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......