Thursday, June 30, 2005

Latest from Troops

This came in over the transom... I have sanitized it to protect the writer.
Whatever your politics, please send your best to our troops this July 4th.

Subject: Iraq Update

Dear Friends,

And more than four months later, another note. True, I am not the most
faithful correspondent at the best of times, but the way time moves here is
like nothing I have ever experienced. Minutes can last all day, and months
can pass instantly. Not a good excuse for my delay in writing, but there
you have it.

We have gotten into a routine within the brigade where we deploy for six
weeks, return to refit for three, and out again. At my last note, I was
still in Fallujah, tracking unit administration after a frustratingly short
time in actual combat to the north of the city. The day-to-day work of the
unit (any unit) is not especially interesting, but it's worth mentioning
that across the board, our Iraqis impressed all of the Marine and Army units
they worked with. Near the end of the Fallujah deployment, two thirds of
the advisors within the brigade swapped out with a replacement unit, leaving
me as one of the three most experienced advisors here, with less than 60
days in country.

I am not sure how exactly the Army personnel folks decided whom to send on
this mission, the main effort of Iraq war. A guess is that, with Special
Forces being busy right now, they figured one bunch of elderly senior NCOs
is as good as another, so they sent us a bunch of Army Reserve drill
sergeants and basic training instructors. Oddly enough, but for a few
exceptions, our elderly reservists are working out brilliantly. Their age
and maturity have actually worked in their favor (more level headed, less
prone to panic), and many have prior active duty time. At this time, I am
the only Regular Army major assigned to an Iraqi unit at or below division
level. My NCOs make me look positively youthful, and I am the youngest man
on the team, though I am second in charge. Pretty scary, when you consider
the fact that there are NCOs fighting over here who were not born when I
first joined the Army. Well, thankfully none of them are assigned to my
brigade team!

A couple of observations on the Iraqis as we finished our Fallujah mission
and began to redeploy. The brigade commander was dissatisfied with the
performance of one of his battalion commanders, and relieved him. The
battalion commander complained to higher levels, and ended up keeping his
job. The brigade commander was corrected for not seeking guidance from his
higher HQ, despite having a strong case for the dismissal of the officer in
question. The Old Iraqi Army aversion to initiative is not yet dead, even
at the highest levels. This should not, of course, be a surprise-every army
has its politics. To get great generals, we will have to grow them-they
cannot be hired off the street. So, for the time being, we are stuck with
merely good generals, until we can train a new crop. Good should be enough
to get us through, though, especially compared to the opposition.

The Iraqi tendency to narrowly define one's sphere of interest is alive and
well also. An Iraqi house usually has a walled courtyard. Trash is dumped
over the wall-not in my yard, not my issue. Thus, when an Iraqi unit
departs an area, if they are not made to police up after themselves, they
will not do so-none of the "leave it a little better than you found it"
ethos here! When our brigade's main body departed Fallujah, the results
were predictable. Decaying food, filthy uniforms, equipment, etc., all
scattered around the place they had lived. Defies description-I'll show you
the photos if you visit! Easily preventable by an old Iraqi hand, but we
had none at the time. We all learned fast, though. The Iraqis have made
positive strides in this area since Fallujah, as I'll discuss in my next

Back home in Baghdad for three weeks, the Iraqis went on leave, and the US
advisors prepared for Christmas. I had a little tree from my wife and kids,
and several packages from my family. Many of the others had similar setups.
We were all also very happy to receive Christmas cards from an Elementary
School class in Florida. It is wonderful to have the public support we have
been blessed with here! Christmas, and then New Years', passed almost
quietly. On New Years' Eve I was on the roof of my barracks, talking on the
satellite phone, when I was sent scrambling for cover by the sound of a
single incoming 122mm rocket. Part of a second later, I realized it was
actually a red parachute signal flare that one of the British officers from
another unit here had earlier told me he was going to fire off at midnight
in lieu of fireworks. I had heard parachute flares before, but the things
sound different after you've had rockets fired at you! Made for a slightly
elevated heart rate.

After sweeping away the Christmas tinsel and wrapping paper, we packed up
again and went off to Mosul, this time to help secure the town for the
January elections. The elections went quietly for us, thanks in part to
aggressive patrolling beforehand, but we managed a casualty around that time
anyway. A US advisor found a way to shoot himself in the upper arm while
clearing a Soviet pistol he had been carrying, so our higher HQ immediately
issued a blanket prohibition against using "non-standard" weapons. This was
a good move on higher's part-many of the midlevel HQ loafers who almost
never leave the Green Zone were carrying around AK-47s with folding stocks,
and, in at least one case I saw, a 90-round drum magazine. Not sure what
the HQ types meant to convey with their weapons choices (most heavily armed
PowerPoint mechanic in Baghdad?), but the new policy coincided with the
arrival of a shipment of US M4 rifles (shortened M16s) to our brigade
advisors, so I was at last able to swap out the Iraqi Army AK-47 I had been
carrying for five months for a lighter, handier rifle that doesn't draw as
much unwanted attention.

After the election, several of us took a convoy up to Dahuk, a trading town
within the Kurdish part of Iraq. What a difference an involved population
makes! The Kurds have been semi-autonomous since after the 1991 war, and
they have made the most of it! The entire area was secure. For the first
time since arriving in Iraq, we were able to walk in a town without
bulletproof vests, our rifles slung over our shoulders. I window shopped,
bought bread, and ate in a restaurant-luxuries I had not been able to enjoy
since arriving in Iraq. I know that all of us spent much more money than we
had intended. If the rest of Iraq could see Dahuk, this "not shooting at
the Americans" thing could become a trend! I hear the south, Basra and
environs, is the same.

Sadly, it was not a trend in Mosul. After the elections, stepped-up
operations in western Iraq caused a good number of the insurgents in the
Ramadi area to flee towards Mosul, giving us more targets, and more action.
A terrorist sniper scored several good hits on advisors, with one going
between a Marine First Sergeant's flak vest and his back, giving him a scar
across his shoulder blades. An officer was knocked unconscious by a round
that struck his helmet, and a friend of mine was shot in the face and
evacuated to Germany (he's fine-he has been critically injured on and off
duty more times than I can count, always does well). A number of advisors
were also hit by IED ambushes. Luckily, nobody's injuries were fatal.
Still, by the time we left Mosul, we were ready to leave! An officer I met
who had served in the area earlier with the 101st Airborne Division said
that right after the invasion he'd been able to walk the street and buy food
from the local markets, but those days were over by the time I got there.

Mosul was also noteworthy because it snowed while we were there. Many of
our Iraqis from the south and west had never seen snow before, so it was a
nice break from operations and staff work when we made snowmen and tossed
snowballs at one another. For most of us, myself included, if was a brief
chance to be 14 again.

Air power hasn't been particularly important in this war, but when you need
them, they are great to have around. I was with the Iraqi brigadier general
who commands our brigade during a visit from Mosul to Talafar, where we had
a battalion going house-to-house rooting out terrorists. They had hit a
point where they were stalled by one persistent shooter hiding behind a blue
pickup truck. Most of a company had been shooting at him, but just when
they thought they'd killed him and they started to move forward, he would
pop back up and send a few more rounds their way. The battalion senior
advisor got on the radio and learned that there were USMC aircraft nearby,
so he asked them if they could help. They were able to. There was a sudden
roar as the airplane raced to its target, then a loud explosion and black
smoke cloud. No more bad guy, and no damage to the house he was standing
next to. Nobody compares to the US when it comes to putting steel on
target! The brigade commander and I had been observing the fighting from an
elevated position (for a better view), and were taking heavy, but
ineffective fire (enemy small arms fire here is not very accurate). After
the explosion, the rest of the terrorists stopped firing for the day. I
guess they realized they weren't going to be able to top the day's
entertainment from the Marines, so they went home.

Shortly before we left Mosul, I bumped in to two soldiers from my parent
unit, here to observe operations in Iraq so that they will know what their
training focus should be. When I am with a regular unit, I normally have my
head shaved on the sides, and only a little hair on top. Here, to keep from
frightening my Iraqis, I wear my hair in a longish civilian cut, within
regulations, but only just. The haircut threw them off-neither of these
men, one of whom I have pulled jumpmaster duties with several times and the
other of whom had worked for me for the year before I came here, recognized
me. After we got together and they figured out who I was, I took them to
our Iraqi camp and gave them a quick rundown on our training and operations.
Amazing how small the Army can be!

Well, that catches me up through Mosul (end of February). All in all,
things with our Iraqi brigade are proceeding extremely well. Not sure why
the media always finds the weaker Iraqi units to report on, but I can assure
you that the units in the papers are not the whole story, and that my
brigade is not the only one that is reaching our level of professionalism.

Salaam! I will try to get my next note out faster.

No comments: