Friday, May 2, 2008

A Full Day (Even Without Lunch)

May 2, 2008

FOB (Forward Operating Base) Paliwoda is located in Balad, in an area that has seen its share of trouble but has recently been working towards a kind of calm. This doesn’t mean all of the bad guys are gone, but, thanks to the work of the 1st Squadron 32nd Cavalry Regiment and the increased efforts of the local population, the good guys are gaining ground.
The 1-32’s Bravo Troop gets around. In a country where no one appears to be burdened by a great sense of urgency, Lieutenant James Blackburn and his soldiers must seem strange, running all over the place, trying to get things done.
In one day, spent in a town called Ad Duluiyah, Bravo Troop and their interpreter visited two gas stations, two schools, several local businesses, a sheik, an Iraqi police station, where some cops were asked to join us on our patrol, a gravel pit, a canal, and a home, where they were almost served lunch but there were not enough hours in the day.
The soldiers will be visiting gas stations until the fuel situation in Iraq is sorted out. So possibly forever. The purpose of these visits is to see if the stations have fuel, and if they are selling it at the price set by the government, which is very difficult to determine without watching individual sales. The results were mixed. The first station was open; the second closed. A closed station can signify several things. The station owner might willingly allow his fuel to be diverted to the black market, or he might not be getting his fuel for reasons beyond his control. Lieutenant Blackburn urged the men managing the station to work harder to make sure their fuel deliveries arrived as they were supposed to. Black market products are harmful chiefly for two reasons: the profits may help finance terrorism, and the cost of black market fuel is higher, adding to the burden of people who are already struggling financially.
During the first of the school visits, the soldiers dropped off supplies, some of which were sent from a soldier’s family to be distributed among the children. The headmaster was grateful, but also took the opportunity to point out the condition of the building, which was dark and showed signs of deterioration, and also to ask for help improving the grounds around the building. Requests have a way of multiplying when the soldiers are around.
After leaving the school, the soldiers patrolled the business district. With the introduction of a CLC (Concerned Local Citizens), or SOI (Sons of Iraq) chapter, the business district is safer and there is increased traffic and development. New shops are being opened; new retail spaces are being created. Lieutenant Blackburn made note of the new additions and talked with the shopkeepers and workmen while his soldiers helped the SOI secure the area.
Lieutenant Blackburn also paid a call on a local sheik, and discussed their shared responsibilities, which included the school we had visited. While the sheik and the lieutenant talked, the medic of the squad was approached by a boy who was limping on a bandaged foot. The medic did what he could to treat the boy, and then it was on to the gravel pit.
The headmaster and Lieutenant Blackburn had decided the simplest and most affordable way to clean up the grounds around the school was to cover the hard dirt and worn grass with gravel. The gravel merchant saw the American soldiers and dollar signs shone in his eyes. The lieutenant had anticipated the possibility of being presented with an inflated price, and had come armed with numbers of his own. After a successful preliminary discussion, the convoy moved on to the second school.
The second school was very much like the first. The building was showing its age, the students making do with few supplies in stripped down classrooms. In addition, this school had no running water. Lieutenant Blackburn had reached an agreement with a local SOI member to repair the existing plumbing system. He had not finished the job, and both the lieutenant and the school leaders showed their exasperation.
The SOI member had also been hired to clean out a dry canal that had become a dumping ground for garbage. The lieutenant was working on getting a pump repaired so this canal could be filled with water, thus greatly improving the lives of the residents in the area. Some progress had been made, but, as with the project at the school, the job had not been completed.
Lieutenant Blackburn and his soldiers had been invited to lunch, and, with the business of the day taken care of to the extent that it could be, a local meal sounded good. The soldiers arranged to guard the trucks and our host’s house in shifts. Unfortunately, as soon as the lunch party had sat down in every available chair, as soon as PFC (Private First Class) Rick Fassett had settled himself on the living room floor, propped up with brightly colored pillows to help counter the weight of his body armor, the lieutenant was alerted to a scheduling problem. There was work to be done back at the base, so, after a quick apology and a promise to return the following day, the convoy returned to Paliwoda.
It took some time for the 1-32 soldiers and the Iraqi civilians to get acquainted, but now they understand each other better. There are still those who regard the Americans warily, but trust is building, and more progress is being made. The soldiers make every effort to deliver on their promises, and they are trying to persuade the Iraqis to do the same. The revitalized business district is proof that good things happen when Americans and Iraqis work together.
The residents of Ad Duluiayah have become used to the presence of American soldiers. They recognize the digital camouflage pattern of their uniforms, and they recognize that every twelve months or so a new group of soldiers will arrive to replace the old ones. They may not have realized right away that the soldiers of the 1-32, of the 101st Airborne Division, would be working so tirelessly on their behalf, but they know it now. And they are lucky enough to have them for fifteen months, instead of twelve.

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