Saturday, March 22, 2008

Back with Bravo Company

March 21, 2008

FOB (Forward Operating Base) Brassfield-Mora is a humble base near Samarra. Look closer, however, and you will see a base teaming with calendar-worthy hunks. Was that the Rock?!! No, just someone who looks like him. You are in Iraq, not on a Hollywood film set. You just happened to have stumbled onto a base with more than its share of ruggedly handsome soldiers.*
*†The above was the fulfillment of a contractual obligation to the soldiers of Bravo Company and does not necessarily reflect the views of this reporter, though no one was holding a gun to her head.
Bravo Company. During their last deployment, from 2005-2006, the 2nd Battalion’s Bravo Company filled the streets of Kirkuk with their particular brand of diplomacy and good humor, and is it any wonder there is a network named after them. Commanding Officer Captain Casey Welch knew there something special about his company, and graciously allowed this amateur reporter/librarian to go everywhere they went. Staff Sergeant Jeremy Stearns (think Cary Grant meets Clint Eastwood†) quickly dubbed the tagalong Miss Shelby, and all was right with the world, or as right as it can be in a land full of dust and insurgents.
Bravo Company is back in Iraq. Some of the faces have changed, but the approach is the same. This time the soldiers are working their charm on the people in the area outside of Samarra. And the charm is working.
Act Two of the Bravo Company Road Show introduces some new characters: the CLC (Concerned Local Citizens), also known as the Sons of Iraq. In Kirkuk, the soldiers spent a lot of time with the IPs (Iraqi Police), offering support and supervision while the IPs offered comic relief. Now it is the CLC’s turn to provide the laughs.
Sergeant John Paul Harper and other members of the Third Platoon headed out at 10:00 pm. Miss Shelby thought that seemed late, but she accepted the invitation to make the rounds with them and tried to look sharp.
One of the CLC’s primary responsibilities is to operate checkpoints, to monitor traffic coming and going through their community. It is a type of neighborhood watch, Iraqi-style, which means nosy old ladies have been replaced with military-age males carrying AK-47s.
A sheik is responsible for recruiting and directing CLC members, but the Americans do everything in their power to help these groups succeed. Sergeant Harper and the soldiers of Bravo Company spend almost as much time at the checkpoints as the CLC members themselves, making sure they are manned, and that the men have ammunition for their weapons.
There are two sheiks the Bravo Company soldiers have come to know quite well. Each is a leader of a CLC group. We’ll call them Sheik A and Sheik B. The road to sheikdom is not always easy to follow, but Sheik A calls himself a sheik, and he drives a Mercedes. He has the attitude of a gangster and wants the Americans to see him as important, someone they would do well to listen to. They listen to him, but they don’t trust him, and when he materializes out of the darkness, they roll their eyes because conversations with him are like quicksand.
Sheik B is better. He is not so high maintenance, and the soldiers take him more seriously. During another night patrol, members of the Second Platoon, led by Lieutenant Vinnie Annunziato and Staff Sergeant Jeremy Stearns, spoke with Sheik B about recent threats made against the CLC. His contacts had heard there were people planning to attack the CLC, possibly with one or more suicide bombers.
There have been attacks against CLC posts around the country, indicating this newly formed security force is an obstacle for some insurgents. And some CLC members are themselves former insurgents, so perhaps their old friends don’t like the new path they’ve chosen, if they have in fact changed.
In Iraq, “good” and “honest” are very relative terms. Good often means less bad. A good man may have many bad relatives, or vice versa, and all become guilty by association. Sheik A may be bad, but there are probably worse men driving fancy cars in Iraq, and just because he seems bad, doesn’t mean his men are too. Or maybe it does.
And Sheik B’s information turns out to be very difficult to verify, so it is hard to know if the threat is real, if he was being honest. Maybe the story was manufactured to get the American soldiers to spend even more time at the checkpoints. There is no denying the CLC members are much more vulnerable and exposed when the Americans are not there to help.
While Sheik B is conversing with the soldiers, his CLC crew takes advantage of the shift in his attention, and they reach for their cell phones, which are loaded up with music. Not for the first time, “Yeah,” by Usher, is pumped into the night air. It is nice to know the war does have a soundtrack and it includes some hip hop.
Some dancing follows.
When Sheik B realizes the checkpoint has turned into a series of outtakes from So You Think You Can Dance, he becomes disgusted and orders his men back to work.
Every layer of security in Iraq has some holes in it. Holes you could drive an MRAP through. The good news is we have plenty of MRAPs. As always, there are some hardworking Iraqis whom the American soldiers enjoy working with, and there are some who simply waste their time.
Working with the CLC means working alongside people who may until very recently have meant to do us or our Iraqi friends harm. Is it possible for bad guys to become good guys? The future of Iraq is contained in the answer to this question. For now, at least, some of the bad guys are pretending to be good guys, and this in itself is a full-time job. As long as we can keep them on the job, we can hope they will become so good at pretending to be good guys that they will actually be as good as the real good guys. And then our good guys will be able to ride off into the sunset, to the delight of their adoring fans.


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