Soldiers strive to improve conditions for Iraqis
August 21, 2008
FORWARD OPERATING BASE FALCON, Iraq, Aug. 20, 2008 - When Army Staff Sgt. David Cox looks at a map of Baghdad and sees the neighborhoods that form a little block in the southern part of the city known as Abu Tshir, he realizes how tenuous a position his platoon and fellow soldiers are in.
For Cox, a section leader for Blue Platoon of "Comanche" Troop's mortar section, it is an area where his soldiers patrol every night as they strive to make a difference for the Iraqi people.
"People come out and tell us that they appreciate us being there, and they appreciate what we're trying to do," Cox said. "And the ones who don't appreciate what we're trying to do are usually the guys [we are detaining] at 2 in the morning."
As the Multinational Division soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division's Comanche Troop, 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, make their presence known in the neighborhoods and communities in southeastern Baghdad, so do the extremists, said Cox, who hails from Fresno, Calif. The gangs and militia are putting out propaganda and attempting to intimidate the local populace by creating the perception that they are in control, he said.
"They have some influence," he explained. "Any murderer is going to have clout with a potential victim, but the [extremists] are losing that with the people to a certain extent."
Now, the enemy is adjusting its tactics and techniques to get away from Iraqi and coalition forces, he added.
"The bad guys are moving out," Cox said. "They have changed their operations from night time to day time to avoid us. They don't own the night; we do."
The Iraqi citizens are starting to see that they don't want to be involved with those kinds of people any more, he said. "They don't want them chasing their daughters, influencing their sons," he explained. "The people are getting tired of that stuff, and I don't think their influence is that big here any more."
Cox said he first realized things were about to change late one April night, soon after Troop C assumed its mission in southeastern Baghdad. The soldiers from the mortar section entered a home in Abu Tshir to conduct an assessment with the citizen.
The engagement provided the concerned citizen, who clearly was upset by the hour of the visit, the opportunity to voice his complaints, address serious problems and offer praise for the U.S. soldiers.
"In other words, it was a normal conversation," said Cox, a veteran of more than 16 years in the National Guard and on active duty. "He wasn't trying to give us a lot of baloney. He was laying it straight, and he trusted us to be able to have that conversation without fear or reprisal. He even told us where the bad guys were and everything."
The Blue Platoon is the only element of Comanche Troop that patrols every night, said Army Spc. Joseph Henley, an infantry mortarman assigned to Troop C, 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment.
"Our mission differentiates every night, but our main goal is to clean up the streets and help rebuild Abu Tshir and give Abu Tshir back to the people so they can live a free life," said Henley, a Hoboken, N.J., native who played football for Rutgers for more than three years before he joined the Army.
Even though the unit's presence on the streets is relatively small compared to its area of responsibility, Henley said, the nightly security patrols have cleaned up the neighborhoods and, as a result, extremists have been less effective working around the neighborhoods and intimidating the people.
"Right now, it seems like nobody is out here, but we know that [extremists] are somewhere around," he said. "They scatter like the rats when they see the headlights."
The soldiers of White Platoon have only one mission: to bring peace to Abu Tshir, Army Staff Sgt. Jason Kennedy, section leader, Troop C, 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, said.
"That is our only focus, no matter what it takes to get it done," Kennedy said. "That's the end state."
When Comanche Troop assumed its mission in Abu Tshir, the people were not very receptive, explained Kennedy, a native of Watervliet, Mich. The soldiers have seen a dramatic change since taking charge of security in the predominately Shiite community that is home to about 75,000 Iraqis.
"The people went into their homes," he said. "They acted like there was a curfew in effect even though there wasn't. They didn't mingle; we didn't see the kids out playing; we didn't see smiles. I think they were really scared of what they had coming."
Kennedy credited much of the unit's success and the current security and stability in Abu Tshir and greater Baghdad to the surge of U.S. forces that began in 2007 and ended a little more than a month ago.
"I believe that it was a great idea," he said. "The strategic planning put us exactly where we are at today. Even though the public and a lot of government officials didn't have faith, it really pulled us through."
He also said the real transition in attitude of the citizens started when the soldiers of Comanche Troop began to meet face to face with local Iraqis in hopes of establishing working relationships with the people, listening to their needs and talking candidly with them about basic problems, such as lack of electricity and employment.
"We try to keep them updated as far as what we know is happening and what is in the works," he said. "If we can keep them in a good flow of information, we hope that buys a little more patience, and that patience is our survival."
Little acts of kindness also have played a huge part in endearing the soldiers to the local community, he said, citing one incident earlier in the week when the soldiers in his section collected $5 apiece and bought nearly 100 ice cream cones for a group of Iraqi children lined up outside a local vendor in Abu Tshir.
Kennedy said he looks forward to handing over the security responsibilities to the Iraqi security forces in the next couple months, as his unit will be one of the last to transition into the role of providing tactical overwatch.
"These are some of the best Iraqi National Police I have ever worked with, the best Iraqi security forces I have ever worked with," said Kennedy, who is serving his third deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. "I do believe that they're getting it, and I believe they're getting it from our example."
Army Staff Sgt. David Pena, a section leader from Grand Junction, Colo., assigned to Red Platoon, said his soldiers conduct combined patrols daily with Iraqi security forces to validate their presence within the Abu Tshir community.
"The National Police also go out on their own; they do their own patrols," added Pena, who is assigned to Troop C, 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment. "They are really high-speed. I would compare them to a 'Joe'; the way that they react is like a regular [U.S.] Army soldier."
Pena, who also is serving his third deployment in Iraq, also noted the local and national Iraqi police responsible for the Rashid district provided 100 percent of the security for the pilgrimage routes Shiites used to travel to Karbala in observance of the Ascension of the 12th Imam, which occurred Aug. 16.
Pena said he believes the current levels of security can be maintained as long as the coalition forces and Iraqi security forces continue to work with the citizens of Abu Tshir.
Abu Tshir's reputation was pretty bad when the soldiers of Comanche Troop assumed responsibility for the area, and that reputation proved itself a couple times in the first weeks of their mission, Pena said.
"But as we started doing close encounters and started talking to the people, I don't think that reputation is true any more," he explained.
Pena said that, on average, his soldiers meet with more than 100 Iraqi citizens per week, and the residents of Abu Tshir continue to provide good tips about roadside bombs, weapons caches and the enemy.
"We're always going to have spikes [in enemy activity], but I think overall we're going to be able to maintain," he said. "People are changing. They're accepting our help, and at the same time they want us out of here, so I think they are starting to realize that, if they work with us, we'll help them a lot more."
(Army Staff Sgt. Brent Williams serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team.)