As published in SOFlete:
Michael Patrick “Mick” Mulroy is a man unused to publicity. He’s spent a professional lifetime expressly avoiding it. But eventually the time comes when even a Central Intelligence Agency Paramilitary Operations Officer has to step out of the shadows. For Mick, now retired from the CIA, that time is now. As a classic scrappy Irish-American with a love for boxing, a covert warrior, and a U.S. Marine, Mick Mulroy has never backed down from a fight. A career spent in conflict zones attests to that. Mick is exceedingly humble. I’ve known him for more than a decade, during which he’s never told stories nor mentioned the Intelligence Star awarded him for “voluntary acts of courage performed under hazardous conditions or for outstanding achievements or services rendered with distinction under conditions of grave risk”. Now Mick serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy, responsible for developing and enacting US defense policy for Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. But Mick is also on a personal mission, a mission to stop the inhuman practice of using children soldiers.
The United Nations Secretary-General publishes an annual report on children and armed conflict. The 2017 report identified 14 countries where children were widely used by armed groups during 2016; Afghanistan, Colombia, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen; and six countries where state armed forces were using children in hostilities; Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Syria. It’s a problem in many areas of the world, but is emblemized in the horrors wrought by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda.
Mick and his best friend Eric “Olly” Oehlerich, a Navy SEAL officer, produced and directed a documentary called “My Star in the Sky”. The film stars, and is about, Anthony Opoka, now a retired Captain in the Ugandan Army. Anthony worked as a cultural advisor to the joint US and Ugandan Counter-LRA mission called Operation Observant Compass where he revealed that he was not only a former member of the LRA, but had been Joseph Kony’s personal radio operator. Anthony was abducted and forced to serve as a child soldier for ten years. The information he provided proved key to the effort to end the LRA and bring other abducted child soldiers home.
As part of the next chapter in their lives, Mick and Olley intend to focus on how to end low intensity conflicts, eliminate the use of child soldiers, and help rehabilitate the victims back into society. As part of that effort, they’ve screened “My Star in the Sky” and given talks at Yale University and The Atlantic Council. I sat down with Mick to talk about “My Star in the Sky”, Anthony and Florence Opoka, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the future.
Where did you come from? By which I mean, tell me about your life and how you come to be DASD Middle East now?
I spent most of my career as a CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer in conflict zones. If I have a specialty or expertise that is it. The Department of Defense, under Secretary Mattis, was looking for nonpartisan and apolitical individuals that spent a lot of time in the conflict areas for which they would be responsible. That is where I focus my efforts. That said, there is more to being a DASD than conflict areas. I had a lot to learn on all the other areas of defense policy. I had, and have, an extraordinary team of policy professionals assisting me.
Coming from a world where anonymity and avoiding the limelight is key, what has this been like for you? What has it been like going from CIA to doing publicity?
I am an introvert who spent a career outside of the spotlight. I liked that. The public nature of this job was the most difficult part. I think my team had to push me on that front. It was truly an honor of a lifetime just to be counted among their ranks of a Paramilitary Officer. I was humbled every day by the people I served with. They are some of the most dedicated, talented and honorable warriors and they directly reflect the communities they come from – Army Special Forces and Rangers, Navy SEALS, Marine Recon and MARSOC Raiders and a few standard issue Marines like me. My son likes to point out that he is the ‘Michael Mulroy’ who is a Recon Marine.
After an adulthood spent in conflict zones, why is child soldiering your issue?
Children should be left out of wars started mostly by old men who have never been on the business end of an AK or M4. I became very close to the subject of “The Star in Our Sky”, Anthony and Florence Opoka, as did Olly’s and my families. Stopping the victimization of children forced into soldiering is an effort I will follow and fight for till the end of my life.
Tell me about the Lord’s Resistance Army and how/why the conflict in Uganda began?
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), also known as the Lord’s Resistance Movement, operated in northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They claimed to want democracy and had a philosophy that blended Christianity and Acholi nationalism. Joseph Kony’s cousin, Alice Auma was the original leader, but Kony took over and ran it as a cult of personality. He declared himself a prophet. He capitalized on the fact that the Acholi were left out of the political power system and the government spent very little (and still does not spend much) in their area. The LRA actually had some early success and marched toward Uganda’s capital, Kampala, in 1987. They were wildly out gunned and lost. The LRA would have failed early on if it wasn’t for Sudan funding and supporting them.
What is Joseph Kony’s/The LRA philosophy?
It’s a mixture of Catholicism, Pentecostal, Muslim and a lot of the mysticism of the Acholi culture, distorted for Kony’s purposes. This mysticism included the multiple-personalities of Kony speaking for people already dead. He also dressed as a woman and had female personalities. The Acholi were largely marginalized people in the North and their tribe lost power when Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Army took over in 1986. The Acholi were used by the British in the African Rifles and they had a history of being good soldiers. The LRA was started by a bunch of former Ugandan soldiers that were Acholi. Their stated goal was to overthrow Museveni and install a government based on the Ten Commandments. It’s really a personality cult, though not much of one at this point.
How many child soldiers did Kony have at the height of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s existence?
That is a difficult number to nail down. The New York Times has it as over 20,000 children abducted and forced to be soldiers in the LRA. The Enough Project (https://enoughproject.org/conflicts/lra) says it is over 67,000 since 1987, abducted for use as child soldiers, sex slaves, and porters.
How did a child come to be an LRA child soldier?
It is one of the hardest, most brutal, indoctrinations I have ever heard of, US military included. After being forcibly abducted by the LRA, children were forced to run through the mountains and then stand in freezing streams. If they fell out, they were bayoneted. They also went for days standing in silence with no food or water. If they survived that, they got weapons and small unit tactics training and then indoctrination in the demented philosophy of Joseph Kony.
What is the current state of the LRA?
The LRA is what academics call a “Failed Insurgency”. They are left with just over a hundred fighter basically acting as bandits. They are not a credible insurgency against any country anymore.
What about Joseph Kony?
Kony is very ill and spends all his time trying to avoid capture. With the fall of Bashir, his days may be numbered.
Tell me about Anthony and Florence Opoka and why they were so important to defeating the LRA?
Anthony is from the small village of Rwot Obillo. He still lives there with his wife Florence and their kids, Uma Kenneth, Boniface, Juliet, Casandra, and their twins Mark Ocen and Michael Oyanga. By US standards, their lives are very primitive. There are not many roads and those that exist are dirt. They live in dug huts with grass roofs and sleep on weaved mats. They use fire for light. There’s no running water or electricity. They walk three miles to drink out of a river, so malaria is a problem.
Anthony was a quiet kid who loved to run. Importantly to his ultimate escape from the LRA, he learned to navigate by the stars at night because he lived so far out and he used to bring fruit to villages to sell for his dad. He was Catholic and served as an altar boy (as did Joseph Kony). Anthony was taken by the LRA when he was trying to defend his mother from assault. His brother was taken with him and later died in combat. Anthony talked the LRA into releasing his two younger brothers. They later both played parts in the “My Star in the Sky”.
Florence was taken from her village, Amia’bil, which is even more remote than Anthony’s. She loved school and singing in the choir. She was paralyzed by an unknown disease as a toddler and her mother had to carry her for over a year. After she was abducted by the LRA she was forced to “marry” an LRA commander and was repeatedly raped before she even got to puberty. That LRA commander died and she met Anthony after he was critically wounded by an RPG. Her commander made fun of her for liking him, calling him a “broken boy”. She still calls him her broken boy. Anthony’s friend later helped Florence and their two boys escape on foot.
They were both so critical to the fight because they had the credibility to persuade other child soldiers to put down their guns and come out of the bush. Many armies use children as soldiers, but the LRA was unique in that almost all of them were children. I spoke to many of our folks embedded with the Ugandan Peoples Defense Force. None of them wanted to actually force an engagement with the LRA because nobody wanted to kill kids. So the effort was primarily on the influence campaign to get them to defect and get them to keep moving to where they could get out. The hunt for Kony was another part of it. But the scope of the area in which he moves is immense. As an example, just in the Central African Republic he was in an area the size of California.
How do you deprogram an LRA, or any, Child Soldier?
There is a process that requires getting the village to accept them back and then providing vocational training and employment. Anthony and Florence are deeply involved in this and give much of what little resources they have to the effort. It is complex because of social conditions in a lot of the villages and the belief of the Child Soldiers themselves that they are beyond redemption. That was part of Kony’s plan. He forced them into committing acts that would separate them from the main of their culture.
How many people are there like Anthony and Florence?
Many. But most of them don’t have the happy ending Anthony and Florence do.
What is the current state of Ugandan, United Nations, and Non-Governmental Efforts?
The Ugandans consider it over. I am not sure if the UN are still up there in northern Uganda. There are still NGOs up there. I speak to a lot of them and many of them have shown an interest in “My Star in the Sky”. Some, like Invisible Children (https://invisiblechildren.com), attended the first screening. With the Kony 2012 documentary in 2011, a lot of attention was focused on the problem. It got overwhelming bipartisan support because of the atrocities and the children being forced to be soldiers. That led to President Obama ordering US involvement through Operations Observant Compass.
Can you talk about that Counter LRA effort, Operation Observant Compass?
Yes, this was led by the country team in Kampala. Africa Command and Special Operations Command Africa provided the majority of the force from the US side. Elements from them were in tactical control of the effort and I worked very closely with them. They and their troops deserve a lot of credit for the success of the mission. It is really a model of how to do COIN with the fewest lives lost.
Let’s talk about “My Star in the Sky”. How did this film come to be?
Anthony was instrumental in the study how the Ugandans prosecuted the counter-insurgency campaign prior to US involvement. That led to me fully understanding Anthony’s story. I recruited Olly and several others to assist and we recorded the story the best we could. It is all amateur footage using iPhones and GoPros. The credits are all in the closing of the film, but Mark Rausenberger, my goddaughter’s father, essentially learned Final Cut Pro and pushed for me to make this more professional looking. The film is dedicated to him as he passed away before it was finished. Brina Bunt did a lot of the photographs, certainly the really good ones. Cara Dana, a retired Chief Warrant Officer who was working in the Defense Attaché office in Kampala, really gave us a lot of help. I had to promise major news network that it was in fact done by amateurs and not a professional company who made it to look like amateurs did it. I was both offended and flattered.
What has been the interest level in this film?
We have had several well-known directors watch it and state that they are interested and several actors say the same. A major new network is also interested in doing a spot on one of their programs and has already interviewed Anthony in Uganda. There is also a best-selling author looking at doing the book.
You were a CIA Officer and Olly is a SEAL, what reviews were required to get this film made and published?
It was reviewed by the CIA’s Publication Review Board and approved. It has nothing to do with the United States. It all takes place before we were involved. We deliberately cut any picture or voice of an American out of it. We wanted this to purely be a story about Anthony and Florence and not one about the US or the West. Naval Special Warfare is aware of the film as well and has approved it.
Where do you want this effort to go?
I would like the documentary to be used to help raise awareness for the problem and money for NGOs that already exist and have proven their effectiveness. We decided to just support already existing NGOs vice starting a new one. But the Lobo Institute is the group Olly and I are starting to study how to end conflicts around the world and raise awareness about the issue of child soldiers. I see potential for a movie, book, a series…whatever, as long as there’s a portion going to the cause and we can help the Opokas and their children. They all still live in the huts in Rwot Obillo and struggle to make ends meet. I hope it is turned into something that has a very broad audience and it forces the issue into every international agreement that is signed between countries until the scourge of child soldiering no longer exists.
Even with the LRA more or less gone, Child Soldiering is clearly still an issue. How can people help?
Get involved! I work with the Enough Project and I can find a way for people to work with them. There are also many NGOs still there working to help. We intend to use this documentary and any book or movie that may come from it to highlight and help fund their efforts.
As you move towards full retirement, what is your plan for all this?
I want to get the Lobo Institute working with colleges, think tanks and NGOs to fight this problem.
This interview was conducted within the confines of information approved for release by the CIA (who approved the documentary film, “My Star in The Sky” for release). This article was reviewed by the Department of Defense Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Public Affairs Office, USSOCOM Public Affairs Office, and Naval Special Warfare prior to publication. All questions and answers in this interview or in the documentary itself are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or the U.S. Government.