Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Balancing Act June 24, 2006

A Balancing Act
June 24, 2006
The relationship between the Iraqi soldiers and the American soldiers is obviously an important one if our efforts in Iraq are to succeed. It may seem impossible to imagine two such different groups coming together in a civilized manner. After all, they have been on opposite sides in the not so distant past. But nothing brings people together like common goals and common enemies.
All over Iraq, insurgents are targeting Coalition Forces and any Iraqi individuals or groups working with us, including the IA (Iraqi Army). In Kirkuk, the 101st Airborne Division has assembled groups of soldiers from different companies into Military Transition Teams, MiTT for short. I spent two days with the MiTT guys from the 2nd Battalion, who are helping to prepare the IA to take over as the military authority of the city, and the Medics, who are training Iraqi soldiers to respond to emergency medical situations. All of these guys have at least one IED (improvised explosive device) story, and shortly after we headed out to the IA military base, I had one too.
One of the Medics, Specialist Josh Goldberg, said he didn’t like the road we were driving on because it had seen its share of IEDs. Moments later, we heard a boom about one hundred meters behind our convoy. I watched a cloud of smoke rise from the site of the explosion, and Josh admitted he had a way of talking about things that seemed to make them happen. I asked him to talk less about IEDs and more about getting me a date.
Our convoy stopped to secure the area and monitor the situation, and the IP (Iraqi Police) and IA arrived moments later. The vehicles in our convoy had emerged unscathed, but a civilian had not been so lucky. The explosion had shattered the windows of his car and caused him to crash into an oncoming taxi. Shrapnel from the IED had punched a small hole in his skull and cut open his leg. The Medics, SPC Josh Goldberg, FSG Steve Smith and SSG Roger Copeland, grabbed their supplies and rushed to assist him. The extent of his pain and the depth of his suffering were overwhelming. Steve did his best to bandage the leg wound while Copeland and Josh treated the wound to his head. They did everything they could to stabilize the man and lessen his pain, completely focused on their patient, in spite of the fact that the scene was now crawling with police and curious onlookers. When the ambulance arrived, they made sure the ambulance crew knew the extent of his injuries and understood how to continue treatment. The taxi driver wandered the scene shaken but unharmed physically. Like us, he had been lucky, but it is hard to feel lucky after seeing another life destroyed.
The ambulance left, and a team trained in the investigation of explosive devices arrived, so we continued on our way to the IA base. The day had begun badly, but quickly improved when we arrived at our destination. I followed Josh and Steve into a room where they held classes in emergency first aid with a group of Iraqi soldiers. Some of the Iraqis had reached the point where they could teach the lessons to the next group of soldiers, and they had begun without us, which Steve found very encouraging. Josh had taken to heart my suggestion that he help find me a date, and throughout the morning’s lessons he pointed out men whom, regardless of the language barrier, he thought I might like to get to know.
There was obviously a bond between our Medics and the men they were training. They traded a lot of jokes. Sometimes the interpreter translated wisecracks back and forth. Sometimes gestures were enough. That soldiers can laugh together is a sign of camaraderie and caring. After the day’s lessons were completed, Steve asked the Iraqi soldiers who had led the classes if they had any questions or comments. The leader of the group, Thaer, put his hand on his heart and said he was very glad none of our soldiers had been injured by the IED. His concern was touching. Every explosion reminds the American and Iraqi soldiers why they are working together. Steve placed his hand over his heart, and it was clear he would have felt the same had their positions been reversed.
The trip to the IA military base the next day was IED-free, thankfully, although that morning a series of car bombs had exploded in the city, most targeting Iraqi forces. I spent the day following Captain Chris Walsh around the base. Not only is Chris in charge of the men on his MiTT team, each of whom oversees a particular area of the IA’s development, but he must also keep track of the actions and concerns of their Iraqi counterparts. Chris wanted to know how the IA was responding to the spike in violence, and when he put the question to the man in charge, Colonel Malek, an interesting exchange began. Colonel Malek wanted to shift the responsibility to the IP, and Chris wanted some assurance that, regardless of who might be to blame, steps would be taken to curb future attacks. Chris didn’t back down. Colonel Malek ran out of excuses.
The discussion brought up issues that illustrate the complexity of the job facing Chris and his team. Chris is twenty-seven. Some members of his team are older, some younger, and I would give them the keys to my country any day, but they cannot do all the work, and they cannot just hand out orders. Iraqi men are proud. Trying to give them direction must be done in a way that will not be interpreted as handing out criticism. A certain amount of restraint and subtlety is required in any interaction in order for it to be constructive. Chris exhibited both in every conversation concerning the IA and its continued growth and success. And, when the circumstances allowed, he made his Iraqi friends laugh. An Iraqi woman said they loved Chris. She obviously understood English well enough to know Chris truly cared about her country and its people.
It is easy to discount the importance of laughter. When a roomful of people are laughing it might seem as though serious matters are being neglected, but the soldiers here in Iraq, both American and Iraqi, know exactly how serious the situation is, and they know they must strike a balance. They have reached a point where they understand each other well enough to trade jokes, and it is good to lighten the mood occasionally, because it will grow heavy again soon enough.
We learned the civilian motorist the Medics had worked so hard to save had died at the hospital. We learned his children had witnessed the explosion. The presence of the Medics must have been a comfort to the man. And the triggerman responsible for detonating the IED had been caught at the scene, but the victim’s family and friends will have to live with their loss nevertheless.
Soldiers often say, “It could be worse.” Many soldiers have seen worse, or not been as lucky as we were. It is discouraging anytime an IED hits a target, but the soldiers will only work harder in response. The Medics and the MiTT team could rebuild New Orleans and still have time for lunch. They are capable and determined and funny, a powerful combination. They provide an excellent example of leadership and cooperation, which the Iraqi soldiers must find refreshing, even if it means shouldering more responsibility than they did in the past. It could be worse here in Iraq, but the sight of our soldiers working so closely with Iraqi soldiers, building relationships that transcend language barriers and cultural differences, makes it clear that it will be better.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Tal Afar

The Dukes of Tal Afar June 16, 2006

The Dukes of Tal Afar
June 16, 2006

After several weeks at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Warrior in Kirkuk, I felt I had a pretty good understanding of how the soldiers live here in Iraq. Although any trip outside the wire (off the base) carries a certain amount of risk, life on the base is really quite pleasant. There is a food court, which includes a Taco Bell, in addition to a huge DFAC (dining facility) that serves Baskin-Robbins ice cream. There are air-conditioned housing units, two fully-equipped gyms, and a pool. There is even a beauty parlor. It is not unlike a college campus, only with mortar attacks instead of keg parties.
Even with the surprisingly civilized living conditions on the base, I still have great sympathy for the soldiers at FOB Warrior, for the sacrifices they make, generally without complaint. But it was not until I visited soldiers based in a city called Tal Afar that I realized some of our guys have to make do with a lot less. Not only do these guys have to go without burritos and banana splits, manicures and makeovers, but they have no AC and no pool! No pool! My afternoon swim went right down the toilet, which was outside and built of plywood.
The soldiers working in Tal Afar, from the 1st Armored Division’s Task Force 2-37 Armor Regiment, also known as “The Dukes,” are installed in various buildings throughout the city. I stayed with a group of them at a place called the Castle. It is called the Castle because, well, it is a castle. But the days where it might have been splendid and majestic are long gone and hard to imagine. The walls are crumbling, and no feasts are being served (in fact, only one meal is served per day). No one ever showed up to fan my overheated body or feed me grapes. The soldiers carried on as though they had everything they needed, even after I ran down a list of things I thought they needed. They were clearly made of better stuff than me, able to keep their cool while being forced to live in relatively primitive conditions.
Ironically, I was invited to Tal Afar to witness some of the progress being made in the city. To be honest, I thought I would be spending three days in a chilly auditorium, watching people make speeches in English translated into Arabic, or vice versa. I didn’t think I’d spend much time with the soldiers, and I worried I might be a little bored. I was so wrong.
I spent the first morning with Captain Steve Wasilausky. We visited a muktar, a fellow of some importance in his community, whom Steve sensed might be acquainted with some bad people. The muktar’s family was gathered in a front room, and we joined them on mats placed around its perimeter. With the help of an interpreter, Steve asked the muktar questions about the people of the area, naming specific individuals who were suspected of wrongdoing. These interactions require a great deal of diplomacy and finesse. Steve knew the muktar was being less than forthcoming, but remained calm and polite nevertheless, and did what he could to forge a relationship that might prove mutually beneficial one day.
The Iraqi people pride themselves on being good hosts. Even though we were not exactly welcome guests, we were served a refreshing orange beverage. I drew a picture of a bunny on a piece of paper and presented it to the little girl sitting beside me. She tore up the drawing and began to eat the shreds of paper. Somehow I knew Steve would not have let this happen. Soldiers are trained to anticipate situations.
Next I visited the Tal Afar hospital. Captain Tom Breslin and 1st Lieutenant Mark Sander accompanied me on a tour of the hospital, which has managed to function through periods of violence and continues to serve all residents of Tal Afar, whether doctor and patient are on the same political side or not. They told me the hospital was fully independent, requiring no financial support from the United States, although it is in our interest to see that it remains a safe haven for everyone. The hospital owes its success to a dedicated hospital director and staff. We met with the director, a generous man who spoke with pride of his doctors. Doctors are increasingly being targeted by insurgents, but those serving the people of Tal Afar are a committed group. Some live at the hospital on their work days, and travel home only on their days off.
I thought it had been a pretty full day, but little did I know the fun was just about to begin. Earlier at the base a call had come in over the radio. A truck driver had been shot by an Iraqi soldier, and the truck had overturned. The circumstances were unclear. We decided to swing by the scene to see what had happened. It turned out the truck driver had been wearing a suicide vest, and had a truck filled with 500-600 pounds of explosives similar to those used in the Oklahoma City bombing. He had run a checkpoint and was heading for the Iraqi Army’s 3rd Brigade Headquarters. If the young soldier hadn’t stopped him, the explosion would have been devastating. One soldier I talked to said he thought fifty to one hundred people would have been killed, including members of his team. This was a victory for the Iraqi Army and for our soldiers, who worked so hard to insure they were properly trained.
Back at the Castle, I enjoyed a dinner of iceberg lettuce and rice, and waited for the temperature to drop below one hundred degrees. But apparently one hundred degrees is the low. Captain Josey Sandoval invited me to accompany him to the office of the Chief of Police, General Sabah. It made sense to conduct business in the evening, after it had cooled off, only of course it hadn’t cooled off. We were offered sodas and chai.
Josey wanted to get a sense of how the police force was shaping up, and of what issues needed addressing. After all, the police force is crucial in the establishment of lasting peace and stability in the city. Like Iraqi doctors and soldiers, the police are targets, adding another layer of complexity to an already complex situation. How is it possible to do one’s job when under a constant threat of attack? But this is what our soldiers are expected to do, and they never stop working. As much as I enjoyed watching Josey do his job, I wondered when he would call it a night.
Finally, we left the Chief of Police to wrestle with his staffing shortages and battles with the Ministry of the Interior. Beyond general questions of competence, the Sunni/Shia issue always lurks. Ideally, the police force would reflect the population it represents, but this would require a level of cooperation that doesn’t exist yet among policy makers.
With no way to escape the heat, I got very little sleep. I hoped day two in Tal Afar would be fairly quiet. And there was less excitement, but the soldiers never take a day off. The first part of the day was dedicated to the Iraqi soldiers. There was a TOA (Transition of Authority) ceremony which marked the transfer of power in one section of the city from the Coalition Forces to the Iraqi Army. Present at the ceremony was the young soldier who had killed the truck driving terrorist the day before. The more success Iraqi soldiers experience, the less our soldiers have to worry about. The TOA ceremony was a big step forward in the quest for independence.
Another important face in the leadership of Tal Afar is that of Mayor Najim. Together with a reporter for the Iraqi media, we joined the Mayor for dinner. He has a clear vision of what sort of city he would like Tal Afar to become. Having just returned from a visit to the United States with his family, the Mayor is full of ideas. His influence is already apparent in the new buildings that are popping up around the city. They are easy to spot because they are painted in cheerful pastels. We had stopped at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new police station earlier in the day, and I had admired the turquoise trim. Before he took over, virtually all of the city was dust colored, which made sense because it is a very dusty place. But the Mayor feels a splash of color is good for morale. I told him I applauded the new palette and that I was sure Martha Stewart would approve. I’m not sure he was familiar with Martha’s work, but he did ask for her e-mail address.
The trip to Tal Afar had been organized around positive developments, stories that tend to be overlooked or overshadowed by the latest bad news. I had been promised three encouraging events, and I had not been keeping count, but, except for the absence of a pool at the Castle, and the shifty muktar, I saw nothing but good news. The soldiers were poised and professional, and they took excellent care of me. No one wants to be the guy who loses the reporter, but they went way beyond just making sure I didn’t get kidnapped. They invited me to tag along wherever they went, and on my third day in the city I got to join some of the Iraqi Police for a lesson in shooting guns.
It was hot again. Very hot. Body armor is required any time soldiers venture out, and they made sure I was wearing mine too. I had a fairly comfortable vest which I had purchased on eBay from a UN Medic, in a lovely peacekeeping blue that the Mayor would have appreciated. The Dukes didn’t think it was enough protection so they found a dust-colored vest for me. Not only was it less attractive; it was ten pounds heavier than mine. And their vests were heavier still. So there we were in the one hundred twenty degree heat, carrying thirty to fifty pounds of extra weight. As usual, I complained the loudest. There was no shaking these guys. They patiently reviewed weapon safety and the proper way to aim and shoot, and put each or the twenty Iraqi Police through several drills, while the water grew hot in our water bottles. They even added to their burden by encouraging me to fire off a few rounds. Joe Dickson, Paul Berner, and Josey Sandoval went over gun basics with me, all the while resisting the temptation to make fun of me. I am happy to report we returned to the Castle with the same number of soldiers we had left with.
Without even a minute to change out of my sweat-soaked t-shirt, I was sent off to witness more good news. A Small Business Center (painted the color of pistachio ice cream) was celebrating its grand opening. The Center contains several offices and services, including Internet access, designed to promote the creation and success of small businesses. It was an impressive and efficient concept put together in an attractive structure, one I thought many towns in the United States would love to have.
Finally, I had reached the last stop on the good news express. An Adult Literacy Center (in a shade reminiscent of lemon sherbet) had opened recently in Tal Afar, and classes were already filling up, so we headed into the city to meet the enthusiastic students. The city is not entirely safe. A mortar attack had done damage to a popular market square less than two months ago, so a walk through the city brought with it a level of risk. I was never afraid, so confident was I in the soldiers’ ability to protect me, but I did worry for their safety. As we walked the several blocks through the city, I watched as they scanned the buildings, the shadows, and the crowds for suspicious activity, and I was impressed all over again with their dedication to their job. And their job here in Tal Afar, and for soldiers all over Iraq, is so complicated. They are trying to build better cities, but at the same time they must continue to fight the war. They are trying to build relationships with the people of Iraq, and their compassion and generosity are evident in their actions, but at the same time they must remain ever vigilant. They understand and accept all of this. When we arrived at the Literacy Center, it was great to see classrooms full of teenagers and adults who understood the value of education, and who appreciated the opportunity our soldiers had helped to create.
I flew out of Tal Afar that night. It had been a fantastic three days. I am still overwhelmed when I think about the Dukes and all of their good work. They welcomed me into their world, and, even though their world didn’t include a pool, I would have stayed there with them. But I was expected back at FOB Warrior, where I am now, in my air-conditioned housing unit, eating leftover Pizza Hut pizza. It is a privilege being allowed to live among the soldiers here. It was an honor to live among the Dukes of Tal Afar, who have done so much with so little. They have a lot to be proud of. I will think of them every time I hear someone complain about the heat. And by someone, I mean me. I will worry about them and hope for their safe return home. Let us all hope for that.

The Murder

The Police Arrive

The Investigation

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The New Law and Order June 10, 2006

The New Law and Order
June 10, 2006

A man enjoys a quiet moment in his yard, sipping a beverage, listening to the birds. Suddenly, an angry gunman shatters the calm. He shouts at the first man, then shoots him and flees the scene. Within minutes a squad car arrives, and a team of Iraqi police rush to secure the crime scene. The murder weapon is discovered in a patch of tall grass. The suspect is apprehended down the street and, after being questioned, confesses to the crime. Too good to be true? Well, yes. In fact, the events described here were staged. This mock crime scene was part of a recent Police Symposium held in Kirkuk, designed to showcase the newly acquired investigative skills of the Kirkuk Police.
Most Americans, with our love of television, are familiar with the police investigation process; we are well aware of standard practices followed in the event a crime has been committed. We know the scene of the crime must be secured. Evidence must be gathered, witnesses located and questioned. Captain Jerome Converse, of Springfield, Tennessee, led a presentation at the Symposium highlighting the building blocks of our system of policing, most of which were not present in the Iraqi police force of old. What we consider fundamental, almost instinctive, is not universally so. In Iraq, the idea that a case must be built around facts, evidence, and the testimony of witnesses is new. Justice as we know it is a new concept here.
The Iraqi people have never known the level of safety and security we take for granted in the United States. Creating an atmosphere where citizens trust in authority, where justice is not dispensed with an iron fist, is a complicated process. The Iraqi Police may be the most important tool in the fight against the methods and attitudes that linger from the previous regime. The fact that many members of today’s police force were trained during the reign of Saddam Hussein adds to the challenge facing the people of Iraq and the Coalition Forces working with them. Is it possible to undo decades of abusive behavior and inhumane practices? Yes, but it will take some time.
Captain Richard Snodgrass, of Memphis, Tennessee, and Captain Myron Medlin, of Branson, Missouri, together with other members of an Army Reserve Unit attached to the 101st Airborne Division, are working closely with the Kirkuk Police to help them adopt modern techniques in law enforcement with an emphasis on human rights. What we would consider common knowledge is new information to a generation of police officers who used to serve a dictator, but who now serve the Iraqi people. The Police Symposium marked the completion of a four week retraining program attended by police chiefs and other high-ranking officers from throughout the Kirkuk province.
Iraqi citizens are not used to regarding the police as a benevolent force. At the same time, the Iraqi Police are being targeted by insurgents. Keeping these officers focused and dedicated to carrying out their duties with integrity in this atmosphere of distrust requires the efforts of a team of experts in the field of law enforcement, experts who believe passionately in the value of our system of justice. Our team of Reservists, together with the help of interpreters and private citizens hired by the State Department, are doing their best to make sure the Kirkuk Police have all of the information and support they need to succeed.
At the close of the Police Symposium, Colonel David Gray, Commander of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, presented each officer with a certificate, a symbol of a new era, a new set of values. Many officers took pictures during the closing ceremony, clearly proud of how far they had come. It may be a while before the Kirkuk Police solve a murder in less than ten minutes. And longer still before they inspire a television show. But they put on a good show, and the world is watching.