|GOOD SOLDIER: Public service has taken Vaught to Fallujah and Austin. Could Washington be next?
photography by Brian Harkin
During the height of wedding season, Rosine Hall—the largest of the reception rooms at the Dallas Arboretum—can host well over 300 people, even more if they open the outdoor seating area. But, on this wet October evening, much of Rosine Hall goes unused.
Tonight’s occasion is a town hall meeting. Freshman legislator Allen Vaught is here to provide a recap of the 80th legislative session for the residents of District 107, an area that encompasses a large chunk of East Dallas, as well as slivers of Garland and Mesquite. Tonight is more or less a wrap party for Vaught’s first successful swim through the Lege (he was named vice chair of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, and he served on the House Committee on Juvenile Justice & Family Issues), but it’s not exactly champagne toast material. Accordingly, only about 40 good citizens are scattered around the room, which has enough chairs—nice ones, too—for three times that many. It would be presumptuous to say they are cranks. But they are probably cranks. Why? Because they are here.
Rosine Hall is big and grand when full, with a ceiling so high it’s practically absent. But tonight’s turnout makes it seem lonely and cavernous. Forty people in this room feels more like four. More people might have turned out if the threat of rain had not turned into a promise. Or, more likely, people would have shown up if the undefeated Cowboys weren’t playing on Monday Night Football. The only bills District 107 cares about tonight hail from Buffalo. District 107 is smart. It turns out to be an amazing game.
“When we were planning this event, we looked at all the calendars—school calendars, even the presidential debate calendars,” Vaught says with a shrug. “Lesson learned.”
For an hour, Vaught, looking sharp but a tad overdressed in his campaign-trail suit, leads the audience through a detailed PowerPoint presentation highlighting some of the 5,000 bills that made their way through the Legislature between January and May, most notably Jessica’s Law, a bill Vaught co-authored and that was modeled after 2005 legislation in Florida that makes it harder for sex offenders to strike again. Considering the size of the room, the lack of people in it, and the amount of preparation by Vaught and his staff, it feels like a dress rehearsal for the actual town hall meeting, scheduled for some later date.
Vaught probably wishes that were the case when he opens the floor to questions. A woman near the back of the room who says she has been voting for 68 years stands to speak. Vaught leans over the lectern at the front of the room in a futile attempt to hear her frail voice, and smiles expectantly, waiting for a question that never comes. The woman refuses to stop talking, even after the mike is removed, even after Vaught attempts to answer her non-question, which has something to do with a child’s bill of rights. Sadly, her 10-minute filibuster is the highlight of the truncated Q&A period.
Though it seems like Vaught could talk about his first session forever, or perhaps because he’s worried the octogenarian at the back of the room actually will speak forever, he dutifully wraps up his program on schedule and shoos the crowd home to catch the rest of the game. After Rosine Hall clears out, he gets in his car and heads back to Lakewood Heights, where his family waits—wife Donna, toddler son Jonathan, and golden retrievers Scout and Ranger.
It would have been nice if a few more people had been there tonight, and if a few more of them had asked questions. Or better questions, at least. But look on the bright side: at least Vaught didn’t get blown up. He made it all the way to the Arboretum and back without even once having to worry about a roadside bomb.
|SLIDESHOW: State Rep. Allen Vaught describes his experience in Fallujah in his own words.|
Not too long ago, coming home alive was something U.S. Army Capt. Allen Vaught couldn’t take for granted. A longtime reservist, Vaught was deployed to Iraq in April 2003 and arrived in Fallujah about a week and a half after the statues fell in Baghdad. He was sent there as part of the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, the unit charged with waging the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqi citizens. They worked in small, six- and 12-person teams, with orders to help set up local governments, build schools, that kind of thing. Basically, “to pacify the local population,” as Vaught says.
“Some people will spend an entire year there, hear some explosions in the distance, and that’s it,” says Jason Thelen, who met Vaught in judge advocate general (JAG) training and served with him in Iraq. “They’re never in any danger. Other people—Allen is one of them—are outside of the wire every day, putting their lives in danger.”
It was a long way from the world Vaught, now 36, left behind. (Moviegoers can see just how different it was when Road to Fallujah, a documentary featuring Vaught, is released in the spring.) A graduate of Baylor University who grew up on a ranch west of Fort Worth, he received his degree from South Texas College of Law in 1997. He had been working as an attorney at Franklin, Cardwell & Jones since 2002. Based in the dangerous Anbar province, Vaught and the other members of his Civil Affairs unit were attached to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. “A cav regiment’s a very tough organization, but very light on personnel,” Vaught says. “So we had 5,000 soldiers for an area the size of Wyoming. We only had about 70 troops to cover Fallujah, a city of a quarter-million Iraqis. This is an area Saddam had trouble controlling.”
The summer of 2003 was particularly bad. Fallujah was filled with former Iraqi soldiers, some retired, some simply out of work. The retired ones wanted pensions; the others wanted jobs. The water system was failing, and afternoon temperatures routinely approached 130 degrees. Between the soldiers and the water, civil unrest was inevitable.
“They’re protesting by the hundreds on the wall of our compound, and we’ve got six U.S. soldiers in there,” Vaught says. “I’m thinking, ‘Two months ago, I was a lawyer in Dallas, Texas, and now I’m in the middle of Fallujah with all these people mad at me because I can’t get them paid.’ ”
Vaught was working out of the mayor’s office in Fallujah six days a week, only staying away on the holy day. His base of operations and what he did there—meetings with tribal and municipal leaders—earned him the unofficial title “Mayor of Fallujah.” He acted the part, traveling to the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the Coalition Provisional Authority was headquartered, looking for help. He needed money to beef up Fallujah’s police force. He needed money to fix the water system. He needed money to quell the burgeoning uprising among the ex-Iraqi soldiers. Basically, he needed money.
“The Iraqis had this mind-set that if we could put a man on the moon, we could magically pave their streets with gold,” Vaught says. “I’m really not exaggerating.”
But there wasn’t enough money to go around. The Iraqi soldiers, with too much time on their hands and too much training, were easy recruits for the insurgents. They raided the abandoned weapons depots the regiment didn’t have the manpower to protect, and soon improvised explosive devices (or IEDs) became an occupational hazard.
“One of my team sergeants was concerned that the cavalry guys thought we were soft Greenpeace types,” says Ed Palacios, a captain in the same Civil Affairs unit as Vaught. “I kept telling him, ‘Our job is as dangerous or more than theirs. They go out in an M1 tank. We go out in a vehicle with no doors.’ ”
After six months in Fallujah, Vaught relocated to Sadr City, a Baghdad slum, to continue his “hearts and minds” campaign. It was a slight step up from the constant attacks of Fallujah. “The sewage system was designed for 600,000 people but yet 2.5 million—by our best estimate—lived there,” Vaught says. “So human sewage just flowed through the streets.”
Hence, the Sadr City Sh– Bomb, which is what they later nicknamed the IED that blew up Vaught. It was buried in human waste. His team encountered it on the way to the Green Zone to get medical care for two Iraqi girls. Actually, it was one of two bombs. They exploded one after the other and were followed by what Vaught calls “whizzes and pings.” Confused and deafened by the attack, it took him a few moments to realize it was incoming small arms fire from at least four directions. He had combat experience prior to this in Fallujah, but nothing that intense and never with such a small defensive force—just eight U.S. soldiers.
In a way, though, he was lucky. Oftentimes, IEDs are loaded with shrapnel and designed to kill or severely wound. But these two, 20 pounds each of solid PE4 (a British-made plastic explosive), were part of an organized ambush. The insurgents didn’t want to kill the soldiers, necessarily. They wanted to capture them.
Vaught was riding in the bed of a Humvee when the ambush happened, which offered little in the way of protection. Thousands of Humvees were sent to Iraq, but only a couple of hundred were equipped with armor. His wasn’t one of them.
Allen Vaught’s spinal column broke in four places. He also suffered from torn and herniated disks in his back and nerve and hearing damage. While the bones have healed, he hasn’t fully recovered from the injuries to his nerves, and the disks have yet to return to normal. More than three years later, he still has to attend regular physical therapy sessions. But he’s not complaining. “So many other soldiers have it so much worse than me,” he says.
The attack earned Vaught a Purple Heart—and a medical discharge. The former allowed him to carry on the family tradition of decorated veterans. The latter allowed him to get a head start on the next phase of his life in public service. The first phase took Vaught to Fallujah. The current one brought him to Austin via District 107. Could the next stop be Washington, D.C., and Kay Bailey Hutchison’s seat in the Senate?
He laughs when the subject comes up. But is it all that funny? One thousand political consultants banging away on 1,000 MacBooks couldn’t come up with a better résumé for the ideal Democratic candidate. A young family man with a chest full of medals who actually gets excited—and more important, can get others excited—about a $400 pay raise for teachers. Vaught could play the same role Barack Obama did at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the upstart who steals the spotlight from the bigger names.
It’s tough to say what will happen, since Vaught can’t even seem to keep it straight. One moment, he says he’s ready to give it all up and concentrate on being a father and husband. Then he says he intends to stay in the state rep job for another two or three terms. Then he says people have approached him about running for lieutenant governor. Does that sound like a man who has completely ruled out anything?
Vaught doesn’t have to make a decision right away. All he has to do, really, is what he tried to do from his office in downtown Fallujah: get his constituents what they need and stay out of harm’s way. The only difference is that now, instead of IEDs, he has to watch out for little old ladies who sit at the back of rooms and absolutely will not stop talking. They’re still dangerous, but they probably won’t break his back.
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