Saturday, April 26, 2008

Paint by Numbers

April 25, 2008

Soldiers in Iraq are called upon to do some pretty thrilling things. All of the dangerous, exciting stuff—dropping from the sky, raiding buildings, chasing bad guys—that is what they trained for. And maybe even what they signed up for. That is the stuff they look forward to. But most of the tasks soldiers are called upon to carry out are not dangerous or exciting, not the stuff of Go Army commercials.
Sergeant Jonathan Fondow settles claims. Although he may spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, Sergeant Fondow has a deep and unique understanding of the consequences of war. As a member of the JAG (Judge Advocate General) office, Sergeant Fondow works with soldiers, providing them with assistance in legal matters, but he also spends one day a week working with the Iraqi people, processing their claims. He meets the Iraqis at a building called the CMOC (Civil Military Operations Center) at Anaconda, a large base in Balad. He listens patiently to their stories, and treats everyone with respect and courtesy.
The nature of the claims varies. Some people come to the CMOC because a member of their family has been injured or killed as the result of American operations. A condolence payment of $2500 for the death of a relative will be awarded to a family if the claim is approved. The rules and regulations governing the claims process are complicated, and do nothing to explain why a life is valued at $2500, but the 101st Airborne Division does what it can within these parameters to help the Iraqi people.
One visitor to the CMOC had been approved for a condolence payment, and she was given a specific day to come back to receive it. All payments are made in cash. Two other claimants were seeking compensation for damage done to their homes during combat operations. Sergeant Fondow cannot just take their word for what has happened. He has to conduct an investigation, which includes determining whether or not Americans were working on that day, in that area. This is not easy to do, and sometimes claims are filed months, even years, after events happen. It would be tempting to deny these claims immediately, but Sergeant Fondow gently persists with questions that often unearth details that make a claim easier to substantiate. Both homeowners remembered that the Americans had detained their neighbors, an odd coincidence, but, with the names of the detainees, it would be much easier to prove that American forces were in the area.
Paying Iraqis for losses or damages that occur while we are fighting a war against their bad guys may seem strange, even wrong. But the philosophy of the soldiers who work at the CMOC is that this is a relatively small group of people, and the payments, in the scheme of things, are also relatively small. By meeting with people, the soldiers are building goodwill. Even those whose claims are denied feel better knowing that they were heard by the Americans.
Lieutenant Brian Reynolds counts people. He does a lot of other things too, but one of his missions is to conduct a census of the people living in the area the HHB (Headquarters and Headquarters Battery) of the 2-320 Battalion is responsible for. There is something quaint about a group of soldiers wandering door-to-door, avoiding angry, barking dogs, the lieutenant shuffling through forms on his clipboard, all so they can collect data.
In addition to learning how many people live in each house, Lieutenant Reynolds gathers information about how basic needs are met. Electricity is only available for part of the day. Water is fetched from the canal. Fuel is usually bought on the black market. Some families have no phone or car. This is the simple life.
The most complicated aspect of census-taking is, it turns out, turning down offers of hospitality. If every offer of lunch had been accepted, the soldiers would have enjoyed several meals, but with the temperature already over one hundred degrees, and the desire to finish the task pushing everyone forward, most offers were politely declined. Iraqis are very serious when it comes to sharing their food and opening up their homes. They had a hard time taking no for an answer.
It began to seem unfortunate that the soldiers couldn’t stop what they were doing, fan out all over the village, and break bread with all of these generous people. But they are soldiers first, diplomats second. A very close second. They can’t let down their guard because it is always possible someone is watching, waiting for an opportunity.
At one of the homes the soldiers entered, most of the family was present but one of several brothers went to collect another from his shop. The soldiers knew this man when he walked in the room. They considered him a terrorist. Did he know how the soldiers felt about him? Did his family know about his reputation? He joined his family in trying to persuade the soldiers to stay for lunch. Would having lunch with him have changed anything?
A civilized and meaningful interaction with an Iraqi citizen, whether it is a widow filing a claim, or a farmer reciting the number of people in his family, has to be considered a small victory. An Iraqi who has had a positive experience with the Americans is an Iraqi who might think twice about turning a blind eye to insurgent activity.
Sergeant Jonathan Fondow and Lieutenant Brian Reynolds, and all of the soldiers they work with, do their best to treat the Iraqis they encounter with courtesy, even if some of them might be terrorists, even if the task at hand is sometimes tiresome. They know everything counts. Everyone counts. The work they do, assigning numbers or values to people and events, may not be what they signed up for, but they are helping to paint a very detailed picture of Iraq today.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Three Days with Automatic

April 18, 2008
FOB (Forward Operating Base) O’Ryan is a small patrol base located a short distance from Anaconda, a very, very big base in Balad. Huge. But the soldiers staying at FOB O’Ryan know a lot more about the Iraqi people and its countryside than most of the soldiers at Anaconda ever will. A base doesn’t have to be big to have an impact, and the soldiers of Alpha Battery, also known as “Automatic,” of the 2-320 (“Balls”) Battalion, work hard and log a lot of miles in their humvees and MRAPs as they try to make a positive impact on the villages that they serve from FOB O’Ryan.
The territory Automatic covers is quite lush. Canals run through farmland, creating a landscape that suggests a calm and purposeful life, quite a contrast to the Iraq of the evening news. Of course, anything can happen anywhere in Iraq, and nothing is ever quite as it seems, but it did appear that the soldiers of Alpha Battery had crossed over to the sunny side of the street. Or maybe it was just that the temperature had climbed to over one hundred degrees.
Day One brought Lieutenant William Hale II and the Alpha Battery soldiers to the home of a sheik who was responsible for a Concerned Local Citizens (CLC) group, who in turn were responsible for operating checkpoints around their village. The soldiers had hoped the sheik would lead them to each of the checkpoints, so they could see if they were being properly managed. The sheik was not at home, but his brother and several of his workers were. The sheik’s brother offered to guide them to the checkpoints, but first the soldiers enjoyed a leisurely visit with the men.
The Iraqis gathered around the soldiers in the yard, and discussed the issues that concerned them, one of which was downed power lines. In Iraq, power lines hang low, and our MRAPs (Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected) ride high. MRAP antennas have taken down more than a few power lines. A soldier suggested they try to raise the power lines. There is no way to lower an MRAP.
Chai was served and pictures taken, and it seemed as though the meeting could have turned into a barbecue or a garden party celebrating the peace found in the shade of the sheik’s trees. The war seemed worlds away. But the soldiers can never relax for too long, and after the chai glasses had been emptied, the convoy was back on the road, following a small white pickup truck on a tour of the checkpoints.
Each of the checkpoints was properly manned and functioning efficiently, which served to increase the soldiers’ faith in the CLC’s ability to do its job, and decrease the threat of violence to the village. The soldiers still felt responsible for the Iraqis, however, and had brought water and packaged meals to distribute among the CLC workers.
Day Two consisted of another peaceful and meandering drive through the countryside. The soldiers were paying a visit to a village they had not been to before, and the convoy pulled up in front of the largest house in the area, knowing this would be the home of the local sheik. Lieutenant Brian Reynolds and Sergeant Carl Pulver sat across from the sheik under the ceiling fans of his large tiled living room, and Lieutenant Reynolds asked him a series of questions designed to help assess the needs of the village.
It became apparent from the sheik’s answers to these questions that the village was quite self sufficient. The sheik explained that the village tried to fund and complete projects on its own, having little faith that the city council would step in to help, and he also seemed reluctant to request any help from the Americans, which was unusual.
Lieutenant Reynolds assured the sheik he could speak honestly, fearing he might only be saying what he thought we wanted to hear, and he tried to joke with the sheik to show that he could breathe easy. The lieutenant suggested the spacious living room might be a good location for a ping pong table, and the sheik smiled. He was unflappable. When the lieutenant asked his interpreter to tell the sheik he didn’t seem like a person who liked to joke around, the interpreter said, “I’m not going to tell him that. He’s a sheik.”
But there was a twinkle in the sheik’s eye, and maybe his steady demeanor came from knowing he had it all figured out. His village was a mix of Sunni and Shia, and he said everyone got along, that, in fact, two of his wives were Sunni, though he was a Shia. He had vineyards where four kinds of grapes grew, and a gravel business that provided gravel to Anaconda, our enormous military base. There’s nothing an American military base loves more than gravel. He did have it all figured out.
Day Three revealed that all villages are not created equal. Lieutenant Reynolds and his soldiers visited another village, this time on a humanitarian mission. The soldiers had filled an MRAP with clothing and toys and other treats which they gave out to several families that quickly assembled around the truck. These families had fled their own village to escape the threat of violence connected with insurgent activity.
It was hard to tell how much their flight had cost them. Most had probably lived in simple mud and straw huts with few possessions, but home is home. The gifts from the soldiers brightened their day, but what would tomorrow bring? With time, perhaps these displaced families will be able to make their way back home. They may be able to help the soldiers identify the insurgents in their village. The soldiers would love to increase the peace, and, in Iraq, this is done one day at a time, one village at a time.
FOB O’Ryan has none of the amenities of a big base like Anaconda. In fact, every day the soldiers of G Company, a support company, have to make trips from Anaconda to FOB O’Ryan so the soldiers of Alpha Battery have what they need in order to do their job. This is a lot of work for G Company. But it is important work. It is important to support a patrol base like O’Ryan because it provides support to villages that might otherwise be overlooked. Villages that need our help and villages that don’t.
Alpha Battery works hard every day to try to help the residents of each village they visit feel safe and secure. They don’t get to dive in a pool at the end of a hot day, or go to a movie, like the soldiers who live at Anaconda do, but they do get to enjoy the feeling of building relationships. The people of each village they visit will always welcome them back, and that must feel pretty good.