82nd, 2nd Bde Combat Team, East Baghdad, making a difference

US Army paratroopers share thoughts on surge

Tuesday, 29 May 2007
By Sgt. Michael Pryor
2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division

May 10, 2007.BAGHDAD — In the first days after his battalion began operating in east Baghdad’s Sha’ab neighborhood, Capt. Will Canda said he often saw the beds of Iraqi police trucks stained red with dried blood.

“It was like they had just come from a butcher shop,” said Canda, a Westcliffe, Colo. native and commander of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment.

Like wagons rolling through plague-stricken villages in medieval times, the police trucks were being used to pick up the bodies of murder victims found littering the neighborhood.

That was in February, when Canda’s battalion became one of the first units to move into a battle space as part of Operation Fardh al Qanoon – which translated, means “enforcing the law” and is the name for the strategy to stabilize violence in Baghdad by pushing thousands of additional U.S. and Iraqi forces into the city’s neighborhoods.

Since then, troops have continued to pour in, dotting Baghdad with small outposts and joint security stations.

Top U.S. commanders have cautioned that any verdict on the overall success of the plan will have to wait until after all units are in place and conducting operations. But Canda and his paratroopers have been on the ground long enough to begin drawing their own conclusions.

Three months after they arrived in Sha’ab, the bodies are gone, the murders have stopped, and the neighborhood has come back to life, Canda said.

“It’s night and day from when we got here,” he said.

It’s an impressive claim considering the challenges facing the paratroopers when they first arrived here in early February.

One obvious problem was the sheer size of the region. The battalion’s area of operations comprises a huge section of east Baghdad, including the Sha’ab, Ur, and Sadr City neighborhoods.

Twenty percent of the city’s total population lives within this area of operation, said Maj. Trey Rutherford, the battalion’s operations officer. That equals out to a rough ratio of one paratrooper for every 26,000 Iraqis.

But the numbers weren’t the paratroopers’ only obstacle. They also faced an entrenched and hostile militia organization, an inefficient local government and a breakdown in essential services for the population.

None of these problems have been completely solved yet, Rutherford said.

“We’ve still got a ways to go,” he said.

But, he said, the accomplishments are already starting to pile up. The battalion has sent almost 200 criminals into the Iraqi justice system. People in the area are slowly beginning to look to the government for protection, rather than the militias. The economy is booming, thanks to improved protective measures at the markets. And the local government is starting to play a more active role, beginning at the neighborhood advisory council level, Rutherford said.

Most importantly, said Canda, security has improved. Life for the people of Sha’ab is returning to normal, to the way it was before the killing and bombings turned a walk to the market into a life or death gamble.

“I know that we’ve made a difference and made this area safer. Every time I go out, people tell me that,” said Spc. Herrick Lidstone, of Littleton, Colo., a radio operator with Bravo Company.

The battalion runs operations out of Coalition Outpost Callahan, a fortress-like building that was once an upscale shopping center. The place was empty and abandoned when the paratroopers arrived, but it’s now a constant blur of activity.

Day and night, the stairs are crowded with soldiers either on their way out on a mission or coming in from one. The whirring, clanging, hammering sounds of the motor pool continually echo through the COP as mechanics patch up damaged vehicles for the next patrol.

Each time the paratroopers leave the wire, the mission is different.

A typically hectic day might find them handing out Tylenol and tooth brushes at a medical assistance operation in the morning, doing detective work to track down members of a bomb-making cell in the afternoon, and kicking in doors on a full-combat raid at night.

“We ask them to do a thousand different things,” said Rutherford, “and we ask them to do it every single day.”

It’s a steep learning curve, said 1st Lt. Andrew Smith, a platoon leader with Charlie Company from Apopka, Fla.

“When I leave Iraq, I’ll have been a salesman, a cop, a politician, and a school principal,” Smith said.

Some of the paratroopers wish they could hand the “hearts & minds” missions off to some other unit.

“I didn’t sign up to hand out soccer balls,” said one sergeant.

But gaining the support of the population is the key to making the surge work, said Sgt. John Reed, a Bravo Company squad leader from Sanford, Fla. The people are the base that military, political, and economic progress has to be built on, he said.

“Without a base, without a foundation, you have nothing,” Reed said.

The results of the paratroopers’ efforts to engage the population are clearest during their daily patrols through the zigzagging streets of Sha’ab. Out on the streets, where people used to lock their doors in fright when Americans appeared, the paratroopers are now greeted warmly.

One afternoon 1st Lt. Rusty Bodine, of Fairfax, Va., was out trying to get residents to fill out an employment survey.

He knocked on one door and was welcomed in by the man of the house, who was dressed in a rumpled shirt and bare feet. He looked like he might have just woken up. While he looked at the survey, his sons brought out extra chairs and stools for the paratroopers to sit down.

While Bodine and the man talked, Reed and Sgt. Unberto Espinoza wandered into the next room. The man’s wife was there watching television surrounded by three of her children and several neighborhood kids. The kids swarmed around the two paratroopers, barraging them with questions.

“What is your name?” “Where is your home?” “You speak Arabic?”

Two teenage daughters peeked their heads out from behind a curtain, then disappeared again, giggling, when the paratroopers looked back. Stools and chairs were brought out, then cups of tea. When one of the paratroopers took out a picture of his baby son, the whole family passed it around, each one giving it a little kiss.

When it was time to leave, the family asked the paratroopers to come back the next day. They waved from the doorstep as the trucks drove away.

Inside the Humvees, everyone was feeling good. At more and more houses, they were getting similar receptions. Each one was a little victory for the paratroopers, who had worked hard to bring the people to their side.
Meanwhile, over at 1st Bn, two weeks later:

BAGHDAD — Staff Sgt. David Safstrom does not regret his previous tours in Iraq, not even a difficult second stint when two comrades were killed while trying to capture insurgents.

Delta Company on Patrol “In Mosul, in 2003, it felt like we were making the city a better place,” he said. “There was no sectarian violence, Saddam was gone, we were tracking down the bad guys. It felt awesome.”

But now on his third deployment in Iraq, he is no longer a believer in the mission. The pivotal moment came, he says, this February when soldiers killed a man setting a roadside bomb. When they searched the bomber’s body, they found identification showing him to be a sergeant in the Iraqi Army.

“I thought: ‘What are we doing here? Why are we still here?’ ” said Sergeant Safstrom, a member of Delta Company of the First Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. “We’re helping guys that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at night and try to kill us.”

His views are echoed by most of his fellow soldiers in Delta Company, renowned for its aggressiveness.

A small minority of Delta Company soldiers — the younger, more recent enlistees in particular — seem to still wholeheartedly support the war. Others are ambivalent, torn between fear of losing more friends in battle, longing for their families and a desire to complete their mission.

With few reliable surveys of soldiers’ attitudes, it is impossible to simply extrapolate from the small number of soldiers in the company. But in interviews with more than a dozen soldiers in this 83-man unit over a one-week period, most said they were disillusioned by repeated deployments, by what they saw as the abysmal performance of Iraqi security forces and by a conflict that they considered a civil war, one they had no ability to stop.

They had seen shadowy militia commanders installed as Iraqi Army officers, they said, had come under increasing attack from roadside bombs — planted within sight of Iraqi Army checkpoints — and had fought against Iraqi soldiers who they thought were their allies.

“In 2003, 2004, 100 percent of the soldiers wanted to be here, to fight this war,” said Sgt. First Class David Moore, a self-described “conservative Texas Republican” and platoon sergeant who strongly advocates an American withdrawal. “Now, 95 percent of my platoon agrees with me.”

It is not a question of loyalty, the soldiers insist. Sergeant Safstrom, for example, comes from a thoroughly military family. His mother and father have served in the armed forces, as have his three sisters, one brother and several uncles. One week after the Sept. 11 attacks, he walked into a recruiter’s office and joined the Army.

“You guys want to start a fight in my backyard, I got something for you,” he recalls thinking at the time.

But in Sergeant Safstrom’s view, the American presence is futile. “If we stayed here for 5, even 10 more years, the day we leave here these guys will go crazy,” he said. “It would go straight into a civil war. That’s how it feels, like we’re putting a Band-Aid on this country until we leave here.”

Their many deployments have added to the strain. After spending six months in Iraq, the soldiers of Delta Company had been home for only 24 hours last December when the news came. “Change your plans,” they recall being told. “We’re going back to Iraq.”

Nineteen days later, just after Christmas, Capt. Douglas Rogers and the men of Delta Company were on their way to Kadhimiya, a Shiite enclave of about 300,000 people. As part of the so-called surge of American troops, their primary mission was to maintain stability in the area and prepare the Iraqi Army and the police to take control of the neighborhood.

“I thought it would not be long before we could just stay on our base and act as a quick-reaction force,” said the barrel-chested Captain Rogers of San Antonio. “The Iraqi security forces would step up.”

It has not worked out that way. Still, Captain Rogers says their mission in Kadhimiya has been “an amazing success.”

“We’ve captured 4 of the top 10 most-wanted guys in this area,” he said. And the streets of Kadhimiya are filled with shoppers and the stores are open, he said, a rarity in Baghdad due partly to Delta Company’s patrols.

Captain Rogers acknowledges the skepticism of many of his soldiers. “Our unit has already sent two soldiers home in a box,” he said. “My soldiers don’t see the same level of commitment from the Iraqi Army units they’re partnered with.”

Delta Company on Patrol Yet there is, he insists, no crisis of morale: “My guys are all professionals. I tell them to do something, they do it.” His dictum is proved on patrol, where his soldiers walk the streets for hours in the stifling heat, providing cover for one another with crisp efficiency.

On April 29, a Delta Company patrol was responding to a tip at Al Sadr mosque, a short distance from its base. The soldiers saw men in the distance erecting barricades that they set ablaze, and the streets emptied out quickly. Then a militia, believed to be the Mahdi Army, began firing at them from rooftops and windows.

Sgt. Kevin O’Flarity, a squad leader, jumped into his Humvee to join his fellow soldiers, racing through abandoned Iraqi Army and police checkpoints to the battle site.

He and his squad maneuvered their Humvees through alleyways and side streets, firing back at an estimated 60 insurgents during a gun battle that raged for two and a half hours. A rocket-propelled grenade glanced off Sergeant O’Flarity’s Humvee, failing to penetrate.

When the battle was over, Delta Company learned that among the enemy dead were at least two Iraqi Army soldiers that American forces had helped train and arm.

Captain Rogers admits, “The 29th was a watershed moment in a negative sense, because the Iraqi Army would not fight with us,” adding, “Some actually picked up weapons and fought against us.”

The battle changed the attitude among his soldiers toward the war, he said. “Before that fight, there were a few true believers.” Captain Rogers said. “After the 29th, I don’t think you’ll find a true believer in this unit. They’re paratroopers. There’s no question they’ll fulfill their mission. But they’re fighting now for pride in their unit, professionalism, loyalty to their fellow soldier and chain of command.”

To Sergeant O’Flarity, the Iraqi security forces are militias beholden to local leaders, not the Iraqi government. “Half of the Iraqi security forces are insurgents,” he said.

As for his views on the war, Sergeant O’Flarity said, “I don’t believe we should be here in the middle of a civil war.”

“We’ve all lost friends over here,” he said. “Most of us don’t know what we’re fighting for anymore. We’re serving our country and friends, but the only reason we go out every day is for each other.”

“I don’t want any more of my guys to get hurt or die,” he continued. “If it was something I felt righteous about, maybe. But for this country and this conflict, no, it’s not worth it.”

Staff Sgt. James Griffin grew up in Troy, N.C., near the Special Operations base at Fort Bragg. His dream was to be a soldier, and growing up, he would skip school and volunteer to play the role of the enemy during Special Operations training exercises. When he was 17, he joined the Army.

Now 22, Sergeant Griffin is a Delta Company section leader. On the night of May 5, as he neared an Iraqi police checkpoint with a convoy of Humvees, Sergeant Griffin spotted what looked like a camouflaged cinderblock and immediately halted the convoy. His vigilance may have saved the lives of several soldiers. Under the camouflage was a massive, six-array, explosively formed penetrator — a deadly roadside bomb that cuts through the Humvees’ armor with ease.

The insurgents quickly set off the device, but the Americans were at a safe distance. An explosive ordnance disposal team arrived to check the area. As the ordnance team rolled back to base, they were attacked with a second roadside bomb near another Iraqi checkpoint. One soldier was killed and two were wounded.

No one has been able to explain why two bombs were found near Iraqi checkpoints, bombs that Iraqi soldiers and the police had either failed to notice or helped to plant.

Sergeant Griffin, too, understands the criticism of the Iraqi forces, but he says they and the war effort must be given more time.

“If we throw this problem to the side, it’s not going to fix itself,” he said. “We’ve created the Iraqi forces. We gave them Humvees and equipment. For however long they say they need us here, maybe we need to stay.”

I guess it all depends on who you talk to.
crabtastic said:
I guess it all depends on who you talk to.
It also depends on where and when
Yeah, I know. Hence the preface "Meanwhile over at 1st Bn" (as opposed to 2nd Bn, mentioned in yours).

Now for the source- while the NY Times does have a certain editorial bias, I think it was remarkably well balanced. They included opinions from the CoC and one of the remaining optimists in the Bn.

On the other hand, and you can call me cynical if you want, I'm certainly not going to hold the rather sunny picture painted by army public relations/corporate communications/whatever at face value. Be honest, when you were in, did you honestly believe everything they told you? There's a phrase out here in Hollywood you may have heard- never start believing your own press. We've been told for the last 4 1/4 years by official channels that the situation is improving. How accurate have those reports turned out to be?

Besides, you should know better than most that if you want to know what the lads really think, you're probably going to be better off talking to the SNCOs than their Pl/Coy Commanders or, God forbid, the Bn S3- who amongst other things, are obliged to at least put on a brave face in public and not convey to those under their command that they're in a cake and arrse show.
ctauch said:
isn't arrse grand; a crab and a senial spam having a battle of the wits...am more impressed either of you cnuts are with out mechanical ventilation...carry on need a good laugh.
We made our peace a couple of months ago. If you want a good scrap so much hop onto Jerry Springer. From the look of you and the way you present yourself here, you'll walk the audition- they get all their guests from that vortex of retardation you and the rest of the hurricane bait down there call the Sunshine State. I'm off right now to turn my a/c on full and put all the gas rings on- the sooner this global warming thing kicks in, the sooner you'll be doing dog-paddle in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oh, and it's S-E-N-I-L-E.
crabtastic said:
ctauch said:
isn't arrse grand; a crab and a senial spam having a battle of the wits...am more impressed either of you cnuts are with out mechanical ventilation...carry on need a good laugh.
We made our peace a couple of months ago...
You two made peace? Christ, don't pay attention to arrse for a few weeks and you miss everything. Dogs and cats living together...

Yes, Crabtastic and I did come to an agreement, to stop wasting bandwidth here with silly personal disagreements, etc. This doesn't mean we agree on, or think the same way on things very often.

It's really to bad that another Amerocan, continues to vent his rude remarks and personal attacks, which ad nothing to the subject at hand; however, continues to demonstrate his level of retardation, etc.
Trip_Wire said:

Yes, Crabtastic and I did come to an agreement, to stop wasting bandwidth here with silly personal disagreements, etc. This doesn't mean we agree on, or think the same way on things very often.

It's really to bad that another Amerocan, continues to vent his rude remarks and personal attacks, which ad nothing to the subject at hand; however, continues to demonstrate his level of retardation, etc.
On another topic if you would TW; Know anything about the VFW in W Seattle?

Sorry, I don't know anything about that post.

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