<b> FORT STEWART, GA </b> -- Being responsible for 3,800 Soldiers has been "an absolute pleasure, joy and honor," said Col. Thomas James, 4th Brigade Combat Team commander.

"It warms my heart to see them out there doing what they're doing and the sacrifices they're making for our country, the people of Iraq and the international community."

Throughout the course of the deployment, the Vanguard Brigade has continuously adapted to its changing operating environment, an area of approximately 40,000 square kilometers, which is about the size of Switzerland. And the brigade has been able to do this due to the agility and versatility of its Soldiers.

"If you were to draw a line that says, 'Themes of rotations,' I think 4/25 Infantry fought really hard, a very lethal fight against al-Qaeda in the north, and the militia in the south," James said.

"They were able to shape the fight to a point where we could take it ... it's like a forest fire; they put the forest fire out minus some small flash fires. We came in and were able to execute operations in the first couple of months, putting those flash fires out and then setting the conditions to stabilize things and to continue building momentum," said James. "I think that's probably the biggest accomplishment that I have seen. What I've seen in the Soldiers in executing that is their ability to build relationships and adapt their skills to fit the environment to allow stability to take place."

By creating an environment of security, it allowed the brigade to focus on other things, such as professionalizing the Iraqi Security Forces, governance, economics and essential services.

"We looked at the decisive point as being reducing the threat level while simultaneously building the capability of the Iraqi Security Forces to a level higher, so we could hand it off; and we have been able to do that," said James.

The brigade was able to build off the momentum that was created by their predecessor.

"The 4/25th was fighting real hard and we took over and continued to build on that momentum," said James. "We were able to start these 'quick-fire' CERP projects, where we were giving the people the resources and jobs they needed real quick ... then we had to transition in the middle of our rotations from projects to programs, trying to make it more of a long-term, sustainable program."

The brigade was able to do this due to having an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team attached to the headquarters.

"Howard Vanvranken and his group of specialists really know how to build economics and governance [programs] that we're not necessarily that experienced with," said James. "We kept resourcing them; whenever he had a hole he needed filled, I would fill it with one of our Vanguard Warriors. The work they've been able to do has just been amazing."

Working the LOEs (Lines of Effort)

As ePRT worked diligently with building economics and governance, the Soldiers of the Vanguard Team formed relationships with key Iraqi leaders on both the civilian and military side.

"The Soldiers were able to execute operations in a very complex environment and do it with precision and build these relationships like no other force can do; I think this was a very important factor that has allowed us to be successful."

The Soldiers, from the private on the ground to the brigade commander, invested a lot of time and effort in professionalizing the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police.

"The Iraqis need confidence," said James. "They don't realize how good they are compared to the threat ... they're not us, but they just formed this army five years ago. They're really starting to learn some things and are taking charge, and we just need to allow them to do so and just be in more of a support role."

Compared to previous rotations, James said his Iraqi counterparts have really impressed him.

"The Iraqi Army and police are so much better and that was extremely helpful for us in accomplishing our mission," said James. "There was a point when they were handling a lot of the fight, down in the south with the militia while we were focusing on north Babil. Then the Sons of Iraq program was created because the Sunnis were tired of the violence and wanted to stand up and protect their neighborhoods, protect their Families. They came to the table and said, 'We want to help. We don't want violence anymore. We want to reconcile.' That was obviously a big factor in the success of north Babil."

Way ahead

So as the Vanguard Brigade looks to end a chapter in their history, the areas where the next unit will have to focus will likely include political and sectarian prejudices and lack of essential services.

"One of the things that has been difficult is the sectarian views of the politicians as it applies to our area," said James. "We're not experiencing sectarian violence like several years ago; the violence associated with Shia on Sunni and vice versa. It's just been certain prejudices associated with Shia when it comes to the police force and getting Sunnis integrated into the Iraqi Security Forces.

Also, getting the Sons of Iraq, which are predominately Sunni, packets through the reconciliation cell in Baghdad to get into the Iraqi Army or police has been extremely challenging. I think we've processed more than 4,000 packets up there but none of them have made it into the ISF.

I think for the most part on the streets it seems like Sunnis and Shias have reconciled and are working together but then you get the political parties involved and at the government level it is more difficult. So they have to get past that and look through the 'Iraqi lens' and not the 'Sunni/Shia lens.'"

Also, the level of essential services in Babil Province along with the majority of the rest of the country is still lagging behind.

"The Iraqi government has large amounts of resources," said James. "But how do you get those resources to the people who need it' How do we improve the government structure to where the people's voices are heard' It's unfortunate that they know what they want at the ground level and they have money at the top ... but working it down is a challenge."

Our Soldiers

"The brigade staff is the best staff organization that I've ever seen in 24 years," said James. "They have multi-planned, simultaneously, while in contact and produced products that allowed subordinate units to execute.

"It's been an absolute pleasure to work with (Command) Sergeant Major (Louis)Torres, who is the senior, most experience Soldier in the Vanguard Brigade; he loves Soldiers and it's infectious.

"The subordinate commanders have been incredible with what they've been able to do in building relationships with those in their areas and being able to take it to a different level. They've also had to deal with the pain associated with command when you lose a Soldier or a Soldier is injured. As soon as one goes down you have to be dedicated to those who are alive and not let them die in vain.

"It's hard to describe in words the feeling you get when you're commanding an organization in combat where you have Soldiers who pay the ultimate sacrifice, you've got Soldiers who have life-altering injuries, and you have Families who have sacrificed so much."

Going home

"The relationships I've made with the Iraqis will last a life-time," James said. "So I'll go home and it won't be that I will never think of (Brig. Gen.) Abdul Amir again or what's going on with Babil Province. We'll forever be tracking it to see what's going on to make sure that things are still going well. We've paid for it in blood and sacrifice, so we'll keep an eye on that in the future."

The brigade has been successful in their mission and the Vanguard Soldiers will be going home to a Hero's Welcome, which is what they deserve, said James.

"We've got the finest Soldiers in the world, and we've got the greatest families who have been supporting us and behind us as well," James said. "Separation is hard and anybody who says it is okay is wrong; everybody misses their loved ones, that's just part of it. The support that they have had for us has been enormous and it has allowed us to get things done over here."

James said he's happy to go home because he misses his Family, and he knows his Soldiers miss their Families and the unit is being moved out of harm's way.

"But the thing that I don't like about it is it's near the end and this is something that I will never, ever forget," said James, who is scheduled to change command in March 2009 and is headed to Fort Knox, Ky., to be the chief of staff at the Armor Center. "It will be an experience that will be forever locked in my heart and my memories. It's not a job; it's a way of life. Our profession is so much different than others. The sacrifices we make are so much greater; our colleagues or associates in our particular business become brothers and sisters in arms."

Page last updated Fri December 12th, 2008 at 11:30