February 21, 2008
Observations of the Uncommon Heroes in IraqBy Jim Carrier
Leaving the comforts of my daily routine as a partner in a money management firm in Manhattan, I took off for Iraq in December to visit the war zone as a freelance journalist. Feeling driven to gather my own observations of the job our service men and women were doing over there, I had applied to the U.S. Army for clearance and was willing to jump through hoops to make it happen. My father-in-law, a former diplomat, said, "You will have a unique opportunity to take in all of the sights, smells and sounds of history," and he was right.
I took a twelve-hour commercial flight to Kuwait City, where I became a guest of the United States government. At midnight on December 16, we rolled down the runway and lifted off from Ali A Salem Air Base in an Air Force C-17 cargo jet. Wearing eighteen pounds of body armor and a Kevlar helmet, I was surrounded by one hundred soldiers also dressed in their full battle gear.
I was there as an observer to learn about their way of life; they were there because this is their livelihood, serving in the American armed forces. An hour later, we began our aggressive decent into Baghdad International Airport (BIAP, pronounced By-Op). The landing pattern, a tight spiral, helped protect the plane from possible enemy fire. As the ramp was lowered, a young army sergeant sitting next to me said, "Game on, sir. Welcome to BIAP. Follow me and I'll show you where to get your gear from the pallet," As we walked single file from the aircraft to the terminal, the group was quiet and alert. I could sense the imminent danger of a war zone.
I transitioned to a bus and then a specially armored vehicle to my interim destination in Baghdad, the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC). We drove a circuitous route along the road, swerving randomly so not to leave the impression of a routine path for future enemy attacks. At the CPIC, I was given my final scheduling for getting out into the field with an American unit.
Being the only American there and the new guy on the block, I listened attentively while a string of European reporters -- two Italian, one German, one Swiss -- chatted about their findings of the day. They had just completed private, hour-long interviews with General David Petraeus, the commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, and they were keen to get their stories out to their audience.
Two days later, I boarded a Blackhawk helicopter. Strapped in and ready to go, the air crew gave final thumbs up to the pilots and manned the heavy machine guns mounted just behind the cockpit. As we lifted off, the two door-gunners rotated their heavy weapons on swivel mounts, scanning the ground below, searching for potential threats. I thought about how pilots and air crew do this routinely every day in a vastly professional manner.
All were volunteers, doing their jobs with an evident passion for the mission. As we traveled northwest of Baghdad over sprawling meadows and small farms, I was struck by the beauty of the Iraqi countryside. Then the Blackhawk made a sudden descent and landed in a remote spot. It looked like a goat pasture.
This was certainly not the developed base of Taji where I thought we were headed.
I tapped my army host, Major Randy Baucom from Dale City, Virginia, and over the racket mouthed: "Taji? Really?" He just smiled and said, "Mission plan changed. We've brought you out to one of our Coalition Outposts so you can see where the rubber really meets the road in this war."
Our destination was a Coalition Outpost (COP) located near the village of Al Raood, home of the U.S. Army 2nd Battalion - 5th Regiment, 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, more conveniently referred to as the 2-5 CAV.
I would learn that there are many COPs scattered in and around Iraq, bases where the mission is not only military but also diplomatic: We act as ambassadors, befriending villagers and teaching them that we're there to help push the al Qaeda out of their homes. It's all part of the Petraeus plan to develop trust and confidence one village at a time.
The formation of these COPs is precisely where General Petraeus is making the significant progress we are finally hearing about. The ultimate objective is to move American forces into Iraqi communities where they can live with the people they are protecting.
The next day I witnessed firsthand the duties and endeavors of this particular COP manned by a company of U.S. Army personnel. They served as a forward force as called for in the new Counter Insurgency Manual, or what the ground troops refer proudly to as the Petraeus Doctrine.
I was particularly taken by the passion of the senior NCO of the unit to which I was attached -- First Sergeant Erik Marquez, forty-two years old, from Walnut Creek, California. Marquez was a take-charge kind of guy who was proud to share with me every nook and cranny of his Coalition Outpost. He managed the construction of this forward operating position six months ago when tensions in Al Raood were so high that local villagers would not leave their homes.
Marquez explained that four short months later, there was trade in the streets, children playing outdoors and farmers tending their crops and animals. A humble man, the First Sergeant said, "I am proud to know that I am making a difference, and that difference comes in the form of helping the Iraqis take back their homes, villages and lives."
Self-sustaining in every way, the COP was equipped with its own mess tent with five cooks making chow using a mobile field kitchen that folds up into a trailer the size of a small family camper. Our brunch consisted of scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns and plenty of milk and orange juice. Later we visited the medical tent that serves as an emergency medical treatment facility, with four trauma beds and four additional beds, staffed by two medics and a physician's assistant. The medical team treats both American soldiers and local Iraqis, demonstrating another aspect of community effort by the Americans.
Around 1330 hours, the company commander, Captain Brian Bassett from Roseburg, Oregon, brought us inside the command center to explain the mission on which we were about to embark. Lined up outside was a convoy of Humvees and other heavily armed vehicles. I was assigned to Humvee No. 6 or "Blue Six." We headed to the village of Al Raood, to a negotiation with the village elder who was the sheik of the local Sunni tribe. In their society, village elders know all, including in which houses the al Qaeda are holed up.
As our convoy rolled through Al Raood, my hosts pointed out seventy-five small markets reinvigorated and open for free trade, local citizens back on the streets and neighborhoods being monitored and policed by organizations called Concerned Local Citizens (CLC). The CLCs are made up of Iraqis who work directly with the American military and provide intelligence from local people who want to rid their neighborhoods of al Qaeda. I saw smiling faces of young Iraqi children who lined the edge of the road. Only a few months ago, they would not have dared to be there. One little boy peered into the rear window of my Humvee, patted his heart and with a smile flashed me a thumbs-up sign - a gesture that said "Thank you," perhaps for the soccer ball he had just received from our troops.
After climbing up onto a bridge connecting two villages, I stood alongside Captain Bassett and his fellow soldiers while they communicated with the local sheik. An American soldier serving as interpreter spoke the sheik's dialect perfectly. Meanwhile some fifty people, a third of them carrying guns, randomly crossed the bridge. Any one of them could have been an al Qaeda plant. It was the Wild, Wild West.
The objective of this negotiation was to secure the sheik's handshake on encouraging his fellow villagers to resist the threats of al Qaeda who were pushing the natives from their homes. In exchange, the sheik would ask the Americans to rebuild the village school that al Qaeda had bombed and burned to the ground a few months before.
The American soldiers were here on this particular visit to accompany their commander and demonstrate their skills as ambassadors, shaking hands with the villagers and assuring them that they would assist in the recovery. Captain Bassett spoke with the Sunni sheik for about an hour. I was eyewitness to the skilled acts of diplomacy conducted by these gracious troops.
I had brought my American flag from home because a Navy SEAL friend advised it as a mandatory checklist item for travel. I did not have an exact plan for what I would do with it, but in a turn of fate, it played an important role in my trip. I told my hosts that I had our flag from home, thinking it could be briefly run up a pole at the COP. I learned that the U.S. military does not fly our colors in Iraq because the United States is not an occupying force.
However, the soldiers asked if they might use my flag as a backdrop in an important ceremony scheduled that day. The ceremony was a reenlistment commitment by Sergeant Alen Alexander, an eight-year army veteran from Brooklyn, New York, who was reaffirming his oath and duties to the U.S. Army for an additional six years of service. With "hoo-ahhs" all around, my heart nearly burst out of my chest. Sergeant Alexander genuinely believes in the mission of the U.S. military and is dedicated to his role. In spite of the numerous deployments he will no doubt face over the next six years, he chose to remain on the team.
As our time together was nearing an end, First Sergeant Marquez reached over to his right shoulder and swiftly peeled away from its Velcro backing his unit patch featuring the iron horse of the 1st Cavalry Division. He said, "Thank you for coming out to visit me and my fellow warriors. I have worn this patch for the last fourteen months on this combat deployment, and I want you to have it."
I was speechless.
Then as the Blackhawk lifted gently from the H-LZ of the COP, my heart thudded with pride for these courageous men and women who I had closely observed making a real difference for the Iraqi people.
Looking back at my initial arrival in the CPIC, I thought of the Swiss journalist who pulled me aside and asked, "May I offer you a bit of a heads-up before you go out there to your unit tomorrow? I don't want to offend you, but if you'd like to hear the real story, I am happy to tell you." I said, "Sure. Any orientation would be great." But I was thinking, "Uh-oh, this guy is just going to unload on me and tell me how fouled up the Americans are." But putting his arm around my shoulder, he went on: "The facts are quite compelling and simple: The Americans have actually turned the page in Iraq in terms of security, and I am impressed by the brilliance of your General Petraeus."
It's a story that the American people and our troops deserve to hear. I was honored as a common man to be able to thank so many of our uncommon heroes and shake their hands.