Friday, January 25, 2008

Three Days with Delta Company

January 25, 2008

Day One

In Iraq, a day outside the wire is a day where anything can happen. This, together with the dust, is always hanging in the air. So it is a bit of a letdown when nothing happens, when the soldiers return to the base with the same number of rounds they left with. Of course, you have to be very careful what you wish for, but the soldiers are trained for combat. Thrust as they are now into the role of diplomat, they may be making friends, but soldiers don’t often get to experience the satisfaction that comes from eliminating enemies, and they would probably rather be safe than popular.
The focus of my first trip out with the 101st Airborne Division’s First Battalion’s Delta Company was an enemy who needed to be eliminated. Lieutenant Jon Brinks had the name and address of an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) maker in Mesra. IEDs are the reason getting from Point A to Point B is the scariest part of the day for many soldiers.
Alas, when we arrived at the address the soldiers had been given, there were no men at the house, and the women and children fled as soon as our convoy pulled into the dirt road that dead-ended at a defunct water treatment plant. The only person left on the property was a young mentally impaired boy, naked below the waist, who balanced on the rear bumper of a pick-up truck and communicated in a language only he could understand.
A search of the house produced nothing more incriminating than a picture of Saddam Hussein, which suggested this guy was definitely not a friend of ours, but there was no hard evidence of criminal activity in the house or adjacent buildings, or in the water treatment plant. One of the soldiers asked the medic to find a pair of pants for the boy, and he dressed him before we left to question the neighbors.
With frustration, we moved on to the second task of the day, a visit to the Mesra Police Station where we would pick up some IPs (Iraqi Police) to join us on a patrol of the market area.
The atmosphere at the station suggested either there was no crime in Mesra or the police had given up trying to fight it. Of the ten or twelve men present, half were on the roof of a second building standing guard. A plate of raw meat perched nearby signaled lunch was next on their list of things to do.
Lieutenant Brinks entered the station and it became clear no chai would be served. The word had come down from Bayji that the Mesra station would be closing, a surprising and disturbing development. Jon assured the IPs he would look into the matter, that the station was important and must be kept open.
Two IPs joined us for our patrol. The humvees rumbled slowly down the street. Dismounted soldiers pulled security, and Lieutenant Brinks talked with local shopkeepers while his interpreter did some shopping. The streets were quiet, and several shopkeepers locked their stalls and headed home, whether because they always closed at this hour or because they didn’t want to talk to us, who knows.
During the patrol, a police truck appeared and made several passes through the area. Providing additional security? The lone IP in the truck did not smile at us or wave a hand in a show of support. Maybe he was there to remind the locals who was in charge when the humvees were not around.
We returned to FOB (Forward Operating Base) Summerall with the same number of rounds, probably the same number of enemies, possibly a few new friends, but most importantly, we arrived back at the base with the same number of soldiers.

Day Two

Iraq is a country that raises many more questions than it answers, and nowhere is this more apparent than during a trip to any gas station. Lieutenant Michael Behenna and a squad from Delta Company set out to complete a status report on the gas stations of Asiriyah, a stone’s throw from FOB Summerall, and a short distance from the Bayji Oil Refinery. Where gas comes from.
Of the handful of stations we visited, only one was not out of gas, and the line of cars stretched down the road. Security is an issue whenever demand might exceed supply, so there were IPs and Iraqi soldiers managing the crowd. An individual approached Lieutenant Behenna and expressed his willingness to shoot Americans. He was quickly detained and searched, and then his car was located and searched, but he was released by the American soldiers because his only ammunition had been his words.
The gas station opened shortly after we arrived, and the line began to move. Why did this gas station have gas and not the others? Maybe the owner of the station knew the right people, or was one of the right people, or paid off the wrong people. And the stations without gas? What were they doing wrong? Or were they being punished for doing nothing wrong?
The industry is supposed to be government regulated. The price of gas is regulated, but Lieutenant Behenna found at least one station was charging more than the set price. When they had gas. Any of the stations could adjust their prices, and it would be very hard to catch them at it.
And then there is the black market gas. Trucks leave the Bayji Oil Refinery every day, and some of them disappear or are rerouted. Some of this gas appears in plastic jugs, sold on the side of the road in plain sight. Often the peddlers of this gas are just boys, and there are so many of them that it would be difficult to crack down on this part of the problem.
It is baffling that the one thing Iraqis have in abundance is the thing they have to wait in line for.

Day Three

Making friends, eliminating enemies—these are the activities that occupy much of the soldiers’ day. It becomes tempting to keep it simple, to view people as good or bad and nothing in between, but simple doesn’t work here in Iraq. The soldiers are often trapped in the land of in between.
A group of brothers had been detained, suspected of anti-Coalition activities. At least one of the brothers was reputed to be a very bad man. But one brother had apparently resisted this destructive path, and was considered good by the local police and other people of influence, who were willing to vouch for him.
So Delta Company’s Lieutenant Chris Tanner had the dubious honor of releasing the good brother back to the community. At least one of the IPs present at the Asiriyah Police Station for his release was very happy about this development. He also happened to be a member of the same tribe, and tribal loyalties run deeper than any loyalty the police might feel toward the American soldiers.
The same policeman who celebrated the one release tried to persuade Lieutenant Tanner that two more brothers were also innocent. These two had been accused of firing grenades at a convoy very near FOB Summerall, a crime our soldiers took very seriously. The evidence pointed to the brothers, but this did not satisfy the policeman, who continued to argue their innocence without any evidence, only his word.
When the police take up the defense of the people we believe are guilty, it becomes very difficult to know who is working with us and who is working against us. And the Asiriyah station has been one of the more cooperative police stations in the area, so it would be unfortunate if they could no longer be counted on.
Our soldiers leave the safety of the base every day, and most of the time they return safely. The drivers steer the cumbersome vehicles through areas not meant for heavy trucks, all the while watching out for suspicious objects or individuals. The gunners stand for hours, always scanning the perimeter. There is never a time outside the wire where the soldiers can let down their guard completely. And all of this effort is made on behalf of the Iraqi people What a difference it would make if the Iraqis stood up for the soldiers the way the soldiers stand up for them.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Bravo By Day, Bravo By Night

January 17, 2008
It’s hard to remember when the day went from routine, almost boring, to unpredictable, even exciting. It’s hard to remember when we went from chatting up the locals in town to staring at piles of dirt in the desert. I know we got back to the base at about 11:00 pm. I know I hadn’t peed since 8:30 am. I had eaten an Otis Spunkmeyer muffin around lunchtime, figuring that would hold me until dinner. But then dinner turned out to be goldfish crackers and the hard candy that is kept in the humvee to hand out to the local kids.
The Day
We left FOB (Forward Operating Base) Summerall, home of the 1st Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade, at about 10:00 am. Captain Aaron Billingsley, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion’s Bravo Company, had a number of stops he wanted to make. First up: an Iraqi-manned checkpoint. Everyone who passes through has to show an identification card, which is checked against a list of bad people. Suspicious vehicles are searched. The checkpoint is as effective as the Iraqis who run it, which is why the American soldiers continue to make stops here. Or maybe they stop to visit with three puppies who live at the checkpoint in a small tent the soldiers set up for them.
Next we visited an area where snipers targeting the checkpoint we had just left were rumored to be located. Residents were questioned. Children gathered. A herd of sheep wandered past the parked humvees. Garbage and raw sewage had collected at the end of the street, and whenever the wind picked up conversation became difficult. More difficult. No one knew anything about any snipers; there were no bad people living among them.
Everyone began to seem as though he or she knew something but had made the choice to remain silent, not just in this neighborhood, but wherever the soldiers got out of their trucks in this country. The people may have been afraid or maybe they were working with the enemy; either way, the silence worked against us.
We got back in the trucks, and I was hungry but didn’t want to eat my muffin with the smell of waste still hanging in the air. We made our way to another neighborhood, this time to scout out locations for a future Iraqi police station. One house seemed perfectly situated, but the woman who owned the property said she wasn’t interested in selling it. She said her husband had died and she wanted to hold onto the property for her children and as a way to remember him. It’s possible she was telling the truth, but one of our interpreters said she didn’t want to sell the property to the Americans because that would get her killed.
The day was not shaping up to be one rich in rewards, but the sun was still high in the sky. We pulled into a large vacant field where a CLC (Concerned Local Citizen) guard perched on a ridge with his AK-47. The field seemed free of waste, so I pulled out my muffin, which had been crushed under the weight of my protective vest, and tried get the majority of the crumbs into my mouth. We had not been there long when the sound of an explosion turned our heads. Over the radio, the soldiers were notified that two men were seen fleeing a distant location. The timing made it look like they might be responsible for the round fired in our direction.
The convoy sped off in pursuit of the men. We arrived in an area that was mostly desert, and mostly deserted. A truck containing two men approached us, and it was immediately stopped, the men searched. There was nothing to tie them to the attempted attack, but they were detained for the time being. Meanwhile, there was activity in a small cluster of mud houses nearby, so some of the soldiers were dispatched to investigate.
At a glance, the dry, dusty landscape revealed nothing but old irrigation ditches, occasionally marked by tire tracks. There appeared to be no means of sustaining life, and yet there was life. There were people in at least some of the mud huts scattered randomly along the makeshift roads, and there was traffic. Most of the country is desert, and increasingly the desert is becoming an area of interest to the soldiers, an area where things can be hidden, an area so vast, a needle in a haystack doesn’t begin to describe it.
Undaunted, the soldiers began searching outlying huts, mounds of dirt, dug out ruts, and their efforts began to pay off. A triggering device, two lengths of pipe and a few sandbags--equipment that could be used to set off rockets--rested on top of the sand as if recently abandoned.
Outside an empty hut, our interpreter, George, stumbled upon two IEDs made out of oil cans. As if possessed with a magical talent, George discovered three large bags of explosive materials, possibly wired to explode, in a second hut. And later he sniffed out what appeared to be a mine in a defunct well.
We came upon another CLC guard, presiding over an expanse of dirt much like the first one, and shortly thereafter other CLC members arrived in a small white pick-up truck. Originally organized by local sheiks as an additional layer of security for their communities, CLC groups are now under contract with the United States, but still managed by the sheiks who have taken it upon themselves to curb the violence, theoretically.
As with any other group in charge of security in an area where the stakes are high, there is room for corruption. But the men who got out of the truck seemed friendly and happy to talk with us. They got back in their truck to manage traffic while our search continued, and as soon as they were out of sight, we heard an explosion. It seemed certain their truck had been hit.
Braced for the worst, we piled into our vehicles and raced toward the little white truck. Miraculously, they were okay. Standing by the truck smiling, they gestured toward the damage. Large holes had been punched in the door, but amazingly the shrapnel had gone no further. Did they have any idea how lucky they were?
A remote control device was retrieved from the dirt, which meant someone had been there to set off the IED; someone had targeted the CLC truck. The triggerman was nowhere in sight, but a couple of vehicles were heading out of the area, so we loaded up again and went to stop them. Hitting speeds perhaps not recommended for armored vehicles in a desert landscape, at one point our humvee lurched forward and everything went black for a second. We recovered and managed to catch the vehicles before they reached the main road, but once again, the soldiers could find nothing to connect the people in either car to the IED that hit the truck.
It was difficult to keep track of what had happened where. Every pile of dirt looked the same. Footsteps and tire tracks, like the men responsible for the explosives, could vanish in the wind. But at least we had uncovered some of the tools of their dark trade before they had done any damage.

The Night
Aaron had called in the discoveries made in the desert. Any explosive material is usually detonated by the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team in the area where it is found. Under the circumstances, Aaron thought the mud huts, which were obviously used for making or storing bombs and nothing else, should be destroyed also. He made his recommendation to the 1st Battalion headquarters, and we sat patiently in the trucks awaiting their response. Everyone was hungry but it did no good to dwell on it because we knew we had a long night ahead of us.
The EOD team was being sent out with a convoy from Delta Company, and if any or all of the huts were to be destroyed, that meant waiting for F-16s too, which would drop the bombs.
Finally the EOD team arrived, and sent out a robot to investigate the IEDs made out of oil cans. Once the team had confirmed that they were in fact IEDs, they proceeded to the next step, the fun part: the explosion. We had a front row seat, and there is something satisfying about a controlled blast.
Meanwhile, we were losing daylight and patience. The fate of the huts was debated. The EOD team made its way to the building that contained the bags of wired explosives. The men back at the Battalion explained over the radio that while they thought it made sense to blow up the handful of empty huts, the Brigade thought it might be better to wait. Oblivious to this discussion, the robot went about his business of inspection. The EOD team thought rather than setting off this batch of explosives, it would be better to just blow up the hut, so that was one more vote for dropping bombs. All the while, we sat in the trucks as if at a drive-in movie that had plenty of action but also many frustrating lulls. And no refreshments except hard candy and goldfish crackers.
The F-16s had been summoned, but had not arrived yet, so the EOD team went to take care of the mine George had found. With all of their housekeeping done, all that was left to do was watch a bomb drop.
Hours had managed to pass since Aaron first reported the situation to the Battalion. The trucks huddled in the darkness, full of cranky soldiers who had run out of cigarettes and snacks, and a reporter who was glad she hadn’t drunk a lot of water during the day. Finally, the air above our heads pounded with the sound of the F-16s.
The F-16s had been given the location of the hut to be bombed, but in the darkness, in an area where everything looks like everything else, they couldn’t find it. We watched and waited, the soldiers flashing every sort of light they had in the direction of the hut, but nothing was working. The driver of my vehicle, Mike Fuemmeler, couldn’t take it anymore, and got out of the humvee, ran to the hut, and threw two chem-lites (small, glowing sticks) on the roof of the building. Moments later, the F-16s signaled that they had spotted the target. Everyone following the action rolled their eyes and breathed a sigh of relief.
We had been granted permission to bomb a second hut, the one where the two IEDs had been found, so it appeared the evening would be ending with a bang, and then another bang. After several minutes, the first bomb made contact, and it resulted in a nice explosion, but not as big as we had hoped or expected. We left the viewing area and drove down to the site expecting to see a pile of rubble where the hut had been. But somehow only part of the hut had destroyed, so we went back to the viewing area and waited for the sequel.
The second explosion was louder, more convincing, and did enough damage that we didn’t have to worry about the hut or the explosives it contained anymore. The second hut proved somewhat challenging to the F-16s too. One bomb landed on the ground behind the hut, but the second reached its target, and we enjoyed another satisfying explosion. Nevertheless, the show had gone on long enough, and we were anxious to get home.
It had been a day longer than most. But the soldiers don’t receive a special medal for working fourteen hours plus. They don’t get time and a half. And they don’t get to sleep in the next day like I did. Most days are not so eventful or so long, but it is gratifying to see the soldiers’ persistence pay off. Maybe the people they spoke with throughout the day did nothing but delay their progress, but when faced with the desolate desert landscape, the soldiers of Bravo Company dug their heels in and found things when it looked like there was nothing to find. The show we were treated to at the end of the night was a Bravo Company production. With a little help from an interpreter named George.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Say "Ah," Siniyah

January 11, 2008

In Siniyah, a town just outside of Bayji, Iraq, there stands a large, new, two-story building--a clinic, complete with examination rooms, a pharmacy, and even a dentist’s office with two exam rooms. Most of the time the building sits locked and empty. The dentist’s x-ray machine and chairs are covered in dust. Built by the Army’s Corps of Engineers, the clinic has not been embraced the way it would be in most American communities. There is a theory that the citizens of Siniyah are reluctant to use the building because it was built by Americans, and a shortage of doctors creates additional challenges.
Siniyah is a troublesome place. The corruption that surrounds the Bayji Oil Refinery spills over into Siniyah, where there are enough bad people to keep the good people in line. It is possible this is why the clinic is not thriving. But at some point, the residents must realize a clinic is a clinic. And in Iraq life is hard enough when one is well; it can’t possibly be easy when one is sick.
In order to put a friendlier face on the Corps of Engineers’ well-intended project, the soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade have begun holding free healthcare days with the help of the Iraqi Army (IA) and the Iraqi Police (IP). Our medics and the IA medics come together to serve the people of Siniyah with the hope that every patient treated will become an advocate for the clinic.
The first free clinic day brought in over three hundred patients, more than the medics expected, more than they were prepared for. They were very pleased by the turnout and applied everything they learned from that experience to the second free day, which occurred on January 5.
A lot of work goes into coordinating such an event. The 1st Battalion’s Bravo Company, led by Captain Aaron Billingsley, and the Military Transition Team (MiTT), led by Major Oscar Pintado, worked together to make sure they were prepared for a big crowd. Thousands of dollars worth of medicine and supplies were transported to the clinic, along with stuffed animals for the kids, and all of the medics from the area’s IA Battalions were called in. They led the way in terms of treating patients and building goodwill, with our soldiers acting in a supporting role. The IPs helped with security, which included crowd control, and screening each patient before he or she entered the building.
The clinic is located near the markets, and though it was a damp and chilly day, Market Street was busy, fruit and vegetable stands, butcher shops, and other businesses were ready for the day, perhaps benefitting from, maybe even anticipating, the crowd that had turned out to see the medics.
From 10:00 am until about 2:00 pm, a steady stream of patients flowed through the waiting area and then to private examination rooms, and then back out to the lobby where prescriptions were filled if necessary. No one had to wait long once inside, and by the end of the four hours most of the medicine and all of the stuffed animals had been dispensed.
It was hard to judge how the people of Siniyah felt about this massive effort organized on their behalf. Obviously, sick people are not happy people. The patients with minor ailments, aches and pains or colds, probably benefitted simply by receiving the attention of people who cared. A lot of children passed through the building, some sick, some just there waiting with their parents, and they must have been impressed by the scale of the operation, the novelty of the day.
There were limits to the amount of care the medics could provide. An older man needed insulin, and that is something the medics cannot supply. A mother brought in her baby, who had a skin condition which caused the skin to die faster than it could be shed, resulting in painful patches of dead skin pulling at the healthy skin underneath. Treatment would be very expensive and ongoing, and is not something the medics are in a position to provide.
So much of the work the soldiers do is one step in a much longer process. What they do today may result in something positive happening tomorrow, but the wait is usually much longer. They are not often rewarded for their good deeds, not that they expect to be. In the case of the clinic, the best reward for the soldiers would be to see it up and running on its own, to be able to stop by unannounced and find the gates unlocked, the rooms busy enough that the dust isn’t allowed to settle. The soldiers are trying to improve the quality of life in Siniyah and other villages all over Iraq, but it is up to the Iraqis ultimately to decide whether or not they want to take care of themselves.