Friday, April 11, 2008

Balls in Balad

April 11, 2008

Task Force 2-320, aka “Balls,” a Field Artillery Battalion stationed in Balad, is full of experienced soldiers who have been to Iraq before and know how much things have changed and how much they have stayed the same.
During their last deployment, the soldiers of the 2-320 were in Kirkuk where they were responsible for, among other things, keeping the Northern Oil Company (the NOC) secure. Needless to say, the NOC is very important to Kirkuk, very important to Iraq, so protecting it, working with Iraqi security forces to ensure its operations would not be interrupted, was essential work, if perhaps a little boring.
Nowadays oil is not what Balls is about. In fact, water is more likely to be the topic of conversation. Water and a host of other issues, including, of course, bad guys. And sometimes bad guys and water, bad water. But change is good, right? Keeps it interesting, doesn’t it? Sure.
This time around the soldiers are focusing on protecting the people. From themselves, each other, and their dirty water. All in a day’s work. And one of these days began with a city council meeting.
The Ad Dujayl City Council had apparently decided to meet to discuss everything and nothing. With no agenda, it was difficult to determine whether or not anything was accomplished, which was probably why there was no agenda.
One of the men present in the room was rumored to be a terrorist. He sat close to the city’s leaders, who didn’t seem bothered by his presence, nor he theirs. Like the chief of police, who sat across the room from him, the man appeared to be struggling to stay awake.
In an attempt to prevent the meeting from turning into a complete waste of time, a doctor mentioned that he had discovered one of the shops in the city was selling a powdered juice mix which he said was cancer-causing. Until the water situation in the area is resolved, it is probably not a good idea to use juice mixes anyway.
The water issue is an ongoing problem throughout Iraq. Even though there are water treatment facilities in many villages and towns, many have fallen into disrepair, so they sit idle and the population struggles to gain access to clean water. One of the councilmen, in a private meeting after the city council meeting, told Captain Doug Houston that the Iraqis felt since the Americans had installed some of these water treatment plants, it was up to the Americans to maintain them. Captain Houston thought otherwise. The reluctance on the part of the Iraqis to take responsibility for anything beyond their personal survival is another ongoing problem.
After the less than satisfactory meeting, the convoy headed into the farmland to pay a visit to a pair of brothers. One, an imam at a nearby mosque, has a good relationship with the Americans. His brother, who also appeared cooperative, is suspected of working against the Americans, and Captain Houston warned him that there was a case building against him. While the imam sat quietly, the accused brother, who is a teacher by day, recited his work schedule as if to say he had no time to be bad. A third brother had already been arrested by the Americans.
Captain Houston urged the brother with the full schedule to keep it filled with teaching and farming. His brother the imam was clearly listening to the conversation but kept his thoughts to himself. How well did these brothers know each other? Iraqi families are generally very close-knit, but is it possible for them to be close while at the same time maintaining very different agendas? And could those agendas change? Was a warning from Captain Houston enough to persuade the wayward brother to be content making an honest living? What was he teaching his students?
Many Iraqis are not entirely good, but they’re not entirely bad either. This goes for people everywhere, but in Iraq the stakes are higher so it becomes important to know just how bad a person is capable of becoming. It is also important to figure out what motivates a person. A man who has no job and a family to support could turn bad simply because he needs money. A man with a teaching job and a farm to work might not care as much about the financial rewards that come with joining the bad guys; his motivation might come from a different place, a more complicated place, which makes him more difficult to reach.
In some ways the last deployment was simpler for the soldiers of the 2-320. For one thing, that was a twelve month deployment, and this is scheduled to be a fifteen month deployment, so mentally it is harder to stay engaged in the struggle here. It is harder to keep up with life at home.
This deployment is also more challenging because although the city and the streets have changed, the obstacles remain the same. Of course it takes time to build a working relationship with a population that is used to life under a dictator, but the soldiers are asked to give an awful lot of their time, and they would like to see more change, to know that their time has not been wasted. After all, this is time they will never get back.

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