This Iraq war veteran goes back to Iraq on a different mission: to save the wetlands

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Another casualty of the war in Iraq is the environment. Carina Roselli saw that firsthand. She's a former US Army helicopter pilot. While flying that chopper, she took note of Iraq's dwindling marshlands down below. So, after returning to the US, she decided to go back to help revive those marshlands. She's been back already with a group called Nature Iraq.

Carina Roselli: The flat desert landscape was striking, especially when you add to the fact that I was seeing it through night vision goggles, so everything becomes even more stark. Rivers were actually channelized canals. A lot of it was straight lines. In fact, it contributed quite a bit to spatial disorientation while flying. But the area that I was in, there was just very few signs of biodiversity or green life of any kind. It was striking to me and very, very surprising to have learned that it was once the largest marshlands in the Middle East.

Werman: What are the goals of the Nature Iraq foundation? What are you trying to do?

Roselli: Well, first I should probably say that I am just an avid supporter of Nature Iraq, I'm no longer necessarily a staff member. That being said, Nature Iraq started by returning to the marshes after the fall of Saddam. Dr. Alwash, who was actually a resident of not the marshes but of that region of the country, was shocked to find the marshes in the condition that he did. He being an environmental engineer from the US, an Iraqi-American, decided to devote himself to this engineering project to try and reflood the marshes. That just grew into an impressive and vast program that works with many, many other organizations to try and restore not just the environment but the biodiversity, the aquatic industry and the cultural aspects of the land.

Werman: I have to say, you must see the inner workings of the Iraqi government and its ability to deal with protecting the marshes in a way that you rarely saw when you were there in the Army.

Roselli: Certainly. I don't know if it's shameful to say, but when I was there as a soldier, that's not our mission, at least not mine as a helicopter pilot; it's not mission to know those things. I can only fit so many things in my operational mindset. I had very little understanding of the Iraqi government or the transitional government at the time. It's been really fascinating and sometimes difficult to learn more and more about how the Iraqi government functions and what its environmental prognosis really is.

Werman: Are you hopeful that they can restore the marshes to some semblance of their original state, which would be decades ago now?

Roselli: Yes, I'm very, very hopeful. The government has set a goal of reaching 75% restoration of 1976 baseline. That is not going to be easy but I do have hopes, especially now that the land, the central marshes, in any case part of the marshes, have been officially named Iraq's first national park, hopefully the first of several that are in the making. But it's a big step to have been declared a national preservation area and I think that that will certainly help. But the bigger issue for whether it's really going to be possible is whether the water will simply be available from upstream. That's an issue that's transboundary - that includes Turkey, Iran and Syria. So there are many competing interests and many factors that are in play but I'm ever an optimist, so I'm still hopeful.

Werman: The water is a big question, but that national park, that's good news. John Muir would be proud.

Roselli: Yes, it's very big news.

Werman: Carina Roselli, a US Army veteran, now an environmental lawyer, speaking with us from Washington.