By Sgt. Mike PryorSeptember 19, 2007
BAGHDAD (Multi-National Force - Iraq, Oct. 2, 2007) - Staff Sgt. Shane Glowcheski is normally a man of few words. Out on patrol, the platoon sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division is all business, dark sunglasses and an unreadable expression.
But on a recent afternoon, as he described the renovations his unit was helping to make on a girls' school in the northern section of Baghdad's Adhamiyah District, Staff Sgt. Glowcheski's poker face suddenly lit up with enthusiasm.
"We got marble floors. We got computers. We got art work up on the walls. We've even got gardens. It's Beverly Hills!" boasted the Rapid City, S.D., native.
Staff Sgt. Glowcheski and the rest of his platoon from Battery B, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, have good reason to feel proud about their achievements. With the new Iraqi school year just around the corner, the platoon has six school renovation projects on the verge of completion. Even so, when his deployment began eight months ago, he never imagined he would care so much about a flower garden at a girls' school, Staff Sgt. Glowcheski said.
"We've done stuff I never thought we would do, let alone be excited about," said Staff Sgt. Glowcheski.
Early this year, the 2-319th "Black Falcons" became one of the first units to push into Baghdad as part of the "surge," an influx of thousands of troops into Baghdad neighborhoods, to improve security and give the government breathing room to get on its feet. They know they are making an impact on this community, one they think will be sustainable. And, in some surprising ways, the community is making a lasting impact on them.
"If you're only here for six months, you can just say, 'OK, let me just do my time and go home.' But 15 months' It's a commitment. We're going to have guys who have lived in Iraq longer than they've been in the Army," said Fayetteville, N.C., native 1st Lt. Larry Pitts, Battery B's commander.
"It's hard for the Soldiers and it's hard for their families back home, but in the long run, with this 15-month, stable operation - not moving around from sector to sector - we've been able to provide exactly what the surge was intended to do: security and transition," 1st Lt. Pitts said.
Stabilizing the security situation was the first priority when the Black Falcons moved into the northern portion of Adhamiyah in February and established their headquarters at Coalition Outpost War Eagle, a joint U.S.-Iraqi Army compound straddling the east bank of the Tigris River. The immediate task was to clear the area of hardcore insurgent cells responsible for attacks on Coalition and Iraqi forces. The first few months were a blur of constant foot patrols and nighttime raids, 1st Lt. Pitts said.
"In the beginning, the most important thing was to make the people feel secure," said Staff Sgt. Antonio Alvarado, a squad leader from Edcouch, Texas.
The aggressive stance the battalion took early on allowed it to dismantle the major explosively-formed penetrator, improvised explosive device and weapons smuggling cells in the area, said Capt. Andrew Woodward, of Baltimore, the battalion's assistant intelligence officer. By removing the major threats to the area's security forces, the battalion freed up more combat power for other tasks, Capt. Woodward said.
The improved security situation left the Black Falcons with what was, in many ways, an even more difficult challenge: rebuilding the local community's shattered political and economic infrastructure. As spring turned into summer, the battalion's officers found themselves struggling with purchase requests and work contracts, instead of operation orders. Nineteen-year-old artillerymen were suddenly acting as social workers. For many of the paratroopers in the battalion, this was uncharted territory.
"I've been trained how to do things like enter and clear a room, react to contact, give first aid to a casualty, but there's no way to train someone how to build a school, or get the Iraqi government to pave a road. You just have to figure it out," said Warner Robbins, Ga., native Capt. Joe Miller, a military transition team advisor attached to the Black Falcons.
Still, the paratroopers approached their new mission as professionals, Staff Sgt. Glowcheski said.
"Regardless of the task you get, you want to make sure you do the best job possible," he said. To get the job done, the paratroopers had to overcome some initial distrust from Adhamiyah residents.
"In the beginning, we didn't believe them, because there have been a lot of promises made by the Coalition Forces," said Gahenyah Sinshehab, the headmistress at a local school who has worked closely with the Black Falcons on improvement projects.
But Ms. Sinshehab was eventually won over by the commitment she saw from the paratroopers. With each of Battery B's school renovation projects, for example, the paratroopers were involved in every step, inspecting the sites on a regular basis with the contractors to make sure the work was on track. During a visit to one of the schools recently, 1st Lt. Pitts checked every classroom. At one point, he stood in a doorway, poking chunks of loose plaster out of the wall with a massive, gloved finger.
"Is this first class' This is not what I call first class," 1st Lt. Pitts told the contactor, as the plaster dropped to the ground. Before he left, he made the contractor promise to fix the problems.
That same level of commitment has been displayed in projects ranging from the creation of a new water pumping station, to the rehabilitation of a local park, to hiring contractors to suck up the rivers of waste water that flooded the streets, and more. More than 35 projects have been completed so far and more than $3 million paid out to local workers, said Wichita, Kan., native 1st Lt. Brook Carrier, the assistant civil-military operations officer for the battalion.
The projects have had a ripple effect, 1st Lt. Pitts said.
"It's provided the community a sense of pride, it's put people back to work, the markets are busy thanks to the new income. There have been a lot of benefits," he said.
In time, the people were won over.
"People didn't trust the U.S. Soldiers, at first, but now there is a bond," Ms. Sinshehab said. "Now, we don't want them to go."
One of the most unexpected benefits, at least for some of the paratroopers, has been the personal stake they developed in making the area better.
"You try not to put a personal touch on it, but eventually it wears on you. You see the kids, and you see their faces - how happy they are. It's a good feeling," said 1st Lt. Pitts.
As the projects go forward, the paratroopers have noticed a new sense of optimism in the community.
"I don't think you can change people over night, but we've definitely made an impression," said Pvt. Todd Thomas, of Hillsboro, Ohio, a radio operator with Battery B. "There's definitely a new sense of pride."
Even for an old-school paratrooper like Staff Sgt. Glowcheski, that's something to feel good about.
"Our area is really going somewhere," Staff Sgt. Glowcheski said. "A lot of people didn't believe in us, but now they are seeing it with their own eyes."