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From rubble of 9/11 to quagmire of Iraq

He was twice buried in debris at ground zero. Now fighting overtakes his economic mission.

By KRIS HUNDLEY
Published December 9, 2006


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Gregory Amira, a University of South Florida graduate and former Tampa stockbroker, survived being buried in debris from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Twice.

Now he is stuck in the quagmire of Iraq.

Amira, a 37-year-old captain in the Army Reserve, was sent in April to the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala as part of a 14-person economic development team. Its mission: help Iraqi farmers make more money from their crops.

His unit, assigned to the multi-agency Provincial Reconstruction Team, was supposed to be the equivalent of an economic SWAT team, swooping in and revving up the area's financial engine to create prosperity and dispel violence.

On the drawing board were a honey bee processing center, greenhouses with drip irrigation, and a processing and packaging center for the area's dates.

Amira, formerly a vice president at Morgan Stanley's headquarters in the World Trade Center, hoped to use his financial background to train farmers to write business plans and apply for micro loans.

But the reality of war has short-circuited those plans and drained Amira's enthusiasm.

The Diyala Province, which stretches from northeast of Baghdad to the Iranian border, is a highly combustible mix of Shiite, Sunni and Kurds, nearly as violent as Baghdad. There's evidence al-Qaida has moved its operations into the area.

"Security has gone down the tubes," Amira said in a recent phone interview. "We take two steps forward and five steps back. We start projects, but it is very difficult to finish them."

Amira, who won an ROTC scholarship at USF and studied Arabic as part of his major in international studies, would seem suited for the task in Iraq.

And his experience on Sept. 11, 2001, provided terrifying insights into the crisis ahead.

Sept. 11 experience

Amira, whose office was on the 73rd floor of the World Trade Center's Tower 2, ran into the lobby of the first tower after it was hit.

As he was trying to help the injured, he was buried in debris.

A fireman rescued him and led him to a supposedly safe place where Amira was again buried when the second tower collapsed. Five hours later, he was unearthed, regaining consciousness in the hospital. His clothes had been ripped off, his elbow exposed through the skin and the back of his head burned.

Amira, a divorced dad, spent the next four years in New York City on disability. A financial whiz kid who had made a six-figure salary, Amira suddenly found himself prone to panic attacks. He would forget to pick up his daughter, now 14, and disappear for days.

In spring 2005, his mother, Marlene Weisbrot, could stand it no more. She dragged Amira home with her to New Port Richey and put him to work laying tile or mowing lawns for neighbors. Then about a year ago, the Army activated his Reserve unit. Confident that he would get a medical discharge, Amira was stunned to find otherwise.

"They told him he could resign his commission or go," Weisbrot said. "They said, 'You're breathing, you're going.' They needed him."

Though Weisbrot worries about her son carrying 60-pound packs with a bad back, she said the assignment to Iraq has given him a new purpose in life.

"As much as I don't want him to be there, it has gotten his mind back in gear," said Weisbrot, who saw her son briefly when he was home on leave in September.

More to worry about

Six days a week, Amira's unit goes out into the field, traveling in a three-Humvee convoy.

Amira meets regularly with the provincial governor and flies to Baghdad twice a month to report on his unit's progress. Among its accomplishments: a newspaper that publishes twice a week and a TV and radio station that broadcast sporadically.

Plans for a business center have fallen through. A food processing plant, which would employ 400 people, is nearly complete, but the opening has been repeatedly delayed.

"Now we're about to complete some make-work programs to get people off the streets and put money in their hands," Amira said. "They'll be doing sanitation and canal cleaning for the farmers."

That's a far cry from what the reconstruction team had in mind when it arrived in Diyala eight months ago. But Amira is not ready to quit.

"Tell Bush to send more troops," he said. "If we leave too soon, we will have to return. Then we'll just be fighting people trained by us, using our equipment."

Times researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or 727 892-2996.

[Last modified December 9, 2006, 06:56:33]


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