Monday, December 18, 2006

June, 2004: Four Months into Iraq Tour

As I get ready to return to active duty, I wanted to look back at my 2004 tour in Iraq. During my first two mobilizations (stateside in 2003 and Iraq in 2004), I kept a detailed “War Journal”. I entered Iraq on February 4, 2004 with my team, the C.O.B.R.A. Team, but by June we had seen enough that I began to write a series of op-ed pieces for the Orlando Sentinel from my post in Baghdad.

The following is the first of those articles and, considering the status of the war today, it is interesting to see how some things haven’t changed:

Orlando Sentinel Op-ed Page of June 21, 2004

Baghdad - After five months in this part of the world, I have learned much about the Iraqi people, this war and the Americans participating in it. With insurgent activity increasing in this area, including more car bombs and rocket or mortar attacks, it is time to reflect on some of this.

For the most part, American soldiers come to Iraq with high spirits and a sense of purpose. They are anxious, as soldiers have always been, to make a difference. What they find when they arrive is a country torn in many pieces: Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and others. They eventually discover that, individually, they can make small differences; collectively, they will make a big difference. (It’s kind of like being a cop.)

What surprises most soldiers is the wide spectrum of Iraqi opinions about their presence. They are greeted warmly by many Iraqis only to see news reports of other Iraqis dancing happily around the bodies of dead Americans. As they drive their convoys throughout the country, Iraqi citizens may wave happily, shoot them the finger, scowl angrily at them or ignore them on purpose.

As in past wars, it becomes difficult to tell friend from foe. The man smiling at you as you drive out of the Green Zone in Baghdad may have a cell phone to call his friends who are up the road planting an improvised explosive device or setting an ambush. Your convoy will pass hundreds of cars on the highway filled with Iraqi citizens. As you drive by each one, you must look at their faces, read their eyes and try to make sure they don’t have AK-47s in their laps. Soldiers must aim their weapons at each vehicle that passes, just in case.

After all, the convoys that are less likely to be attacked are the ones with soldiers who appear ready to fight, even aggressive. Those Iraqis who stare hard at soldiers are met with and equally intense stare, eyeballs meeting eyeballs. The unspoken words are, “Go ahead pal, try me…” This technique does not work, however, for roadside bombs detonated by remote control.

Unfortunately, sometimes the bad guys succeed. This enemy is not only aggressive, but capable. Hundreds of thousands of Saddam Hussein’s soldiers faded into the cities when we came. Many are highly trained commandos and explosives experts. Add the unknown number of foreign “holy warriors” who have come to Iraq to fight us and the men with their own agendas, like Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the task before American warriors is a dangerous challenge each and every day.

When not performing combat missions, it is possible to reflect on this place called Iraq. A simple 21st –century soldier looks upon a land that was Mesopotamia until World War I. He is reminded that the cradle of civilization is here and that places like Babylon and the Garden of Eden are here. The battlefields where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ancient warriors faced off, are here.

I will certainly remember those Iraqis who have made an impression on me: from our friend Zack who endures threats on his life to work for the Americans to the old Iraqi woman who came up to us the other day crying because her sick baby died.

The next hurdle for us will be the days running up to the turnover of authority and the weeks that follow. Army officials have publicly predicted a major insurgent attack of some kind so we keep listening for the familiar sound of the bomb or rocket. In fact, we woke up this morning to the sounds of half a dozen rockets and/or mortars impacting a few hundred meters away from our house.

I continue to appreciate the support I have received from all of you. My soldiers are also getting a lot of support from their communities and their employers. I cannot adequately express our gratitude.

We are determined to finish our mission to the best of our ability. We will not disappoint you.

SFC Chuck Grist
Baghdad, Iraq

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