipping over the likeness of the Iraqi president was preceded by draping an American flag over its head.

Sutherland said Iraqis in Paradise Square that afternoon were screaming for the statue to come down. Still, permission to do it was sought from the ranking commander in the immediate vicinity, a lieutenant colonel named McCoy, with the 4th Marines.

When they got the go-ahead, Sutherland boosted Cpl. Eddie Chin, a member of his tank squad, up on his shoulders and handed him a flag that had been hanging on a Marine Corps vehicle.

As Chin draped it over Saddam's head, the moment was captured by reporters and photographers from virtually every news gathering organization in the world.

"It was a wonderful experience; the reaction from the crowd was total jubilation," Sutherland said. "Iraqis were putting flowers in the lapels of our flak jackets."

It was only later when it occurred to him that he and Chin, at that historic moment, were probably the biggest sniper targets on the face of the earth.

As it turned out, coalition forces had the square cordoned off and the area was pretty well secured.

"No one was allowed in there that appeared to pose a threat," Sutherland said.

The Marine sergeant is a nine-year veteran, but Operation Iraqi Freedom was his first combat action.

Sutherland said his tank squad was moving forward through a Baghdad neighborhood the morning of April 9 when a firefight broke out.

It was near the Palestine Hotel, a popular headquarters for foreign journalists, and Sutherland's unit was sent to provide security for the building.

When the threat was controlled, Sutherland found himself in the square at the foot of the statue, with thousands of Iraqis clamoring to celebrate the success of the skirmish that had just occurred. Everyone's first impulse was to take the statue down.

Sutherland said the Iraqi people overwhelmingly supported the coalition forces and just want the opportunity to rebuild the country and pursue normal lives.

"They have oil and a pretty good industrial base," he said. "I think their future is bright."

He said the foreign protesters and the human shields presented the biggest problems for coalition forces.

One of Sutherland's closest friends was killed by a man later identified as a Syrian National. "He was shot in the back," Sutherland said.

His unit's biggest loss occurred when a tank went off a bridge, killing four Marines.

Though no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and the fate of Hussein is still unknown, Sutherland said the war was totally justified.

"We were there to free the Iraqi people," he said. "That's all we ever considered our mission to be."

Helping to topple the statue is something Sutherland said he'll never forget about his experience in Iraq. Another, he said, is having to use his sidearm, a 9 mm pistol, to shoot two Iraqi soldiers at close range.

"It's pretty unusual for a tank commander to have to pull his sidearm," he said.

The actions of an imbedded Time magazine journalist also stand out in Sutherland's mind. "He was traveling with us (on the way to Baghdad) in a Humvee," Sutherland said. "When we stopped to check on reported enemy activity, he got out of the vehicle and spotted an Iraqi unit that was preparing to ambush us," he said. "He probably saved some of our lives - I owe that man a Christmas card," Sutherland exclaimed.

In Iraq, Sutherland said he missed good food, hygiene items and his recliner the most.

"It was very hard to keep clean," he said. Mail, including care packages, didn't get to the troops until they hit Baghdad.

As a smoker, Sutherland was forced on occasion to resort to local cigarette brands. "They were awful," he said. "They tasted like alfalfa."

Though coalition forces continue to die almost daily in Iraq, Sutherland said the level of fighting now is minuscule compared to the first three weeks of the war.

He believes security measures, now under the control of the U.S. Army, could be better, but said the area around Baghdad has a huge military police presence.

Sutherland left Iraq about two weeks ago.

He'll leave active duty behind this summer and finish out his enlistment in the Marine reserves.

That will allow him to finish work on a Business Administration degree at Long Beach State University.

Sutherland has done some modeling and acting and loves to surf, so he says he'll be in his glory as a Southern California resident.

Before he left for the Middle East, Sutherland completed a small - but talking - part in "The Hulk," a movie opening Friday. He plays - of all things - a tank commander, and served as a technical adviser on the film.

His appearance in the film was plugged by "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart.

A Pinole native, Sutherland still has ties to the Bay Area. He said he has a piece of the statue that he leaves at his mother's home in Alameda County for safekeeping.

He's spent the last 10 days in the Bay Area, mostly doing media interviews, and said he came to the north state to get away from the spotlight.

Sutherland said he's looking forward to just kicking back for the rest of his leave, and may visit a friend in a remote area of the Plumas National Forest.