First Person War Stories

Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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Sgt. 1st Class Elana Duffy: Counterintelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Part I

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Sgt. 1st Class Elana Duffy: Counterintelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Part I

Sgt. 1st Class Elana Duffy tells stories of serving in counterintelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005.

Duffy served in the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2004 and 2005, conducting counterintelligence and interrogation operations. In Iraq, Duffy suffered a traumatic brain injury from an IED.

Sgt. 1st Class Duffy is currently the CEO of Pathfinder, an organization dedicated to easing veterans’ transitions back into civilian life by connecting them with local community resources.

Tune in next time to hear the rest of her interview on Warriors in Their Own Words.

Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors in Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Today, in the first of a two-part episode, we’re hearing from Sgt. 1st Class Elana Duffy, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2004 and 2005, conducting counterintelligence and interrogation operations. In Iraq, Duffy suffered a traumatic brain injury from an IED.

Elana Duffy : So I joined the army in- well I signed my contract in September of 2002, so less than a year after the U.S. entered Afghanistan. Then I left for basic training in April of 2003, so about three weeks after we had crossed the berm and entered Iraq.

It was a decision that I did not necessarily make lightly, but it was largely because I had grown up wanting to be an astronaut. I like engineering. I like tangible things that I can do or I can build or I can contribute. Having wanted to be an astronaut since I was six, I wanted to be a part of bigger things and went to engineering school. Got my master's degree. Got a job in the middle of a recession and was basically just sitting there staring at blueprints of linear feet of drywall and said, “Well, I can't even see a window from where I'm sitting, I have no idea if it's raining outside. This is not being an astronaut” to put it mildly. And I decided that day to call a recruiter and I decided to go into the Army because the Army, especially army enlisted, would let you choose your job.

I opted at that point that I was going to do something fun that put me on the ground and making a difference because ultimately my plan had been to do it for a few years and then put in a pilot packet and switch over to the Air Force.

That ended up not happening for a variety of reasons, but part of it was also that I loved what I ended up doing. I did intelligence and intelligence collection work. I was an interrogator. I was an investigator. I liked the puzzle. The problem solving. The 'find the bad guys with the bombs before the bombs go off'. The aspect of really being able to make a difference and of seeing the effects of what I was doing; knowing that every time I walked out of a meeting with one of my sources that I had gotten something from, I would be able to make sure that someone else on either side (the Iraqis, the Afghans, the US) would be able to go home to their families uninjured because of something that I had been able to contribute, and that to me was just. A really good feeling to have.

I was sitting in class at Cornell, and I had been sitting in an early class like an eight a.m. engineering class so we didn't get notifications. I mean, nobody had a cell phone, or if you did, it's not like you had a smartphone, you weren't connected to the Internet or anything like that. I walked out of that class and I think the first plane had hit maybe a minute or two prior, because somebody who was walking in the door of the building said to somebody else, "Hey, a plane just hit the World Trade Center" and they had some inane conversation about it because you thought it was one of those incidents where a pilot had a malfunction or something like that. It wouldn't be the first time.

I had grown up just outside of New York City. My father grew up in New York City. I saw my grandparents there. I saw cousins there, a lot of friends, a lot of my high school friends were in the area. And so I said "I'm going to go and check this out. My father's working in Manhattan.” My father actually worked for the news media.

So I went into the next door, it was actually the Statler Hotel, which is also where the School of Hotel Administration is for Cornell. At the bottom of the hotel there's a little dining facility with those box TVs up on the walls and I was standing there and I watched the second plane hit. And I mean by then, obviously, it was very clear that this had not been a small biplane. This was a commercial aircraft. I watched the second plane hit and I watched the towers fall and I remember calling or trying to call home.

I remember somebody actually looking at me because I was just in shock and somebody turns to me and says "Hey, do you want to borrow my cell phone?" I was like "No, I have a cell phone. There's no way you're going to get through right now. There's an antenna on top of the building that just came down.”

It wasn't until much later that I heard from my father basically, who was saying "Hey, I'm going to be stuck in Manhattan for the next couple of days, but I'm Ok." And all the bridges and tunnels are closed. You couldn't get home.

I wouldn't say that it was a triggering event for me to decide to join the military. But, I would be lying if I didn't say that it played a role, mostly because I wanted to contribute. I wanted to help. It's just part of my nature. I want to do things, I want to help people and go back and help what I consider- even though I grew up just on the other side of the river in Jersey, that's still my city. I've been going there since I was a baby. My grandparents lived there. It was a part of me.

Obviously, it was horrifying. But I still was like "No, I'm going to keep on the track that I'm on." I hadn't done ROTC. I hadn't gone to a military academy. I said I'm going to go the civilian route to become an astronaut. I ignored the fact that my eyesight was garbage until NASA told me "Oh, wait, your eyesight is garbage"

A year or so later, it was just "No, I need to do more. I need to do something. I need to be a part of the solution in this insanity. And I wonder if I can contribute in some meaningful way." So I signed up.

When we went into Afghanistan, you would have to have been on some kind of happy pills or something to to think that we were going to just hop on in there, find the bad guys, dissolve an entire terrorist network that's operating through several countries, which we knew at the time, and then pop on back out of there.

I knew we were still going to be in Afghanistan even when I had signed up, because we had already been there for 11 months. I was like "Yeah, there's a whole cave network. There's, I don't know, all of Pakistan. We need to do something and we need to probably change the way that we're doing it because just going in there and trying to shoot a bunch of people is not working." And I mean, we still have bases in Korea. We still have bases in Germany. Like this is a long term thing.

I don't think I was ever under the impression that we would get out of Afghanistan. When we went into Iraq, I was like, "What are we doing? This is kind of not a good idea." I had almost been hoping that we would realize that and hop back out. That was a mess to begin with.

I always saw the purpose behind being in Afghanistan. When I went to Afghanistan, I'd been in the military maybe nine months? Less or so. But by the time I was on a plane to Afghanistan and I had been in my unit for like two months after training. I remember touching down in Bagram and I remember looking out and you could see the Hindu Kush mountain range in the background. That was the only time, I think, in my entire military career that it actually looked like a movie. But at that point, I was like, yeah, I just looked at the setup that we had in Bagram, which is nothing like even what it is now, and I was like "Oh, yeah, no. This is a long haul base."

Then in Iraq, the impression was always "We'll squat on old bases and not necessarily build a whole base or whatever, because, you know, we won't be here that long! We're just here to find, you know, WMD's or take out Saddam again or whatever."

I think that the mentality going into Iraq was it would be more short term, but I don't think that going into Afghanistan was ever even meant to be short term. It would be foolish to think otherwise. If you're trying to go against the huge embedded network like al-Qaida, you're looking at something super involved. I didn't even need intelligence training to understand that you're going against something that big and that in depth. We had encountered that in Vietnam and that's why we were there for so long. The unconventional warfare is not something that you're going to knock out in a year or two years.

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ED: Afghanistan was such a weird deployment. My unit had gone to Afghanistan as a company sized element. Intelligence was very heavily deployed, especially out of the 18th Airborne Corps. I was part of the 525th military intelligence brigade, and because I was doing human intelligence, we were mostly interrogators and counterintelligence agents. I ended up being cross listed as both, but at the time I was supposed to be an investigator and an intel agent and a human intelligence collector, an operator.

As a company element, our company was I think maybe 40 or 50 of us deployed. So it's a small unit. Intelligence companies in general are small. Especially in the human intelligence side. Half of us stayed at the main country interrogation facility. At the time, it was the Joint Task Force (JTF) 180 run by 10th Mountain. We were attached to them basically as the support intel unit. So, half of our company stayed at the interrogation facility and then the other half was divided into small teams of four and sent to various outposts to do human intelligence collection operations.

I was put on the team sent furthest out west to the center of the city of Herat. This is 2004, so the ring road of Afghanistan was not only not built, but regularly being re-bombed every time a piece was built. The area was still run by a warlord. Almost all of the provinces were being run by warlords.

We had a very strategic mission, especially because we were very close to the border of Iran where- I mean plugging all of those border leaks was not something that was easily done. So our day to day was basically to head out to the border and talk to border guards.

We were responsible for four different provinces: Farah, Herat, Ghor province, and Badghis province. So we would take multi-day missions. We would go with a special forces team. Us, a special forces team, and occasionally some of the civil affairs teams would go. We would take three days to go up to the main city in say, Badghis province, and see if we could figure out what's going on up there. 'Are there also people coming in from the Turkmen border like the different tribal issues that were happening?' 'How allied were people against both the Taliban coming back or up against each other?' 'What about the interaction and intertribal rivalries?'.

We also had a heavy mission working with the United Nations in support of elections and election security. We worked with some of the other embassies and then we also fulfilled regular or semi regular roles on very small compounds. The compound we were on had maybe 80 field artillery? It was like two platoons. It was nothing for a field artillery unit. But there were 80 field artillery guys, a small civil affairs detachment and a small special forces detachment, and our little four man team. And we were dropped right in the middle of Herat City and basically said "OK" you know, "Go change the world, stop the war. See if you can figure out who is bombing the old ring road and see if you can figure out also what your local warlord is planning, because we need to get some stability going."

About half the time our warlord was fighting and had some personal problems with the warlord running Mazar-i-Sharif up in the north. So they each had their own little private armies. We would just get on the radio. At the time, there was a British contingent running the base up at Mazar-i-Sharif, and we just get on the radio and be like, "Hey, some of the guys are massing on the border, it looks like the private armies, do you want to ask your warlord to step down? Is it our turn? What do we need to do here?"

There were riots in the city when some of the local factions were fighting with each other, so we had to monitor that because there were still minefields and tanks left over from the Russians in our area that no one had taken care of because it was considered the Wild West. And the US military hadn't been out there much. It was fascinating.

There weren't interrogations or significant interactions from the Afghan deployment that really stand out. That whole deployment was kind of peculiar, from the way it was set up and how isolated we were. It was tough. We couldn't get mail or food for two months at one point because the Air Force couldn't be assured that we could secure the airfield where they would make our drops, which was at the south part of the city. It was half an hour away by convoy.

At one point, we had to call for fire because of the riots in the city. Our compound was taking fire, the German compound was taking fire, and all of this stuff. We were actually about half staffed at the time because most of our command structure was down in Farah Province doing I don't really know what. I don't remember what time. So we're trying to call for air support to at least do a flyover to try and calm everybody down and remind everybody "Hey guys, stop shooting over a compound if you want to shoot at each other or at least go around. It's not a big compound, just go around the block." It took over 24 hours to get a flyover because we were just so far removed from any type of support.

It was tough. I mean because being a woman operating in that environment and with the job that I had to do with talking to locals and trying to get into the heart of who the bad guys even are.

I remember going to a school, what was supposed to be a girl's school, and it was operating out of GP medium: The tent structures. There were probably like 15 young Afghan girls and a teacher, a woman teacher, and because I was a woman, I could talk to her. Because nowhere was safe. Even with the Taliban supposedly gone, the women, the girls schools, women trying to get an education, all of it was very much a target. I just remember going to the school and trying to talk to this teacher who was risking her life every day and these girls who valued their education so much that they're six or seven years old, but they know what the risk is of going to school every day, and yet they were still going.

The boys' schools were fully functioning in their buildings, and the girls' school was still in this old army tent that maybe they had scavenged from the Russians, or maybe our civil affairs guys had given them at some point.

It's a heavy dose of reality when you start seeing things like that and talk to some of these people who are just trying to do what we take for granted. It was heartbreaking that they were the most vulnerable and yet the least protected. It still kind of affects me. Especially as there are negotiations with the Taliban, and all I can think to is "You know what, I would rather keep a presence in Afghanistan than let them come back and let those girls who risked their lives at age seven to go and get an education go back to living under Taliban law and the thumb of the Taliban. Keep us over there if that's what it takes."

Negotiating with the Taliban is a nonstarter. They can say all day long "Oh, we're not going to get it back under control. No, no, no will be legit now." But they have not shown that to be the case. I have seen the effects of what that does to the women of that country. That stays with you. The danger. The look on their face. And the relief whenever we would show up was just kind of a "Oh, cool, like there's cars pulling up? Boy, I sure hope that one of them isn't going to explode." That was the mentality that they lived with every day.

So we get back from the six month deployment. When you get off the plane it's the middle of the night. Our battalion commander had come to greet our company out of the airfield at Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base. I remember him saying, "Hey, great job. You've already been put in for presidential citations. You guys did amazing things. You did great stuff. Well done. By the way, the whole brigade is slated to leave for Iraq around Thanksgiving" This is now like mid to late July "So, like three and a half months-ish, I will try to hang on to you. We'll try to keep you guys back a little bit longer, but we're not super sure that we can. So don't unpack much. Nobody is really going to schools, so spend some time with your families, go on leave and be prepared that you're not going to be home very long."

I got my eye surgery done. I got my scuba certification and actually I started getting a private pilot's license, but I never got to do my solo flights because we left for Iraq. I couldn't go to jump school even though I was an airborne unit, because there just wasn't enough time to go to schools, similar to when I'd shown up at my unit and they were like "Well, you're slated to the company that's going to Afghanistan in two months, so we don't have time to send you to jump school now. We'll send you when you get back." Then when we got back, it was, "Well, we don't have time to send you to jump school now. We'll send you when you get back." And then I was like, "Yeah, I'm out of here. I need a break."

Iraq was exhausting. It was a completely different environment. It was a completely different deployment. Originally I spent the first three months in Iraq at the Green Zone, which is the international spot in Baghdad. It's where the old Republican Palace was, the famous cross swords sculpture.

I was originally on a team that was at the Green Zone and it was the Iraqi elections. The Iraqi elections were slated for shortly after we got there. They held us back until like the day after New Year's, so we were about five or six weeks behind the rest of our battalion. What was kind of nice about that is that meant we spent less time in Kuwait during the ramp up. They were stuck there for like three weeks and we were only there for like three days. All the love to Kuwait for being safe and everything, but that powder sand is awful.

We get up to Iraq and basically, we're doing the same thing that we did in Afghanistan. Everybody's getting divided up into these teams. The team I was on was assigned to the Green Zone. I was working pretty much directly out of the U.S. Embassy, which at the time was at the Republican Palace (Saddam's old palace). The embassy was regularly getting targeted and in rocket attacks, and you don't necessarily have the same security that you do at a major military base, so no alarms were going off. No, nothing. You would hear a loud explosion and you'd be like, "Oh, huh, they're rocketing the embassy again" or something like that. Every time I went to another base in Iraq, it was like a different world, like, "Oh right, I'm in the army again."

I was mostly doing what we were supposed to be doing, what we call walk-ins, which is basically somebody coming to the gate of the Green Zone and saying, "I have information, I need to talk to somebody." And they would call our team and say, somebody is saying that they've got something.

There were all these other agencies running around. If it has three letters and operates in the Washington, D.C. area, they have representatives there. But the army primarily handles all of these walk-ins. We also handled outside of the Green Zone, the surrounding areas, which includes Sadr City.

There was a huge problem at the time with kidnappings, both local, national and international. Kidnapings were near constant. Especially with local families reporting somebody going missing, because it was almost always like, "Hey, did you guys take them or are they kidnaped?" Nine times out of ten, they were kidnaped.

There was an organized effort out of Sadr City that was kidnapping and sending international folks over to al-Qaeda in Iraq. So, I started working with the embassy hostage working group because they actually did not have an intelligence collection element attached to them.

So I was moonlighting because during the day I was working on either walk-ins or doing embassy liaisons, or meeting with the ambassador or something like that. Then, in like the late afternoons, I would be coordinating with the hostage working group and trying to get in touch with folks that I know at the interrogation facilities to follow up on other intelligence that we were gathering there.

There were a lot of high profile kidnappings at the time. This is early 2005. Sergeant Keith Maupin had been missing already for a while. We knew we were looking for recovery at the time, not rescue, but so we were trying to figure out where the body was buried. We were looking for the Italian reporter Juliana Sagrina. Then of course, we were also looking for some of the fun high value targets like Zarqāwī and Bin Laden, but, you know he's in Pakistan. We all know that. And we're in Iraq. We have our own problems at this point.

KH: That was Sgt. 1st Class Elana Duffy. We’ll hear more from her in the next episode of Warriors in Their Own Words. Make sure you’re following the podcast to see Part II in your feed.

If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Warriors in Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with the Honor Project. Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Senior producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Dave Douglas. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Warriors in Their Own Words.

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