Monday, September 10, 2007

Guest Blogger, Col Michael Visconage



I have still been in contact with Col Visconage in Baghdad since my return. We have traded email on various topics and I asked him about his latest collection missions and he agreed to be a guest blogger on the below submission.


Supplying the War

On the road last night, and into the morning riding on a Combat
Logistics Patrol (CLP). I rode with 2nd Platoon, 755th Chemical Company
of the Nebraska National Guard. They are part of the 734th
Transportation Battalion, a National Guard Battalion out of South
Dakota.

The Battalion CO is normally a high school history teacher. Earlier in
the tour he was able to link up with three former students assigned to
other Army units in Iraq. The Battalion is a composite organization,
two companies are active duty, and three are National Guard or Army
reserve. They've been converted from a chemical company into a security
company-a part of the ongoing convoy effort that puts 2,000-3,000
vehicles on the road every night in order to provide the logistics
support for the war.

The Company has just suffered a casualty last night in another platoon;
a solider was killed when an IED explosion on the road north hit his
HMMWV. This was the second KIA for the company, as they had suffered
another IED loss a few months ago. Most of the company leadership has
just come from the runway at this airbase for a "ramp ceremony" which
loaded the soldier's body for the trip home. As the company commander,
Captain David Benak, explained, with a National Guard unit most of the
soldiers have known each other for a long time. They live in the same
neighborhoods, a lot of them socialize with each other in their civilian
lives, and many of their kids go to school together. It makes the loss
all the more personal. Few details are know about last night's
explosion, but they details will be provided if there is any
intelligence information to be gathered that will help the others learn
the enemy's latest IED methods.

The 755th is manned by citizen-soldiers. Their array of backgrounds
includes a physical therapist, a student, a grain silo manager, a
hardware store employee, etc. The platoon commander for second platoon
is the local televisions weather man, Chuck McWilliams. A first
lieutenant, he previously served on active duty in the Navy before
getting out and going to college. Second Platoon has 42 soldiers in it.
About half well be on tonight's mission.

I was assigned to the Armored Security Vehicle (ASV) that would be
callsign "Gun 3" for the convoy. The section would escort 30 Third
Country Nationals (TCN) vehicles; tractor-trailers with various unknown
loads. After staging at the Company motor pool, we sat in on the formal
convoy brief for this patrol-the route, immediate action drills,
communications, etc. The soldiers know the brief by heart. Most have
stopped counting the number of CLPs they have been on since they arrived
last October. The number is probably somewhere between 50 and 100.
They also know the routes since there are really only so many ways to go
from point A to point B. More importantly, they know which sections of
each route are the most likely for encountering IED's or small arms
fire.

From there we moved to the TCN vehicle staging point on the other side
of the base, about a ten-minute drive. The gunner, SPC Mohr (the
physical therapist and former active duty USAF airman), let me sit
(stand actually) in the turret for the drive over. It was like the fun
a dog has sticking his head out the car window on a road trip. At the
TCN lot is was another hour waiting our turn for the specific convoy of
vehicles we would be taking. There are many, many trucks lined up, and
many, many convoys heading out tonight, just like any night. It's the
quintessential hurry up and wait situation, only this with a dance of
hundreds of semi trucks interspersed with security vehicles waiting
their turn to be cleared to exit the base on their runs. After the
convoy is linked-up, we stack up along the road inside the gate for the
final go-ahead.

There are two classes of convoys; the first category is made up of those
trucks directly driven by KBR, the main contractor for overland
transport, whose trucks are driven by Americans or other English
speakers. Most of these men (and women) came over lured by the money
but also because they see themselves as part of the war effort. One
50-year-old female driver who goes by "Fred" said she came here four
years ago initially, "to get out of debt." She did that after a year,
but stayed on. Another driver from, Houston, TX, said he had been here
three years. It seems to be more than the money for them at this point;
they see themselves as part of the war effort and they like being around
the soldiers. Some have family in the military. One has a son who had
already served here. One supervisor, the KBR convoy commander (or "C2")
for his group of trucks, told me about his son who wants to go the Naval
Academy.

The other category of vehicles and drivers are the TCN's, a mix of
drivers from any number of different countries (Turkey, Pakistan, India,
Bangladesh, and the Philippines, to name a few). Almost none speak
English, and this makes the escort duty more tenuous if there is an
emergency. They are not as quick to respond to direction or to
understand the drills. Their vehicles are also less protected and may
have not been well-maintained. Having a vehicle stop because on
mechanical breakdown causes and added level of danger. Most of the
TCN's are here for the money they can make. It's more than most will
see in years at a job in their own countries. According to the KBR
drivers, the few that do speak English are often well-educated
professionals, but even they can make more money here than at home.

One of our vehicles gets dropped out of the mix as we headed toward the
exit gate; the driver was having some kind of personal problem
(dizzy/disoriented) and is lagging behind in the convoy. They send him
back to the staging lot. Finally, we're "outside the wire" by about
2230, with two other convoys heading in the same direction.

Early on, SPC Mohr gives me another chance in the turret. The gunner's
job is to constantly scan either side of the road with the night sight
for signs of any unusual activity, while also keeping an eye on the
interval between the truck in front and the truck behind. The ASV
turret is set up for both a .50 caliber machine gun and a Mk 19 40mm
grenade launcher, so there's plenty of fire power if needed. After
about 10-minutes in the turret, it's time to turn it back over to the
real gunner. It's cramped inside. The vehicle is made for four at
most--they usually only need three. The vehicle commander, SGT Haverty,
and the driver, SPC Turnbull, are up front with a least a little view of
the road through the reinforced windows. My seat is in the back since
I'm not mission essential. If you're claustrophobic, this is not the
ride for you. The visibility is limited to a few slits with blast-proof
glass out the sides of the vehicle. I can inch my way around on a few
occasions to try to get a better view of things over the driver's
shoulder, but it's cramped. This probably wouldn't be as bad, but we're
all wearing our personal protective gear (flak jacket, helmet, etc.).
The crews like the ASV, with the exception of the difficulty getting out
in case of explosion or fire. For the larger soldiers, it's almost
impossible to exit from the emergency hatches with your gear on. This
is made worse in the panic of an attack, at night, or a vehicle
roll-over. They do have me hooked up with a headset for the internal
communications system (ICS) so I can listen to their conversation and
the radio communication with the rest of the convoy.

The road varies in width and quality. Some stretches are simple
two-lane country roads, while other sections are 6-lane divided
highways. There's a certain amount of stop and go in the trip as we
come to intersections and check points. There are not a lot of civilian
vehicles on the road at night. Most of the route is semi-rural. There
are homes and occasionally more built-up groups of shops or buildings.
At about 2330 we slow down behind the convoy ahead of us, with another
convoy nose-to-tail behind. The radio chatter starts to pick up and it
becomes apparent that the convoy ahead is taking small arms fire.
Flares go up to the left. We can see the tracers from a friendly
vehicle returning fire into the brush off to the left and right about
100 meters ahead.

We hold our position for at least another 20 minutes and slowly begin
creeping forward. It's confusing, but the engagement seems to have been
brief and inconclusive. We pass a TCN truck on our right from the first
convoy. They hood is up, but it's hard to tell if what the damage is.
Initially there's no sign of the driver, but he soon turns up. The
radio conversation reports that his foot is bleeding and someone from
another convoy will bandage him up and take him to the next aide
station. Even though they are not from our convoy, we take charge of
escorting two TCN trucks that must be towed; they'll be dropped at
another base that is along our route of travel. Traffic starts to roll
and again and we are at the gate for the drop off by about 0030. It
takes almost two hours to get the vehicles dropped off inside the base.
Only the escort vehicle takes the two disabled trucks to a staging area
inside the base. We wait in our vehicles with the convoy. Finally at
0230 we continue on, headed towards our final destination.

The final stretch traces through the edge of Baghdad. Many more
buildings and houses. There are various streetlights and porch lights
that provide some illumination of the area. Finally, we're at the gate.
Weapons are cleared and electronic counter-measures are turned off.
It's 0345. The TCN trucks route into a separate area to be screened
one-by-one for contraband or explosive devices before they actually on
base. They will eventually be routed to their final destination on base
by other elements. The platoon won't be able to return tonight-not
enough hours of darkness remain. They'll bed down in transient quarters
and try to get some sleep before picking up another convoy tonight for
the run back home.

In October they'll pack up and head home to Nebraska. Some back to
jobs, other to school, a few will volunteer to come back with other
units. Most have remained motivated about their mission here, but are
concerned about the frequency of future mobilizations and the impact
that has on their civilian plans and professions. Maybe half will stay
in the National Guard when their commitments are up.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Iraq and Back


Sitting in the darkness of my living room before dawn I gaze out at my backyard and drink my coffee. Sitting in my favorite chair I let my mind wonder. The house is still with everyone still asleep as I look out into the darkness my mind travels back over this past summer. I can see the helo's and hear the sounds of the convoy and artillery fire in my mind. I close my eyes and think about the whole experience, the memories are still very fresh. I can feel the heat and the weight of my flak jacket and the snug grip of my pistol strapped to my right leg. I think about my first time leaving the "Wire" and my heart racing, rifle and pistol at the ready, the anxiety and rush of adrenaline mixed with a very real and strong sense of fear. I remember being in Ramadi when a suicide vehicle exploded very near where I was and can feel the concussion and hear the load roar. I listen to the news and hear names like Fallujah, Ramadi, Baghdad and I know those places and see them in my mind. I sit in the quiet of my home as sunlight breaks over the tree line and I smile quietly to myself. I did what I felt I needed to do and I am proud of my actions and happy to be home safely.

Now I am stateside and have checked back into the History Division at Quantico, turned in all of my interviews and photos. I have gone back to supply and turned in my pack, kevlar and flak jacket and all the associated equipment for life in Iraq. I noticed the dark stains on my flak jacket when I turned it in, my sweat from riding in Helo's, convoys and walking out with Marines in Iraq, a small piece of me forever on that flak. I have also left my dog tag in my left boot as a reminder of where I have been and for me to take note for those who still serve.

Sitting in the darkness I think about being home now for 3 weeks and what life is like. The thoughts I now have and the perspective of my time in Iraq. A few things have changed for me I think, at least my view of life in general I think has changed. I had a LtCol tell me in Ramadi that "Iraq will make or break a Man". I also had a Maj tell me you will find "The mark of a man while in combat". I have found that I view things now in a much broader sense and do not get so excited or worked up. I keep the perspective on how life can change in the blink of an eye. I take note of the small things, I sit here in the early morning and hear birds, no artillery fire, helos, rockets or machine gun fire. I went to church last weekend and was struck by the calmness of everything. In Fallujah during Mass it seemed the artillery would always start, giving a surreal feeling with rounds going downrange right outside the door of a house of worship.

I know I will never look at an American flag the same way again, after seeing one draped over a transfer case in Iraq sending a service member home for the final time. Knowing personally the sacrifice being made while serving under that flag has made me look at it much differently. I have gone to war under that Flag and my colors and I have seen the dead sent home draped with it. I have to wonder do we realize how lucky we are to live here?

Very soon I will detach from active duty and go back into the reserves and then begin the paperwork for my retirement. There is now not much more I can tell anyone reading this blog. I have striven to give anyone who wanted to know a personal view of one man's journey to war and back, the stories of those I have collected along the way and my personal thoughts. I hope my journey has shown you a world you were not familiar with or a side of a man who felt he had to do his part.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Return

Glancing out the window of the Lufthansa flight I was taken aback by all the green I saw, after months in the desert everything seemed so alive with color from my view headed into Dulles Airport. I sat back and thought about my whole experience and how in an hour or so I would be joining my family again and heading north back to Maryland.

The moments leading up to this were still fresh in my mind of helo and C-130 flights to get me out of Iraq to Kuwait and to the big staging camp of "Liberty" at Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait. I would be here a few days before putting on civilian clothes and boarding a commercial flight back to the U.S.A.

I turned in my weapon and ammo in Kuwait and felt odd, for so many months I always had a pistol with me wherever I went, no flack jacket or helmet here either. I walk around thinking I am missing something as all of those things were such a part of everyday life in Iraq. I noticed a lot of the other services walk around this base in PT (Physical Training) gear consisting of shorts and a tee shirt, The Marines always wear their uniform making them easy to spot in the crowds. This whole place seems odd to me, it is a large area of approx 200 12 to 16 man tents, this is a transit area for people heading into Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those headed back to the states. You will see the inhabitants of the tents change literally on an hourly basis. There is a McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hut with folks always lined up at them...maybe I am just an old guy but I continued to eat at the Govt facility.

At the designated time I change into my civilian clothes and make my way with pack on my back to the manifesting area for the bus to Kuwait International Airport. I notice my clothes are very loose, I would guess I lost about 10 to 15 pounds in the months I spent in Iraq, One more reminder of where I have been. We ride out into the night and I gaze at the desert landscape of Kuwait and have trouble thinking this is all ending soon, I see signs of western civilization, neon lights, cars on the freeway and into the hustle and mass of people at the airport, my mind trying to grasp the changes...36 hours ago I was in Fallujah...now I am in civilian clothes and heading to commercial airplane. A quick stop in Germany and now back to my seat on final approach to Dulles airport in Virginia. I think back to when I used to ask in my interviews for people to describe their Iraq and combat experience, I now struggle to answer that question myself as I know I will be asked.

The journey reaches its high point when I exit the international arrivals and see the big smile of my daughter..... I am home

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Are you Ready?


Are you ready? That’s the question I have asked myself over and over. From the moment I accepted to go on this deployment, to my first night in Kuwait when I could not sleep and spent the long night staring at the ceiling of the tent. To each day waking up here in Iraq… are you ready for what may come today? I have traveled all throughout the Al Anbar Province and the Marine Corps area of operations. I have experienced a wide range of emotions from cursing at the current situation with words I was even surprised came out of my mouth, to swallowing hard and pushing on… Are you ready?

In my travels as a historian I have had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of Marines and have seen things I will never forget. Doing an interview is mostly a one on one meeting between me and a fellow Marine, behind a closed door on most occasions. I have seen hard as nails combat veterans break down and cry when telling me about the loss of a fellow Marine or seeing a child killed; I am most likely the first Marine who has asked them to tell me their story, sometimes making them relive horrible memories. I have heard stories of incredible bravery and of self sacrifice to “Duty, Honor and Country” words that for some are not a cliché, but truly have meaning. Those moments are burned into my memory….Are you ready? I have tasted my own fear being outside the wire and riding in a convoy with weapons loaded and at the ready, the mental preparation for that is something to experience…Am I ready to do what may need to be done?…Is there an IED in the road? Will we take fire? Is there a sniper out to kill us? If it does happen what will they tell my daughter about her father?… Am I ready?

In my job as the historian the stories and pictures I have captured for future generations of Americans so that we will not forget what has happened here will remain with me. I have them all in my head, each interview, the words, the faces; I have images in my memory that will be life long. Am I the same man who left Maryland months ago? I have continued to push on and keep focused, I have found strength here that I had long ago forgotten about: “Remember your roots Mike, you are a Marine I tell myself”, the time is here and now. I will always remember my days as the “Gunner” here in Iraq. There are few things in my life that have made me prouder than what I do today. I will hold firmly onto the memories of the times my uniform said it all SEARS……U.S. MARINES…Was I ready?

There will be a day shortly when I will no longer be the Gunner. I will put my pack down for the final time and walk off into retirement. A quarter of a century from when I first showed up at the gates of Parris Island not sure what I got myself into. But I will leave with the knowledge and pride that I have served with the finest America has produced. My Corps is in great hands with the Marines I have had the privilege and honor to serve with here in Iraq, This is the Corps’ future leaders, and they are ready.

In a few days this journey will start to move towards its conclusion, I will board a plane bound for Kuwait and ultimately the United States and leave Iraq behind me or will I always carry part of iraq with me I wonder? The full realization of where I have been and what I have experienced is starting to set in, it seems like April when I left Maryland was a lifetime ago. .. Are they ready for me back home?

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Baghdad



I am jolted by the Soldier walking past me who snaps a salute and says “Good Morning Sir” I wonder what the hell is he doing? I have been in Iraq since May and we Marines do not salute in a combat zone. I am seconds away from asking him ‘Do you know where the hell we are” I salute him back and think where the hell am I? A salute out here is recognition of who the officers are, a great target for snipers or anyone else trying to find out who the leaders are... things are different here at Camp Liberty in Baghdad I learn.

I feel like I have stumbled back into civilization on this sprawling base full of Army, Navy, Air Force and yes a few Marines. There are also coalition forces from Poland, Australia, the UK, Korea just to name a few. There is fast food, a large stateside size exchange; I see lots of SUV’s and other cars and lots of civilian contractors. I begin to realize where I have been these past months and it starts to sink in.

I am in Baghdad to have a meeting with my boss, Col Michael Visconage about my time here in Iraq and to pass copies of my collection efforts with the Marines out in the Al Anbar province to him at the Joint Historical Office. I get the unique experience of seeing the higher headquarters of MNC-I the place where Gen Petraeus commands from, the Al Faw palace. The Al Faw palace of Saddam Hussein is now the command headquarters, the coalition has taken over this place and it is now the nerve center for conducting this war.

I have to take the obligatory tourist pictures of the palace, and I think how drastically different my life and experience has been out west with the Marines. I have a good day with the Colonel and he actually turns the tables on me and interviews me…. Strange being on the other side after so many months of being the one asking the questions.

I continue saluting all day and walk in a haze as I feel so out of place here. My boots are covered in the lunar dust that is all outside the wire, my uniform is a bit dirty and sweaty and lived in compared to the staff of the Al Faw, I feel relieved to be back in my flack jacket, helmet on and walking in the darkness that evening to the Marine CH-46 that will take me back to Fallujah... Back where I belong.

Pics of the post, me sitting in Saddam’s former throne in the Al-Faw, a gift to him from Yassar Arafat formally of the PLO.

The other is of me outside the Palace to give you an idea how large it is.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Future



The old man shook my hand and said follow him, he was dressed in an old green camouflage uniform with the markings of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division (2/1) of the Iraqi Army; he seemed old enough to be my father, which given my age is saying something. We walked back outside into the oven that has now become Iraq in late July, the temp at 2:00 this afternoon is 121, we move to another building to the desk of a Marine Corps Sergeant. I tell him who I am and that I am looking for the Marine Corps Military Transition Team (MTT) Commander for 2/1, LtCol Fisher, “Follow me Sir” back to the oven and to another building, I am stuck by how young the Sergeant is compared to the Iraqi soldier who lead me to his desk, I wonder where do I fit in that equation?

I arrive at the office of LtCol Fisher, the head of the Marine Corps MTT attached to the Iraqi 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division; he has the unique challenge to help build the 2/1 of Iraqi Army into a force that can provide stability and security to their nation. A very difficult task given the best of circumstances. We discuss the problems encountered in his position, the troubles with the central government in Baghdad, the cultural differences and the interaction of his team of Marines and the Iraqi soldiers and how things are getting done. He is the right man for the job having been a military advisor for many years working with other countries military and training them to be more effective. The Corps has got the right man in place here with 2/1.

The LtCol’s job is critical to the future of Iraq and the eventual withdrawal of American troops. The Marines also have a unit called the Police Transition Teams (PTT) that work with the Iraqi police to get them up and running so they can assume a greater role in the stabilization and security of this war torn country. The Army and the police are the future of Iraq, and the Marines are working hand in hand with them to rebuild their country.

I also spent time this week with the director for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the office that oversees the MTT and PTT, a Marine Colonel who walked me through the ongoing actions of the MTT and PTT and what progress has been made. The situation has turned now to one of capacity, so many young Iraqi men are volunteering for the Police and Army forces it is now a problem of how to train them all and how quickly they can be integrated into the forces, a sure sign of improvements and success here.

The war is taking many turns now and it is not all trigger pulling that will be the end state of our engagement here, stabilization and rebuilding will be the measure at which we will depart I think.

There are dedicated teams such as the Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT) joined with the Marines of the MTT and PTT that in my opinion will be the driving force for the war to come to some kind of closure. But make no mistake we are far from finished tracking down and killing Al Qaeda, and missions go on and people die daily. But we are also working on the future stabilization and security for the people of Iraq, and progress is being made out here in the western province.

I was able to attend a planning meeting for a future operation to be conducted by the Iraqi Police, Iraqi Army and the Marines. To watch all three working in unison with mutual respect and trust was interesting to watch, three different organizations but with a common goal and focus, kill Al Qaeda and return the cities to some sort normalcy with security and the inhabitants not living in fear. As I have been reporting for months now the changes happening here in Al Anbar and the spreading of the “Awakening” movement are sure signs of progress being made, I see it with my own eyes.

Pictures for this post: The first is of the senior members of the Marine MTT and of 2/1 to include BGen Ali Gaza (Third from left) and LtCol Fisher the MTT Commander (4th from left) from the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division of the Iraqi Army.

The second is of BGen Ali Gaza and Col Faisel the Chief of the Fallujah Police discussing details of a future operation.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Guest Blogger, Colonel Michael Visconage

I have another guest blog entry from Colonel Michael Visconage at Camp Victory in Baghdad. For those new to my blog the Colonel is my Commanding Officer and is the Officer in Charge of my unit “USMC Field History” in Quantico VA. He is on a six month deployment to the Joint Historical Office in Baghdad. For clarification I am at a smaller base west of Baghdad (Forward Operating Base, Fallujah) and as a historian cover activity in the western “Al Anbar” province of Iraq, The Colonel is at Higher Headquarters. Enjoy his view of life at Camp Victory.

The Camp Victory Life:

The Victory base camp is on the Southwest outskirts of Baghdad is part of a much larger expanse that has a number of other sub camps for the combat divisions and a variety of support troops. My guess would be that is covers perhaps 20 square miles and houses 40-50,000 people. While the staff has the easy life in terms of a low level of immediate danger, the fighting troops are usually out in the various forward operating bases and have much harsher living condition. They do get to rotate back to larger bases for periods of time, which I am sure they appreciate.

In many ways, life for those on the large support bases is a totally different and safe existence. If I were a civilian specialist in some capacity and was offered a bucket of money to work at Camp Victory for six months or a year, I’d take it in minute. The “risk to reward” ratio is minimal. The only hardship is separation from family and minor inconvenience of the living environment. Most of the staff and contractors will never leave their base camps. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who are combat and combat support units are the ones who go “outside the wire” and risk their lives on a daily basis. Most of the casualties are from improvised explosive devises of one type or another—an enemy you will never see or have a chance to return fire at.

The Al Faw Palace where I work is part of Camp Victory. It’s actually a complex of buildings that Saddam Hussein built around a group of small man-made lakes—villas for his henchmen and any number of support buildings. He also had a private zoo and a hunting preserve here. Many of the buildings were damaged to some degree during the initial attack, but have been repaired for service as offices or living quarters for our general officers. Even still, most windows are sand-bagged as protection against attacks and many sensitive areas are protected by sentry posts and concertina (barbed) wire. At night most lights are out and it’s dark, although not a total “blackout” environment that you might picture from a traditional war setting.

While the palaces feature lots of marble on the inside and are architecturally interesting from the outside, the surrounding areas are typically dry and dusty. Imagine a million dollar home plunked down in the middle of a trailer park and you get the general picture. A layer of fine sand/dirt covers virtually everything outside, and quit a lot of things inside if left unattended. Much of the open space in the area surrounding the working spaces has been taken up with temporary trailers, tents and buildings for living, working, eating, exercise, and so on.

Since this is the focal point for the command element, the immediate area of the Al Faw Palace is something like a college campus with 90% of the people armed and in some kind of uniform. The other 10% are civilian contractors who are either skilled American workers (IT, intelligence analysts, contractors, etc.) or low-skill end third-country national from India, Pakistan and the Philippines who run the dining facility, laundry and general maintenance. Since we operate 24-hours-a-day, so does the base. Starting with the operations center, about half the staff sections work in shifts to cover issues that come up day or night. Smaller sections like mine, or those with predictable missions, cover the primary working hours of the staff and generals—usually about 7 in morning until 9 or 10 at night.

The food is reasonably good and KBR, the contractor who runs the dining facility, does a good job of trying to provide a reasonable variety. Again, a lot like a college dining facility. When you get a break (or need a break) the gym is popular and has good selection of free weights and exercise machines. Given the military focus on fitness, this is something that is good for morale and also gives people a positive outlet. There’s also both a small 24-hour PX and somewhat larger PX for basic supplies. Still not home, but you can get most of the essentials you would need--just not in the size, color, or type you’re looking for. The advice passed on to me for PX shopping was, “If you see something you need be sure to buy it today, because it won’t be there tomorrow.”

I’m lucky because I rate a “wet” trailer for my living accommodations. This means I live in something like a basic single-wide trailer that is divided in the middle and has a shared bathroom between the two residents. The trailers are placed end-to-end, row upon row with concrete blast walls between each row as protection against mortar or rocket attacks. Those below the rank of colonel usually share a “dry” trailer—meaning they have to bunk in with others and also have to go outside to a separate trailer with toilets and showers. Since I spend so little time in my room, I am content with the bed and wall locker that are provided. Some of the more junior service members who work on set shifts will try to make their trailer a bit more like home with T.V., DVD player, Play Station, rugs, etc. There is access to the military Armed Forces Network television system and there are a few satellite dishes lashed to trailer roofs in a temporary fashion. One more industrious occupant had an old ironing board turned upside down on their roof as an antenna (the college analogy continues).

Some industrious contractors who live a few rows down from me have actually turned their aisle between the trailers and the blast wall into a café of sorts (about 8’ wide). They’ve built some restaurant-style booths to accommodate about 12-14 people and got their hands on some outdoor umbrellas, posters, flags, a grill, and some Christmas lights to give it atmosphere. There’s no alcohol allowed here, but they keep some beverages on hand as someone has a fridge in their trailer and cook out when they can get their hands on some hamburger or ribs. They call it Baba’s Café and run it as a “by invitation” establishment and have a gathering 2-3 times a week. As one of the regulars said, “We have to keep it quiet. You know how it is, as soon as some senior officer figures out we’re having fun they’ll make us take it all down.”

I did have to convince them that I wasn’t that senior officer in order to get them to tell me how they got they got started. Baba’s Café gets something of an international crowd (by crowd, I mean 15-20 people max) that sometimes includes interpreters, coalition military reps, Iraqi Army officers, all U.S. military services, contractors, and so on. For those here for a year or more in particular, it helps to make it a little like home away from home. Baba’s is just a little piece of cultural history of camp life for the archives.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Fallujah



I had a whole week in Fallujah due to some scheduling problems, so I took advantage of the time and got a lot of my writing done and enjoyed a week with no travel. Felt good to be sleeping in my can for a solid week and enjoy the comforts believe it or not of Camp Fallujah.

I did go and get some interviews completed during the week. I had a good visit with the Personnel Retrieval and Processing (PRP) Marines. If you read my blog you will remember I interviewed their commanding officer in Al Taqaddum a while back. This is an interesting group; PRP is the old Mortuary affairs unit, although now they have been assigned a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) and also have a formal school to attend. This is an all volunteer unit based on the work that they do, and you can leave the MOS upon request as well. This was not always the case as many Marines were randomly selected from various backgrounds and assigned to Mortuary Affairs, having no background in it but Marines were needed in times of war for the duties of processing deceased service members. The USMC has now formalized the field and assigned it a MOS for continued consistency in the field. Although I did learn that of the 35 members of PRP who were deployed last year to Iraq only 4 have returned for this deployment. This is a very difficult and emotional job, retrieving and processing deceased service member’s for their final flight back home. The unit also processes Iraqi Army and Police if needed. It proved to be an interesting collection of interviews all PRP Marines are reservists out of Anacostia in Washington D.C. and Marietta Georgia.

I also spent my time planning for my final weeks here in Iraq, as next month I will be completing my tour and headed back to Maryland. I looked at specific people and units I want to cover to get the bigger picture of what is happening right now. Units like the Military Transition Teams (MTT) who are Marines living and working with the Iraqi Army to help train them to pickup the mission when we leave. Also the Marines of the Police Transition Teams (PTT) who work with the Iraqi police and train them to be better qualified to do their jobs so we can leave. The Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRT) and just as the name their name sounds they are a reconstruction team to help the Iraqi people rebuild basic infrastructure destroyed by 4 years of war. The work here is not all shooting now but training and rebuilding. A restoration of some sort of normalcy and stability, which is occurring in many cities in the Al Anbar province.

This will be my focus in the weeks ahead, I think it will complete and round out the collection I have gathered. I have covered the air wing and spent a good amount of time with the ground infantry units, spent time outside the wire and been to the out posts and check points, Interviewed the higher headquarters and now I plan to move on to the stability and long term phase that will complete this mission.

Pictures for this post, the first one is of a sand storm we had on Wednesday, the sky at about 4:00PM turned completely orange and blocked out the sun. The dust was blowing everywhere and made visibility so bad flights were cancelled. It was pretty amazing as the sun normally sets here around 9:00PM but to be so dark and have this surreal orange sky caused by all the fine dust in the air was something to experience.

The second is of Fallujah Surgical, which is where the wounded are brought for treatment in the Fallujah area of operations.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Teufelhunden



I do the time conversion in my mind, I am 8 hours ahead of the east coast, as I glance at my watch it is 4:00pm my time so 8:00am back home. My wife and daughter should be seated on a United Airlines flight right now leaving Dulles bound for the Midwest. They are headed to spend time with my wife’s parents, a break for my wife while I am deployed and an opportunity for my daughter to spend time with her Grandparents and Uncle.

Strangely I am more concerned about them getting out safely than I am about myself as I glance down at the M4 carbine fully locked and loaded between my legs. I also have my 9mm on my right leg locked and loaded as well. The vehicle I am riding in also has a gunner manning a .50 caliber right above me zeroing in on anything that looks suspicious and he is constantly on the move scanning everything as we drive along; we are a 5 vehicle convoy, with enough firepower to make hell explode right here on earth. I can not help but find the irony in my thoughts as I ride on in a combat zone ready for anything, my hands resting on the stock of my M4. My mind drifts to my family going on their trip and hoping that all goes well for them. No doubt my thoughts and perspective on life in general have gone through some changes while I have been out here.

I am riding on through the streets of Habbaniyah with the Marines of 3rd Battalion 6th Marines. We ride on and stop at numerous combat out posts (COPS) and I move among the Marines and take pictures and do a couple of interviews. My job out here “get this now” so people will remember what is being done here so we will not forget the sacrifices made and years from now their story can be told to the next generation.

This week I am out with the “Teufelhunden” Battalion. This is a perfect name for the Marines of 3/6 due to their involvement with dogs; “Teufelhunden” is translated from German to mean Devil Dogs. The Marines of WW I when engaged in combat with the Germans were described by the German Army as fighting like Devil Dogs. A term that has stuck for all Marines down through the last 90 years and to this day is used as a greeting by Marines to each other.

I get the opportunity to sit in on a meeting with one of the local Provincial Security Force (PSF) commanders at one of the COPS during this trip. He brings in a lot of food and all the Marines gather and we “break bread” together. The discussion moves to operations to be done and how the Marines and the PSF will conduct them jointly. I have heard it said numerous times the winning of “hearts and minds” here in Iraq will not work, but what does is a relationship of “respect and trust”. This is the reason I would argue for the great success the Marines have had in the Al Anbar, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is the rule for the day, and is working. Counterinsurgency warfare will create changes in doctrine and force units to adapt and be flexible to the situations that arise; in the Al Anbar province the Marines have mastered this. Across the Area of Operations Marines continue to make significant strides in securing this former western badland to restore some sense of security for the local populace.

We continue to move this day and will spend 10 hours rolling through Habbaniyah to the various COPS. I join the Commanding Officer of 3/6 in his vehicle on one leg of our journey and we discuss the changes 3/6 has seen since arriving in country in Jan, he points out areas on the ride of the various IED explosions and firefights the battalion has been involved in on their tour.

As the sun is starting to move westward over the desert sky we head back to Camp Habbaniyah, past the first check point we exit the vehicle and drop our magazines and put weapons in a safe condition. I glance at my watch again, the United flight should have landed by now, and for me I am looking forward to some food and something cold to drink.

Pictures for this post, the first is yours truly on the roof of one of the COPS out with 3/6.

The second the emblem of 3rd battalion 6th Marines at their headquarters.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Pearl



I had just returned from a week out on a collection trip at Al Asad and was in my summer home of Fallujah. I was relaxing with a cigar and chatting with my office and can mate Capt Tony Licari in the evening when a friend and fellow Marine brought a black lab by.

Talking with the Master Guns I found out the dog is a female named
"Pearl". Pearl is an IED bomb sniffing dog attached to a Marine Battalion here in Iraq. She is specially trained by some folks back in the states for this type of work. Pearl is a new kind of weapon, highly trained and making a difference out here and saving Marines lives. Pearl has had some close calls already being in three IED explosions with her handler and close to forty engagements with the enemy in fire fights.

Sadly she is what the World War II guys used to call “Shell Shocked" and now with the sound of artillery or gunfire she will fall to the ground and shake. So long story short we have adopted her here within Camp Fallujah and specifically within the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned. She will spend her remaining tour here with us and not out with front line Marines, so we have a new mascot here in Fallujah and everyone is happy to have her around. I have to say it is very nice to be able to pet a dog once and awhile... reminders of home.

She will go back to the states with her Battalion soon to undergo some tests to make sure she has no permanent damage. Her handler a Corporal within the battalion has been approved to take her as a family pet if all checks out well. Great story for a 2 year lab with a combat action ribbon, I bet she would be a great interview.

The attached picture is of me and good friend Capt Licari enjoying a smoke and having pearl join us.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Al Asad



I wonder will I ever get back to some kind of normal schedule, I glance at my watch it is 2:55am. I have just landed in Al Asad, I step out the back of the CH-46 and the early morning air hovering around 90 feels good and refreshing, I open my flack jacket to let the air hit me and cool down some.

With little thought given I move numbly grabbing my pack and following the line of Marines in front of me, we move like a single trail of ants in the darkness to be manifested as "Arriving”. I step up to the manifest window to get my ID card, “CWO4 Sears?” I am asked by the corporal at the desk “Roger” my mouth replies but brain is still numb, he slides me an envelope, it is from the Executive Officer (XO) of Marine Air Group (MAG) 29, inside is the keys to a truck parked outside and a key to a temp can for the week….. Welcome to Al Asad.

I find the truck and hope I can find my can as it is now pushing 3:30am; I hope to get at least 3 hours of sleep before I start the day. My good luck continues, I find my way to the designated can city with little problem. Although my luck runs out as the walk from the truck to the can which is about 15 min away. Not such a big deal unless you have been awake for 20 hours, and now walking in a 50lb flack jacket and carrying my gear in the darkness not knowing where you are going, But I find my way.

I open the door of the can and the coolness of the air conditioned room hits me, as I am sweating hard again after the trek from the vehicle. I look around and see a mattress on a bed frame, I pull out my trusty poncho liner and get out of my flight suit. I will roll up my flight suit as it will be my pillow for the week, now for a couple hours of sleep.

I have come to Al Asad to cover four Marine squadrons, two helicopter and two fixed wing. I start the day with a courtesy visit to the XO to thank him for the truck and temp can, also to let him know I made it here. We exchange a hand shake and my plans for the week and off I go.

My week starts off the Marines of VMAQ-1 an EA-6B (Prowler) squadron, I am getting excited as I make the turn and start to see the flight line come into view, I start to make out the Harriers, Prowlers, Herc’s and Hornets parked on the ramp, I also notice a squadron of Air Force Warthogs…starting to feel at home, and not so tired. The Marines of Q-1 take care of me and the day starts with interviews lined up until 5:00pm.

I end up visiting 3 more squadrons during my week, the Marines of HMLA-269 a Cobra gun ship squadron augmented by UH-1 “Hueys” is next, I spent the 4th of July with them another good day. I pause and think about what folks are doing back home as I gaze at the flight line at the end of the day and watch a Prowler roar down the runway and push skyward. After all these years I still get such a rush being around jets, I think sometimes it is in my blood. Standing on the flight line and gazing left to right I take it all in fighters, attack aircraft, transports, attack helicopters it’s all here. I have to smile a good way to spend the 4th I think.

But the day I have been looking forward to happened on the 5th, I was able to visit the sole F/A-18 squadron in Iraq the Marines of VMFA(AW)-121. for some readers reference I have been around F/A-18’s for 20+ years, As a young man I joined my first F/A-18 squadron back in 1989 and in my civilian job I have the good fortune to be working in the F/A-18 program office as a civil servant. To be around the Hornet again, share stories of people we know in common and talk the tech talk of the aircraft and its systems made me feel at home. Needless to say I enjoyed my time with my Hornet friends.

I finish the week with the “Ugly Angels” of HMH-362 a CH-53D squadron out of Hawaii, great group of Marines who had some excellent stories. Similar to what I reported on with HMM-262 in Al Taqaddum, the Ugly Angels are on their first deployment to Iraq, and the old Vietnam Vets from the Ugly Angels have adopted the squadron and groups have gone so far as adopt specific work centers and keep in touch with the Marines via email and send care packages. I find the whole story amazing, the old vets, passing the torch to the soon to be Iraq vets. A special piece I was told was a young Captain in the Squadron, he is the son of a Vietnam era ugly Angel pilot. As a child he grew up with the squadron pulling on his dad’s pants legs during squadron functions. Now he is a pilot in the same squadron, his father spoke to the squadron before deploying for combat. The same Marines that knew him as a boy now see it go full circle as he is now in combat with the same squadron they were and the story continues…

I work until I have no time left and I have to head out to catch the helo back, I missed dinner and I am looking at another long night. The Commanding Officer of HMH-362 opens the door to the room I am doing an interview in, he flashes me a 5 min sign, and I wrap up the interview. When I meet him back in his office to get my gear he hands me a couple of pieces of chicken wrapped in a napkin, “I know you missed chow interviewing my Marines, you can eat this waiting for the flight” I grab my flack jacket and gear and throw it in the back of the truck, “No Worries I’ll get the truck back to MAG-29 for you he tells me” I thank him, hand over the keys and 10 Min later I grab my gear and start the process of getting back to Fallujah.

Sitting in the waiting area for my flight eating cold chicken and drinking warm water, I can not help but smile. A good week in Iraq….I’ll take that anytime.

Two pictures for this post the first is of my friends in VMFA(AW)-121 showing a unique paint scheme on one of their aircraft, to show the bond between the Marine Air and Ground team. The 2d Marine Division is painted on the Spine of the Hornet. On the tail is painted the regiments of the 2D MARDIV, of note the Army’s 1st Brigade 3rd Infantry is on their as well, as the squadron provides close air support for them as well. To further this unique Air Ground team, the commanding General for II Marine Expeditionary Force is listed as the Pilot, with the Commanding General for Aviation here in Iraq listed as the back seater.

The second a group of Marines from the “Ugly Angels” works on a CH-53D, the unsung heroes of Marine Aviation these Marines work 24 hours a day in two 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week. For many they have not had a day off in several months. This is what is required to keep aircraft in the air and on call 24/7 in support of Marines on the ground in combat. Not a glamorous or sexy job but a critical one.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Guest Blogger, Colonel Michael Visconage USMC

I was talking with the Officer in Charge of my unit, the Field history branch this week, Col Michael Visconage. He is currently on a six month assignment in Baghdad working on the Multi-National Corps Iraq (MNC-I) staff as a Historian. I thought people might be interested in his view from a higher headquarters perspective. While the Colonel works the MNC-I operations, I cover the Multi-National Forces West (MNF-W) or the Marine Corps area of operations as their historian.


MNC-I Historian -- The Current Situation:

My job as the Multi-National Corps Iraq Historian is to collect as much data for the military archives as possible so that, once declassified, the events at hand can be studied by researchers, writers, and historians to tell the story of this phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. To do this, I’ll focus on conducting one-on-one oral history interviews, collecting key documents, and taking photographs. I’ll also keep a lot of notes on the evolving issues to help me focus my collection efforts. My mission is to collect data—I do not have a specific publication I must produce. Because of that, I have no thesis or “outline” in my head that drives my work in a particular pre-determined direction. Collecting a wide range of data for unknown future researches will cause me to collect a broad base of information, not knowing what will be needed, or by whom, in 2 years or 50. I will use my experience as a combat arms officer and historian to guide me to the key issues and decision points.

To bring you up to speed, Multi-National Corps Iraq (MNC-I) is the combat element of the forces we have here. It is commanded by Army LtGen. Raymond Odierno (3 stars). Multi-National Force Iraq (MNF-I) does not have combat forces, but is the senior HQ that coordinates the overall strategy and cross-coordinates the military and governmental issues. General David Petraeus (4 stars) heads MNF-I. MNC-I and MNF-I work very closely and occupy the same HQ building for many of their functions. They plan in concert and collaborate on the plans for prosecuting the war. Below the MNC-I level the country is broken into several regions that are under the control of division-size elements. This is essentially a decentralized fight from a tactical standpoint, as each area faces a different variation of the Anti-Iraqi Forces (AIF).

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a successful initial interaction as the MNC-I Historian for this first six weeks. The core element of the MNC-I staff is the Army’s III Corps, based in Ft. Hood, TX. Most of the senior staff officers are in their late 40’s and are active-duty colonels. Most have been to Iraq before—many as battalion or brigade commanders. They know the fight and have a unique level of cohesion, talent, professionalism, and, yes, a sense of humor (in that dry kind of way that professional colleagues have). There is also a uniform respect for, and confidence in, the ability of the senior commanders here—a critical element for success.

Like any organization, they have a corporate culture. One of the most important jobs of a new-comer who wants to be effective can do is to pay attention to that culture and slowly work at successfully establishing themselves in the context of that culture (usually as being capable, professional, reliable, etc.). For a historian, this is critical and is often the reason why a historian can “fail” in their mission (or at least be ineffective). In this way military and civilian organizations share a common theme – having people skills is a big first step towards success.

Layered on this core Army team is an additional personnel plus-up with “individual augmentees” (IA’s) which add 30-40% more to the team strength. IA’s are guys like me who are on a separate rotation calendar than the III Corps staff and fill a variety of billets that fill out the joint/coalition command structure. They are from all specialties and all services, as well as a variety of our allies (UK, Australia, Poland, South Korea, etc.—30 coalition countries all told). Together, this makes up the MNC-I staff. Overall I’m very impressed with this team. If we are not successful at the end of the day here in Iraq, it won’t because we didn’t send the “A” team.

Being a historian continues to be a position of unique access in terms of gaining a view of all aspects and dimensions of a very complicated situation. After six weeks I probably have a reasonable appreciation for 40-50% of it. Just coming to an understanding of the organizational structure is a big task. After gaining some degree of command support for the historical mission, gaining access to the key commanders and staff is the next step. If they don’t allow you periodic opportunities to meet with them or attend key meetings, you’re dead in the water. The final piece is mobility—the access to transportation around to the different operating areas in order to get a sense for the overall picture.

One key significant historical highlight since my arrival has been the completion of the “surge” of forces. Even thought it started in February, this has been a process that was intended to take several months simply because moving that number of troops and equipment doesn’t happen at the snap of one’s fingers. This has brought an additional five brigades to Iraq—over 20,000 troops. It has allowed the Baghdad security plan (Operation Fardh al Qanoon) to proceed as planned and the coalition has gone into areas that have been left too long to the bad guys.

The surge has represented a new strategic direction, one distinctly different from the approach of the last 12-18 months. Our press to turn over the fight to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and move coalition forces back to an over watch role was not producing results. The Fardh al Qanoon calls for putting security back at the top of the list of priorities. Militarily, coalition forces clear, control, and retain areas, teaming with the ISF to maintain a presence in neighborhoods. This has meant pushing soldiers and Marines out to Forward Operating Bases, Combat Outposts, and Joint Security Stations as opposed to centralizing them on large bases.

The current operation also aims to give the ISF and Government of Iraq some breathing room to continue to mature and fully assume full responsibility for security and governance. This is no easy task. The forces of sectarianism, insurgents, and influence from neighboring nations are just a few very challenging elements at play.

So far I’ve been able to visit the UK forces in the far south at Basrah. This is a dominant Shi’ia area, so there is little factional fighting, but plenty of action focused against the Brits by the Shi’ia militias that the open press has suggested are Iranian-backed. I’ve also been to the headquarters for the Multi-National Division North (MND-N), based just outside of Tikrit. The U.S. Army division at the head of MND-N has a broad span of geography and challenges to manage, including Sunni-Shi’ia factional fighting, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) influence, oil production levels in Kirkuk, and the Kurdish role in Mosul. The areas that are bad are a constant threat and there is little opportunity to build “hearts and minds”. They also have areas that are calm and are making real economic improvements and reasonably stable (mostly the Kurdish areas).

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

4th of July......Iraq

4th of July and I am in Iraq, I am out from Camp Fallujah and at the Air Base of Al Asad on a collection trip. While out and about today I thought about today and what it means, lots of BBQ's and swimming back home but just another day here, no need for fireworks while in Iraq! In the evening I caught a small part of one of my favorite movies, "Patton" with George C. Scott, and it made me travel back in my memory to 20+ years ago and got me thinking about my Uncle Ray.

Uncle Ray was a combat engineer in World War II serving in the third American Army under the famous General George S. Patton. As a young man home on leave from the Marines to visit family I always made a point to go visit him. I was always greeted with a big smile and a warm embrace then like clock work he would smile, slap me on the back and say " Come on let's go get a beer". Of course we would go down to the local VFW, where he was a founding member, to have a few beers and catch up on things since my last visit home. We would talk about a lot of things and eventually we would end up talking about his time in the Army with General Patton.

He would get a far away look in his eyes as he talked about friends and his experiences and all that he had seen during the “Great War”. Even then he was in his 60's but as he talked it was if it was yesterday to him. I often thought what powerful memories they must be as he recalled friend’s names now some 45+ years later.

I wonder now what will I take away from my time here? The people I have seen? The places I have been? The emotions I have felt? the personal stories I have collected? In 5, 10, 20 years from now will I be the old man in the VFW looking back in my minds eye?

Now I understand Uncle Ray better than ever before, sadly I had the honor and privilege to be a pall bearer at his funeral many years ago. Standing in my dress blues I could not help but shed a tear as a flag was presented to my Aunt by the members of his VFW post.

I also found out years later talking to my Aunt, that he never would discuss his war time experiences with her or my cousin his daughter. Seems Uncle Ray and I had a deeper bond than I ever knew.

Something to think about this 4th of July 2007, our country was made into what it is by people like my Uncle Ray, going back to our early days and the revolutionary war. This will be a special 4th for me, out here with the men and women of my Corps, think about them on this America's birthday.

Happy Birthday America

Gunner Sears

Friday, June 29, 2007

2D Battalion 5th Marines... Al Fallujah



The motions come to me now without much thought: flack jacket buttoned up, helmet and goggles strapped and on, gloves on, magazine in, pistol locked and loaded. I climb into the HUMMER knowing what I have to do to be safe and leave the firm base. Today I am riding outside the wire into the city of Fallujah with the Marines of 2nd Battalion 5th Marines. This mission is a little different as I have my Commanding Officer (CO) with me, from Quantico, he is also in country serving in the Joint History office in Baghdad. He has come out west to see me and spend some time with the Marines in the field. Something deep inside of all Marines will have them march towards the sound of the guns and battle, I cannot explain it, but I sense that is what has brought the Colonel out West and his visit to me. It is good to see him and brings back a face I know from Quantico, as so far I have been by myself in Iraq making friends as I go. I did not come out here with a unit or people I trained with, I came alone, and I welcome a familiar face.

When I mentioned to people before I left the States that I would be based in Camp Fallujah their eyes grew wide and they looked at me as if I were a man headed to a death sentence, or that perhaps I had completely lost my mind as I volunteered to go. No doubt this city has a reputation as a killing ground and has seen its share of bloodshed, men going above and beyond and often giving the final full measure with their lives. Their blood and souls are a part of this city; Fallujah will long be remembered in Marine Corps history, for the valor of men who found something deep inside of them here and for those who did not go home.

We ride out in a six vehicle convoy along with the Commanding Officer of 2/6, a tall man of quiet professionalism, dedicated to his craft and his Marines. Today's journey we will visit various out posts within the city and stop at two Iraqi police stations. I watch as the CO meets with his Marines at the various stops and quietly talks with them, a shepherd of sorts tending to his flock, keeping their spirits up and letting them know what a great job they are doing. At one stop I watch a squad of Marines coming in off a patrol in the city, drenched in sweat, tired and hungry, the CO asks how they are doing and they respond with "Great sir". Some of these young men are not even 20 yet. Looking for America's best?...follow me and I will show them to you.

Riding from post to post I cannot help but notice the children who come out and watch as we drive by. They wave and smile, their parents look on quietly with little emotion in their face. I cannot help but think they have seen too much in such a short time. I think of my own daughter and how lucky we are in the United States as I force a smile and wave to the to the children of this war torn city.

Changes are taking place here similar to those I reported in Ramadi, in fact the Battalion is operating in the same way with Marines out in the city with some changes to adapt to the Fallujah specific issues. But this is not the same city my friend and fellow Field Historian Maj Joe Winslow covered back during operation "Al Fajr" in 2004 when the Marines went street by street sweeping north to south several times with tremendous fighting in this urban environment. Today things are moving forward in a positive sense, a sign that lives taken here were not in vain.

After spending 7 hours in the city one cannot come away without acknowledging progress is being made, but are we getting closer to closure out here in the western badlands? Looking at Ramadi and Fallujah, I am encouraged to believe so, but time will tell.

The Colonel and I compare notes when we get back and share our thoughts on the day's events. He wears a smile that only another Marine could understand. I am hot, tired and hungry, he asks how am I doing, and without hesitation I reply "Great sir", and smile quietly.

Two pictures to this post: The first, the hope for the future of this country, the children. the second, a reminder that this is still a war zone with a dismounted patrol screening for the leading edge of the convoy I was riding in.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Ar Ramadi



With a quick smack from my right hand the magazine slides into place, my left hand pulls the upper receiver of my pistol back and letting it slide forward it goes home with a click driving the first round of the clip into the chamber, 15 left in the clip, locked and loaded. With the command of "Condition One" all weapons loaded the three other Marines and myself all climb back in the HUMMER. I feel the sweat dripping down my back and down my ribs as the flack jacket I am wearing hugs my upper torso, with my helmet and goggles strapped on the sweat just keeps coming, partly from my heightened heart rate and the increasing heat at only 10:00AM. I am riding with the Marines of 2nd Battalion 5th Marines through the streets of Ar Ramadi. These mean streets have for the past couple of years been a hard and brutal fight for Marine Battalions rotating through here with heavy insurgent activity and lots of fighting. As we move down the streets my eyes are wide and scanning everything, my heart racing looking at everything with a critical eye, any car, the people, the road and everything in my view, all with my right hand resting on my pistol. We are outside the wire and traveling through the city, if nothing else I will be over cautious. I am keenly aware that I am not in Southern Maryland anymore.

We arrive at one of the numerous Combat Outposts (COPS) in the city, this is where the Marines live among the locals and work patrols with the Iraqi police and Army slowly restoring peace and security to this former wild west town. I spend the day out in the city at the COPS and talk with several Marines on the changes that have taken place in Ramadi. It was a great week of getting out to the tip of the spear of this war with the men of 2/5. Today under the command of 2/5 and with added Marines from the “surge” effort Ramadi is a different place. I visited the COPS within the city and saw first hand the changes taking place. The reasons, Good old Marine Corps perseverance, the effects of the “Anbar Awakening” combined with outstanding leadership have paid huge dividends in this city. Attacks are on the decline, in direct fire on the base has been reduced considerably and 2/5 has done an amazing job in working with the local Iraqi Police and Army here, assisting them to take control of their city. The Marines living in the COPS here are out among the locals getting to know the neighborhoods and the people who inhabit them. This has also forced the enemy to rethink their strategy and has them losing ground.

There is a much different story to tell out here in the Al Anbar province than in Baghdad. We are winning out here but news of the gains and successes here never seem to make the 6:00 news. I was told by a Colonel awhile back " I worry that we are close to winning this war but will the American people have the patience to let us?". This western part of Iraq is at a tipping point, but will we have the time?

Even with all the good news I will add never let your guard down, after being back inside the wire of camp Ramadi I stepped outside of the vehicle to a loud earth shattering explosion that caused everyone to pause and look around as if we were receiving incoming. I later found out it was a suicide vehicle attack right outside the wire. Lesson learned, never let your guard down this is still a very dangerous place.

I also hit the Marines of 5th ANGLICO and had a good day with them, perfect timing as they had just come off a long mission and had some great stories to tell. When the topic of Ramadi came up we discussed the same issues I had with 2/5 and the turn around that is taking place here and all seemed to be in agreement. Tribal engagement, The surge, AQI overplaying their hand and the local Iraqi’s seeing a better way to live have made for success in this city.

The attached pictures for this post show my view traveling down the streets of Ramadi from my seat in the HUMMER. The other is of a group of Marines preparing to do a foot patrol out in the neighborhoods from one of the COPS.

Of note also I have linked my office and can mate (Room mate) Capt Tony Licari's blog now to my page, when you get a chance check out his thoughts and opinions under blogs of interest.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Al Taqaddum





Standing on the rooftop of the old Iraqi Air Force control tower my eyes scan the horizon stretched out before me to where the desert meets the sky of this barren lunar landscape. The hot wind and temps even at 8:30pm make me sweat even with my cammie top off and standing in a t-shirt, I bite down on the cigar I have been smoking for the last 20 min as the hot wind flows over me. I gaze out over the runway before me lighting up as the sun sinks slowly in the horizon giving this place a surreal quality as the hum of generators and turning CH-46's fill my ears. It's becoming night and the helos are turning their exterior lights on and they begin to flash. Off to my left I hear the familiar slapping sound of rotors turning on some Cobra's, they will take flight under the cover of darkness... we own the night. As I stand viewing all the sites around me I soak it all in. I feel good after over a month now on the ground I am comfortable, strong, proud and confident. As a Marine this is where I want and need to be.

I have spent the week at this former Iraqi Air Force base now a major hub for the Al Anbar area of operations. I have spent five days with four different squadrons and some tenant activities aboard this logistical Juggernaut of a base. I can not help but think of the things I have seen and heard this week, some that caused me to step back and now on the rooftop reflect a little.

I have attached two pictures to this posting one is of a CH-46 casualty evacuation helo, this is the war time ambulance in the sky, you get shot or hit an IED and there is a good chance the Marines of HMM-161 the "Greyhawks" could be the difference between living and dieing. I spoke at length with a young combat corpsman who in civilian terms would be a paramedic in the squadron who told me horrific stories. Tales of evacuating Marines and Soldiers and having to make decisions of who has the best chance of surviving and making the decision to move on leaving a Marine or Solider to god and working on those with the best chance for survival. This young man was maybe 24 years old. He is here making decisions on life and death....daily

I also had a gut check of my own when I made a visit to the Personnel Recovery Unit, this is where the Marines prepare the dead to be flown home one last time. I was met a LtCol who was the commander of this unit. We spoke at length and although the words said one thing as I gazed into the face and eyes they told another story, I saw the sadness and fatigue I can only imagine comes with such a difficult job. But when I asked how the Marines cope with this difficult task I was told " We are helping a Marine or Solider who can not help themselves get home" I swallowed hard when hearing that. I just nodded my head no words were worthy of a response.

I also had a good day with the Marines of HMM-262 the "Flying Tigers" an Okinawa Japan based squadron on their first combat deployment since Vietnam. Interesting story, they have formed an association with former Flying Tiger Marines who made the last combat deployment to Vietnam, and the old vets keep in constant contact with the squadron. They even had a coin made that on one side shows the squadron logo while on the flip side it states " RVN (Republic of Vietnam) to Iraq, we got your back". I was told by the Executive Officer that air crew members have taken to making a cut on their squadron patches and slide the coin in behind the patch and fly their mission with the coin in place....Marines taking care of Marines even now some 40 years later.

The second picture is my view on the roof, so now I gaze at my watch it's 9:00pm time for me to get moving so I can catch my helo back to Fallujah. I take another draw off my cigar and put my cammie top back on. I take a final look out at the darkening sky then close my eyes and just listen for a moment... remember this... I grab my pack and strap my pistol back on... time to move.

The General and the Gunner


The cool air felt great after walking in the 113 degree heat that had engulfed this day, now sitting in the air conditioned office of the Commanding General Forward (CG FWD) for the 2nd Marine Logistics Group (MLG) I could not stop thinking how fortunate I am. Within 35 days of being in country I have had the unique privilege to have meetings with two Marine Corps Generals. My first with BGen Hanifen the CG FWD for the 2nd Marine Air Wing, and now BGen Kessler of the 2nd MLG.

This was a great interview with BGen Kessler and reminded me of two friends talking over coffee if you can imagine that. The BGen is a very personable and down to earth individual. I found myself once again sitting across a small coffee table with a General in a time of war. What a fantastic experience to discuss what is happening within the mind of a general officer while sitting in a combat zone. The interview lasted just under an hour and was great opportunity to delve inside the inner workings of the Marine Corps at war

There has also been some questions as what exactly a Marine Corps Field Historian does, let me give you the official definition:

" A field historian gathers Marine Corps history as it happens. The Field History detachment deploys historians with major combat commands and sends those Marines out to the front lines to record history in the making. These historians collect oral interviews, original documents, photographs, and artifacts that become the primary source materials for topical monographs, definitive histories, and museum exhibits"

The Gunner's version:

" I am here to capture Marine Corps history, I see with my own eyes and hear first hand accounts of battles and the workings of the Marine Corps at war. I live forward in a combat zone with my fellow Marines and make sure their story is captured and told for future generations. I am collecting Marine Corps history not for CNN or the Media but for the official history and archives of our Corps.

I hope this helps better understand my role here.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

History

Reading through some material here in Fallujah, I ran across a memorial card for a service that was conducted for some Marines sadly who were killed in action during their tour in Iraq. What caused me to pause and take note were the words on the back of the pamphlet. I had read them before and knew immediately where they came from. Somehow sitting here in Iraq, knowing the choice I made to come here, and my personal reasons for that choice made the words jump off the page at me. It caused me to pause and reflect on what I had just read as if for the first time. The attitude and meaning of the words go straight to the heart, I think the quote sums up what a lot of the Marines feel about being here in Iraq.

Whoever does not have the stomach for this fight, let him depart. Give him his money to speed his departure since we wish not to die in this man’s company. Whoever lives past today and comes home safely will rouse himself every year on this day, show his neighbor his scars, and tell him embellished stories of all their great feats of battle. These stories he will teach his son and from this day until the end of the world we shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for whoever has shed his blood with me shall be my brother. And those men afraid to go will think themselves lesser men as they hear how we fought and died together.”

King Henry V
William Shakespeare


Nothing more needs to be said.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Wing



it's 12:40am and I am in a single line of Marines standing in the darkness, it's been a long hot day with temps again in the 105+ area. I am hot and tired already but my legs keep moving me forward with my gear, helmet, flack jacket and pack. I gaze out at the two big CH-53 Stallions that sit on the ramp with rotors turning, and with a wave of a hand and a flashlight moving in the darkness we all move forward towards the two big birds. Green light illuminates the cavernous inside of this beast and I grab my seat and throw my pack into the growing pile in the center of the Helo. I am leaving Fallujah and headed to the north, the edge of the empire and the sprawling Marine Air base of Al Asad.

A stop along the way to drop off and pick up passengers and cargo and at 03:10am we touch down at the airfield in Al Asad. I am greeted by my POC a F/A-18 pilot call sign "Troll" who is now working on the Wing Staff. By 04:00am I am in a large room that seems unused for centuries, dust and dirt are everywhere with mattress's stacked up along the wall along and empty boxes strewn about the floor. I see a bed with a mattress on it and pull out my poncho liner from my pack, this is as good as it will get this morning. At 07:30 I am up again and facing a new day in Iraq. last night in this space though as I will be billeted in a temp can for the week.

My trip to Al Asad was a collection effort to meet with senior leadership and conduct interviews on the aviation perspective of the on going battle here. I am fortunate to have a 2 hour meeting with the Commanding General, what a great opportunity to hear his thoughts and perspective. I also meet with his staff over the course of the week gathering a unique glimpse into the senior headquarters and their battle rhythm. By weeks end I have meet all the Commanding Officers, their Executive Officers and the Operations Officers of most of the Marine Aircraft Group . I also make key points of contact to follow-up with on future visits for a dig deeper down to the men and women actually flying the missions every day.

I continue to hear the same story from Fallujah and now to Al Asad "We Are Winning". The overall view of the Al Anbar province is considered a success right now, the wing has seen their mission change from dropping bombs (which they still do) to more security type of operations. Providing "eyes in the sky" and every Marines greatest comfort, Marine air available for close air support and casualty evacuation.

The times seem to be changing here but success will also be dependent on the Iraqi Government being able to continue to provide security for it's people. This is key for Iraq to grow and become independent and American forces to head home. A strong Iraqi police force and Army are required and this seems to be on an upward trend as well in the province. All of this is of course easier said than done but none the less you can not deny progress has been made and continues here in Al Anbar. The main focus of course is still the capital, The world is watching Baghdad and it's future will be the future of this country.

I have attached two pictures one is of the "Can" city I stayed in while at Al Asad the other is the 2nd Marine Air Wing (Forward) insignia. For those unfamiliar with a can it is basically an 8' x 12' cell, air conditioned in which 2 to 4 people can be housed. In Fallujah I am in a 2 man can, in this heat I am grateful for my little air conditioned space in which to sleep and re-energize myself.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Week One

I have settled in here in Fallujah and have begun getting into a work routine, it took a few nights to get my sleeping patterns corrected from the east coast but I am on track now. I am not sure I will get used to the blazing hot temperatures that exceed 110+ now in May, I am sure June, July and August will be like living in an inferno. I have started talking with a lot of people here in Camp Fallujah and I am amazed at the upbeat and confident attitude of the Marines here. The positive outlook towards Iraq as a whole and the turn around that is happening in the Al Anbar province are a few of the topics I have discussed. I have spent a couple of days reading reports and reviewing data and contrasting how this area was a year ago and the significant changes that are taking place currently. The IP (Iraqi Police) and the IA (Iraqi Army) are growing monthly with new recruits something that was unheard of a year ago. This is a key to the Iraqi people eventually taking over from us. In my limited time here reading and talking to Marines there seems to be progress being made that I do not remember reading about in the Washington Post or seeing on CNN with regard to the Al Anbar Province. A different perspective when one is no kidding boots on the ground.

I have also begun doing interviews which is my primary focus here from a historical perspective. It feels good to begin working and doing what I was sent here for. I have also tried to take each day and remember it, what it is like to be here right now, observing the Marines and Soldiers around me, hearing the artillery, gunfire and helo's at night, the heat and smell. I had forgotten about the camaraderie and closeness that exists in Marine Corps units and how that is amplified more so while deployed and especially in combat. It brings back a lot of memories for me of Marines that I served with years ago and how tight we were and in some cases still are. The glue that binds those friendships was made many miles from our homes when we relied on each other to get through. America should be very proud of her young men and women out here doing a very difficult job under very demanding conditions. Take a moment this memorial day weekend and remember them far away from their homes and loved ones doing a job that few would do. The dedication of these Marines is inspiring for most working 14-18 hour days is common. Many of these same Marines risking their lives everyday to complete a very difficult mission. Keep them in your prayers.

Monday I am headed to the big air base of Al Asad to spent a week with the Air Wing and start collecting the aviation stories of this war. It will be good to go to the Wing as that is my back ground and I feel like the prodigal son returning. It will be good for me to stand on a flight line once again and hear the sound of Marine aircraft overhead.

Many thanks to those back home for offers of anything I need here, you would be surprised at all the care packages that are here, the overwhelming support of the good people of the United States is most appreciated here. These little acts of kindness show folks here they are not forgotten and people care about them.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Destination Camp Fallujah

The first thing that hit me was the hot rotor wash of the CH-46 as I walked in the ink black darkness towards my final flight of a very long day to take me to my new home. In the darkness I followed the crew chief into the back end of the helo and threw down the heavy pack and sea bag I had been carrying all day, with a flack jacket and helmet on, I was drenched in sweat. Four Marines in flack vests helmets and weapons joined me as we took our seats and sat quietly. We were a group of two CH-46's outbound from TQ airbase where I had arrived earlier in the day from Kuwait via our good Friends in the Air Force on a crowded C-130 of mostly Army folks headed "In-country".

We took flight and the cool breeze from the rear of the helo and the open doors of the door gunners felt great after sweating it out on the ground, several minutes later the door gunner's released the safety on their weapons with a clank and reality was here, I was flying over Iraq as a Marine fully suited up with my TO weapon as an officer of a 9mm pistol strapped to my right thigh, I could feel my heart race I was finally here after the long weeks of Quantico, I was no kidding on the final leg to Fallujah. A Marine in a combat zone.

We touched down in complete darkness again and grabbing my gear I stepped out the back of the helo into the black void of a dark moonless night, I noticed a light off to my right and walked towards it. I was greeted by a Marine Corporal who plainly stated "ID Card sir" I was here.

Once I was checked in as arriving, I was greeted by my new friends here from the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned (MCCLL) who helped me with my gear and got me billeting for the night and a much needed and enjoyed shower.

I will spent the next couple of days getting setup here and learning the In's and out's of life here in FOB Fallujah.

In typical USMC fashion I was greeted the whole leg of this trip by Marines at every stop, from my arrival at Kuwait International Airport where I was greeted by and driven to Ali Al Salem by a Gysgt and SSgt. At TQ a CWO-5 greeted me and got me food, water and down time in some much needed A/C as the temp hovered around 100 degrees. At Fallujah once again I was expected. The quote that "Marines take care of their own" is very much alive and well here in theater.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Departure


Well all the shots have been received, I stopped counting when I hit seven. The equipment issued and the good byes in person and on the phone completed. I have my orders and a flight departing Washington Dulles this Thursday 17 May direct to Kuwait. I should be in my summer home of Fallujah by Monday the 21st if all goes well. My thanks to the efforts of some great Marines here in Quantico and in Iraq in getting my orders and travel in order, their support has been outstanding.

I plan to spend Wed and Thur with my family and then we will all drive to the airport together and have dinner with more friends and family close to Dulles.

It is hard to put into words all the thoughts and emotions I have right now, I am anxious to be on my way and begin this mission but I know I will also greatly miss my family. I also know that I am doing nothing that thousands of others have not done already and I know it is now my turn. This is a small sacrifice in the big scheme of things. The sacrifices of those who are serving longer deployments and in several cases second or third deployments far outweighs my small piece.

I am amazed by the overwhelming support my family has received it is tremendous, and I appreciate every ones kind words and offers of support while I am away.

The picture above is of all my combat gear laid out on the floor of my garage as I looked and planned at how to arrange items on my flack jacket for the best access... I am sure that will change once I start working "For Real" next week.

My next entry will be from in-country and starting my final mission.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Checking In




Midway through week 2 and I am hopefully nearing completion of checking in. I had to return to medical today for 3 more shots, I think I have been immunized for all known diseases to man. I have also had my eyes checked and all my teeth cleaned...Must be healthy to go forward. I have drawn my personal gear such as a laptop, digital recorder, camera and all the tools I will need as a field historian to capture the words and pictures of Marines at war. I will draw combat gear such as helmet, flack jacket etc.. . tomorrow and pickup my pistol when I get to Kuwait. Currently I am doing the mental preparations of what will be expected of me, and how I will operate once in country. I have been in email contact with members of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (2nd MAW) and with the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned (MCCLL) detachment in my future summer home of Fullujah. In both cases they are expecting me and I have established communication which will make my arrival run smoother. I am getting anxious to move forward as I want to start this mission and begin my journey. I will be back home in Southern Maryland this weekend and it may be my last weekend before departing.

I have been slowly letting go of work related issues as I narrow my focus on the job ahead and making sure my wife and daughter are prepared for my departure. My objectives are becoming clearer as I get closer to leaving and begin to look at only what is in front of me and I begin to release the outside responsibilities of everyday civilian life and move mentally to a place I had long forgotten about. The memories remain and are brought back to life of previous deployments as a young man to foreign lands in a couple of cases for a year or more while wearing a Marine uniform. The mental preparation of leaving family and friends for an extended period of time and going into a combat zone requires some mental gymnastics and it helps to have the experience of previous deployments in your personal toolbox. I hope my next entry will let you all know that I have a departure date and have begun heading eastward from Quantico. For those who have been to Quantico you will recognize the pictures above. Liversedge is the Officer and SNCO bachelor housing and the History division sign in my unit. The Officer Candidate School (OCS) trails is where I am running to get myself in shape for what is ahead, I remember running these same hills as a Cpl in 1987 going through NCO school, although they seem much steeper and longer now.