Monday, September 05, 2005

Update From Two Soldiers

My Commander's medical status is "green" for go. All is OK! Thanks to everyone out there for their continued thoughts and prayers. Each one counted and I'm sure contributed to this positive outcome. She is on her way back to Iraq to wrap up this operation and lead the rest of us home in a few months. I look forward to your return, Ma'am.

I traveled to Baghdad in my commander's absence to help maintain the operations there and assist with the redeployment of those soldiers going home. The few that are staying behind had things running well. I have one young Lieutenant with the energy and intelligence of five captains, fully immersed in the operation. Along with the soldiers and NCOs, the BIAP mission continues to be successful. Ironically, some of the younger and less experienced soldiers were not as excited to be going home as you'd think. Because of their inexperience and minimized exposure to the really bad situations here, they did not completely comprehended how fortunate they were to go home unscathed. The Senior NCOs understood and did a great job of making sure all of the personnel and equipment were prepped and ready for redeployment.

Our First Sergeant is a former Marine and Vietnam Veteran, so he fully realized the magnitude of the blessings that have continued to fall upon our unit during this mobilization and the importance of getting everyone home safe and sound. Once home, he along with the rest of the soldiers received a hero's welcome at the Raleigh-Durham Airport. I'm sure that welcome was unlike the one he received upon his return home from Vietnam. Thanks Top for all you did for us over here; hope to see you soon.

While in Baghdad I ran into an old friend from Ft. Bragg. We spent some time together reminiscing about our younger years. We were both newly married with no kids, working all day, jumping from airplanes at night and doing countless other activities to abuse our bodies. Now, our lives, goals, and focus have completely changed. He is still on active duty and doing extremely well in his profession. It was good to spend time together and I wish him the best for the rest of his tour. He is working with top Iraqi military leaders, helping them establish the new systems that will govern their military forces.

I spent some time talking to a group of young troops pulling guard detail at our BIAP camp. These guys were part of the 29th BCT out of Hawaii. Their story was unique in that they all had completed their original contracts with the Army and separated some time ago. They were called back up as members of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) and assigned to the 29th BCT as "filler" personnel. The IRR is a tricky monster, one most soldiers getting out don't realize that they "volunteer" to be part of. Not that the Army intentionally tries to deceive a departing soldier, but at the time of their separation, most soon to be ex-soldiers don't read the fine print.

The soldiers I spoke to fell into that category - they were shocked to know they were still on the Army's books and even more surprised to receive letters ordering their return to active duty. What most Americans don't know is that less than half of those in the IRR that have been called up have actually shown up. I spent some time expressing my gratitude for these soldiers' dedication and loyalty. I explained that without their participation, we "the Army" could not function effectively and the fact that they answered the call puts them in a class well above those who conveniently "lost" their call-up letter. They could truly lay their heads down at night and know that they did the right thing. My hat is off to all of those who answered the call. I don't know what, if anything, will happen to those that didn't but I wouldn't want to be their pillow.

I flew back to Anaconda just the other night. It was a star-lit clear night and when the Black Hawks took off you could immediately see the vast number of lights that covered the city of Baghdad. Office Buildings were still functioning, the streets were busy with cars, shops were open and people were walking all around. There even seemed to be a carnival type event going on in the distance. The two helicopters flew low and fast. In several areas I was eye level with the mid section of the buildings we were passing. I constantly scanned from side to side looking for the images I had just seen on CNN a few hours ago, but I could only make out what seemed to me as normal activity.

The pilots were amazing. At one time, we were so close I could see the glow off the instrument panel from helicopter we were flying next to. Out of the city, just like back home, the lights became fewer and far between. I could occasionally see what to me seemed like a family gathered in the back yard eating dinner with neighbors. All the while, my senses and training told me to be cautious and expect the worst Then my rational sensibility informed me that in my current situation, strapped into a seat on a helicopter, that it is all out of my hands anyway so just enjoy the ride. I've flown into Anaconda enough now to recognize its lighting pattern from a distance and I was relieved see my Iraqi home just a mile or two away.

My guys at Anaconda did a great job in my absence. Despite being short handed while people were on R&R and emergency leave, they along with the Air Force and KBR personnel kept the operation running smoothly. They were glad to see me back and the next day welcomed me with two mortars landing just a 100 yards from our hangar. I kidded my guys saying they really shouldn't have, and they sarcastically replied, "don't worry sir, we didn't". It was good to be back and now we can focus on what I hope to be our final 60+ days.

As I've mentioned before, I continue to run into old friends and classmates during my stay here. I've been in contact with one friend in particular that I will refer to as CAT (Civil Affairs Team ). He is an activated reservist from my hometown area. What makes his story unique is what he is doing and the road he's taken to get here. CAT started his career as a Military Police (MP) officer then transferred to Artillery and was in a training brigade when he was called to active duty. The catch is that he was called up as a Civil Affairs (CA) Officer, something he was not trained to do at the time. His orders routed him through a CA course in the states before joining his unit that was already deploying to Iraq. CAT arrived in country a month or so ago and has a unique mission, one I believe all will find extremely interesting.

CAT is the leader of a small CA team in the Najaf area. He reports that things there are relatively calm compared to what is going on up north. He spends a good amount of time "outside the wire" and meets with mayors, sheiks, and other town leaders on behalf of the Coalition Forces to discuss their needs - everything from food and water to banks and industry. He recently took his team on a trip down to the Saudi border to inspect and assess a border fort. They drove for over 7 hours across the desert...no roads, not even an unimproved dirt road. They used GPS to guide them over a hot and very dusty open terrain. I will continue to report on his activities and I've included some pictures of what CAT encountered.




The first picture shows our CAT-A team Hummer traveling across the desert(to visit this out of the way village near the Saudi border). We stop every hour for a few minutes to swap drivers and rest. You have to be careful out there...so we all pay attention (there is no road...so "roll overs" are a danger).





The next couple of photos show what the town looks like (kind of like the "Wild West" from our history). We went down to take a look at their water, food, electricity etc... Getting a good assessments allows us to prioritize our resources.



While there, we handed out some supplies, toys, and candy to the local children. Makes the kids happy (and us too).We try to visit these scattered villages in order to better understand their capabilities and needs. We help when we can (either immediately or down the line with projects). They are hopeful we will help them to fix their facility. In time I think we will be able to. Little by little, we are making progress over here. Given time, things can be better for everyone.