COP Falcon - Ramadi

From the Army Times.

Fighting to gain a foothold

Combat outpost troops report steady progress in Ramadi
By Michelle Tan - Staff writer
Posted : February 19, 2007

COMBAT OUTPOST FALCON, Iraq — The shooting started before 5 a.m. The distinctive crack of the AK-47 was silenced by the thunderous but almost rhythmic roar of the M2 .50-caliber machine guns that sit on the roof of this combat outpost in south central Ramadi.

Inside the tactical operations center, Capt. Mike Bajema, commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 37th Armor, simultaneously manned two radios.

His soldiers continued to return fire. Some 1,700 rounds of .50-cal and 7.62mm ammo later, the enemy fire ceased.

Facing down enemy attacks on this combat outpost is not unusual for the estimated 140 soldiers who live here, but in the seven months since they pushed into Ramadi and established Combat Outpost Falcon, the soldiers report steady and encouraging progress in their section of this embattled city.

After spending the first months of their deployment in the relatively quiet Sinjar and Tal Afar in northern Iraq, Bajema and his soldiers were sent south and west to Ramadi, capital of the insurgent stronghold Anbar province.

“The pucker factor was definitely high,” Bajema said. “We hear the same stories everybody in the States does [about Ramadi]. I wouldn’t say we were scared, but I’d say we had that nervous anticipation about what Ramadi would be like.”

Bajema estimates his company experienced eight or nine mortar attacks in their six months up north. The first time they tried to push into Ramadi to check out their new area of operations, the soldiers’ convoy had traveled a mere 100 meters on Route Central, a key road, when it was hit by three improvised explosive devices. The soldiers escaped unharmed, but three vehicles, including an M1A1 Abrams, were destroyed.

“It was like, ‘Where are we going? We can’t even go 100 meters without losing three huge vehicles,’” Bajema said.

On June 26, with soldiers from a sister company providing an outer ring of security, Bravo, 1-37, seized the houses that now make up COP Falcon.

The U.S. military has built 10 COPs in this city in an effort to seize and hold individual sectors and get out of huge forward operating bases to establish good relations with local communities.

The area of operations for the soldiers at COP Falcon includes some 6,000 residents and 1,458 homes.

In 72 hours, under fire, the soldiers built up this slice of military might and strategic initiative. One soldier was killed during that period, when a 120mm mortar round landed on the COP. The next day, American forces killed 24 enemy fighters from one sniper position.

Here at COP Falcon, American soldiers live side-by-side with Iraqi army and police. They always patrol together, and the Iraqi forces, especially the police, who are from the area, connect with the local populace much better than the Americans ever could.

“The Iraqi police by far are our intelligence gatherers,” Bajema said. “You’d be surprised what people will tell the IP. � The people just open up to them.”

The early fighting sparked fears of a massive attack on the neighborhood and drove many who lived close to COP Falcon to move away, Bajema said.

As the months went on, however, the locals slowly moved back and COP Falcon troops, in an effort to get to know their neighbors, set about visiting every home in the area. They also conducted a census in the area of responsibility and now have the names and photographs of its residents and a list of their occupations.

In the time that the military has operated COP Falcon, Bajema said, conditions in the area have improved for those who live there.

Previously, he said, insurgents “could walk down the streets en masse and terrorize the people.” The presence of U.S. forces, though, has driven the insurgents to “go from very open operations to very clandestine, and the people are turning against them.”

The soldiers, meanwhile, have gone from daily gun battles to one or two a month, and daily patrols have kept the insurgents on the move, Bajema said. “We’ve denied them a safe haven,” he said.

Part of the reason local residents are opening up to the U.S. troops is that they have helped bring improvements in their living conditions, he said. Streets that were flooded with sewage in June today are clean and dry, thanks to a $400,000 project to fix the pump station.

“You want the city to continue to improve,” Bajema said. “You want people to be able to drive to the market, go to school. You want life to continue. You don’t want them to be locked in their homes like prisoners.”

However, he said, there remains concern that the insurgents “are able to mingle among the people who’re going to the market or going to school.”

‘A better place for the next unit’

Fighting the insurgency is probably the hardest mission anyone’s had, Bajema said.

“They don’t wear uniforms, they sleep in houses near the COP, their families are here. We want to protect the innocents of Ramadi but find the terrorists,” he said. “[But] we’re winning this battle. They’re losing fighters, they’re losing caches daily. This fight for them is a hundred times harder than it is for us.”

Sgt. Justin Fewtrell, of Bravo Company, 16th Engineer Battalion, was attached to the Bulldogs, and he often manned one of the guard towers on the roofs of COP Falcon.

“The Iraqi police and Iraqi army are making steady progress in the city,” he said. “We’re leaving this place a better place for the next unit that’s coming in and for the IP and IA to stand up.”

As Bajema and his soldiers prepare to return to Friedberg, Germany, after 14 months in Iraq, their replacements, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry, from Fort Stewart, Ga., led by Capt. Diogo Tavares, are quickly learning their way around the area of responsibility.

“Our expectations, I think, are to take what the Bulldogs have done and take it to the next level,” Tavares said. “When you’re giving something up you hope the unit after you carries it forward. They want it to be a success story. They were the first foothold in here. They don’t want us to fail. We have some big shoes to fill.”

The incoming soldiers will undoubtedly face big challenges, Bajema said.

“You can pass on the lessons learned � but they really have to, unfortunately, live a lot of that,” he said. “Time makes the best warriors out here.”

The Americans are now slowly able to turn more responsibility to the Iraqi forces, Bajema said.

“We’re here in a big brother role now. � We have set them up for success.”

Master Sgt. Jeffory Aldrich, of the Indiana National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 152nd Infantry, runs the police transition team in charge of the police at COP Falcon.

The station, the Al Forsan Iraqi Police Station, opened Dec. 31 and most of the recruits are new.

In a little more than a month, the station has grown to about 200 policemen, but they have already been battle-tested in a number of firefights.

The enemy still finds a way to attack the American and Iraqi forces stationed here, Bajema said.

“We didn’t necessarily come here to destroy the terrorists,” he said. “That’ll be the mission of the Iraqi army and Iraqi police for years to come.”

As he prepares to go home, Bajema reflected on his time in Ramadi and the distinction of being the first Army company in that part of the city.

“We definitely feel a great deal of ownership of not only Falcon but also all the things we’ve done in this area,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life. We’ve paid dearly, not only in life and blood, but sweat, too.”

The Bulldogs filled and stacked by hand the 70,000 sandbags that fortify COP Falcon.

They fixed the showers, installed electricity and heat and worked to get at least one hot meal a day.

“They’ll never fully understand what it took to build this place,” Bajema said.

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