By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
April 17, 2008 - Dr. Michael "Sonny" Trimble saw evidence of Saddam Hussein's brutality firsthand as he led a team that excavated nine mass graves in Iraq, then looked evil in the eye as he testified in an Iraqi court against the regime's atrocities. But through those horrors, Trimble said, he witnessed something awe-inspiring as well: America's message to the world of its commitment to the rule of law and the value of human life.
A forensic archeologist for the Army Corps of Engineers' St. Louis District, Trimble received the Army's Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service this week for his work leading a mass graves team in Iraq. Army Secretary Pete Geren and Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard A. Cody praised Trimble during an April 15 Pentagon ceremony for conducting forensic mass-grave exhumations and analyses that proved Saddam's role in genocide and crimes against humanity.
The assignment Trimble got in June 2004 was vastly different from his typical work inventorying and maintaining museum collections for the Corps of Engineers. The mission: stand up a forensic-analysis team, buy the necessary equipment, excavate nine major mass graves throughout Iraq, and analyze what the team found at a forensic laboratory the team would set up near Baghdad International Airport.
And the biggest challenge of all: be on the ground digging within 60 days.
Trials against Saddam were already under way, but so far, all evidence against him consisted of testimony and archival evidence such as execution orders he signed. "In the end, in any homicide, you have to have the body," Trimble said. "You have to be able to show that this person was murdered and how he was murdered. And in the case of genocide, you have to be able to show that the murder was gruesome and cold-blooded -- which, in this case, wasn't hard to do."
It was a daunting assignment despite Trimble's 34 years of forensics experience, the last 21 years with the Army Corps of Engineers. He drew on training he received working with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, the only Defense Department organization with a mission anything like the one Trimble and his team would carry out. JPAC excavates and analyzes the remains of suspected U.S. servicemembers still unaccounted for from past conflicts.
Trimble said he is still amazed that he was able to push through all the processes required to get his team on the ground working within two months.
"I'm not sure anyone has ever done that that fast, and I am not sure I could ever do it again," he said. "It was unbelievable. We were working 16-, 17-, 18-hour days, minimum."
The way mass graves were excavated in Bosnia is far more typical of the way forensic archeologist work. "You go out after the war is over. No one is shooting at you. You have the luxury of time as you excavate these graves, and you have to excavate them very carefully so that nothing is challenged in court," Trimble said.
That wasn't to be the case in Iraq.
"We hit the ground, and they said, 'You have to start getting these graves, finding them, digging them up, doing it carefully and writing that final report (to the court) that had to be translated into Arabic,'" Trimble said. "We had to do it fast and carefully -- and fast and carefully don't usually go together, especially in this field."
When Trimble and his team completed their mission, they didn't have a body. They had 367. Of those, 301, mostly Kurdish women and children, were uncovered in three mass graves related to Saddam's 1987-1988 Anfal campaign. Others were Shiites killed during the 1991 uprising in Karbala.
The Anfal campaign left more than 200,000 Kurds dead and possibly far more, but received little international attention, Trimble said. Saddam's order to execute 148 people in the Shiite town of Dujail -- a crime for which Saddam was later executed -- garnered far more publicity.
Unlike in Dujail, where Saddam singled out men and boys for revenge killings after a failed assassination attempt, the Anfal attacks were part of a longstanding campaign that wiped out nearly every Kurdish village in vast areas of northern Iraq. The campaign aimed to eliminate the Kurdish population, an objective Trimble said was best served by eliminating its women and children.
In many cases, the victims were told they were being resettled. Then, with all their worldly possessions in tow, they were taken deep into the desert to be killed, Trimble said. The killers "had pre-cut linear graves with heavy equipment, and they marched people into the graves, usually in the early evening, and machine-gunned them and covered them up," he said.
Iraq is riddled with graves of Saddam's fallen, Trimble said, guessing that he and his team found only a tiny fraction of them. "The whole country is filled with them," he said.
As they performed in-depth scientific analyses of the remains they found, Trimble and his team felt heartbroken by what they found. Lack of acid in the soil had preserved most of the clothing that clung to skeletal remains, leaving no doubt that the victims were mostly women and children. Women clung to bags of pots and pans and other household goods. Young children lay within reach of pacifiers buried with them in the dirt.
Trimble said he and his team felt an obligation to the victims as they went to work as part of the Department of Justice's Regime Crimes Liaison Office in Iraq team. Their job was to provide indisputable proof the Iraqi court needed in its three separate cases against Saddam, his cousin Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, known as "Chemical Ali," and other former Baath Party officials.
As a culmination of the team's efforts, Trimble was called to testify against the defendants. He spent five solid hours in August 2006 recounting to the court his team's findings, being challenged directly by Saddam as well as Chemical Ali, who Trimble said had the piercing eyes of a "stone-cold killer."
Following what Trimble described as a "very fair" court process, the court found the defendants guilty.
To Trimble, the convictions weren't the end of the team's work. The team members took each set of human remains they had analyzed, wrapped them in cloth, and returned them to the Kurdish people. "It was important for us to show that respect for the human remains," Trimble said.
The Kurds buried the remains in a national cemetery and plan to build a museum similar to Washington D.C.'s Holocaust Museum to honor those killed. Clothing and other items discovered in the graves will help tell the stories of the Anfal campaign, Trimble said.
Trimble called it a privilege to be a part of the team that helped bring Saddam and his fellow regime members to justice and to ensure the world knew the story of those whose lives they took down. "I felt an obligation to the people I had worked with, but especially to the Kurdish and Shiia people murdered," he said. "After awhile, you get very close to the bodies of these people, and you really want to take care of them. I felt I owed that to them in a very big way."
But equally gratifying, Trimble said, was the opportunity to help show the world the values the United States embraces. "I thought this was the best representation of the United States," he said.
By helping the Iraqis set up a legal system to ensure fair trials, the United States demonstrated its commitment to the rule of law -- not tribalism -- to settle disputes, he said. And by committing people and resources to the process, the United States showed the value it places on human life.
"This was the best story we had going in a tough situation over there," he said. "It showed the United States coming over, training people, setting up a law system and really showing people in the Middle East that we take life seriously and are willing to put people and resources behind that."