What would you do if you stumbled onto a fortune, in this case $200 million, and no one was looking? Would you keep it, or turn it in?
That's exactly the choice a group of American soldiers found themselves facing in the chaos after the invasion of Baghdad. On one day in April 2003, life-and-death decisions in combat took a back seat to personal decisions about right and wrong, and what to do with that cash windfall.
One of those soldiers, Matt Novak, says he made the wrong choice, a choice he's been paying for ever since. reports.
Matt Novak keeps small souvenirs of his glory days during the war in Iraq, mere trinkets compared with the items the former supply sergeant says he was sent out to find.
Novak and his unit, part of the Army's Third Infantry Division, were among the first to cross the desert into Baghdad. Novak's assignment was to scrounge for everything, from hot meals to mattresses. He says they called him the "go-to guy" because "there was pretty much nothing that I couldn't get my hands on."
After two weeks in the heat of desert battle, commanders wanted to give the troops more than just necessities. As the fighting continued, Novak says he and his assistant, Spc. Jamal Mann, were given their own special mission.
"You need water and you need cleaning supplies or you need whatever," says Novak. "And it goes from that to TVs, VCRs, DVD players, computers, to toilets, to sinks, to mirrors, to prints, to books. … It was everything."
And in order to get all the things that his unit needed, Novak says he had to bend the rules. Did his superiors know that?
"Yes," says Novak. "They told me to do it."
What did they say, specifically? "'Any means, necessary, Novak. Stealth is the key,'" says Novak. "'We need this. You have got to have this by noon.'"
Novak, a 12-year decorated Army veteran, was finding those things in abandoned buildings around the city, mostly in Saddam's palaces and the opulent mansions of his cronies.
"He was fairly legendary within that battalion as the guy who could get anything," says David Zucchino, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who was embedded with the Third Infantry on the run to Baghdad. The first time they met, Novak was coming out of an abandoned palace – loaded down with expensive scuba gear.
"This was war booty! It was war booty! It was wide open," says Zucchino. "And the understood rule, nobody said it, the understood rule is whatever you need, you grab it."
But it was a discovery on April 18, 2003, that changed everything. Novak wasn't there, but that's when two of his fellow sergeants in the Third Infantry Division found a pair of cement sheds filled with metal boxes. Inside each box was $4 million in cash -- $230 million American dollars in all.
They turned the money in. The cash was thought to be part of Saddam's illegal kickbacks from the United Nations Oil-For-Food Program.
A commander at the scene showed off the money to reporters. "These are soldiers who make like $30,000 a year, so you can imagine what went through their minds when they saw this," says Zucchino.
"It was party time. They were just beside themselves. They were ecstatic," adds Zucchino. "I mean, they were giddy. People were laughing and joking and talking about what they'd spend the money on. Houses, cars, boats, yachts, college educations for their kids."
But the party was cut short by Maj. Kent Rideout, who locked the cash up and posted guards immediately. "These guys find $300-plus million and then what do they do? They come and tell their boss, and go, 'Boss, this is – so – we gotta get this outta here,'" says Rideout. "'Look at what we found. These guys are absolute heroes.'"
Are there any rules about finding money? "No, absolutely not," says Rideout. "You know, rules can't cover everything."
They got the first $320 million locked away, but that started a frenzy.
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