Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The 56 MPs, The IPs, and a TV

December 26, 2007

The 56th Military Police Company, the 56 MPs, are a reserve unit attached to the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade, and they are here in Tikrit to work with the Iraqi police, the IPs, helping them to establish themselves as the law--the law as we know it, which is very different from the law the Iraqis came to know under Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship.
If our police force is the thin blue line, then the Iraqi police force is at best a dotted line, not always blue, and sometimes the dots disappear. It is not easy being a cop in Iraq. Anyone who watches the news knows Iraqi police are targets. Knowing the risks, anyone who sets out to be a good Iraqi cop must be very brave, possibly crazy. Some do set out to be good cops; some set out to be bad cops, which requires less courage, but the pay is the same. The 56 MPs have to deal with the good, the bad, and, perhaps the most dangerous group, the ones who haven’t decided which group they belong to yet.
The stakes are high. If the IPs can do their job honestly and consistently, they will earn the trust of the people, and the insurgents will not be able to move about as easily, the terrorists will have a harder time finding willing recruits. By containing these hostile elements, the police will make Tikrit safer for themselves, for the Iraqi people, and for our soldiers. Until then, when IEDs explode on routes our convoys travel, the IPs are in some way responsible. These are their streets.
Developing a dedicated police force in a struggling, divided country is nearly impossible. But it may be some of the most essential work going on in Iraq today. And there are always a few duty-bound individuals at every police station who seem willing to carry more than their share of the burden for the sake of the greater good. These men have earned the respect and admiration of the MPs, who in turn try to do everything they can to support them.
It is winter in Tikrit. The MPs, most of whom are from Arizona, where their unit is based and where the climate is not unlike the climate here, are concerned that the police district headquarters and the six stations that fall under its jurisdiction are not heated. The temperature can drop to below freezing at night, and it doesn’t always warm up during the day. Imagine American cops working in a station without heat. Now take away their gear. Weapons are hard to come by here, as are uniforms, sturdy boots, coats. One soldier, Shawn Peterson, has taken it upon himself to collect extra pairs of boots from soldiers and distribute these among the IPs. It doesn’t seem right that these men should have to live with the fear of being targets and be uncomfortable and ill-equipped to protect themselves too.
During a visit to the district headquarters, MPs Shawn Peterson and Danny Schrader set up shop in a vacant room, one which luckily had a space heater, where they took information on each of the nine prisoners being held at the headquarters’ jail. Each prisoner was brought into the room individually. His date of birth, height and weight, and his crime, were recorded, and then Shawn used biometric equipment to scan each prisoner’s eyes, take his fingerprints, and photograph his face.
There was also a television in the room, the Iraqis love TV, and it was tuned in to So You Think You Can Dance, with the sound turned down, but Arabic sub-titles made it possible for the cops to follow the action. I wondered how we would ever earn the respect of the Iraqi people if this was the sort of programming we were exporting. At the same time, I was hypnotized by all of the dancing, and I had to force myself to pay attention to the activity in the room. On the TV, the dancers occasionally addressed the camera, their faces full of emotion, as if trying to convince the world they really could dance. Meanwhile, in the chilly, smoke-filled police station, a series of prisoners, guilty of everything from missed car payments to forgery to murder, stepped into the room and addressed our camera. But there was no dancing. A commercial came on with highlights from an upcoming Dr. Phil, who was devoting an hour to the struggles and triumphs of a set of blind and deaf triplets.
The atmosphere at any IP station is never as serious or grave as one might expect, and thanks to American television, there will always be a touch of the absurd. The IPs are probably a pretty accurate reflection of the Iraqi people in general. They are tired and frustrated, cold and scared, handicapped by a lack of resources, and some are interested only in protecting themselves, serving their own interests.
Would anyone want to trade places with any Iraqi cop, good or bad, even for a day? It is hard to blame them, then, for turning on the TV and getting lost in a world where dancing well is all that matters. The MPs understand. And they know that proper training and equipment are vital if a police force is to succeed. So they allow the IPs their TV breaks, but they never lose sight of the work that remains to be done, and they will continue working closely with the IPs, both the MPs and the IPs fully aware that changing the situation in the city is not as easy as changing the channel on the TV.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Power of Dust

December 20, 2007

If you were going to put one battalion in your Rolodex, you might want to make it the Special Troops Battalion (STB). Also known as the Spartans, STB is a versatile and handy battalion. I accompanied their team of engineers on a trip to Samarra, where their assignment was to check the train tracks for barriers, and the berm for breaches.
Both missions required the use of some heavy equipment, so I piled into the Buffalo with Jerimy Burr, Ryan Garrity, David Ryan and Eugene Stonehouse, and we were joined by two tractor trailers, one hauling a bucket loader, the other a bulldozer. Together with our 2nd Battalion escorts, a convoy sent up from Brassfield-Mora, the base in Samarra, we made an impressive display of brute strength as we rumbled down the road. Until one of the trucks started to lose power and we had to slow it down to twenty, then fifteen, then ten miles per hour. And then we became slightly less impressive still when the truck had to be pulled by the very bucket loader it was meant to be hauling. But still, we made a lot of noise. The Buffalo, which sported enormous tires and was much more spacious than a humvee, did not win any awards in the smooth ride department.
By the time we arrived in Samarra, and traded our Charlie Company escorts for a convoy from Delta Company, the sun was going down, and it felt as though we had been bouncing around inside the Buffalo for days. The train tracks had not been used since the war began, and the idea was to clear the tracks so trains could begin running again. We went to the location where a barrier had allegedly been spotted, but the Delta Company soldiers could find nothing as they drove up and down the tracks. It didn’t make sense to continue searching in the dark, so we headed back to Brassfield-Mora for the night, where it was rumored I would be housed in the VIP trailer.
The VIP trailer! I pictured a spotless room with a bed that wasn’t half of a bunk bed, a basket of delicious snacks, a bottle of something bubbly, a bag of the latest beauty products, which I would not know what to do with, and a private bathroom. No staggering around in the dark looking for a female latrine. No walking into a male latrine by accident. My very own bathroom. Finally, I was being rewarded for my efforts. Getting the treatment I deserved.
Almost completely hidden with sandbags, the trailer was nicely set apart from the rows that housed the regular people. The door stuck, but I brushed that detail aside. Two soldiers, my hosts, and I entered the room. While it was not going to pass a white glove inspection, there was a cooler on the floor which was no doubt filled with lovely beverages. But I was in search of the private bath. There it was--set between the first VIP bedroom and a second, empty now as I was the only VIP present-- a shower stall, and a….well, there was a pipe sticking out of the floor where the toilet was meant to be, and in a wall another pipe with no sink attached to it. There was a lot missing from the scene. Still, I was excited to be in a somewhat cozy trailer, excited to relax at the end of a very long day inside the Buffalo.
Once alone, I went right to the shower, reaching out to turn on the water, anxious to soothe my aching muscles. Reaching out. But where were the taps? Where was the shower head? “Hey guys,” I shouted, “There are no fixtures. Where’s the water?” No reply. They had fled the scene. Leaving me with a bad case of helmet hair and no idea where the female facilities were. If there were any.
I set out with my toiletries and a tiny flashlight. The base was dark, very dark. And quiet. I saw no buildings that looked like latrines, male or female. Just the portable stalls that spring up all over every base. Fine in a pinch, but I was a VIP. I walked down a long path between rows of housing. None of the regular people were awake, apparently, so there was no one to guide me. Unlike Speicher, where there is no possibility of wandering off the base, I thought I probably could accidentally wander off this one. That didn’t seem like a good idea, so I turned around. I made a quick stop at the portable toilet, and then patiently rocked the door of the VIP trailer back and forth until it finally popped open and let me in.
The next morning, I ran into Jerimy Burr and Ryan Garrity at the DFAC (dining facility). They looked tired. Ryan said their trailer had not had any heat. They had definitely not received the VIP treatment, which I was beginning to think was overrated anyway. It would be another long day.
We met up with the Delta Company guys and headed back out to the train tracks. This time there was actually a barrier where there was supposed to be one, so the heavy equipment was put to use. Now the tracks were clear and it was time to see to the berm.
The berm was a dirt wall that the engineers had built around the city of Samarra to force all traffic coming and going to pass through checkpoints where each vehicle would be searched by Iraqi guards, thus curbing insurgent activity.
There were breaches in the berm. One had clearly been created to allow vehicles to pass through, but the others looked like areas that had been worn away by foot traffic. Nevertheless, the bucket loader and bulldozer were fired up, and seconds later clouds of dust engulfed the area.
The berm appeared to be made more of dust than dirt. Half of what the loader lifted seemed to blow away. It was strange to think that something as difficult to contain as dust could be used to contain a city. But, except for a few breaches, the berm seemed to be working. The markets in the city were busier. The residents felt safer.
How much dust would it take to make the whole country safer? I think there might be enough here. And the engineers from the Special Troops Battalion would be the men to move it. But if I am going to be invited to watch, I am going to need a shower.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

COB Speicher: First Impressions

December 13, 2007

I am here in Tikrit at COB (Contingency Operating Base) Speicher, and my worst fears have been confirmed. There are even fancier bases than FOB (Forward Operating Base) Warrior in Kirkuk, where I spent 4 ½ months last year, and this is one of them. Not that I wanted to rough it, but I wanted to believe I could rough it. Oh, and yes, there is still a war going on; peace has not broken out everywhere. Things are actually heating up around here, courtesy of the surge.
But it is hard to believe anything is happening anywhere when I am nestled in my trailer, which is bigger than my bedroom back at home in New York, and it’s wired for cable. During the day, the sun still burns and the air conditioner cancels out the sounds of any blasts or explosions that might be occurring in the city. At night it quickly turns chilly, and the air conditioner becomes a heater.
There are two full service dining facilities, a thirty minute bus ride apart from each other, and each has enough choices to make just about anyone happy. Even I, who complain about food as if it’s my job, have a hard time complaining about the food here. They do overcook the vegetables, though. And my personal pizza could have been a little hotter.
I have yet to leave the base, but I think that will change soon. I hope so. It is a strange feeling to be so comfortable in my trailer and so completely ignorant of conditions outside the base. It feels wrong. And I know some of the guys from the 101st Airborne Division whom I met in Kirkuk last year are here this year. They are spread out from Bayji down to Samarra, with Tikrit falling in the middle, and it sounds as though they are having a tougher time this deployment, facing greater risks, many doing without the luxuries we are afforded here at Speicher.
Big bases like Warrior and Speicher seem proof that we are going to be here a long time. With all of their amenities, I think we are meant to believe this isn’t so bad. There is a Pizza Hut, a Taco Bell and a Subway near the PX. Soldiers can have television and Internet service in their rooms if they want to pay for it. In some ways this is a war unlike any other, a war that may be remembered (or forgotten) by the quality of its distractions.
But in spite of the upgrades to the living conditions that make it seem unlikely anyone would be fighting anywhere, there are reminders everywhere of what we are here for. Soldiers carry their weapons with them wherever they go, keeping them near while they order a custom stir-fry at the dining hall or check their e-mail at the MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) facility. They will rarely be called upon to fire these weapons. It is not that kind of war. In addition to the ever present guns, are the sand-colored humvees that lurk in the parking lots and stir up clouds of dust when they rumble by, though for all of their bulk, they are often no match for the IEDs that have wounded or killed so many of our soldiers.
It is appallingly easy to start a war, but the amount of time, energy, and resources required to maintain a convincing presence in a war zone is staggering. It costs money to destroy a country; it costs money to rebuild it. And we are paying for both. Periods of calm create hope and optimism, but I see evidence of construction and improvements being made here at Speicher, and to me the sound of a bulldozer is not always the sound of progress, but simply the sound of digging in deeper.