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


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


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


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