One-time Enemies Become Brothers in Iraq
By Army Sgt. Frank Vaughn
Special to American Forces Press Service
CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE BASRA, Iraq, Sep. 18, 2009 The moon was full the night of Jan. 17, 1991, and Air Force Capt. Bill Iuliano, an F-111 bomber weapon systems officer, was in the air. It was the second night of Operation Desert Storm, a U.S.-led combat operation in opposition to Saddam Hussein’s forces.
Iraqi air force Col. Sami Saeed shakes hands with Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Iuliano during a brief ceremony at Contingency Operating Base Basra, Iraq, Sept. 14, 2009. The two officers flew on opposite sides of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but have worked together in Operation Iraqi Freedom to strengthen the Iraqi air force. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Frank Vaughn
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“We were flying from Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey that night to take out some targets in northern Iraq,” Iuliano recalled. “We flew south down the border between Iraq and Iran, turned southeast toward Baghdad, and were going to head back north to hit our targets on the way back to Turkey.”
Iuliano said they detected “bandits” in the area, which turned out to be Iraqi IL-76 transport aircraft, heading east toward Iran. The F-15 fighter jets accompanying the F-111s were scrambled to intercept them.
“They came in behind the IL-76s and locked them in as targets,” Iuliano said. “Each of the two jets fired two missiles apiece at the Iraqi planes, but something went wrong. Due to a maintenance issue, all four missiles hung and never fired. It turns out they were loaded wrong.”
Iuliano, now a lieutenant colonel and commander of 84th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Squadron and air liaison officer for Multinational Division South, said he was upset when he didn’t get to see Iraqi planes shot down that night. It was a feeling that would stay with him for 18 years.
“I arrived in Iraq about four months ago,” said Iuliano, a native of Boise, Idaho. “I took an interest in helping strengthen the Iraqi air force any way I could, and it was through that effort that I met Colonel Sami [Saeed].”
Saeed, who commands the 70th Iraqi Air Force Squadron stationed at Contingency Operating Base Basra, made fast friends with Iuliano. They have worked together and enjoyed each other’s company for three months now, but only knew each other about a month when Saeed told Iuliano a story that shook him.
“He told me about being on a mission back during Desert Storm,” Iuliano said. “When he told me the moon was full on the night he was talking about, I put two and two together and realized he was talking about that same night. He was piloting one of the planes we engaged that night.”
Iuliano said he didn’t want to say anything about being in the air that night and he didn’t tell Saeed the jets fired on him.
“We had such a good friendship and I didn’t want this to get in the way of our work,” Iuliano said. “Some of the pilots in the 70th Squadron have asked me if I flew in Desert Storm and I told them I didn’t. I just thought it would be better that way.”
Iuliano, who is now at the end of his tour in Iraq, knew he couldn’t leave the country without telling Saeed. He had a plaque made to present to Saeed and prepared to tell him the truth about that night.
“I’m going to get emotional when I tell him,” Iuliano said with a sigh. “I don’t know how this is going to go, but I’m ready.”
The men met at Saeed's office building Sept. 14 to present gifts to each other in a brief ceremony. Saeed presented Iuliano and two other servicemembers with tokens of appreciation, then Iuliano took the floor. He cleared his throat, looked around the room and began with his story – the part of Saeed's story he didn’t know.
“A lot of you have asked me if I flew in the war in 1991,” Iuliano said to Saeed and other Iraqi air force officers in the room. “I told you at the time that I hadn’t, but that wasn’t exactly the truth. I said that at the time because I didn’t really know how to answer your question, but now I do. On the night of Jan. 17th, under a full moon …” Iuliano began.
Saeed looked at him in surprise, but allowed Iuliano to continue.
“… I flew in an F-111 bomber as part of a package sent to destroy targets in northern Iraq,” Iuliano continued.
When Iuliano got to the part about IL-76s flying east toward Iran, Saeed put his hand on his chest and simply said, “Me?!”
Iuliano looked him in the eye and nodded. The next thing he said caused his voice to catch in a brief display of emotion. “The F-15s were sent to intercept you. They locked you in and fired, but due to a maintenance malfunction, the missiles hung. You are alive today because they were loaded wrong.”
Saeed said he was never aware he was engaged by the U.S. Air Force during that mission.
“I had no idea I was being fired on,” he said in amazement.
After Iuliano finished telling his story, he presented Saeed with a plaque that read, “Praise Allah for faulty maintenance. Major Sami, 17 Jan 1991, my enemy. Colonel Sami, 17 Jul 2009, my friend. LTC Bill “Julio” Iuliano, USAF.”
The two men shook hands and embraced following the presentation, and Sami told Iuliano, “Don’t worry. Please don’t worry about that.”
Saeed said he was very fortunate to have survived that night, though he didn’t know it at the time. He has certainly lived life to the fullest since then.
“When I took off on my mission that night, I was father to a 6-month-old son, Ali,” Saeed said. “Now I am father to four children. I also have a daughter, Noor, another daughter, Sama, and another son, Muhammad. Life is good because of them, but it has sometimes been hard.”
Saeed said he saw his wife shot in the neck while hanging clothes out to dry, was thrown in jail by an associate of Saddam Hussein and was forced to participate in three separate wars as a result of Hussein’s administration.
“I could not understand why we were always at war with Saddam in charge,” Sami said. “The Americans have always tried to help the people of Iraq and he had to make it hard for all of us.”
Iuliano agreed with Saeed, saying, “The last people who ever want to see war are those of us in uniform.”
However, it was war – two, actually – that brought the two men together. The first war, though neither man knew it at the time, made them enemies. The second has made them more than friends.
“We are now brothers,” Saeed said with a smile.
(Army Sgt. Frank Vaughn serves in Multinational Division South.)