Steve Hemphill, of Monett, Mo., spent 17 months in Iraq. Not as a soldier, but as a U.S. Department of State consultant working to establish an Iraqi justice system.
Officially, Hemphill was senior consultant-justice at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a White House appointment he held for a year. Prior to that, he was senior legal advisor to the Ministry of Justice/Prisons for the U.S. Defense Department during the time of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
It was a job unlike any other. Hemphill’s first full day in Iraq began like this: “First words uttered, ‘Good Morning’ are followed by a massive blast, which sent everybody to the floor and scurrying away from the windows, though none were broken,” he wrote Jan. 18, 2004, for a “Dispatches from Baghdad” feature that appeared on the Web site of William Jewel College, Hemphill’s alma mater.
That blast would kill six. “A memorable start to what will surely be a memorable tour of duty in Iraq,” he wrote.
And memorable Hemphill’s tour was. More car bombings than could be counted. War noise that kept him up at night and prayer calls from mosques that woke him up before the sun.
Great reformation had to happen in prisons, which had been independently operated. Hemphill helped establish a national prison system held accountable to international standards of care and human rights, preventing situations like a 300-capacity prison south of Baghdad that once held 2,500.
“That would have required taking turns lying down to sleep at night,” he wrote in one of many e-mails he sent to family and friends during his Iraq assignment.
Judicial reform was another priority. Judges believed to be corrupt were fired.
“We hired new judges whom we felt were committed to changing Iraq. The ongoing training of the new judiciary is a key to the elimination of corruption as a mindset,” Hemphill said.
During Hemphill’s tenure, nearly $1 billion was spent for justice reform with the overall challenge of developing democracy.
“Democracy is a relative thing. For those who are sacrificed in the pursuit of it, it immediately becomes irrelevant. The rewards of democracy are reserved for those who don’t sacrifice everything,” he wrote.
In June, Hemphill returned home–to grass beneath his shoes instead of sand, to cool Diet Dr Peppers on summer days in Missouri, and to driving in vehicles without weapons or convoys behind.
Hemphill spent 13 years as a prosecutor, last serving as district attorney in Missouri. While he lived in Liberty, Mo., he was a member of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship partner church Second Baptist Church. He has also been involved in CBF of Missouri, currently serving on the missions committee and having twice traveled on CBF trips to China.
Iraq is still the hotspot it was before Hemphill arrived.
“Problems existed before my arrival and will remain long after my departure…. The positives of this experience far outweigh the negatives. [But] if I was lying in a bed at Walter Reed Army Hospital, I might feel differently,” he wrote in his final e-mail.
But Hemphill is hopeful for Iraq. Although his job description didn’t include bringing spiritual hope to the area, it still happened.
“Jesus felt the need to walk all over Palestine sharing [the] Good News. The least I can do is try to follow His example,” Hemphill said. “We truly have given hope to the Iraqi people, and it has already opened the door for me and other Christians to share our more personal hope.”
In the Iraqi desert, not everything is as it seems; an oasis can be a mirage. Hemphill predicts many more years and lives will be lost before Iraq can be determined a peaceful democracy or not.
“Pray prospectively,” he wrote. “When it comes time to pray for Iraq: pray for an oasis.”
Carla Wynn is a staff writer for CBF Communications.