He is a decorated war veteran. But, in politics, he is just another candidate. A candidate who is finding out words matter.
Retired Lt. Col. Steve Russell served in the Army for 21 years, which included tours in Kosovo, Afghanistan and his last assignment in Iraq. Russell's efforts in Iraq are his greatest source of honor. Now that he's running for the state Senate District 45 seat, the south Oklahoma City Republican has found the war to win votes can sometimes be as difficult as the war to win the peace.
Just like 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry found himself defending his Vietnam war record, Russell is having to explain his role in one of the Iraq war's biggest events " the capture of Saddam Hussein.
"The notion that we were not involved or we just happened to be in the area, we had very little to do with the Saddam capture "¦ is absurd," Russell said during an interview with Oklahoma Gazette.
The retired military officer is well aware of the rumors which have floated in the campaign and on the Internet that he is overselling his part in the Saddam capture. Russell flatly denies the assertion.
Russell was asked about a news article by Agence France-Presse published just a few days after Saddam was apprehended in December of 2003. The article starts with Russell spray painting over images of the former Iraqi dictator at the time of the capture. A few paragraphs later, the story states the unit Russell commanded was upset they did not get to take part in grabbing Saddam.
"Russell and his troops had played a key role in the run-up to (the Dec. 13) arrest, but, much to their chagrin, were not in on the final operation conducted by fellow 4th Infantry Division soldiers. 'We batted for eight innings and someone else got the ninth,' said Sgt. Cesar Garcia, using a baseball analogy," the story reads.
However, Russell points out he and his men of the 1st Brigade, 22nd Battalion of the 4th Infantry Division were in position around the farm where Saddam was hiding, along with hundreds of other troops, the day of the raid. They helped form what Russell called a "cordon," which was assembled to make sure nobody got out.
"We were on standby because we did not know the exact location of Saddam," Russell said.
HOLE IN THE GROUND
A group of five soldiers from another unit came across a hole in the ground on the farm, Russell said, covered by a rug, where inside the former Iraqi dictator was waiting. Saddam was pulled up, arrested and quickly moved out of the area. Russell received word of the capture through a secure communication line.
Did Russell and his men make the find and arrest? No. However, Russell said that does not mean he and his troops did not take part in the raid.
"They (Saddam's captors) deserve a great deal of credit," Russell said, "but to say that my unit was not involved in the hunt and capture is an absolute absurd statement."
The retired lieutenant colonel backs up his version, not just with his recount of that day's events, but of the months that led to the capture. Russell's unit apprehended several members of Saddam's family, body guards and Republican Guard who provided key information on Saddam's whereabouts. Several of these captures are well documented in press releases from the U.S. Department of Defense and news reports.
VALOROUS UNIT AWARD
Russell is also happy to show off the letter he received when given the Valorous Unit Award, which describes the effort to capture Saddam.
"Why would the Army award something like that if we were not involved in the hunt and capture?" Russell said.
The war veteran's first run for elected office couldn't be much tougher. The race to replace term-limited Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson has drawn four candidates. Along with Russell, former Oklahoma City councilman Jerry Foshee, Kyle Loveless, Rep. Ernest Istook's former legislative assistant, teachers Melinda Daugherty and Marty Gormley are vying for the job. The district covers much of Moore and southwest Oklahoma City.
No Democrats filed for the office, so it's a winner-take-all Republican primary unless no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. A runoff election will be held in August between the two top finishers from Tuesday's primary election. "Scott Cooper