Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Heading home on emergency leave

Unfortunately, I will be heading home on emergency leave for a couple of weeks. I will not be posting future updates until I return from leave on or about November 1st.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

A New Course of Action

The entrance to the FOB Landing Zone, or LZ, reads
"Y'all Come Back Now, Ya Hear?

October 16, 2005

My visit to the 155th Brigade Combat Team was a great opportunity to learn about my Army brethren. The Mississippians were a great bunch of guys and lined up some fantastic soldiers for me to speak to, including the most "senior" active duty soldier in Operation Iraqi Freedom. My very last interview was with Colonel William N. Bernhard, M.D., Brigade Surgeon for the 155th.

Colonel Bernhard is 74 years old, and originally enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1950. He was medically discharged from the Corps in 1951, which he steadfastly claims was life's greatest disappointment. Unhappy as a civilian, he pursued a career with the Naval Medical Corps and by 1963, was honorably discharged as a Lieutenant Commander (0-4). Still in love with the military lifestyle, then LCDR Bernhard approached the Army Reserves and received his US Army commission in 1979, working under the First US Army Augmentation Detachment.

He has served in dozens of hot spots around the world to include service with the an MP Brigade at Camp 301, Hofra-el-Betin, where he provided medical care for 15,000 Iraqi prisoners of war (EPW's) in 2001. Subsequent to a tour in Afghanistan in 2003, he was again called back to active duty from the retired roles to serve as the Brigade Surgeon for the 155th BCT. An amazing man with impeccable credentials - I was honored to meet and spend time with this living legend.

After returning to Camp Falluja, I reported to the office of the Commanding General for my "better late than never" in-call. Major General Stephen Johnson commands the entire II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) ... aka: II MEF (Fwd), which includes the US Army forces with whom I just spent the last week. The CG provided some great insight into the current operational situation and suggested a change or two in my intended course of action. As anyone with military experience would agree, I quickly "readjusted my battle plan accordingly." Looks like I'll be spending some time in the field with our Marines from the 2nd Marine Division, with whom I served as a young Lieutenant. I now have a new course of action. More to come.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A snapshot for mom.
Taken aboard my flight to the 155 BCT. (10/08/05)

Army Life

I left Camp Fallujah this morning, boarded a US Army Blackhawk helicopter at LZ East and traveled southeast toward Al Iskandariya. I arrived at the forward operating base, or FOB, well before noon. This particular FOB is the home of the 155 Brigade Combat Team (155 BCT), and is much less built up than the relatively stable Camp Fallujah. Until a month or so ago, soldiers at the FOB were still wearing their body armor 24/7, as the insurgency is still alive and active in small pockets around the area of operation (AO). Since January 1st, the insurgents have fired over 130 mortar rounds and an occasional rocket into the confines of the base, causing a number of casualties and a decent amount of damage. Recently, an extremist drove an SVBIED (suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) into the entry control point (ECP) and detonated the bomb. Fortunately, an Iraqi vehicle in front of the suicide bomber suffered the brunt of the damage. However, the poor soul driving the vehicle was killed in the blast. He was simply a local worker who earned his living selling trinkets on base to U.S. soldiers.

The journey to the FOB was quite a rush – certainly more exciting than flying Marine Air, which flies almost exclusively at zero dark-thirty. The Blackhawk is incredibly smooth and quiet, much like comparing the ride in a Mercedes to that of an old Dodge pick-up. Army pilots, I am told, enjoy tree-top level flying and hugging the ground during their daylight runs. In pairs, we glided effortlessly over the tops of palm trees, across the roof-tops of crude brick houses that dot the landscape. An occasional updraft signaled an oncoming power line or other man-made structure of considerable height. Looking down, it seemed we rarely reached altitudes of more than 200 feet. Despite the threat of small arms fire, the ride was smooth and uneventful. Knock on wood.

I was greeted at the LZ by Major Erby Montgomery, the Public Affairs Officer, or PAO, for the Brigade. Maj. Montgomery offered to set up my visit and I could not have asked for a better way start to my TAD. With my helmet in hand, we walked from the LZ into the base camp and straight to the Major’s office. Maj. Montgomery had already secured a spot for me to work and immediately introduced me to a number of the Brigade staff, including the Commanding General. On deck for less than 15 minutes, I was already briefing the General on my objectives for the week. By sunset, I had completed a number of oral histories with the Brigade staff, finishing the first days’ collection by dinner. In the morning, I’ll meet with soldiers of the 2/11 ACR, or Armored Cavalry Regiment.

October 10, 2005

The FOB is much smaller and more rustic than the major camps found at Al Asad or Camp Fallujah. FOB’s are temporary in nature, often torn down or dismantled after a set period of time. Several have already been turned over to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and are now homes to the newly created army or Iraqi police. A tangle of Hescoe barriers, concrete bunkers and tents, the FOB is a miniature “tent city.” Most working spaces are housed under canvas and cammie netting, with the Headquarters element utilizing the few hard-stand buildings found within its perimeter. Thousands of sandbags dot the landscape since incoming mortar fire tends to destroy or damage anything not protected by layers of dirt and concrete. Only one explosion awoke us last night, most likely an IED going off somewhere outside the FOB. It detonated at exactly 0032 hours (my watch glows in the dark). I’m glad it was the only one for the evening - I didn’t have to get out of the sleeping bag and head to the bunker. I’m told it’s been unusually quiet…I must have brought the “calm” with me.

The Brigade arrived last January to an area that was rife with insurgent activity. Task Force 2-11 (ACR), the ground maneuver element headquartered at the FOB sent its subordinate units throughout the AO to conduct kinetic operations for the first 4-5 months on deck. Virtually every Brigade soldier from cook to supply clerk earned his combat action badge since arriving. Cordon and knocks, raids, presence patrols, TCP’s, vehicle and personnel searches, dynamic building entries – all have been utilized in the AO. As the insurgency is displaced, operations shift from a kinetic to non-kinetic environment while civil-military operations (CMO), information operations (IO) and humanitarian aide take the place of traditional war-fighting, shifting it farther out of the AO.

CMO and information operations go hand in hand and support the adage of “winning the hearts and minds of the people.” With any CMO action, we seek to improve the critical infrastructure of the towns and cities. We must convince the Iraqis that they are in a better situation than they were before the fall of Saddam. We will fail to win them over if we do not fulfill the promises we’ve made to them; mainly security and income. Democracy and freedom are empty words to many, as they have never lived in an environment that permitted free speech or freedom of action. Unfortunately, I believe the concepts of freedom and democracy are forever lost on the current generation, while security and stability will be the primary factors that influence the mindset of the average Iraqi.

The average Iraqi understands the irony of American presence in their country. They want us to leave, yet understand their organic security forces are neither strong enough or mature enough to protect them and their families. The Americans provide food and water, without which they would starve. However, we continue to provide free hand-outs vice forcing them to cultivate their fields and produce crops. We are unwittingly creating an overly-dependent population rather than a self-sufficient population. Only time will tell if our continuing CMO and IO will change that situation. Around FOB Kalsu, CMO and IO continue to occupy the minds of the senior staff.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Generals and Barberchairs

October 3, 2005

I turned in my Field Historian “concept of operations” to the II MEF (Fwd) Chief of Staff, Col. John Ledoux. Unlike previous OIF deployments, the current MEF staff is somewhat concerned about spare LtCols wandering around their AOR’s. Rightfully so. Fortunately, Major Major General Stephen T. Johnson, the MEF CG, indicated he was “historian friendly” during our first meeting in the hallways of the MEF HQ. Perhaps now I can get out into the field without ticking off someone important.

Subsequent to turning over my CONOPS to Col. Ledoux (a Sarasota, FL native), I sent an e-mail to Brigadier General Augustus (Leon) Collins, CG for the 155 Brigade Combat Team, affectionately known as the "Mississippi Rifles." I requested permission to visit the Commanding General’s AOR northeast of Karbala within the next week, as the 155 BCT has supported II MEF for months. I was surprised to receive a direct response from General Collins, who stated he’d be happy to oblige, just 30 minutes after sending him my request.

Older than the state of Mississippi and the seventh oldest infantry unit in the United States, the 155th Infantry, formerly the First Mississippi Regiment, was handed its first commission on 1 June 1798 by Winthrop Sargent, territorial governor of Mississippi. It was during the Mexican War, that the 155th Infantry, then the First Mississippi Regiment, was commanded by the great Jefferson Davis, who resigned his seat in Congress to assume command. At Buena Vista, 22 February 1847, with the Mexicans out-numbering the Americans five to one, General Zachary Taylor called upon Jefferson Davis and the First Mississippi Regiment. Moving quickly into the assault, Davis gave but one order: “STAND FAST, MISSISSIPIANS.” History was made that day and the order became the official motto for the unit, later to be emblazoned on the unit crest. Through the Civil War, in engagements in Kentucky and Tennessee; in the Spanish-American War; in World War I, at Beauregard and in France, and in World War II, in the Southwest Pacific, the men from “Mississippi’s Pride” were always among the finest. Though not Marines, they’ve become part of the II MEF (Fwd) team, as fine as any Marine Corps unit in the AO.

On a personal note, I hope to speak with the officers about one of their fallen comrades, Captain Lowell T. Miller, VMI class of 1993.

JACKSON (AP) - A Mississippi National Guard unit in Iraq has captured the insurgent who killed one of its soldiers during a firefight last month, the unit's commander said. Capt. Lowell T. Miller II, 35, of Flint, Mich., was serving with the Mississippi National Guard's 155th Infantry Battalion, 155th Brigade Combat Team when he was killed by small arms fire during a raid in Iskandariyah on Aug. 31
"Capt. Miller volunteered to transfer from the Michigan National Guard to the 155th Infantry Battalion so he could deploy to Iraq with this unit," said the battalion's commanding officer, Lt. Col. John M. Rhodes, in an e-mail from Iraq." Just by his request, I knew Tom was a patriot and a warrior," Rhodes said. "Many people seek to avoid combat deployments, but Tom was willing to risk everything in order to deploy with a group of soldiers who he did not even know."

During a raid on a suspected insurgent stronghold, Miller was shot and later died despite desperate attempts to save his life, Rhodes said.Information obtained from five suspects who were detained just after the attack and tips provided by local Iraqis helped the unit to identify the man responsible for the fatal shooting, Rhodes said Rhodes said the unit raided the suspect's home and captured him last week and he will soon appear before an Iraqi judge.

Miller's primary job in Iraq was to train Iraqi soldiers, Rhodes said. "Tom was extremely dedicated and always led by example. He was a hero to his soldiers," Rhodes said. "Tom will continue to live through us, and we will carry on his legacy." Miller came from a military family. His father served 22 years in the Naval Reserves and his brother and sister have both served in Iraq.

"Dad, I serve so others don't have to," he once wrote to his father, Lowell Miller. "You taught me to be a leader, to stand up and sacrifice so others would not have to. You were in the military and served so your kids wouldn't, yet we do. You taught us well."

Miller graduated in 1993 from Virginia Military Institute and later joined the Michigan Army National Guard. He was part of the 155th Brigade Combat Team in Iraq, which is made up of nearly 4,000 Mississippi Guard soldiers and others from throughout the county. The unit is attached to the II Marine Expeditionary Force and operates in the Karbala, Najaf and Babil provinces of Iraq.

On a lighter note, I met an interesting Marine the other day while passing by the barbershop inside the II MEF Battle Square. Gunnery Sgt. James L. Johnson was the II MEF (Fwd) Security manager for OIF 4-6, having previously deployed to OIF-1 and OIF 2-2. He finally went home yesterday and I was sad to see him go, as we had just become acquainted and I rather enjoyed his company. Besides his official function as II MEF (Fwd) Security Manager, Gunny had the distinction of being the MEF’s unofficial barber. Gunny could be found in his “barbershop” after 1800 hours nightly, cutting hair for free, though accepting donations if offered.

As we chatted, I noticed the Gunny’s unique barber chair and upon closer examination, shook my head at the ingenuity of our young sailors and Marines deployed in theater. The barber chair is actually a Mitsubishi van seat, welded to a USMC 7-ton truck rim. Underneath the plywood flooring, the rim has been affixed to a .50 caliber ring mount pulled off of a destroyed vehicle, which allows the barber chair to traverse 360 degrees. A young “sea-bee” from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 1 used his welding skills to craft a footrest, made of scrap metal from a damaged HMMWV. The chair has been used by Privates and Generals, to include Genrals Sattler and the current Deputy CG, Brigadier General Patton. Now that's a piece of history that belongs in a museum one day!

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Leaf Eaters

October 1, 2005

We dropped back an hour last night. Could’ve actually made it to chow this morning.

I finally received my laptop computer back from the CE (Command Element) Help Desk – that’s the section of Marines who control the entire internet domain within Camp Fallujah. Typical of any computer section worldwide, the CE Help Desk is not well regarded among Marines outside of its walls…It took 4 days for them to switch my domain from Quantico to Camp Fallujah – although the work itself only takes 10 minutes. Seems they would be better labeled the CE “we’re not that much” Help Desk.

I ran across another VMI classmate last night. Major Tom Voytko ’87 recognized me as we passed each other in the dark. Tom is a reservist who never really left active duty. Shortly after ending his active duty career in 2001, he joined the reserves and was immediately recalled to service following 9/11. After that, Tom was held over for OIF 1, and continues to serve today. Tom is also the recipient of a bronze star, received during a previous deployment to Iraq. Although actually a recalled reservist, he’s never spent enough time in the civilian world to seek employment outside of the Marine Corps.

As Tom and I were talking, an artillery fire mission commenced from nearby, the 155 rounds sent forth in support of our grunts on the ground in Iraq, most likely somewhere near Baghdad. The ‘boom’ of the big guns startled me slightly, as the guns had been shifted to a location fairly close to our position. The Arty guys have an acronym for themselves – FAKOB – Field Artillery, King of Battle. No one who has seen the results of an artillery barrage will argue that moniker.

Over the past few days, I have spent the bulk of my time interviewing Marines employed within the ISF Directorate (Iraqi Security Forces), part of MNF-W (Multinational Forces – West) in Falluja. The ISF Directorate has many subordinate units, to include the DBE, the P3, IPLO’s and the BTT’s. Each provides a distinct service within the Directorate.

The DBE, or Department of Border Enforcement, is charged with setting up Iraqi border forts on the borders of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. LtCol Ken Desimone is the coordinator of the DBE. Ken has been a friend of mine since we were Lieutenants together at Camp Lejeune in the late 80’s. Ken has served in the reserves for over 20 years and has been informed by his wife that this will be his last hoo-rah. Ken agrees, of course. Ken’s office has spent the last 8 months or so traveling to the Iraqi border, overseeing the construction of border forts, to include the training, equipping and mentoring of newly trained Iraqi border patrol units. Ken was recently the subject of a news story which got quite a bit of attention within the MEF – it can be read by searching the internet for "LtCol Desimone Iraq." That's Ken in the photo above.

Ken and I served together in the II MACE, or II MEF Augmentation Command Element at Camp Lejeune from 1998-2001. We also deployed to Italy together for three weeks during Operation Agile Lion, a Joint Army & Marine Corps exercise in Vicenza, Italy. Ken likes to think he’s “saltier” than me, and we always trade barbs when we see one another. Ken threw a new one at me the other day when he called me a “leaf eater.” A little confused, I asked him what he meant – Ken replied that since I’m here in a non-combat arms position, I’m just a “leaf eater” as opposed to the grunts, who are “meat eaters.” We had a good laugh over that one.

In addition to interviewing Ken and his folks, I spent time with the BTT, or Border Transition Teams, as well as with Marines from the P3 Program, short for “Police Partnership Program.” The Marines from P3 are responsible for training the IP’s or Iraqi Police Candidates from the city of Fallujah. Since April, over 1200 Falluja IP’s have been trained at the Jordanian and the Baghdad Police Academies.

Over the next week, I’ll be attempting to head south near Al Iskandariyah to link up with the US Army’s 155 Brigade Combat Team (BCT 155), who is deployed to Iraq in support of II MEF (Fwd). They have seen quite a bit of action over the last year, yet we have not had anyone embed with them to date.