Monday, September 7, 2009

Where Credit Is Due

"Doc Conques," Lt. Wollenman asks, "you want to do a quick prayer?"


"Sure thing, sir."  Heads bow in the small group and helmets come off.


"In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, amen.  God, it's hot out here.  The women aren't.  Texas.  Amen." 


Amid snickers, a few soldiers complete lengthier prayers of their own, throw on gear, and climb into their humvees.  Ten minutes later, the soldiers of Bravo battery, 3rd Battalion, 82nd Artillery (Ft Hood, TX) are in the city of Kirkuk, the fifth largest in Iraq.


"I really think artillery is underrated out here," contends Spc. Houston.  "When people think of the Army, they immediately think infantry.  But there are other combat arms out here, too, and we all pretty much have overlapping missions these days."


While the earliest years of the US presence in Iraq were devoted predominantly to combat operations and the elimination of a persistent insurgency, mission tasking has since transitioned to the more intricate challenges of counterinsurgency operations (COINOPS), which strive to equip Iraqi security forces with the training, organization, and standardization necessary to secure their own battlespace.  Few regions have been as successful as the city of Kirkuk.


Platoon commander Lt. Wollenman uses an analogy to education to explain the current situation:  "Whereas in other provinces we're still teaching the IP [Iraqi Police] high-school level material, here we're on a graduate or PhD level.  This police force is decades ahead of those to the south.  They're extremely professional." 


Perhaps more than any city in northern Iraq, the IP have their area of operations under tight control.  "The locals even call in IEDs now, which is great," Wollenman boasts.


"We hardly ever see IEDs up here," acting platoon sergeant SSgt. Mitchell explains, "and that's just fine with me.  I was hit on five separate occasions last time.  But here, between all the overlapping IP stations, checkpoints and patrols, the insurgency has been denied the opportunity to lay any IEDs.  They just don't have enough time."  The bulk of insurgent activity in Kirkuk, he asserts, is from "transient terrorists."


The soldiers' greatest threat remains the RKG, a stick grenade-style of shape charge which is thrown into the air and typically detonates overhead into the crew compartments of humvees and other military vehicles.  The results are often disastrous.  MRAPS, the newest armored vehicles in the US military fleet, are such inviting targets to insurgents throwing RKGs that Bravo battery prefers using humvees outside the wire.  Despite the increased risk, it remains a necessary one.  Additionally, many streets are too narrow and power lines too low to accommodate the lumbering MRAPS.


And nor is Kirkuk without other dangers, either.  Less than three months ago, Bravo suffered the devastation of losing a soldier to a sniper fire.  Nearly every member of the platoon sports an engraved metal bracelet in honor of Staff Sergeant Leroy Webster.  A few are eager to tell his story, but a few others are still unable to talk about it.  Webster wasn't simply a good leader or coworker, but a family friend; his children played with their children, and they shared holidays and weekends.  Unlike other less cohesive units, Bravo has truly lost one of their own.  The overarching mission, however, still continues.


"If I had to summarize our job," explains Mitchell "it's this: to enable and advise the Iraqi police to handle their own affairs.  We only enter the city when we're invited.  When we do go in, it's with the IPs escorting us.  It's their show now; we're just here if they want our involvement."


And the Iraqi police seek that assistance, enthusiastically so.  The platoon routinely visits numerous district IP headquarters to collaborate, assist with IP training, and provide material assistance.  The philosophy is centered around "how can we help you," as opposed to "this is what you're going to do."  As it stands, the IPs demonstrate that they know what to do.  "We just enable them to do it better," says Wollenman.


When US forces prepared to withdraw from Iraqi cities on June 30th, Wollenman recalls how upset one district police chief became.  Col. Anwar expressed concerned he'd no longer receive Wollenman and his soldiers as regular visitors – something he enjoys not only for tactical collaboration, but also because he considers them friends.  As a whole, the Iraqi Police view the soldiers are their guests, there not to direct their movements, but to help improve their success.


The unit arrives at the Domeis district IP station to an enthusiastic welcome, handshakes and hugs, and soldiers shed layers of body armor to relax with Anwar in his office.  Elsewhere in the compound, the operations tempo is high.  As soldiers observe, three women and three men are brought in for questioning.  The women were caught engaging in prostitution and the three men were caught paying for their services.  All six will be tried and likely serve time in prison.


An Iraqi woman interrupts Col. Anwar's meeting to explain how her nephew beat her and her son with a stick.  After hearing her situation, Anwar meets with the nephew.  He receives a sharp rebuke, and is sent away for processing.  The police have the situation under control.


In fact, the Iraqi army (IA) has no presence whatsoever in the cities.  According to Wollenman, "the IA mission is to secure, and the IP mission is to develop."  Since Kirkuk is already secured, an IA presence is unnecessary.  "Whenever the IA come into the city," he believes, "we take five steps back."  The police consider it insulting.


In Kirkuk, Iraqi police are divided into two distinct groups (each with numerous periphery units).  The first, Emergency Services Unit (ESU), is concerned primarily with operations, interdiction, and tactical intervention.  The other group serves more in the standard police role: day-to-day public service, investigations, traffic control, and petty crimes.  Though Mitchell likens the rivalry between the two to that of the Army and Marines, the groups typically collaborate fluidly.


Pfc. Castleman speaks highly of ESU's tactical competence.  "We taped a cigarette butt to a target one day, and then an ESU guy hit it perfectly.  When our platoon sergeant tried it with his own rifle, he missed."  Humorously, when they switched weapons, the ESU officer still hit his target, and the platoon sergeant still missed.  "These guys can shoot; I've seen it," Castleman insists.


Another mission into the city was at the invitation of the Aruba district ESU chief, who requested the soldiers' assistance with a local presence patrol.  Aruba, one of the more volatile areas of the city, is suffering a spate of murders – a few targeting civilians and a few targeting Iraqi Security Force (ISF) personnel.  The ESU chief has asked that the soldiers accompany his officers on a patrol through the district as a show of force. 


In addition to conducting a joint patrol, Lt. Wollenman receives a status report on the investigation into the murders.  The most recent murder, carried out in the same manner as one of the others, makes number seven.  The police are increasing their efforts significantly, eager to demonstrate their ability to preserve the peace in their district.  Today may have brought a breakthrough.  Lt Wollenman ducks outside to make a quick phone call and report the progress, and then returns to his meeting with the chief.  Both the Iraqi police and soldiers are excited.  They're hopeful that the latest information may put an end to the violence.


But this small artillery battery does far more than collaborate with local IP districts.  Aside from that mission, they frequently stand by as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) for whatever other US or Iraqi elements are operating in the city.  When their response level is sufficiently high, they pass those hours waiting on their vehicles for a call.  Moreover, they always maintain a "hot gun" (standby artillery piece) on base, registered and ready to respond to whatever terrain denial, lum (illumination), or call for fire missions should be requested.  Sleep is scant for the troops, and an endless stream of meetings, intelligence briefings and administrative responsibilities keep the platoon leadership almost perpetually busy.  Lt. Wollenman's lack of sleep is easily noted by the dark circles under his eyes.


Nevertheless, he's extremely pleased with his soldiers and his chain of command.  "I couldn't ask for better soldiers here.  From the top to the bottom, they're fair and they take care of us.  Most of them have been over here three, four, or even five times.  They all know their job, and they do it well." 


The soldiers are similarly impressed with their leadership.  Many enthusiastically remarked that their battalion commander was "good to go."


The ranks are extremely diverse in Bravo.  Many are only 19 or 20, but still on their second tours.  One specialist is 38, joining at an older age with the express purpose of serving his country.  A few are bilingual immigrants.  One will soon fly to Baghdad for his swearing in as a US citizen.  At least four soldiers are expecting newborns in a matter of days or weeks.  Last night, one wife was at the hospital in labor.  One young soldier spends whatever free time he can find studying a dog eared book on parenting.  For three, this will be their first child. 


Yet Kirkuk's future remains somewhat uncertain still, due largely to its proximity to Kurdish territory, disputed boundaries with Kurdish security forces, years of "Arabization" under Saddam's regime with the ensuing ethnic vacillations, a thus far undetermined method of local and national governance, and a host of other complicated factors.  Furthermore, a four-year drought continues to devastate agriculture, a source of provincial income second only to oil.  But the soldiers are hopeful, and of equal important, so are the Iraqis. 


The city shows obvious signs of development, and new construction and road maintenance crews are a common sight.  New shops are appearing throughout the city, and building supply businesses have opened quickly to accommodate the growth.  They have far to go, but this region, perhaps more than any other in Iraq, exhibits pronounced progress.


Since his arrival in January, Lt. Wollenman has personally observed a steady decline in violence within the city.  He believes that the vast majority of local insurgent activity is purposed to do little more than grab media attention.


Maj. James Rawlinson, Public Affairs Officer for 2nd Brigade Combat Team, echoes this conviction.  Violence, he reports, has been on a steady decline for some time.  "We haven't had a suicide bombing in months."  Insurgent activity, he states, is propaganda-driven, intended to raise doubt in the local population that the Iraqi police are capable of securing their own area of responsibility.  Yet diminishing crime rates are clearly indicating otherwise.


One of the greatest difficulties with counterinsurgency operations is the process of passing ultimate authority and responsibility from US forces to Iraqi security forces.  And though many Iraqi cities remain relatively lawless and impoverished, Kirkuk is vastly improved from what it once was.  US forces helped secure it, and now the Iraqi police are taking the reins with astounding success.  


"They're doing well," Wollenman believes, "and when they need help, we'll help them.  So far, though, they seem to have it under wraps.  We just keep ourselves available."  By the time the unit leaves, he's hopeful they'll be bored.


Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

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1 comment:

  1. Great opening! Makes you want to continue reading.