Former Supply Sgt. Matt Novak found a cement shed in Baghdad that was stuffed with $200 million in cash in April 2003. Nine months later, he was forced out of the military for his decision to attempt to steal some of that money.
"If you walk outside right now and you see money laying on the ground [and you] don't know who it belongs to, would you pick it up?," Novak asks Correspondent Vicki Mabrey during his first network television interview.
He also tells Mabrey that other American soldiers got away with stealing cash in Iraq. Mabrey's report will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Wednesday, April 27, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Just after the fall of Baghdad, Novak's job in Iraq was to keep his unit of the Army's Third Infantry Division outfitted with necessities like food, water and ammunition. Novak rifled through the opulent neighborhoods abandoned by Saddam's regime looking for items for his unit.
"You need water and you need cleaning supplies, or you need whatever, and it goes from that to TVs, VCRs, DVD players, computers, to toilets to sinks to mirrors to prints to books to whatever," says Novak. "It was everything."
Novak says his superiors knew what he was taking, and even gave him these tips: "'Any means necessary, Novak. Stealth is key. You have to have this by noon.'"
Scavenging escalated to a new level, however, on April 18. First, two of Novak's fellow sergeants turned in $320 million that they had found in a shed. The money was thought to be part of Saddam Hussein's illegal kickbacks from the U.N. Oil-For-Food program.
Novak and some of his buddies immediately went looking for their own windfall, and they found one: $200 million packed in 50 boxes of $100 bills. Before they knew it, soldiers were grabbing bundles of bills.
Says Novak, "I'm like...'Hey, First Sgt., aren't you retiring soon?' [I] throw him a stack of bills."
Then, Novak says he turned to a lieutenant. "I'm like, 'Hey, sir, this isn't right. You're in charge here,' so I put a stack in-between his arm," remembers Novak.
Novak says a non-commissioned officer gave the soldiers this advice, "If you're going to do this, do it smartly: Take only the used bills. Get rid of the new bills in the boxes.'"
The soldiers stuffed wads of cash in their uniforms, hid a box in the bushes near the base, dumped two boxes (holding $4 million each) in a nearby canal and even stashed $600,000 in loose bills in a palm tree.
Lt. Col. Kent Rideout, then a major, says by the time he arrived at the shed, millions were already missing. "I thought about it for two seconds," says Rideout. "When I walked in and saw that much money...[keeping some of the money] flashed through my mind for a couple seconds. 'You know, God, that would be neat.' Then it's like, 'Okay, Rideout, wake up.'"
Rideout recovered the money from the palm tree and the three boxes that had been hidden, though one of them was no longer full. One soldier had slipped off the base and mailed about $10,000 to relatives in the United States. Although some of that money made it to New Jersey, it was later recovered.
The Army offered amnesty to any soldier who returned cash, but Novak says not all of the money found in Iraq was returned, and says he was singled out for punishment.
"The Army's stance is that Sgt. Novak is the mastermind of this huge conspiracy to go out and steal all of this money, and blah, blah," says Novak. "The truth of the matter? It was no different than any other day. The money crossed some certain boundary for them which I don't really see that boundary."
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