Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Out and About

I'll be out for the next few days, spending time with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. I'll post some info about my visit with 3/7 when I get back to Camp Fallujah. Ooh Rah!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Holiday Blues and Museum Artifacts

The uniform of BGen. Augustus Collins, 155 BCT, donated by the General for accession into the Marine Corps Museum

Iraqi Army (IA) and Iraqi Police (IP) comic books, distributed by coalition forces in support of "information operations" in Iraq, 2005

Original applications for Fallujah resident and contractor Identification cards, bound for the Marine Corps Museum, December, 2005

Well…it’s the day after Christmas and even in Iraq, a small dose of “post Christmas day blues” has spread throughout the camp. Just like home, the days leading up to Christmas generated an air of excitement about the camp. As Christmas eve approached, the troops became animated and playful, wearing stocking caps instead of boonie covers and greeting one another with “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Ooh-rah!” Non-stop religious Services were conducted by the various Command Chaplains and packages were rushed from the Fallujah post office to waiting 7-tons or HMMWV’s for transport to the troops before Christmas morning. Laughter and good cheer was the medicine of the day.

As of this morning, everything’s back to normal. Christmas decorations are being dismantled and the excitement of Christmas has passed. The Marines of II MHG and 5/14 Provisional Military Police continue on with their convoy security patrols. The grunts of Regimental Combat Team 8 (RCT-8) headed out this morning, just as they have every morning to conduct cordon and knocks, searches, and raids against high value targets in town. The helos continue to fly over the camp, one buzzing overhead as I write this post. Today, at least one CH-46 medevac landed at Fallujah surgical, bearing wounded Marines. A Cobra gunship providing security escort passed overhead as the 46 touched down to drop off its payload. Life continues, and so continues the carnage and violence that separates us from our counterparts at Camp Lejeune, Quantico and Camp Pendleton. Christmas has come and gone, the goodwill and cheer a fading memory as Marines put their noses to the grindstone and push forward with their daily routine.

Our work never really stopped. It was merely downplayed by the joyous feelings that Christmas brings to each and every Marine deployed. Opening a care package on Christmas day, no matter how big or small, was just as exciting to us as that gift we tore into as a 9 year old at home, many years back. The Marines here are kids at heart. Yesterday, we were all thinking of home, of family and of Christmas’ past.

Today, we are back at work, our minds refreshed, the holiday over. I am back to conducting interviews with the Marines of 5/14, and will be departing Camp Fallujah in a couple days to spend a week with an infantry unit north of my current location. Once again, I am looking forward to getting out of Camp Fallujah and the garrison environment it has become. Going to the field is a welcome relief I am fortunate to experience.

In addition to the interviews I conduct with Marines across the area of operations (AO), my duties include collecting unique artifacts for accession into the Marine Corps Museum. I’ve always had a fascination with historical memorabilia and militaria, and though I’m neither a historian nor a museum curator, this deployment has helped turn my fascination into an official duty, if only for the duration of this deployment. I’m actually charged with looking for such items on behalf of the Marine Corps Museum, some of which may one day be found on display in a museum or archived for the use by military historians.

Museum artifacts come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve had to alter my preconceived ideas about what actually constitutes an artifact. My pre-deployment concept of an artifact was a simply a weapon or a uniform, perhaps a war trophy of some sort. However, artifacts are much more varied than just guns, trucks or uniforms. Imagine the value of an original, unmarked booklet of ballots from the Iraqi national elections held December 15th, 2005. In 50 years, that very book of ballots will be a museum curators dream. Though merely a ballot book to most, a museum curator immediately sees its value to future researchers and historians.

I’ve been fortunate to come across some great artifacts while deployed. A box of artifacts sits in my workspace at Camp Fallujah, waiting to be mailed to the museum curator at Quantico. I’ve picked up many items, such as original election and referendum ballots; coalition “propaganda” handbills posted on Iraqi lamp posts and an Arabic copy of the Iraqi constitution circulating the streets of Fallujah. I’ve received a cassette tape filled with anti-American rhetoric, captured from insurgents in Iraq, and possess an Iraqi martyr flag found balled up in a vacant Fallujan home by Warrant Officer Fay. We are hoping to get our hands on a collection of weapons captured from the insurgents by Marines from RCT-2, to include some fantastic AK-47’s, RPK’s, pistols, knives, swords and various hand-made rocket launchers and RPG tubes made with PVC pipe and sheer ingenuity. Just this evening, a young Marine popped into my work space and hand delivered one of the camouflage utility uniforms worn in Iraq by Brigadier General Augustus Collins, Brigade Commander for the 155 BCT, II MEF (Fwd). General Collins was kind enough to offer his uniform when I asked if he'd be interested in donating it to the museum. A man of his word, the General promised and delivered. The 155 leaves Iraq this month after spending the last year in the Babil Province, fighting the insurgency and turning over parts of the AO to the Iraqi Police (IP) and Iraqi Army (IA). His uniform may one day adorn a mannequin at the Smithsonian or other museum, as General Collins was the first African-American General in the Mississippi National Guard, and the first to command a National Guard Brigade in combat while serving subordinate to a major Marine Corps chain of command.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas, 2005

Marines and sailors sing Christmas Carols outside the Camp Chapel, Dec. 24, 2005

Our Cammie-netting Christmas tree outside of DFAC-1, Camp Fallujah

Serving line decorations inside the Dining Facility

LtCol. Pat Carroll plays "Jingle Bells" atop building 33 on Christmas Day, 2005 at Camp Fallujah

LtCol Craig Covert, Christmas Day, 2005 Camp Fallujah, Iraq

Today is Christmas day. Despite being away from home, most Marines have tried to get into the Christmas spirit. Decorations are everywhere around the camp, hanging in offices, living quarters and work spaces. The dining facility staff set up a Christmas tree next to the serving line and hung decorations from the ceiling. Outside the chowhall, a makeshift Christmas tree stands near the entrance, camouflage netting filling in for pine needles. It was pretty funny watching the TCN’s, or third country nationals, trying to construct the tree. The workers, most of them Iraqi, Indian or Filipino, stood around the tree in a gaggle and argued about what a Christmas tree should actually look like. I imagine they received their marching orders from one of the dining facility managers who’d merely told them to construct a Christmas tree for the troops. A recording of Christmas music plays continuously on a looped soundtrack, sounding like a broken record playing under water. Even funnier are the Marines who jump into the sleigh and start yelling at the reindeer to take them to the North Pole. The tree and music gives everyone a chuckle.

Some Marines express their Christmas spirit in more unique ways. Just an hour ago, I heard the distant sound of Christmas carols outside the building I share with the 6th Provisional CAG. I stepped outside and found the music was coming from the rooftop. Climbing a ladder on the side of our building, I found several Marines from the CAG taking photos and listening to LtCol. Patrick Carroll play Christmas carols on his bagpipes. There’s nothing like the sound of bagpipes playing to send a shiver up and down your spine, even if it is a Christmas carol instead of Taps or a battle hymn.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Personal Request

During this deployment, Mr. Peter H. Covert and Mr. George F. Frazier, my father and step-father, both succumbed to cancer. This horrible disease continues to claim the lives of millions of other Americans who will never have the opportunity to live a full and productive life. With luck, successful research will one day stop this disease from bringing sorrow to so many families.

As you prepare for Christmas and head out to purchase those last minute gifts, please consider making a small donation to the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, or a local or national charity organization of your choice.

The Provisional MP's

Camp Farrar, named after Sgt. Andrew K. Farrar Jr., who was killed in action in the Al Anbar Province on Jan. 28, 2005

Corporal Aaron A. DeSalvo with his Military Working Dog, Bako at Camp Falluja, Iraq, December 22, 2005

I spent the day with Marines from the 5/14 Provisional Military Police Battalion, located at Camp Farrar, a small enclosed commune located within the perimeter of Camp Fallujah. The camp was named after Sgt. Andrew K. Farrar Jr., who was killed in action in the Al Anbar Province on Jan. 28, 2005. Units often rename their camps throughout the area of operations or as an honor to a hero in their service.

The military police officer's death was a tragedy for his unit, A Company, 2nd Military Police Battalion, and even more so for his family. Farrar was killed on his 31st birthday. The Weymouth, Mass., native left behind a wife and two children. He also left a lasting impression on his fellow Marines. "I think about Andrew everyday," said Sgt. Jonathan Bates, an accident investigator stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C. "He taught me that Marines want to be led, and
that it's my job to step up and lead them." Farrar's impact on Bates went
beyond the ranks. "I had the privilege of calling him my friend," he said.

While at Camp Farrar, I interviewed Several Marines, to include the Battalion S-6 Officer (CommO), the Officer in Charge of the Evaluation Assessment training Team (EATT), the unit legal clerk, and a female Regional Detention Facility (RDF) guard team member. It was an eclectic collection of Marines, ranging in rank from Lance Corporal to Captain. Although I was planning to travel to Ar Ramadi and Blue Diamond tomorrow, I have decided at the last minute to cancel my trip to continue my collection efforts with 5/14, thereby permitting myself to enjoy Christmas day in the comfort of my own little home away from home. I'll head north sometime after Christmas.

The last time 5th Battalion, 14th Marines, 4th Marine Division, was deployed to a combat zone, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president and the United States was in a world war against the Japanese in the South Pacific. Although 5th Bn., 14th Marines is an artillery unit by trade, they deployed as a provisional military police battalion with Marines coming from various active duty and reserve units throughout the Marine Corps. It includes 1st Battalion, 14th Marines, an active duty MP Company from Camp Pendleton, a TOW Company from 25th Regiment, MP’s from Louisiana and Minnesota, and Marines from 4th Force Reconnaissance from Hawaii and Reno, Nevada. The battalion is tasked with four main missions while serving in Iraq: area security, convoy security, law enforcement and operating five detention facilities throughout Al Anbar province.

Many of the reservists are civilian law enforcement officers or corrections personnel who are applying their civilian skill sets within their new environment. The very first interview I conducted was with the Battalion Executive Officer, himself a Special Agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. These Marines have come together from all walks of life, intent on contributing to the continuing fight for democracy in Iraq.

Following today’s interviews, I stopped by the Military Working Dog (MWD) facility to take some photographs of the dog handlers with their canines. Corporal Aaron A. DeSalvo recognized me as I sauntered into the compound and immediately volunteered to bring his dog “Bako” out of his doggy-prison and into the yard, which DeSalvo refers to as the dog’s playground. As I prepared to snap some photos of Bako, the dog snapped back, growling and barking at me from several feet away. Holding Bakos’ leash tightly, Cpl. DeSalvo let me know in no uncertain terms that I should quicken my pace before Bako got the best of his leash. I didn’t argue. Although Bako is trained to sniff out explosives and other incendiary devices, I have no doubt that he might easily double as an attack dog. I didn't stick around to find out.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A New Start

A photo of Ansam Shahib Ahmed, a translator at the Civil Military Operations Center (CMOC) in Fallujah, Iraq, casting her vote on National Election Day, Dec. 15, 2005

Dec. 16. - An incredible firefight erupted outside the CMOC last night, starting with a few scattered pops from an AK-47. Within seconds, a crescendo of gunfire echoed throughout the city, the night alive with machine gun fire from AK’s and RPK’s. The first firefight was short-lived and trailed off after 45 seconds but was followed by longer, more sustained display of small arms fire about 10 minutes later. At first, the Marines of the CMOC reacted normally, accustomed to the sound of occasional gunfire. However, the sheer volume and intensity of the 2nd firefight gunfire caused more concern than usual and soon the shouts of “gear up, gear up” were being yelled down the hallways.

Through the evening, the sound of Iraqi Police sirens wailed in the distance. The night air was alive, and one could easily close their eyes and imagine they were in New York City. Perhaps the commotion was a reaction to the elections and the closure of the polling sites. Whatever the cause, this was a night of remembrance for Iraqis eager to start a new lease on life.

I finished the day’s interviews with the Director of the CMOC, LtCol. Eloy Campos. Eloy is a Cuban native who emigrated to the US at the age of 15. Commissioned in the US Marine Corps in 1985, he has directed the operations of the CMOC and its Marines since early September. It is my opinion that the elections in Al Anbar Province would not have been successful without the direct intervention of the CMOC Marines. Whether sponsoring meetings for local officials, providing basic necessities for the Iraqi Election Committee members, our hosting international media representatives present to report on the election process, the CMOC directly contributed to the success of yesterdays elections.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Iraq Vote Is Seen As Step Forward

Some hope the relatively calm elections portend a waning of violence. Pragmatists note the tough task of forming a government lies ahead.

By Richard Boudreaux, Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The Sunni imam stood before 400 worshipers during Friday prayers in Abu Hanifa Mosque and weighed the meaning of the previous day's big election turnout by Sunni Arab voters.

It was too soon to tell how many Sunnis would sit in Iraq's new parliament, Sheik Ahmad Taha said in his sermon. But he prayed that the minority's belated entry into electoral politics would, with the help of God, bring an end to bloodshed and "free our land from American occupation."

Expressed in different words, that goal was shared by the Bush administration and leaders across Iraq's sectarian and ethnic divides. It is a vision that could again prove elusive, however, as Iraqis count votes, seat a 275-member Council of Representatives and wrangle over the makeup of a government in the weeks ahead.

Pragmatists caution that Thursday's election, with its greater Sunni participation, would not by itself halt the Sunni-led insurgency or prompt the United States to start withdrawing troops.

Yet Western officials, Iraqi politicians and many voters say enough was different about this election to suggest that it could mark a turning point.

"I do not want to say we have achieved the big breakthrough we were looking for," said a Western diplomat who has tracked Iraq's nascent democracy and relentless insurgency over the last year. "This is going to be a long process. But yesterday was definitely a step forward."

Sunnis dominated Iraq's leadership during the rule of Saddam Hussein but disassociated themselves from politics after his ouster by U.S. forces in 2003. Last January, Sunnis boycotted the election of an interim parliament, enabling the Shiite Muslim majority to control the interim government in alliance with ethnic Kurds.

This time Sunni political parties, including some with ties to the insurgents, were on the ballot. Clerics in Sunni mosques across the country urged their followers to vote, and several insurgent groups agreed to refrain from targeting voters.

In January, insurgents staged more than 250 attacks on election day, killing 44 people. This time, U.S. military officials counted 18 attacks on polling stations. Eight people died.

In Shiite mosques Friday, religious leaders declared the election a success, saying it had undermined the insurgency.

"For those who were saying they have been marginalized and excluded from political life, this pretext for terrorism no longer exists," declared Jalaluddin Saghir in his sermon at the Bratha Mosque in Baghdad.

But few expect the insurgents to hold their fire for long, even as some Sunnis expected to be elected to the new council are likely to press an agenda similar to the insurgents'.

"This is not going to stop violence," President Bush said during an interview Friday on the PBS program "NewsHour." "There are still people out there that are going to try to affect the political outcome, the political debate, with violence."

Sunni politicians and voters insist on a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Sunni cities in central and western Iraq. They seek the release of Sunni prisoners held without charges and an end to killings of Sunni detainees, reportedly at the hands of the Shiite-run Interior Ministry and Shiite militias.

They also want the council to limit decentralization of powers in order to prevent Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south from controlling most of Iraq's oil wealth or breaking away.

Before those explosive issues can be addressed, Iraq faces weeks of vote counting and horse-trading.

The United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition that has led the interim government, is again expected to fall short of winning a majority of the votes cast. That would require it to bargain with other blocs over the selection of the president, prime minister, and Cabinet ministers.

Such talks can spark violence. Iraqis saw a rise in insurgent bombings during the nearly three months it took to form the interim government early this year.

With official returns from Thursday's vote not expected for a week or more, Sunni parties have already challenged the fairness of elections in parts of Iraq.

They charge that some Sunni districts were deprived of ballots and some Sunni voters were kept from the polls by armed gangs or militias affiliated with Shiite and ethnic Kurdish parties. Irregularities and intimidation could cost Sunnis as many as 10 seats, their leaders say.

But so far, they have been careful to avoid discrediting the entire election.

"Our people's determination is to go forward with the process," said Iyad Samarrai of the Tawafaq front, a leading Sunni coalition. "I don't think there will be a regression."

Sunnis are expected to gain representation in line with their share of Iraq's population. The electoral system divides 230 of the 275 parliamentary seats by province, and Sunni candidates could get as many as one-fifth of those directly elected seats.

Their ability to bargain for Cabinet posts will diminish, however, if returns from those regions scatter votes widely among competing Sunni parties. Among the many contenders are the Iraqi Consensus Front, led by the Iraqi Islamic Party, whose support helped the U.S.-backed constitution survive an Oct. 15 referendum, and a ticket led by Saleh Mutlak, a former member of Hussein's Baath Party, who opposed the charter.

Both Sunni groups say they intend to test their power by trying to amend the constitution, especially to strengthen the central government. It is a battle they say the insurgents, who are fragmented into dozens of groups, will watch closely. The Sunnis are unlikely to succeed in their efforts.

"The process for constitutional revision stacks the deck very much against any attempts at change," said Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. To avoid a standoff, he added, "we will need to see flexibility not only from the Sunnis but from Shiite and Kurdish leaders."

Sunnis are also expected to press the new government to set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops, first from Sunni cities and then from the rest of the country.

About 30,000 troops, whose return to the United States had been delayed until after the election, are expected to leave soon, putting American troop levels at 137,000. Any further reduction would be subject to agreement between the new Iraqi leadership and the United States, and would depend on Iraq's ability to build up its own armed forces, U.S. officials say.

Whether political compromise and a drawdown of U.S. forces will weaken the insurgency is a different question.

Insurgent sympathizers said in interviews after voting Thursday that the rebels had simply adopted politics as another weapon and would fight both inside and outside the government against American troops and Shiite targets.

As Sunnis take their seats in parliament, the government is expected to hear arguments — once considered taboo — that the only effective way to blunt the insurgency is to negotiate directly with "nationalist" insurgent leaders. By that they mean Sunnis not affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group led by Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi.

"The government needs to differentiate between terrorism and resistance and to negotiate with the resistance, invite it into the government," said Samarrai, the Sunni political leader, who is expected to win a seat in parliament.

"If the government rejects this, the violence will increase."

Times staff writers Edwin Chen in Washington and Ashraf Khalil, Caesar Ahmed and Raheem Salman in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Election Day

Today is Dec. 15, election day. I’ve spent the last 3 days inside the CMOC in the heart of Fallujah. The CMOC, or Civil Military Operations Center was once a children’s center in the city, but was abandoned some time ago. It is now the home of Marines from the 6th Provisional Civil Affairs Group (6th CAG). Located in the center of the city, it has become a safe-haven for Iraqi interim government officials, Sheiks and other religious leaders needing a secure place to meet and conduct business. It is also a gathering place for Fallujans seeking claims against the military. The claims range from damaged vehicle and homes to compensation for family members accidentally injured or killed by American troops. The CMOC itself is surrounded by concertina and Hescoes, with Marines standing watch at a number of observation posts (OP) around the compound. Iraqi Police (IP) stand watch outside the entry control point (ECP), the first layer of defense against threats to the compound. The IP’s also represent US efforts to slowly turn over security of the towns and cities and towns to the Iraqi forces, though Marines hover silently in the background.

Getting to the CMOC is still a dangerous venture for US forces. IP checkpoints are scattered along the route and have dramatically decreased the number of areas where IED’s can be placed. Unfortunately, the threat still remains. On Monday, a Marine Corps 7-ton truck from RCT-8, Camp Fallujah was attacked by a suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED), or suicide car bomber. The bomber swerved his vehicle into the side of the 7-ton and detonated his explosives, instantly vaporizing himself and most of his car. The 7-ton was damaged, but the new Marine Armor Kit (MAK) affixed to the 7-ton kept the vehicle from being totally destoyed. The two Marines inside the 7-ton cab were injured and one passed away on Wednesday from his wounds. Fortunately, the driver survived and will be able to return to his family. A very sad situation for the families involved.

The Marines of 6th CAG are Marine Corps reservists who have returned to active duty to conduct civil-military operations in country. Civil-Military operations (CMO) can include any sort of community or economic improvement project funded, organized or coordinated by the US Military and other US Government Agencies (OGA), such as the United States Agency for Independent Development (USAID) or the US Department of State. Whether processing a claim, speaking to a Sheik about repairs to a road or Mosque, or organizing national elections, the CAG Marines remain committed to rebuilding vice warfighting. The CAG staff works closely with the community leaders to build cooperation and trust, little of which could be found in Iraq until this year.

The efforts of the CAG have garnered the trust of many Fallujah residents who would not have dared venture near the CMOC a year ago. In 2004, Fallujah was the site of the single largest military operation against the insurgency since President Bush declared an end to hostilities in 2003. In an effort to route Fallujah of the insurgents who had taken control of the city over the preceding months, I MEF plowed through the city in a massive, coordinated military attack. Marines methodically cleared houses and mosques, searching building by building as they pushed through the city blocks. We lost many Marines, but also killed hundreds of insurgents who vowed to fight to the death against the coalition forces. In the process, hundreds of the city structures were destroyed. These buildings still bear the scars of war – bullet holes pockmark the exteriors; roofs and walls lie crumbled in piles where grand structures once stood. The city remains a wasteland bearing a remarkable semblance to Berlin and London following air raids in World War II. Since that time, however, the Marine Corps and OGA have made a herculean effort to reverse the damage inflicted upon the city by helping rebuild the city.

An incredible amount of money has flowed to Iraq for the reconstruction and rebuilding efforts. Until recently, most of the money used for these efforts came from frozen Iraqi assets held since the UN imposition of sanctions in 1991. Billions of dollars were frozen around the globe. From the New York City Federal Reserve alone, several billion dollars in cash were transferred to waiting 747’s and flown directly to the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), ready to be distributed by the coalition. Further, a separate “oil for food” fund was tapped into and brought thousands of tons of consumer goods into the country. The US and other countries have also invested large amounts of their own monies into the rebuilding effort, though the majority came directly from money that Saddam stole away over the years during his dictatorship.

At this very minute, the CMOC is crawling with reporters covering the national elections. Today is a historic moment…it will be the first time in decades that Iraqis will elect their own government. Many Iraqis have no knowledge of politics or of the political candidates themselves and will vote for the person endorsed by their Sheik or tribal leader. Regardless, this election is the first step toward the formation of democracy in Iraq.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Their hope hinges on our success

Photos taken by Brien Aho, MNCI-Combat Camera

Loneliness and relief

I’m on my third day back at Camp Fallujah and have finally reached a point in my deployment where I no longer feel guilty for sleeping past 0700. For the first half of my deployment, I felt incredibly guilty if I wasn’t up by 0630, eating chow and planning my day. Maybe LtCol. Tim Crowley’s philosophy has finally rubbed off on me. While back at Al Asad, Tim regularly slept till 1000 or 1030 every morning. Yet in the field, Tim operated at a marathon pace, expending 100% of his energy throughout his visit. He balanced this expenditure by relaxing in the rear. Warrant Officer Fay and I used to get a good laugh out of Tim knowing he was still in the rack long after we’d eaten breakfast. Now, that attitude of “I’ve gotta get up” has finally left my system. For weeks, I felt I was shirking my Marine Corps responsibilities by sleeping through breakfast. I’ve come to the realization that nobody here gives a damn whether I sleep late or not. In fact, very few people here even know who I am, much less care about my schedule.

We operate in a very different environment from home. For many, there are no set hours, formations to attend, or meetings to make. Every Officer operates in his own little bubble and takes little notice of those around him unless they share the same room or office. It’s sad, really. Despite the hundreds of Marines surrounding me, I don’t know the name of a single resident within my very own berthing area. We share the same bathroom and live only feet apart, yet we’ve never taken the time to introduce ourselves to each other. We isolate ourselves in our own busy worlds. It’s similar to living in New York City where people go out of their way to avoid their neighbors. As long as we accomplish our individual missions – mine collecting oral history interviews – when and how we do it remains inconsequential to everyone else.

That’s what I dislike about this job. I am isolated in a crowd. Though deployed with II MEF (Fwd), I am not “one of them.” I am an individual Marine without a unit. The unit is the heart and soul of the Marine Corps. Marines instinctively depend upon their buddies in their fire team or squad; they rely upon the guidance of their platoon and company leaders; they embrace the cohesion of their Battalion and Regiment. Marines train together, eat together, and deploy together. They value the camaraderie of the unit, of the team. That is the part of this job I regret. I have no team. This position is the antithesis to Marine Corps philosophy. Teamwork is the ethos of a Marine.

Yet, there are benefits to deploying as a Field Historian. I am my own boss. I am not confined to a TOC or COC, working 14 hour shifts, fighting the clock to get my report to the Colonel or General before deadline. I make my own schedule and do my own thing, and THAT is precisely why I’ve felt guilty for the last 3 months. The Marine Corps despises complacency and disorder. It is an organization that relies on uniformity and the willingness to follow direction, to follow orders that may result in injury or death on the battlefield. It is an organization that has successfully won major battles and conflicts because of Marines' unflinching willingness to follow the rules and operate within set guidelines, to operate within a framework built around schedules and timelines. From the day we first set foot into recruit training or OCS, we are told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. We are supervised as we do it. None of those rules apply here. I am free to travel the AO, to escape the confines of my base and be with the Marines at the tip of the spear. I operate in a manner that is unlike any prior deployment or billet I’ve previously held.

The loneliness of this position is countered by meeting Marines, sailors and soldiers who pour out their hearts to me, sharing memories and experiences that will one day captivate future generations of Marines and patriots. Their stories reflect heroics and bravery, despair and loss. I am honored to spend time with these heroes who give so much in return for so little. They are kids who possess wisdom beyond their years. The honor of collecting these experiences and spending time with these young men and women far outweighs the moments of loneliness I face back at Camp Fallujah.

I will soon depart the confines of the Camp and integrate with the 6th Provisional Civil Affairs Group, or CAG. The CAG is extremely busy right now, preparing for the Iraqi National elections that will occur in 5 days. December 15, 2005 will be a historic event for the citizens of Iraq and I plan to be part of it, if only a spectator.

A Dec. 8, 2005 story from the Washington Post describes local interest in the elections:

In Iraq, Signs Of Political Evolution

Parties That Shunned January Vote Are Now Embracing the Process
By Jonathan Finer, Washington Post Foreign Service

BAGHDAD, Dec. 7 -- Tucked into a bunker-like former headquarters of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, a type of war room unfamiliar in this country buzzed with life Wednesday. Halfway through a 14-hour shift, campaign workers from the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Arab group that boycotted the country's previous elections in January, munched rice and kebabs, their faces lit by computer screens.
Across town, hundreds of black-clad followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr -- who decried balloting 10 months ago as something imposed under American occupation -- beat their backs with chains and stomped across a large poster of former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi. Sadr's political wing has joined forces with the alliance of Shiite religious parties that leads Iraq's current government and opposes Allawi's secular movement.

As Iraqis nationwide prepare to go to the polls for the third time this year on Dec. 15 -- this time for a new parliament -- candidates and political parties of all stripes are embracing politics, Iraqi style, as never before and showing increasing sophistication about the electoral process, according to campaign specialists, party officials and candidates here.

"It is like night and day from 10 months ago in terms of level of participation and political awareness," said a Canadian election specialist with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a group affiliated with the U.S. Democratic Party that is working to ease Iraq's transition to democracy. The institute, which has provided free campaign training to more than 100 Iraqi parties and describes its programs as nonpartisan, granted a reporter access to its employees and training sessions on the condition that no one on its staff be named.
Evidence of political evolution is plastered all over Baghdad's normally drab concrete blast walls and hung on lampposts at nearly every major intersection: large, colorful, graphically appealing posters conveying a wide variety of punchy messages.

Television and radio airwaves are replete with slick advertisements costing anywhere from $1,250 per minute on al-Sumariya, a Lebanon-based satellite station focused on Iraq, to $5,000 per minute on al-Arabiya, a network based in the United Arab Emirates that is popular across the Arab world.

In one 30-second spot, a smartly dressed and smiling Allawi -- normally known for his brusque demeanor -- is shown seated on a stool in a dimly lit studio. "My faith is in Iraq," he tells the camera, to underscore his secularism.

Even the arrival of American-style negative campaigning is evidence of a growing political sophistication, the election trainers said. In recent days posters have started to appear in Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in north Baghdad, bearing the slogan "vote for the Baathist slate," along with a composite photograph of a face -- half Allawi's and half Hussein's. Allawi was a member of Hussein's Baath Party until the mid-1970s, when he joined Iraq's opposition.

In January, most candidates outside the dominant few parties largely eschewed campaigning, fearing they could be kidnapped or assassinated. Now, even long shots are getting into the act. One day this week, National Democratic Institute instructors explained get-out-the-vote techniques to a dozen members of the Free Iraq Gathering, a new coalition that "probably won't get many more votes than you see in that room," according to an institute employee.

In another room, a Canadian taught workers from the Iraqi National Congress, the party led by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, how to monitor polling stations on election day to prevent cheating and ensure their supporters are able to vote.
"You are the eyes of the party," he said, warning them to look out for husbands trying to cast ballots for their wives or tribal leaders seeking to vote for their members. "Your party may have the best solutions for Iraq, but it doesn't mean a thing unless people come and put a ballot in the box. You have to think, I have seen Mustafa and Mazen vote, but if someone is missing, maybe you call them up and offer them a ride to the polls."

As in January, the specter of election-related violence still hangs over Iraq. Insurgents have distributed leaflets throughout Anbar province, the center of the Sunni-led insurgency, threatening to kill anyone who attempts to vote. An Iraqi Islamic Party candidate was gunned down with two party workers on a highway west of Baghdad late last month. Allawi escaped unscathed from an attack by armed demonstrators in Najaf during a visit there Sunday, and two days later, a rocket-propelled grenade struck his party's Najaf office.

In several cities in the Kurdish-populated north on Tuesday, demonstrators believed to be loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party burned down several local headquarters of a rival party, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, whose members recently withdrew from a KDP-led election coalition. Four party workers were reportedly killed in the incidents.

Because of this, several candidates and party workers said, they cannot apply much of the advice they get from foreign election workers. At one recent session, candidates were encouraged to knock on doors or approach people in restaurants or cafes to talk about issues. They were told to write letters and send them to everyone they know, outlining their platforms.

"You could get killed . . . and we don't have mail there," said Khalid Madhia, a Free Iraqi Gathering candidate from Fallujah. "But it is much easier this time. Before, we were running while we were hiding. We don't have to hide anymore."
Instead of retail politics, candidates rely largely on less direct means of contacting voters: Most major parties now have interactive Internet sites that provide information about platforms. Several parties employ cell phone text-messaging technology that allows them to send messages to hundreds of potential supporters at once. Funding comes from dues and donations paid by members.
Religious leaders are also playing a prominent role in the campaign through networks of affiliated mosques, where imams divide their sermons into a religious discussion and a political discourse that often touches on the coming vote.

At the Iraqi Islamic Party headquarters, hundreds of cardboard boxes full of posters waited to be taken by truck to regional outposts in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. In another room, video editors scrutinized the latest version of the party's television ad asking voters to help "end the U.S. occupation." The spot runs continuously on an in-house satellite station.

The party had originally decided to compete in last January's elections despite a broad Sunni Arab boycott, but it eventually withdrew. Sunni Arabs, who account for an estimated 20 percent of Iraq's population, held most top positions in the Hussein government but have seen their influence erode significantly since his ouster.
"Everyone here is excited. The mood and busyness are so much better than before when we just waited to see what would happen," said B.B. Abdul Qadir, an Iraqi Islamic Party official who said his party's goal was to win 60 seats in the 275-seat parliament. "Now we can't wait for the voting to start."

Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Dlovan Brwari contributed to this report.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Soldiers Tribute

The shirtsleeve of Command Sergeant Major Johnny Marlow, 1/155th Infantry Battalion (the "Missippi Rifles"), part of II MEF (Fwd), listing the fallen soldiers of the Battalion who gave their lives while deployed in the Babil Province. December 6, 2005


During my deployment, I have run across several Marines and soldiers who can weave a story that draws you right in.... I am simply a conduit that will allow the Marine Corps to capture the stories that will benfit our future Marines and soldiers. I sit smugly to the right; the truly gifted storytellers inlcude such folks as:

LEFT: Staff Sgt. Kevin Manix, Squad Leader, 3rd Plt., Bravo Company, 1/155
RIGHT: Staff Sgt. Michael R. Cooper, Tank Section Sgt (A section) Delta Company, 1/155

The Babil Province

I've just returned to Camp Fallujah after spending the last 8 days in the Babil Province south of Baghdad. My time was split between two FOB's, or forward operating bases located near the cities of Al Iskandariyah and Al Musayyib. The Babil province derives its name from the ancient city of Babylon, which was part of three old civilizations in Iraq: the Sumerian civilization in the south, the Babylonian civilization in the middle, and the Assyrian and Accadian in the north. Al Hillah, the capitol of this province, is an agrarian dream - tall stands of Palm groves cover
the area, criss-crossed with canals and waterways that bring life to the desert. From the air, the palm groves and agricultural farms lie in stark contrast to the desert sands accumulating just beyond their boundries. Locals call the area Al-Fayhaa, which means "a beautiful garden."

The day after I arrived in the province, the 2nd Iraqi Army Brigade successfully completed its certification process which allows the Iraqis to take over counter-insurgency operations from the coalition forces and exercise primary security responsibility over its residents. The exam confirmed that the brigade is ready to plan and conduct military activities dependently, opening the way for coalition forces to hand over security responsibility to Iraqi army units. Military support will be given only in emergencies by a quick-reaction force, medical evacuation or air support. However, Multinational division military advisers and trainers will still monitor 2nd Brigade activities.

The 2nd Iraqi Brigade consists of two battalions situated in different places within the province. It numbers about 1,800 soldiers equipped in light armored vehicles with a variety of weapons. Publicly available reports state the brigade has taken part in five combat operations so far in cooperation with coalition forces. During these operations, 2nd Brigade soldiers searched hundreds of vehicles, persons and buildings, seizing illegal weapons and a large amount of ammunition as well as effecting the detention of many terrorism suspects. During Iraq's Oct. 15 constitutional referendum, the 2nd Brigade established 41 checkpoints and 12 mobile patrols, effectively preventing attacks which had previously injured or killed a number of Marines and soldiers assigned to the Province.

Here are the journal entries I wrote during my latest field evolution. I apologize for the length of the latest entry...

November 30, 2005

Once again, I managed to scam a Blackhawk helicopter ride across the province. It was smoother, quieter, and more comfortable than the standard Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight. The "46" was introduced to the military inventory in 1964, and a fair share of the helos still flying have seen service in Vietnam, Panama, and Desert Storm. Despite updated engines and hydraulics, they've outlived their expected shelf life and are soon to be replaced by the new Osprey Aircraft, a tilt-rotor aircraft with a mixture of helicopter and airplance characteristics.

The starkness of the desert is quite distracting. I was completely relaxed and had little concern for my safety as we skimmed across the sands, a naïve mindset to take on in this AO. Occasionally, you'd fly above a shepards house in the middle of nowhere, the structure nothing more than a mud or adobe brick hut. No doors or windows, many without roofs, and certainly no electricity or running water. Occasionally, I caught glimpses of children playing in the sand, or a villager carrying water from large holes dug deep into the desert. I ponder how the people of the desert can live in such conditions and thrive despite the lack of water, resources and infrastructure. Unfortunately, the desert residents share a common denominator with their city counterparts - poor sanitation. The Iraqi solution to ridding oneself of household refuse is to throw it outside the door or on the ground wherever one stands. Trash is everywhere, blowing around in the breeze, littering the landscape as far as the eye can see. Some towns are so covered in garbage that roadway medians have literaly formed walls of trash separating the lanes of travel. Some fault may lie with the lack of money and degraded support to areas outside of Baghdad and Tikrit since 1991. However, the majority of Iraqis show little concern for the environment they live in and seem indifferent to the filth surrounding them. It's certainly a cultural difference that's hard to understand.

Outside the towns, few paved roads carry passenger to their destinations. Dirt roads comprise the majority of travel routes across the country; vehicles create billowing clouds of dust that covers everything and everyone. The simple structures these people use for homes cannot keep out the dirt and dust, much less provide a comfortable, hospitable living environment for its occupants. I question whether the average Iraqi understands that a clean and safe environment would improve their general health and well-being. Children often play barefoot in the contaminated water and are sometimes so completely covered in filth that their hair takes on the reddish-brown hues of the soil, all of them appearing to sport auburn highlights in their jet black hair.

My journey to the Province ended at FOB Kalsu, home to the remaining elements of the 155th Brigade Combat Team, most of whom are headed home by the end of the month. As I gathered my gear and walked toward the transient tent, I sighted Major Erby Montgomery sauntering my way. It was a simple sort of “homecoming,” as I had quickly grown comfortable at FOB Kalsu during my previous visit. The Mississippians quickly put one at ease, southern charm a natural part of their persona. The troops there are counting down the days till their departure - Major Erby Montgomery had only 28 days left when I arrived, but who’s counting? One could feel the intangible excitement in the air and see the preparations that had begun for the BCT’s retrograde home. People are a bit happier, giddy over the prospect of leaving this place after spending the last 11 months in Iraq.

December 3, 2005

Sgt. First Class Kevin Reeves (155 BCT, PAO) and I traveled via ground convoy to FOB Iskandariyah, a small base located aboard a decrepit but operable Iraqi power plant. FOB Iskandariyah was previously occupied by a Marine Corps Battalion and was known by the name "FOB Chosin" before the Army took over, a reference to the Marine Corps legendary withdrawl from the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean conflict. The successful withdrawl of the 1st Marine Division earned Lt. General Louis B. "Chesty" Puller, himself a former VMI cadet from the class of 1921, a fifth Navy Cross, the second highest award for valor in the Navy and Marine Corps. A fitting name for the FOB, the Chosin Resevoir was also home to a hydroelectric plant during "Chesty's" heroic march. I’d heard the power plant at the FOB delivers as much as 60% of its electrical output to Baghdad, an amazing amount of power considering the distance between Iskandariyah and Baghdad.

The FOB houses several hundred soldiers and is home to a handful of Marines assigned in direct support of the Battalion. The Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) detachment consists of one active duty Marine Major and three highly motivated enlisted Marines, all reservists from 3rd ANGLICO in Califronia. Only one other Marine, a military working dog handler, occupies the post among the hundreds of Army soldiers. As with any Marine mixed in with a band of soldiers, these "Teufelhunden" stand apart from their more casual Army counterparts. Proud of their uniform and service to the Corps, they are a great bunch of guys who handed me the proverbial "keys to their Kingdom" while I visited, their "Kingdom" a simple GP tent which serves as their living, working and entertainment space. The services they provide the 1/155th Infantry Battalion are unique; their presence will be missed in the AO when they displace to more hostile locations.

Aboard FOB Iskandariyah, little attempt has been made to improve the quality of the living conditions for the troops stationed there on a permanent basis. Although the Army took the reigns a year ago, the soldiers still live in GP tents instead of "cans" or hardstand buildings. Sandbags and concrete barriers protect them from IDF. There is no PX, post office, permanent chow hall or MWR facility, making the FOB more closely resemble accommodations found at a temporary battle position or FIRM base. Sgt. Cory Rueb, 1st Platoon Team Leader, Bravo Company, 1/155, provided this paraphrased description of the FOB…

“The amount of pollution and waste around the FOB is horrible. The FOB is a place where nobody wants to be. It is the Iraqi Love Canal. The factory constantly burns waste oil to produce power, and pools of sludge and chemical filth are everywhere. The grounds are littered with caustic bags of chemicals and other materials, and rubbish and debris are piled in shoulder high piles spread across the FOB, the size of several football fields. Smoke is constant – we’ve been warned by medical personnel about it. Noise is also constant – it’s like living next to a freeway, it never goes away. It’s indescribable. We are the only FOB in this AO still using a kitchen mobile trailer instead of KBR – the food is terrible. The food is so bad here, MRE’s are the favored choice.”

Despite the overall condition of the FOB, the staff was extremely accomodating during my stay. A visitors “VIP” tent (CP tent) is permanently set up inside a large building, probably a former power plant warehouse of some sort. The building also houses 2 other tents, one used for meetings, and the other as the personal quarters for the Battalion Commander. It’s not bad. The accommodations are quite satisfactory, it’s just the environment that needs help. If this were a base in the US, environmental health standards would have forced its closure long ago with a subsequent evacuation of all personnel to the nearest preventive medicine unit for immediate screening.

I traveled to FOB Iskandariyah in an armored Chevy Suburban similar to the SUV’s I drove through the country during my previous deployment to Basra. Our vehicle was located toward the rear of a convoy containing perhaps a dozen vehicles. It included armored HMMWV’s, semi-tractor trailer trucks, and 2 armored SUV’s. Although heavy ballistic windows and armor line the compartment, I wished I had been inside a HMMWV. There’s just something about riding in a civilian vehicle inside of a military convoy that makes one feel extremely vulnerable. As the only Officer among 5 enlisted Mississippi National Guardsmen, I was also quite the minority in that Chevy. I’m certain the soldiers weren’t too thrilled to have me in their vehicle either. In lieu of military radio traffic, a rap song was playing on the car stereo. I imagine it’s easy to get complacent after 11 months in theater. I felt neither complacent nor comfortable, however.

The short trip was eerily reminiscent of time I spent in the towns and villages of southern Iraq. Garbage strewn streets remain crowded with old cars traveling to no apparent destination. The roads are dotted with IP checkpoints every few miles. Indigent, lackluster people mill about the sides of the road doing nothing. They stare blankly at the convoy as we pass by, with no way of knowing if any of them spend their evening hours planting IED's along the routes of travel. Poverty is everywhere. I had hoped to see more improvements in the Iraqi society over the last 18 months, though the towns still put forth an image of despair and unemployment. Little seems to have occurred in the villages that would indicate a growing prosperity among the common man.

December 4, 2005

After speaking with a few more soldiers of the 1/155, I have come to the conclusion that yesterdays journal entry may have been a bit harsh. According to everyone I’ve interviewed, the AO has actually seen dramatic improvements. Despite the trash and visual disrepair of the community, it is said that many civil projects are occurring to include the repair and building of schools, IP stations, wells, farms and irrigations systems. Perhaps not all is lost. It’s hard to tell at this stage of the game. Not to mention, I only saw a small portion of the AO on my drive up from Kalsu. Perhaps I'll see other improvements on my next ride out of the FOB.

Compared to FOB Kalsu, I’ve taken some extremely interesting interviews over the last 2 days. The soldiers of the Battalion are some great storytellers. In particular, the “yarn spinning” abilities of SSgt. Randy Louis Manix (3rd Platoon Squad leader, B Company, 1/155) and SSgt. Michael Ray Cooper (Tank Section Sgt. (2-11 ACR), D Company, 1/155) peaked my interest. I listened to these guys’ stories the way I listened to my elementary school teacher reading “The Jack Tales” to my 4th grade class. I simply put down my pen and listened. Their stories were fascinating and captured my attention. Each of them effectively painted a picture of his experiences, captivating me with their country boy tales of warfare in Iraq. It was a good day.

December 6, 2005

I’m stuck at the FOB, my flight cancelled due to the volume of troops flying from FOB Iskandariyah to Kuwait. It could be worse – I have a comfortable “VIP” tent inside the Tactical Operations Center (TOC), one of the only hardstand buildings in use at the FOB. The TOC is located inside a large power plant warehouse. During the first few days the 1/155’s deployment, a number of mortar rounds and rockets landed in the compound, burning up a dozen of tents used for berthing by the soldiers. The TOC was also hit by a rocket which allegedly bounced off the roof, causing no damage. If I have to be stuck here for an extra day or two, at least I’m not in the tents outside.

The ANGLICO team has their own tent (GP large) within the compound, a luxury compared to tents filled with 25 or 30 US Army soldiers. The only Marines on the FOB, the team is manned with one active duty Major and three reserve enlisted Marines. The Marines have wisely befriended a team of IPLO civilians next door and are benefiting form that relationship. The IPLO’s have a commercial internet account strung to their tent and have run an extra connection to the ANGLICO tent for use by the team. Sometimes it pays to be the minority on base. FYI - The IPLO’s, or International Police Liaison Officers, are civilian police officers who have taken a leave of absence to come to Iraq and train the Iraqi Police, or IP.

Since I had no interviews scheduled today, I took a walk around the base, trying to capture some pictures that would show the filth and disrepair of the base. I have come to the realization that I am a horrible photographer. I will stick to my day job. None of my photos truly reflect what poor conditions these guys live in day to day. I decided to interview the Battalion SJA this morning, and am heading out in 10 minutes to catch the Chaplain, both of whom leave for home in the next day or two. I’ll also interview the remaining ANGLICO Lance Corporal from the team, and call it quits. I’ll keep my fingers crossed about getting out of here tomorrow.

December 7, 2005

Pearl Harbor Day. I Just got back in from the field this afternoon. I am pretty beat - I think I either cracked a rib or pulled something while I was out during this trip. I was a sad sight trying to get out of my sleeping bag this morning. I couldnt sit up due to the sharp pain, so I laid there for a few minutes trying to figure just how in the hell I was going to get up. I finally rolled over in the bag and crawled up slowly on my hands and knees til I could stand. Needless to say, I did not have a fun time putting on my gear (about 75 lbs) and catching a convoy this morning for anoither 45 minute ride along Iraq's bumpy roads. Even the helo ride back here was uncomfortable. I'm heading to the hospital on base tomorrow to see if they can Xray and wrap it. Nothing much I can do......