[Vision2020] The Spoils of War

Tom Hansen thansen at moscow.com
Mon Jun 30 12:01:40 PDT 2008

"Homeless, jobless, struggling with drugs, delinquent on child support 
payments, and spinning in the revolving door of Sarasota courtrooms and 
jail cells, Earl Coffey said he is hamstrung by civilian life."

>From the Army Times -


The spoils of war

Pfc. Earl Coffey found a fortune in a palace in Iraq. His decision to 
steal it derailed his life
By Billy Cox - Special to the Army Times 
Posted : July 07, 2008

SARASOTA, Fla. — After nearly three weeks of desert combat and enough 
death to jangle his brain for a lifetime, Pfc. Earl Coffey arrived in 
Baghdad in April 2003 thinking he had discovered an oasis.

It was Palace Row, one of the most exclusive tracts of real estate in 
Iraq, and not even major bomb damage could dim the luster of a tyrant’s 
decadence. Coffey was among the first U.S. troops to secure Saddam 
Hussein’s inner sanctum, the postwar “Green Zone” now hosting diplomats 
and government authorities. Its allure was intoxicating.

Coffey recalled his awe at seeing gold-rimmed toilet seats, 30-foot wide 
chandeliers, and Swarovski crystal collections. Over the next few days, he 
sampled one revelation after another: the Dom Perignon champagne, the 
Monte Cristo Cuban cigars, even the lion’s roar of captive pet carnivores.

He watched as a Bradley Fighting Vehicle rammed and collapsed the wall of 
a windowless bunker just outside Saddam’s palace. The building concealed 
bundles of U.S. currency stacked floor-to-ceiling and wrapped in binding 
that read “Bank of America.”

To a man who had grown up in the bleak shadows of Kentucky’s coal mines, 
staring down all that money “was like hitting the lottery,” Coffey said.

His career was about to drown in a flood of American dollars.

Makings of a soldier
Today, adrift and troubled in Sarasota, the 34-year-old is worlds away 
from what he once was — a trained sniper who took his first shot with 
a .22-caliber rifle his father gave him when he was 7 or 8 years old in 
rural Harlan County. At first, he practiced on tin can lids nailed to a 
fence post 80 yards away. When that got too easy, he began targeting the 
nails. And other things.

“I could shoot the fire off cigarettes from 40 to 50 yards,” he said. “I 
could shoot the head off a match.”

Coffey had other interests, like football. He played linebacker and 
tailback at tiny Everts High School. But looking back, he said his course 
was set the first time he picked up a gun. His father was a Vietnam 
veteran; his grandfather survived World War II.

“I wanted to go to the Army,” he said. “It was an honorable profession.”

So he volunteered at age 17. Duty sent the small-town boy around the 
world: Kuwait, Germany, Scotland, Curacao, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, the 

Still a teenager, Coffey found himself in Mogadishu providing cover fire 
during the bloody “Black Hawk Down” street battles in 1993. “None of us 
thought we were coming out alive,” he said.

Using a .50-caliber sniper rifle, he and a spotter stalked targets from as 
far away as three-quarters of a mile. By then, Coffey had become a deadly 
expert, with enough experience to have his own theory on how quickly his 
targets would die.

“It’s all according to how full of rage or how full of energy they are,” 
he said.

A normal man dies instantly. In Mogadishu; he shot a man standing on a 
balcony 960 meters away.

“I hit him right above the eye,” Coffey said. “But he walked a good 15 
feet before he finally went down.”

At age 19, this son of a coal miner and truck driver had come a long way 
from home and a childhood spent, for a while, without indoor plumbing.

“We had an outhouse,” Coffey said. “I remember packing water from natural 
springs way down at the end of the road. Our bath was a galvanized metal 

The Army was an escape from poverty for Coffey and the only way he knew to 
become successful.

But a few years and another war zone away, Coffey’s dream would end.

‘A job to do’
Coffey left the military in 1999 to get married and moved to Sarasota to 
be with his new wife, Tammy. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks. He rejoined 
the Army two years after he left.

“I knew with my background and my training, I had a job to do,” he 
said. “I wanted to go wherever the war on terror was.”

In March 2003, Coffey was assigned to a Bradley Fighting Vehicle idling in 
Kuwait when his 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade got the green light 
for the invasion.

The unit began drawing pre-dawn fire as soon as it crossed the border. The 
rookie troops were spooked, Coffey said, “but it was nothing compared to 
what I’d seen in Somalia.”

At least, not at first.

As they tightened the noose around the Saddam regime, Coffey brought the 
full range of his sharpshooting skills to bear. One especially frenetic 
exchange haunts him today.

Grinding through an urban corridor, Coffey’s unit was ambushed in a free-
fire zone. He hit a moving target looming along a nearby rooftop and 
realized what he had done only after he went to confirm the kill.

“It was an unarmed kid who looked to be about 8 years old,” he 
said. “Things like that stick with you.”

In those chaotic first weeks on the front end, every civilian vehicle that 
failed to properly brake was a potential bomb.

“I saw an Abrams fire a super sabot round right through a pickup truck, 
and the woman who got out begged us to kill her while she watched her 
husband and her children burn to death,” Coffey said. “In perfect English, 
she’s saying: ‘Why? Why are you doing this? We’re Christians!’”

Which brings Coffey to the point, the thing that put him where he is today:

“You’re walking through bodies that’ve been lying around for eight days in 
the heat, so swollen if you kick ’em it busts. And there’s so much blood 
around you can taste it like there’s a penny in your mouth.

“And all of a sudden, you come across $850 million? Do you think you’re 
not gonna try to get some of that home to your family? How is anything 
wrong with that? I need somebody to explain that to me.”

Hiding the treasure
Coffey was with Army colleague John Getz as he prowled Uday Hussein’s 
marble palace. The manse, “about the size of the White House,” had been 
bombed and ransacked by looters by time he and fellow members of Task 
Force 3/15 swept through. But clearly, much had been overlooked.

Coffey and Getz discovered four locked safes in a ruined office. They 
cracked them open with hammers and tanker bars. The first three were 
filled with paperwork in Arabic.

Upon breaking into the fourth safe, Coffey realized the world had just 
shifted. He was staring down more money than he had ever seen in his life —

Nobody else was there. They were both thinking the same thing.

According to statements made during the subsequent Army investigation, 
Coffey and Getz said the fourth safe contained $160,000 in $100 bills, 
British pounds and Jordanian dinars. That is considerably less than what 
Coffey now says they pinched. He declines to specify the actual size of 
his share. What he does say is that they decided to split it up and keep 
their mouths shut.

Coffey stuffed the currency into Meals, Ready-to-Eat packages and glued 
them shut.

He might have gotten away with it had he sat tight.

But almost immediately, Coffey started enjoying the perks that only money 
can buy in a war zone.

Getting caught
>From Baghdad, Coffey’s unit was dispatched to guard a mayor’s plaza and a 
power plant in Fallujah in the summer of 2003. That was where he got 
ripped off by one of his fellow soldiers.

Carlos Camacho, a former Army private, says it happened because Coffey got 

“I started noticing him spending money in Baghdad,” said Camacho, who met 
Coffey in Fort Stewart, Ga. “But he really started going through it in 

Most conspicuous was the $700 satellite phone Coffey purchased from Iraqi 
peddlers, along with 30 half-hour phone cards that went for $30 apiece. 
And there were expensive watches, ice, coolers, sodas and fresh cooked 
chicken, the envy of fellow troops stuck with MRE rations.

“So I asked him, ‘Man, how can you be wasting so much money like this?’ 
And he told me he came across some money, a lot of money,” recalled 
Camacho, who bunked with Coffey in Fallujah. “I thought, ‘Wow, good for 
you.’ And he really helped me out, he gave me a couple of thousand dollars 
for my own stuff. It was our secret. But people started talking about it, 
big time.”

Camacho said Coffey talked often about his family. “He said he wanted to 
buy a house and a truck when he got home,” said the 25-year-old 
heating/air-conditioning technician from Chicago. “I’ve got a family of my 
own now, so I can relate to that.”

Coffey sent money home in regular white envelopes — up to six $100 bills 
at a time — sometimes as many as six mailings in a single day. He 
estimates he managed to slip $25,000 out of Iraq. “But it was all gone by 
the time I got home,” Coffey added with an uneasy chuckle.

Coffey’s luck ran out after he decided to buy a second satellite phone. 
Upon returning from kitchen-police duty, he discovered tens of thousands 
of dollars missing.

The purloined cash became a legal issue when the unit returned to Fort 
Stewart. Under pressure from colleagues in October 2003, a fellow solider 
stated in an affidavit he took $54,000 from Coffey’s battle pack and split 
it up among friends in Fallujah.

But at his home in Palm Springs, Calif., Pvt. Ronnie Keith tells another 
story. “I found $80,000 in one MRE,” Keith said. “Half in American 
dollars, half in British pounds.”

Keith says he managed to mail $60,000 back to the States. “Letters were 
the best way,” he says. “But I also put some money in a teddy bear. One or 

In April 2004, Coffey was court-martialed in Fort Stewart, under Uniform 
Code of Military Justice Article 103, which outlaws “looting or pillaging” 
in “enemy or occupied territory.” He spent a year in prison, as did Getz, 
who was convicted on similar charges.

Keith was convicted for several violations and spent 18 months in the 

Keith, 23, said “I’ve started a new life” and “I’ve tried to put it behind 
me.” He is attending college, where he intends to major in business.

If Keith and Coffey have anything in common today, it is a mutual 
contention that they were never briefed about codes of conduct concerning 

“I considered it the spoils of war,” Coffey said. “I mean, if that money 
belonged to Iraq, how could America charge me with anything?”

At the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb with the Army’s media office 
stated in an e-mail that “soldiers are taught about Army values from the 
first day they arrive at basic training. They know the difference between 
right and wrong.”

Over the course of the five-year occupation of Iraq, Edgecomb added, only 
six American soldiers have been convicted under Article 103, which covers 
captured or abandoned property.

Camacho said that is only because the rest are not getting caught.

“I knew a lot of other guys in other platoons that came across a lot of 
money, too,” he said. “They said they turned it all in, you know, but then 
you’d see them walking around with satellite phones and eating fresh 
roasted chicken, and it was pretty obvious they didn’t turn everything in.”

Allure of the gold mine
Coffey said he was thinking about his wife, Tammy, when he stumbled across 
the treasure amid the wreckage of Saddam’s empire. She was receiving 
disability checks as the result of a car wreck long before they met.

But Tammy, from whom he is separated today, sobs into the phone when 
discussing their life together after Iraq.

“I know he loves me, but his eyes are different now,” she said. “Before 
the war, I could look into his eyes and see his spirit and the happiness 
that meant so much to him. And now it’s not there. It’s not there. He’s 

Coffey’s parents divorced when he was 11, and his father, Earl C. Coffey, 
moved away. Today, the senior Coffey says he may have overcompensated by 
giving his son too much. Maybe, he says from his home in Williamsburg, 
Ky., that created a sense of entitlement.

“I warned him before he stole that money not to do it,” he said. “He 
called and told me, ‘Dad, I’ve got a plan to get $200,000 out of Iraq.’ I 
said, ‘Son, don’t do it, they’re catching boys who try it, and it’s all 
over the news.’”

The most publicized courts-martial also involved members of the 3rd 
Infantry Division. In 2004, eight troops were accused of stealing millions 
of American dollars from Saddam’s vaults the year before. One soldier was 

Coffey’s father said he understands the allure of the gold mine that Iraq 
had become, for soldiers, speculators and everybody else. Says the Army 
veteran, “Had I found a cache of money that size in Vietnam, who knows, I 
might’ve wound up grabbing a handful because I was young and ignorant.

“But with the military saying all that money is going to rebuild Iraq, 
well, it’s too political. You can’t go fighting D.C.”

Struggling back home
Homeless, jobless, struggling with drugs, delinquent on child support 
payments, and spinning in the revolving door of Sarasota courtrooms and 
jail cells, Earl Coffey said he is hamstrung by civilian life.

And, in an echo of the post-traumatic stress disorder that contributed to 
the recent death of 24-year-old Marine Eric Hall in nearby Charlotte 
County, Fla., Coffey claims the combat flashbacks from the invasion have 
debilitated him.

“Fighting war’s not hard; living with it afterwards is hard,” said Coffey, 
who maintains a military-tight haircut. “It keeps coming back on you. For 
a long time, I was afraid to go to sleep because I knew what I’d see. You 
get exhausted by the flashbacks and you feel like you’re in a trance all 
the time, like a zombie, like you’re just existing.”

Ineligible for Veterans Affairs assistance because of his bad-conduct 
discharge, Coffey said he turned to Oxycontin, a narcotic he purchased 
illegally on the streets, to dull the jagged edges of memory.

He said he got “a little carried away,” completed detox through the 
Salvation Army, and insists he is drug-free today. But neither his father 
nor his wife believe it.

On Jan. 2, Coffey was arrested for trying to sell stolen merchandise to an 
antiques store in Nokomis, Fla.

Coffey has upcoming court dates on theft charges as well as for a battery 
episode at a Sarasota car lot. He said he has considered skipping town and 
working the coal mines in Kentucky.

“But if I did that, it’d be the end of my marriage,” said Coffey, who has 
a pattern of ignoring appearances before the judge. “Saving my marriage is 
the most important thing in the world to me now.”

He said he has more than 100 job applications on file locally. Grocery 
stores, construction, maintenance, all to no avail. He has a buddy who 
puts him up from time to time. Sometimes he sleeps in the woods.

His father said drug abuse, not unemployment, is Coffey’s most immediate 
problem. “I love Chip,” he said, using his son’s nickname, “but I can’t 
send him any more money because I know where it goes. When he’s in jail, I 
don’t worry about him. At least I know where he is.”

Back in jail
Veterans who have received less than honorable discharges can apply for a 
status upgrade, which could lead to increased benefits. On April 7, Coffey 
showed up at Sarasota’s National Guard headquarters looking for help 
filling out the paperwork.

The Guard ran a background check and discovered that Coffey had three 
outstanding felony warrants.

“At that point, it was out of our hands,” said Capt. Chris Dillon, Battery 
Commander with the local Guard.

The Guard called the police. On May 7, Coffey pleaded no contest to two 
theft charges and was sentenced to six months in jail.

Sometimes, Coffey said from the Sarasota County jail, he thinks about the 
money he squirreled away in Iraq. “I’m the only one in the world who knows 
where it is,” he said. “I’ve got the 10-digit grid code in my head.”

He said he once had a contact with Blackwater Worldwide who could get him 
back into Iraq. And Coffey could finally get rich doing what he had 
trained his whole life to do.

“They weren’t talking about security; they were talking about missions,” 
Coffey said. “A $650,000 contract for two years.

“But I don’t want to pull a trigger with a man in my sights. I can’t do 
that anymore. I’m done.” 

Billy Cox is a writer for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Reprinted with 


Seeya round town, Moscow.

Pro patria, 
Tom Hansen
Moscow, Idaho
"Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the 
tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." 
-- Adlai E. Stevenson, Jr. 

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