CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq - As part of the Contingency Operating Base Defense Operations Cell, the Soldiers of the 277th Aviation Support Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade's Quick Reaction Force are responsible for the safety of the COB and all the troops and civilians operating there.
It is an unusual role for the Aviation troops, a motley crew of drivers and mechanics, medics and fuel- and ammunition handlers who stepped up to a mission usually tasked to infantry units.
"This is a non-standard mission for the 277th ASB," said Staff Sgt. Kevin O'Neal, QRF platoon sergeant. "QRF is usually up to the landowning unit within the theater of operations, but back in 2005 they started tasking the tenant Aviation brigade to do it, for the simple fact that there weren't enough infantry units assigned here to COB Speicher."
On the surface, the mission of the quick reaction force is fairly simple - to quickly react to anything that happens in or around the base. But the reality is much more complex, with tasks ranging from pulling physical security, responding to indirect fire and assisting convoys attacked by Improvised Explosive Devices, to searching vehicles at traffic control points and providing security escorts for Iraqi Police.
To prepare for this deployment, the team had to learn infantry tactics and practice soldiering skills many of them hadn't used since basic combat training.
O'Neal is proud of the way his platoon has risen to the challenge.
"This is one of the best platoons I've ever had," he said. "The guys have gone from not understanding the concept of urban operations to being able to go out and do a mounted patrol, which is probably one of the hardest missions to do. The Soldiers and NCOs, they ensure everyone has a clear understanding of the [techniques, tactics and procedures] we set in. It's amazing as a leader to see Soldiers who don't have the infantry background evolve and understand it."
O'Neal estimates his team has responded to about 30 QRF missions involving indirect fires or IED attacks; but, as the country has stabilized and violence lessened, the focus has shifted from being reactive to being proactive. Now the majority of their operations are humanitarian, civil-affairs type missions - the Soldiers go to Iraqi villages to conduct SWEAT-MTA (sewage, water, electricity, academics, trash, medical, transportation and agriculture) analyses.
"Basically we go out and assess the situation where the townspeople are - what they need, how the coalition forces or the Government of Iraq can better support the populace," O'Neal explained. "We do a lot of missions like that. Some towns have nothing - they're asking for wells, for schools. We hand out books - in Al-Salam, we've handed out over a thousand books to school children; we've dug two wells up north for two different villages; there's a well going into one of the villages down south; and we have two seed factory plants in our [area of operations] that we've helped obtain seed from local farms at a reduced rate."
It is during these operations that O'Neal believes U.S. Soldiers can have the greatest impact on the citizens of Iraq, and help develop a lasting peace in the region.
"I keep on the Soldiers about putting their best foot forward," O'Neal said. "I was here in 2003, and we steamrolled through. Now it's a time of change; we have to build up Iraq to stabilize the Middle East. I know that this platoon is making a difference out there. Every time we go out, our Soldiers are talking to the children, handing out water and food and taking care of the young ones, and talking to the older gentlemen.
"As a responsible nation, we're trying to help them rebuild. I think it's important that we're out there showing them, 'this is what we're going to do, we're going to bring our knowledge and experience.' It's all about being a good ambassador," O'Neal said.
Interacting with the locals has put the QRF Soldiers in a unique position to notice the changes in the country over the past year.
"In the year that we've been here, there has been progress, you can tell," said Staff Sgt. Dwayne Gow. "The attitude towards us has changed, due to the fact that we've gone places where they hadn't seen an American Soldier before, and now they know we're in the area to help them out if they have any issues or problems."
Another big change came with the June 30 signing of the Status of Forces Agreement. Under the new SOFA, Iraqi forces are responsible for leading coalition missions outside the wire. For the QRF team, that means working closely with the Iraqi Police.
"We work very well with the IPs, actually," Gow said. "They're very easy to get along with - you can tell they're eager to take control of their own area and do what they think is necessary. They take us along with them if they need extra security, or if we have to go out and escort people for projects, things like that. We have no problem communicating with them.
"It's a good thing that the Iraqis are taking more control, because this is their country," he continued. "As for us going out with them, and assisting them - whatever will help them stand on their own two feet. I think our job is very important, because it protects our Soldiers on the COB and it helps the local nationals. If they have an issue or a problem, they know they can come to us for help."

For O'Neal, who was here during the initial invasion in 2003 but plans on retiring when he returns to the U.S., being a part of the QRF means ending his career on a high note.
"I hope I leave Iraq better than we found it - I believe I do," O'Neal said. "This is my last [deployment] - I'm retiring after this, so yes, that's something I think about every day. Maybe I can tell my grandkids, maybe that's my legacy - I helped improve this country.
"I hope my Soldiers can say the same thing," he added. "They might not understand it now because for most of them, this is their first or second deployment, and I don't think they realize the significance of what they're doing. Maybe two years, three years, 10 years from now they'll understand what they've done as a nation. When we first got here, we took out their leader, took out their infrastructure - and yet here, six years later it's almost completely rebuilt. We're doing great things over here."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16