Photograph of VA Police Officer Evel Morales who spent 25 years in the US Army.
Thursday, August 4, 2011
Just looking at Evel Morales wouldn’t even begin to reveal the remarkable road he’s traveled. A Police Officer at the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System Manhattan Campus, he says the hardest part of his current job is checking IDs. But Morales is more than a gatekeeper. For over 20 years, he was an Army reservist while simultaneously serving as a New York City Police Officer.
“I wanted to be a Police Officer,” Morales said. “But I wanted to stay in the military because all my family has been in the military. Since World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm, the Morales’ have been there.”
Morales spent 25 years in the Army as infantry, paratrooper and an MP, and recently retired as an NYPD Detective after 21 years. But it wasn’t too long ago that he was stationed at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison as a desk sergeant.
The work – to make sure the prison functioned smoothly and to keep detainees safe and secure – was deceptively difficult. Morales arrived in Iraq to replace a unit that was being investigated for human rights abuses. The story, bolstered by controversial photographs, exploded in the media during the Spring of 2004, and eleven soldiers were ultimately convicted of wrongdoing.
“We were told that we were not going to embarrass the American government,” Morales said. “We were not going to damage the flag. We were not going to embarrass the Army, soldiers – especially the ones who died there – and everybody was professional. We ran everything by the book.”
But ensuring that things would remain professional at the prison was complicated. Religious divisions between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds made the threat of violence very real, and it was sometimes difficult to determine who would be responsible. Among the prison population were wahabis – Iraqi soldiers – who would try to stamp their authority on the prisoners and eliminate all challengers by force.
“We had a nice system. If you were good, you could walk around in the compound free and do what you want,” Morales said of Abu Ghraib. “If you were bad, you would go in the house, the little shack. And 90 percent of them wanted to be free.”
Accounting for the other 10 percent was no small task. After attacks, insurgents would frequently bury or hide their weapons and throw water on their faces to make it seem like they had been crying and blend in with the crowd. Morales’ work as an NYPD detective earned him the job of MP Investigator to try and sort through the mess.
“In the Police Department, every day I related to people,” Morales said. “As a detective, I was always talking and interviewing so when I met the detainees, all of that just came naturally to me.”