the lost american
tapes & Transcripts

FRONTLINE The Lost American Air Date: October 14, 1997

Written and Produced by:
Sherry Jones

Directed by:
Foster Wiley

Narrated by:
Harrison Ford

NARRATOR: He had come to the worst place on earth: Chechnya in the brutal winter of 1995. He was an American on a mission, heading to the place he told friends was the most frightening he'd ever been. For 25 years, he had saved tens of thousands of lives in the world's worst killing grounds. In Chechnya he thought he could beat the odds one more time and stop the slaughter. His name was Fred Cuny. He was a troubleshooter in the increasingly dangerous world of humanitarian relief.

DALENA WRIGHT, Friend: He cared desperately about the misfortunes of others and it was palpable in him.

NARRATOR: Cuny was a take-charge Texan who spent his life chasing trouble.

MARK MALLOCH BROWN, V.P., World Bank: There was also the sheer balls of just getting there and challenging any government official to stop him.

Lt. Gen. JAY GARNER (Ret.), Commander, Task Force BRAVO: Fred operated on the edge of the envelope and he was a risk taker. People like Fred generally make people in Washington nervous.

NARRATOR: But Cuny was a rebel with connections and in Chechnya no one was exactly sure what he was doing.

LARRY HOLLINGWORTH, Relief Operations Expert: It may well be that Fred's role was purely humanitarian and he was asked to do a little bit of moonlighting for Uncle Sam. But no one will ever know.

NARRATOR: On the 31st of March, Fred Cuny headed toward ground zero of the war. He never returned.

KURT SCHORK, Reuters News Agency: It's a mystery and that's the thing that's so upsetting about Fred's disappearance. He was a guy who would have come back with a hell of a story. And we just don't know what it was.

NARRATOR: Tonight, the complex life and mysterious disappearance of Fred Cuny, "The Lost American."

Fred Cuny spent the night before his final journey in this hotel, reading a thriller about a spy who disappears in a civil war much like the one in Chechnya. And inside his laptop computer, in letters and memos, he left behind - in his own words - the story of a life.

READER: [Fred Cuny's writing] As I write, the battle - and more important, the war - is far from over. But if people are in need and they're under fire, you've got to go where the people and the needs are. Risk comes with the territory.

BETH RABREN: He probably would have loved the ending. He would have loved the romance of that.

NARRATOR: Fred Cuny was a headstrong 19-year-old Texan when he met Beth Roush, the young woman he would marry.

BETH RABREN: He had a great deal of confidence in himself. I wasn't surprised at all with the things he ended up doing later on in life, not at all. When I met him, the main part of his life was to go as far as he could in the military.

DON STEVENSON, High School Friend: To serve your country in a uniform was a very noble endeavor at that point in time. Fred and the people that had the aspirations to be leaders, you do it by becoming an officer.

NARRATOR: At Texas A&M, Cuny was a Marine officer candidate, determined to join the band of heroes who were admired by men and loved by every woman.

READER: [Fred Cuny's writing] Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to fly. My earliest dreams were of flight, vivid images of high-speed runs low to the ground, stretched out like Superman.

NARRATOR: He dreamed of becoming a Marine aviator.

DON STEVENSON: I think when we would squnch down, he would be at the maximum height to be an aviator. When he stretched out, which he never did when there was a measuring stick around for them

STEVE STEVENSON, High School Friend: He was too tall.

DON STEVENSON: -he was too tall to be an aviator. But you know, he could convince them that he could compress his spinal cord or something.

BETH RABREN: He left A&M because the dormitory burned down and he was accused of having been part of that. And he would not tell who really had done it and so he got kicked out.

NARRATOR: That was the story he always told, along with what happened two years later, when a drunken taxi driver ran him over and shattered his leg.

BETH RABREN: And because of that he received a medical discharge from the Marine Corps. I mean, it really, really hurt terribly. It took him about a month to accept it and just go on.

Biafra 1969

NARRATOR: Fred Cuny found his life's work almost by accident half a world away from Texas. Starvation was a weapon in Nigeria's war against its breakaway enclave of Biafra. Survival depended on daring runs by freelance Western pilots, flying at night to evade Nigerian fire and landing on jungle airstrips with cargoes of food.

Cuny was 24 years old, a civil engineer, when he came to Africa for research. He would stay on as a volunteer, helping out in the airlift of relief supplies. They were, he said, the world's largest flying zoo, a mix of adventure seekers and do-gooders. The pay was high, but so were the risks.

LARRY HOLLINGWORTH, Relief Operations Expert: If you have these skills and if you want to display these skills and you want to use your skills, then that's the best place to be. But also, I have no doubt about it, it is the fact that it is exciting. It's the same reason why the journalists get hooked on war zones and whatever. I just think Fred was set on fire by it, that's for sure.

NARRATOR: For many in the humanitarian relief business, Biafra was the starting place. It was the beginning of the age of televised disasters. A shocked world watched in horror. But it was not just the hollow-eyed babies that unsettled Fred Cuny.

READER: [Fred Cuny's writing] I was a very small piece of the machinery in those days, but seeing the miserable conditions in the camps was enough to make me realize that the so-called experts didn't know their ass from a hole in the wall. Everybody was just shooting from the hip. Within a short time I was abandoning my career to become a full-time disaster relief specialist

MARK MALLOCH BROWN, V.P., World Bank: When we saw our friends on the first leg of careers as lawyers or bankers or accountants, to just, you know, have the sand in one's eyes and the- you know, be living under canvas and, you know, one's office to be the back of a Land Rover- I mean, we loved it and reveled in it. You know, we could measure day by day whether we had made a difference. This really was God's work.


NARRATOR: Cuny would return to Texas troubled by what he had seen. He created a company he called Intertect because, he said, it sounded better than "Save the Peasants." It would provide his engineering expertise to clients who would pay.

JINX PARKER, Intertect: Many lean years. Yes, we had no money. We didn't want anyone to know this, which was the beginning of a few of the tall tales. Fred decided to try and make Intertect succeed and one summer, for example, he was literally starving and went out and crop-dusted all summer to earn money because that's a high-paying job and he liked to fly. It's also dangerous. But that meant that he was gone all summer, trying to earn enough money so that he could live through the fall and continue to do what he wanted to do.

Guatemala 1976

NARRATOR: When a devastating earthquake convulsed Guatemala, Cuny, working freelance, flew his own Cessna from Dallas. More than 25,000 people had been killed. Nearly a million were left homeless.

REGGIE NORTON, Oxfam/UK: He sort of flew out of the sky. You know, he suddenly landed in his plane, you know, and there he was, you know? And this is not the way, really, that you normally get help in a disaster. You know, you normally have an agency coming in and talking to you. You don't get people flying in and saying, "Hey," you know, "do you want some help with your rebuilding and with your things here?"

NARRATOR: He had flown into a scene of utter destruction, bringing with him a big idea. Disaster relief could provide development opportunities for those who were suffering, if the local culture and the local economy were taken into account.

IAN DAVIS, Oxford Centre for Disaster Studies: I think he always made very rapid contact with local people and he absorbed that like a big sponge. All that information was fed into him and the speed with which he was able to grasp what was going on and distill it and come up with ideas was extraordinary. Some people said, "How can he do that so quickly?" And of course, sometimes it was wrong. But he- but at least he was able to make decisive observations. In an agency floundering around, that's what they needed. They wanted somebody who was exuding confidence in all this chaos and Fred would always exude confidence.

READER: [Fred Cuny's writing] If this earthquake hit Southern California, it would rattle the china, but it wouldn't kill thousands of people.

NARRATOR: The basic issue, he said, was the link between poverty and the vulnerability to disaster.

FRED CUNY: The thing that always upsets you to see, you know, it's always the people that are the poorest that get hurt the hardest. They don't suffer enough. They end up with earthquakes and hurricanes wiping them out.

NARRATOR: The massive shipments of what he called "junk aid" were driven more by the needs of the donors than the reality on the ground.

JINX PARKER: The goods that were being shipped in bore very little relation to what the people needed. And this was true of most relief efforts before that time, where there were stories that people in the United States had shipped down electric frying pans. You know, there's no electricity, but this is what people had on hand.

FRED CUNY: We try and encourage governments to think about creative ways of putting money into the economy. For example, right now there's a lot of attempts to try and get bulldozers to remove rubble. When you've 60 percent unemployment, why not hire people to do it?

IAN DAVIS: You saw this legacy of paternalism, people being given goodies and then wanting more goodies and sitting back, being spectators while other people sorted out their future. And we all thought this was a nonsense. These people, who have lost a lot, they need to be active and busy. But it was also a nonsense in terms of waste of resources. And so we felt that you had to spend money very wisely in that relief period because there's lots of money around, but it's going to stop very suddenly, as it always did.

READER: When you've got a natural tragedy, by God, use it. That can be far more effective than a guerrilla operation.

IAN DAVIS: The idea that Fred had, you can go straight into reconstruction. You can distribute corrugated sheeting. You sell it to people to avoid paternalism and then they can use the sheeting on top of their permanent house. So you set up training programs and you train them how to build safely. And they found good people to teach and Fred organized the program and it was breathtaking, really, because he had no precedent to work from. Very exciting.

NARRATOR: But he would discover early on that disaster work and politics were inseparable.

IAN DAVIS: I remember him only on one occasion sort of saying, "I wish we hadn't done that." Fred felt that his program, which he'd worked up with Oxfam and World Neighbors, had contributed to their vulnerability. They became community leaders in a program which was perceived by the right wing as being political agitation. He felt that people had been trained and had been killed in consequence and it troubled him very greatly.

READER: [Fred Cuny's writing] We went too far. We were naive.


NARRATOR: Cuny's outlaw gospel would begin to spread far beyond Texas and the book he wrote would become the bible for a new generation of aid workers.

BARBARA HENDRIE, Relief Consultant: He'd studied emergency work at a time when there weren't actually that many people who thought that emergency relief needed to be professionalized, so he came as a professional relief expert. So he had enormous expertise combined with a lot of talent in just motivating people and problem solving plus a breathtaking audacity.

IAN DAVIS: He would be the toast of the town when he'd be coming to speak at a conference. And you'd go to a conference and you'd have a lot of nonentity speakers and Fred would arrive late and come crashing in and people would- it was as if Father Christmas had arrived. You know, there would be a tremendous kind of excitement in it all, which was, I thought, a bit pathetic. But that's what happened. And so Fred quite liked that. That was the myth that he enjoyed.

DON KRUMM, Department of State (1982-96): Never a captive of one or another of the U.N. agencies, never a captive of a particular NGO. He wasn't full-time employed with those people, he would be on contract with them. So he would actually look to see what worked- what would work. I mean, he was really like a commanding general of an army, trying to figure out how to, you know, win the war in Europe.

Sudan 1985

NARRATOR: It would be known as the great Ethiopian famine. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians had fled drought and then civil war, escaping across the border to the deserts of Sudan in search of food.

DON KRUMM:The international community just didn't have what it took to respond in an effective manner to this enormous problem. We were experiencing death rates in Wadkali, one of the principal camps, that exceeded the siege of Leningrad, things that we'd never seen before. And we were throwing the kitchen sink at them.

CHRIS CUNY, Brother: I'll never forget arriving- arriving there. It was quite a shock. I mean, here's this Caucasian American that had never, you know, stepped foot in a developing country. And I got off the plane in Sudan and it was, like, "My God," you know, "where am I?" I mean, I thought that was the refugee camp and that was the capital city.

FRED CUNY: So we're going to have to take some- some fairly drastic steps to move on this.

CHRIS CUNY: And he's right in the middle of a discussion with a number of the relief agencies and the relief workers and some of the embassy people.

FRED CUNY: We've got to bring the death rate down. We've got to take some actions, some fairly drastic actions to.

CHRIS CUNY: And I just sat back and watched how everybody was transfixed on what he was saying, and the respect that they had. And finally they all left and it must have been 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and Fred looked at me and said, "Well, I'm glad to have you here, little brother." And he said, you know, "Where are those chocolate chip cookies?"

READER: [Fred Cuny's writing] The United Nations had been caught once again in a situation which, to many, had been brewing for over a year.

BARBARA HENDRIE, Relief Consultant: There hadn't been adequate preparation for a refugee influx, so what you had on the border was virtually a collapse of the capacity of the U.N., in particular, to handle what was happening. I think, actually, a lot of people died because of the camp environments, rather than the fact that they had come from a famine area.

FRED CUNY: So I'm no medical person, but I'd say overall these look okay.

Mike, good morning. Fred here. You about ready to go to Wadkali?

MIKE: Yes, I am, Fred.

NARRATOR: His innovations had revolutionized camp design, from simplified plans for latrines to his insistence that refugee tents be grouped in circles.

FRED CUNY: What we have here are some- these basic grids, which tend to isolate people and it's certainly the worst kind of layout that we could have. It's better than having no layout at all, but there are more humane environments we could be building. Normally, we try and form a different kind of unit to try and form villages and small communities.

READER: [Fred Cuny's writing] Of all my missions, the most controversial was Sudan. It challenged the beliefs upon which I built my career. For years I had maintained that a relief worker is ultimately accountable not to the donor, but to the refugees.

NARRATOR: But these were the years of the "evil empire" and third world countries were viewed as cold war battlegrounds, their conflicts yet another opportunity to gain superpower advantage.

BARBARA HENDRIE: The West was trying to woo Ethiopia away from the Soviet Union and back into the Western camp and one of the ways it thought it could do that was to be the aid provider.

NARRATOR: Although the Ethiopian famine was called a natural disaster, many were starving because they'd been forcibly displaced. But the West was willing to keep silent about how the suffering had come about.

BARBARA HENDRIE: There was a willingness to go along with the Ethiopian government program, assuming that that would somehow break the relationship between Ethiopia and the Soviet Union in an area that's very strategic, right along the Red Sea. He thought it was stupid and if you look at it, it was stupid. It was, essentially- I suppose this sounds a bit harsh, but it was essentially condemning about three million people to death by starvation because the U.N. was not able, because of its mandate, to send aid into those areas.

NARRATOR: The restrictive mandates which bound the U.N. to the wishes of its member nations, in effect, gave the Ethiopian government control over the refugees' fate.

FRED CUNY: You know, we're always dealing with a problem, we're not really dealing with the solutions. We're not able to get ahead of these situations. You know, this should never have happened. It's a- you know, the thing that always bothers me is, you know, people get really caught up in these really stupid little political wars - regional divisions, tribal divisions - and, you know, a few people making political decisions that result in thousands of other people being displaced and dying in God-forsaken places like this. You wonder why people can't get their act together and resolve issues peacefully. Well, it's a real failure of humanity. I think this is how we're going to be judged in the future.

CHRIS CUNY: There were a number of the refugees that started talking about wanting to go back because it was their planting season and they had to back, and if they were going to get their crops up and running, they had to go back at a certain time. And Fred was an advocate that, first of all, they had no choice but to let them go and, secondly, if they were going to go, that we should do or the relief community should do everything that they could to support them and help them get back.

BARBARA HENDRIE: The U.N. took a formal position that although people who wanted to return home couldn't be stopped if the return was indeed voluntary, that they would not be formally assisted by the U.N. And the reason for that was political: They would have needed the agreement of the Ethiopian government. But these people weren't going home to government-controlled areas. They were going to non-government, to rebel-controlled areas. So the U.N. would not establish an operational plan, how to assist this repatriation. So Fred drew up a plan.

READER: [Fred Cuny's writing] You go through a lot of moral torment in this business. It's no place for virgins. You're always asking yourself, "What's the least worst choice?"

NARRATOR: The refugees would be heading back to a place still at war. Their safety could not be assured.

MARK MALLOCH BROWN, V.P. World Bank: You know, these are big, big, larger-than-life problems, hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of people at risk. But in most government structures, far from bringing out the best, it brings out the pettiest. People retreat behind the bureaucratic ramparts and become more process-driven than ever. Their imagination just can't get itself around the sheer size of the human responsibility that they should be shouldering in a situation like this. And Fred cut through all that.

FRED CUNY: Well, hopefully, when it rains, if it rains also over on the other side, a large number of the people will be going back to Ethiopia. That's what we all hope. Chances are, though, the women will stay here with the families and the men will go back, try and get something planted. If it doesn't rain, we're going to be stuck. They'll be here for a long time.

NARRATOR: He would ignore U.N. mandates and the U.S. government. Along with other relief workers who agreed, he requisitioned trucks, collected seeds and tools and provided a 50-day ration of food to any refugee who wanted to return home.

DON KRUMM: He was not a rogue, except when he saw what he considered to be stupid or malevolent activity that really endangered life. He sweated bullets because he advocated helping them return. And if you're not hired, if you don't have- if you don't have the U.S. government or UNHCR or some entity saying, "Here's our man. We're standing by him," you have nothing. What's Intertect? It's just a little company.

CHRIS CUNY: We were watching the trucks come up the road, and there were literally, you know, 45 to 50 of these trucks, and they were making a convoy and snaking on this one asphalt road in Sudan. And Fred just shook his head and he looked at me and he said, "Chris," he said, "God damn it, I hope I'm right."

NARRATOR: The rains did come to Ethiopia and Cuny's myth grew, along with his reputation as the Texas renegade.

READER: [Fred Cuny's writing] It was quite obvious which way the winds were blowing. A gale force had developed, designed to push me back across the Atlantic.


NARRATOR: Cuny's marriage to Beth Roush lasted less than three years. When they divorced, Fred fought for and won custody of their son, Craig.

CRAIG CUNY: He told me one time when I was little, he said, "If I could fly and never had to come down, I would fly all the time." He said, "I would never- I would never land." My biggest regret about- about Fred going in the- in the- you know, my dad being gone is that, you know, now he won't be able to be a grandfather for my son and that my son won't know Grandpa Fred.

NARRATOR: But in some ways, Fred had left long ago, when he asked his parents to raise 4-year-old Craig and took to the road.

DONNA SANDERS: This is really when I first met Fred in Bangkok and we were playing tourist.

NARRATOR: Donna Sanders was one of many women drawn to Fred Cuny.

DONNA SANDERS: This is a fun one. We were in Sri Lanka for my birthday in '88. It says, "You're probably wondering why I called this meeting. To wish you a happy birthday." He was a generous man, you know? I don't know if he treated all his women- gave them a lot of gifts, but if he did, that's why he was always broke. One of the reasons.

MARK MALLOCH BROWN: He had, you know, a wonderful stream of relationships, of- and it wasn't, by the way, that, you know, he just picked off pretty, impressionable nurses or something, which might be the idea implied. It was not that at all. His women were the serious people who had been through other crises of this kind and were seasoned and could talk back at Fred on the business. And you know, in that sense, I suspect Fred's pillow talk was very much about rice rations and food chains and sanitation systems. But they seemed to love it.

DONNA SANDERS: It would have been hard to take him seriously. You knew he wasn't going to be committed. And a long-distance relationship that you're going to see somebody only every now and then probably didn't attract too many women. That's why you couldn't really take that too seriously. And also you couldn't take it seriously because you knew that the possibility that he was going to get hurt was very real and you would have really- maybe it was a protection. I'm sure a lot of it was a protection for me against possible future, you know, emotional pain. Yeah.

And then there's that whole thing, you know, when you find out that a man has a child and the parents- the grandparents are bringing up the child. Then there's that whole thing with, like, "Well, is that okay?" I mean, "Have you all, like, figured that out?" And then on the other hand, the kind of work that he was dedicated to, I guess he felt that would be what he had to do.

CRAIG CUNY: I think, you know, we all hate our parents and we all love them at different times and all that stuff. Growing up, you know, I mean I had my issues, you know, mainly just about him being gone so much. As- you know, as an adult, you know, I- it's not hard to look, you know, for things that he did that were so important and so incredibly, you know, giving, you know, to so many, you know, and you'd be pretty selfish to put yourself before all that and think that, you know, you were more important.

NARRATOR: If Craig justified the absences because he saw his father as a hero, Cuny - perhaps - needed to do the same. In a resume jotted to himself and found among his papers, he enlarged his own life. He called himself a U.S. Marine, a literary critic, a statesman. But the exaggerations disappear in the last line, where he wrote:

READER: [Fred Cuny's writing] "A poor father."


Pres. GEORGE BUSH: I can report to the nation aggression is defeated. The war is over.

NARRATOR: In the aftermath of the Gulf war, out of sight of the public celebration, the United States government had an embarrassing new problem. Kurds in Northern Iraq had risen up against Saddam Hussein, believing they had a promise from the U.S. to support their insurrection. But that support did not arrive. The Iraqis retaliated, the Kurds fled. Four hundred thousand of them moved north toward the mountains of Turkey, where they were not welcome. They were trapped and thought themselves betrayed.

The American military was suddenly diverted from a war footing and reassigned to a mission to take the political heat off Washington. It was dubbed "Operation Provide Comfort." Fred Cuny had increasingly promoted the notion that the military should be used in the toughest humanitarian emergencies. Here he saw a vacuum, stepped in and assumed the role of the civilian in charge.

KURT SCHORK, Reuters News Agency: When Fred first came to my attention on the top of the mountain, when he was there in his jeans and his cowboy boots, you know, there were other people there with me and we were all saying, "Who is this guy?" It was like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You know, "Who are those guys?" And somebody said, "Well, he must be CIA," and another person said, "No, he can't be CIA. It looks like he's getting something done."

NARRATOR: Using the military, Cuny promised, he could get the Kurds back home within two months.

VIC TANNER, Former Intertect Consultant: Fred was sort of the master camp builder. He wrote tomes, articles of training material about how to build a refugee camp and therefore he knew why one wishes to avoid refugee camps. Fred would always say, you know, "Don't ever let your daughter grow up in a refugee camp." And therefore he felt that, you know, "Never mind international law. Let's do what makes sense and get these people back down."

NARRATOR: Getting the Kurds out of the mountains and back to their homes inside Iraq meant intervening across the borders of a sovereign state.

JINX PARKER, INTERTECT: Fred just simply did not recognize that any rules applied to him. Or if he did recognize a barrier, there was always a way to get around it or over it or through it. It was a problem, of course, when you were dealing administratively with people like contract officers and frequently was told that they would never have anything further to do with him for the rest of his life. But usually they came around or new people would come in.

FRED CUNY: Are most of the people willing to go? Do most people want to go home now?

ROY WILLIAMS, V.P., International Rescue Committee: He wanted to get something done and he knew exactly how to get it done and he was willing to undertake any risk himself in order to accomplish it. And for him, he was the community. I mean, what he did everyone should be able to do and he really didn't understand why the rest of the world would lag a little behind.

NARRATOR: The first time they met, Fred Cuny called Roy Williams a coward.

ROY WILLIAMS: I went to a meeting, and Fred was at this meeting, and I was saying to some of the people with whom we were working, "Well, we're not going to go into this area because we don't have visas and we don't think it's quite safe." And Fred was very upset at that. He thought that demonstrated a considerable lack of bravery or whatever. I had a sense that- that Fred was thinking, "Boy, these NGOs are all wimps."

JINX PARKER: Fred was very, very proud of being a Texan. He loved wearing his cowboy boots out to the field. He loved being described as a hulk of a man, a big brawny Texan. And he- he was very pleased to be a native Texan. Unfortunately, he was actually born in Connecticut, but you were not allowed to talk about that.

MARK MALLOCH BROWN: As far as I was concerned, he'd built some of the biggest construction projects in the world, you know, flown some of the biggest planes and I suspect neither were absolutely accurately the case. But the point is, it was a legend that allowed him to do the things he could do and allowed him the oomph and the- the "get up and go" each morning to do what he did and, in that sense, it allowed him to walk on water. Who's to take that away from somebody?

KURDISH ELDER: When we meet someone like you, we see that the sun shines.

FRED CUNY: Well, don't expect too much. I'll do the best I can as a human. I'm not God.

NARRATOR: On his own, he had gone into the mountains to ask the Kurdish elders what it would take for them to move back home. And he promised that the U.S. military would guarantee their safety.

Lt. Gen. JAY GARNER (Ret.), Commander, Task Force BRAVO: I call them the "disaster junkies" because every one of them shows up wherever there's a disaster and have this passion about them to right wrongs. The problem with Fred was that he thought he outranked you about half the time.

NARRATOR: The U.S. was willing, legally or not, to force the return of the Kurds and that worked in his favor.

Lt. Gen. JAY GARNER: Fred was a leader so he could get things done.

NARRATOR: They moved into Northern Iraq in a first test of Iraqi will.

Lt. Gen. JAY GARNER: There was Fred and a bunch of Marines, probably 15 or 20 of them. And I said, "Fred, what on earth are you doing?" And he said, "I'm pitching humanitarian tents." I kind of turned and I thought a minute and turned and I said, "Fred, where'd you get the Marines?" He said, "I got them off that ridge line over there." And I looked up and he had every one of our mortar crews pitching tents. I looked and I said, "Fred, that's our mortar crews." And he kind of smiled and he said, you know, "I know who they are," and he said, "If we get in any trouble, I'll send these boys back to their mortars." Fred never asked for permission to do anything. He might beg forgiveness every now and then - rarely - but he never asked for permission.

READER: [Fred Cuny's writing] Dear Susan: Like the Joker said to Batman, what toys I have! Sometimes I have to tell my staff to cut me down to size so my ego won't run away with me. But God, it's great to have all the things we need and a virtually unlimited budget.

NARRATOR: No one knew how much Fred Cuny craved success here because no one knew the secret of a very early failure. He was never a Marine- not because a drunken taxi driver shattered his leg, but because he himself had shattered his dream. Cuny was discharged from Marine officer training for failing to graduate from college on time. He had repeatedly flunked foreign languages. He was 21 years old. He told no one the truth, but he kept the letter busting him from the Marines for the rest of his life.

In Northern Iraq, the plan that had seemed improbable was working. By the thousands the Kurds would flood the tent city the U.S. forces had built. But they refused to move further, to return to the town of Dahouk, which was still outside the security zone. The temporary camp had swelled to 58,000 people.

READER: [Fred Cuny's writing] There were not enough tents and latrines to keep pace with the new arrivals. It soon appeared as if a giant slum was forming. Clearly, Dahouk had to be included in the security zone.

KURT SCHORK, Reuters News Agency: Fred was right in the center of this thing. Fred was a substantial part of the glue in Northern Iraq- not just the brain, but the glue. He gave a sense of direction and he helped hold the whole thing together.

NARRATOR: Expanding the security zone risked renewed confrontation with Saddam's military. Washington withheld permission.

KURT SCHORK: I mean, this was a sort of a bit of a marginal operation, in terms of whether they were really authorized to do it. You know, they thought they were rolling the dice.

NARRATOR: Without orders, the civilians, led by Cuny and protected by a small contingent of Marines, moved into Dahouk.

KURT SCHORK: They got away with this gambit, if you will, by going down in force, bristling, as it were, and the Iraqis just withdrew. And it expanded the safe area enormously and, again, created the volume of space that was necessary to make this relief effort work.

There was a tremendous sense of camaraderie among these guys who had spent a lot of time in a pretty unpleasant place.

SOLDIER: Welcome to Transit Center 3. Sir, this is Fred Cuny. Fred.

GEN. COLIN POWELL, U.S. Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Ah, yes. I've heard a great deal about you, Fred.

Lt. Gen. JAY GARNER: He was part of the team from day one. You know, he air-mobiled over with the Marines, so I mean, he was the only civilian that did, so he was always one of us and we wouldn't have had it any other way.

VIC TANNER, Former Intertect Consultant: And it ended on July 15th, 1991, when the last allied troops and last U.S. troops pulled out of Northern Iraq and he, with the senior officers, walked across the bridge that crosses the river that separates Turkey and Iraq. And he said something to the effect that had his career, had his life even ended right then, it would have been beautiful.


home .  who killed fred cuny .  map of cuny's world .  from his laptop .  on the life .  his radio interviews .  special reports .  pursuing whitewater .  links .  viewer discussion .  press reaction .  tapes & transcripts
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
PBS Online