Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mahdi Army Influence Weakened By the Surge

I've been busy at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but I'm glad to see all the reports about the improvements in Iraq because of the surge.

The following story was in the New York Times and it talks about the declining influence of Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army. Unfortunately, these fundamentalist Shiite militiamen will alway be in the shadows because they are supported, trained and financed by their Iranian mentors.

We will eventually draw down our troop levels in Iraq (as the Iraqi government is able to assume more responsibility), but we must keep our eyes on these thugs from Sadr City and be ready to swat them like flies should they re-emerge:

* * * *

New York Times
July 27, 2008
Pg. 1

Shiite Militia In Baghdad Sees Its Power Ebb

By Sabrina Tavernise

BAGHDAD — The militia that was once the biggest defender of poor Shiites in Iraq, the Mahdi Army, has been profoundly weakened in a number of neighborhoods across Baghdad, in an important, if tentative, milestone for stability in Iraq.

It is a remarkable change from years past, when the militia, led by the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, controlled a broad swath of Baghdad, including local governments and police forces. But its use of extortion and violence began alienating much of the Shiite population to the point that many quietly supported American military sweeps against the group.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki struck another blow this spring, when he led a military operation against it in Baghdad and in several southern cities.

The shift, if it holds, would solidify a transfer of power from Mr. Sadr, who had lorded his once broad political support over the government, to Mr. Maliki, who is increasingly seen as a true national leader.

It is part of a general decline in violence that is resonating in American as well as Iraqi politics: Senator John McCain argues that the advances in Iraq would have been impossible without the increase in American troops known as the surge, while Senator Barack Obama, who opposed the increase, says the security improvements should allow a faster withdrawal of combat troops.

The Mahdi Army’s decline also means that the Iraqi state, all but impotent in the early years of the war, has begun to act the part, taking over delivery of some services and control of some neighborhoods.

“The Iraqi government broke their branches and took down their tree,” said Abu Amjad, a civil servant who lives in the northern Baghdad district of Sadr City, once seen as an unbreachable stronghold for the group.

The change is showing up in the lives of ordinary people. The price of cooking gas is less than a fifth of what it was when the militia controlled local gas stations, and kerosene for heating has also become much less expensive. In interviews, 17 Iraqis, including municipal officials, gas station workers and residents, described a pattern in which the militia’s control over the local economy and public services had ebbed. Merchants say they no longer have to pay protection money to militiamen. In some cases, employees with allegiances to the militia have been fired or transferred. Despite the militia’s weakened state, none of the Iraqis interviewed agreed to have their full names published for fear of retribution.

In a further sign of weakness, Shiite tribes in several neighborhoods are asking for compensation from militia members’ families for past wrongs.

The changes are not irreversible. The security gains are in the hands of unseasoned Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints spread throughout Baghdad’s neighborhoods. And local government officials have barely begun to take hold of service distribution networks, potentially leaving a window for the militia to reassert itself.

The militia’s roots are still in the ground, Abu Amjad said, and “given any chance, they will grow again.”

A Criminal Enterprise

At the peak of the militia’s control last summer, it was involved at all levels of the local economy, taking money from gas stations, private minibus services, electric switching stations, food and clothing markets, ice factories, and even collecting rent from squatters in houses whose owners had been displaced. The four main gas stations in Sadr City were handing over a total of about $13,000 a day, according to a member of the local council.

“It’s almost like the old Mafia criminal days in the United States,” said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley, an Army engineer rebuilding Sadr City’s main market.

Um Hussein, a mother of 10 in Sadr City, the largest Shiite district in the capital and one of the poorest, said her family’s fuel bill had dropped so far that she could afford to buy one of her daughters a pair of earrings with the savings. Others interviewed listed simpler purchases that had now become possible: tomatoes, laundry detergent, gasoline.

One young man said that even though his house was right across from a distribution center that sold cooking gas, he was not allowed to buy it there at state prices, but instead was forced to wait for a militia-affiliated distributor who sold it at higher prices.

“We had to get our share of the cooking gas from Mahdi Army people,” Um Hussein said. “Now, everything is available. We are free to buy what we want.”

Before, the Mahdi Army controlled the 12 trucks that made daily deliveries of cooking gas canisters for the district, because the leader of the Sadr City district council, who was affiliated with the militia, was the one who handled the trucks’ documents.

“We had no idea when they were coming or where they were going,” the council member said, referring to the trucks.

Those who questioned the militia’s authority were dealt with harshly. A gas station worker from Kadhimiya recalled a man in his 60s being beaten badly for refusing to pay the inflated gas price last year. The Sadr City council member described his relationship with the militia by touching his hand to his face.

“I was kissing them here, here and here,” he said pointing to his right cheek, his left cheek and then his forehead.

A spokesman for the movement in Sadr City, Sayeed Jaleel al-Sarkhy, defended the Mahdi Army, saying in an interview that it was not a formal militia and denying the charges that it had taken control of local services. He said the militia had been infiltrated by criminals who used the name of the Mahdi Army as a cover.

The Mahdi Army is an army of believers,” he said. “It was established to serve the people.”

An employee in the Sadr City local government who oversees trash collectors — daily laborers whose salaries he said were controlled by the militia — said that had long stopped being true.

“I am sick all over,” he said. “I am blind. I’ve got a headache. I’ve got a toothache. My back hurts. All of this is from the Mahdi Army.”

Signs of Weakness

A month after Mr. Maliki’s military operation, strange things started to happen in Shuala, a vast expanse of concrete and sand-colored houses in northern Baghdad that was one of the Mahdi Army’s main strongholds. Militia members suddenly stopped showing up to collect money from the main gas station, a worker there said.

A member of the Shuala district council said: “They used to come and order us to give them 100 gas canisters. Now it’s, ‘Can you please give me a gas canister?’”

Then, several weeks later, 11 workers, guards and even a director, all state employees with ties to the militia, were transferred to other areas. Employees’ pictures were posted so American and Iraqi soldiers could identify impostors.

The Iraqi Army now occupies the militia’s old headquarters in Shuala. Soldiers set up 18 checkpoints around the neighborhood, including at the gas station. When the militia opened a new office, soldiers put a checkpoint there, too, said an Iraqi major from the unit based there. Iraqi soldiers recently distributed warning notices to families squatting in houses whose rent had been collected by the Mahdi Army until May.

In Sadr City, the authorities closed the militia’s radio station. The leader of the district council was arrested by the American military. Cooking gas delivery documents must now be approved by three officials, not just one, the council member said.

Another sign of weakness is the growing number of financial settlements between powerful Shiites and Mahdi Army members’ families over loved ones who were killed by the militia. In Topchi, a Shiite neighborhood in western Baghdad, a handwritten list of militia members’ names was taped up in the market this month, with the warning for their families to leave town. Several of their houses were attacked.

Some militia members’ families went to the local council to ask for help. They found none. Mahdi militiamen killed four local council members over several weeks last fall.

“I told them this isn’t good, they must not be blamed,” the council member said. Even so, “if your brother has been killed, this is the time for revenge.”

Now neighborhoods are breathing more freely. A hairdresser in Ameen, a militia-controlled neighborhood in southeast Baghdad, said her clients no longer had to cover their faces when they left her house wearing makeup. Minibuses ferrying commuters in Sadr City are no longer required to play religious songs, said Abu Amjad, the civil servant, and now play songs about love, some even sung by women.

“They lost everything,” said the Sadr City government employee. “The Sadr movement has no power now. There is no militia control.”

Lingering Fears

The Mahdi Army might be weak, but it is not gone.

Majid, a Sadr City resident who works in a government ministry, said several Iraqi Army officers in his area had to move their families to other neighborhoods after Mr. Maliki’s military operation because the militia threatened them. Bombs are still wounding and killing American soldiers in the district. And early this month, one Iraqi officer’s teenage son was kidnapped and killed, his body hung in a public place as a warning, said Majid, who gave only his first name because he feared reprisals.

“People are still afraid of the Mahdi Army,” he said. “You still get punished if you talk bad about them.”

While most of the Iraqi soldiers at the new checkpoints seem loyal to the government, others have sympathies closer to the militia. A friend of Majid’s was obliged to pay a steep tribal settlement, after telling an army patrol about his neighbor, a militia member. The patrol had been infiltrated and leaked the tip to the neighbor.

“They are still trying to influence things,” General Talley said, though his overall assessment was that their control was receding.

The shift comes at a crucial moment: Iraqis will vote in provincial elections in December. The weakening of the Sadrists in national politics clears the stage for the group’s most bitter rival — a Shiite party led by another cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. One of the party’s members, Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, a sheik and a member of Parliament, is arranging state aid for Sunni families willing to move back to Topchi.

The timing was not missed by the Sadr movement’s spokesman, who said the government had recently warned the group to vacate its office. He blames Mr. Hakim’s party for the attempts to marginalize his movement, whose members have also been targets of a political crackdown in southern Iraq.

“Some parties are occupying large buildings in Jadriya,” he said, referring indirectly to the headquarters of Mr. Hakim’s party. “That’s what makes us suspicious. Why only us?”

He added, “The main motive is to exclude the Sadr movement from politics.”
One indicator of whether the new gains will hold is whether local governments can truly fill the gap that the militia left and deliver services effectively and consistently.

General Talley said his unit had recently spent $34 million to help reconstruct a major market in Sadr City. But the district council has gotten bogged down in arguments over who has the right to disburse $100 million that Mr. Maliki promised Sadr City after the military operation. The district council was given 90 days to come up with projects. More than 30 days have passed and not one proposal has been submitted, council members said.

“To be honest with you, I find it very slow,” said Haidar al-Abadi, an adviser to Mr. Maliki who said that funds had been held back because militia-affiliated companies had gotten involved. “There’s a danger this slowness could backfire.”

The militia is painting its response on Sadr City walls: “We will be back, after this break.”

The Iraqi Army is painting over it.

Reporting was contributed by Mohammed Hussein, Tareq Maher, Campbell Robertson, Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Alissa J. Rubin.

* * * *

Great article; surprised it was in the New York Times....

Charles M. Grist

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Iraqis Want a Timetable for Troop Withdrawal

It was only last month that I posted my feelings about why the Iraqis will never permit us to maintain military forces in Iraq over the long term: (

The following article was in today's Washington Post:

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Washington Post
July 8, 2008
Pg. 1

Maliki Suggests U.S. Troop Timetable

Iraqi Premier's Remarks Reflect Political Plight

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Karen DeYoung, Washington Post Foreign Service

BAGHDAD, July 7 -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has for the first time suggested establishing a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, a step that the Bush administration has long opposed.

Maliki raised the idea Monday during a visit to the United Arab Emirates, where he spoke with Arab ambassadors about a security pact being negotiated to determine the future U.S. military role in Iraq.

"The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal," Maliki said, according to a statement released by his office. "In all cases, the basis for any agreement will be respect for the full sovereignty of Iraq."

The comments reflect the political dilemma confronting Maliki and other members of his Shiite-led government. Their primary rival in upcoming provincial elections, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is a leading critic of the American presence who has long called for a timetable, a position that is widely popular among Iraq's majority Shiites.

The talks on the security pact have also raised concerns across the Iraqi political spectrum -- and the broader Arab world -- about preserving Iraq's sovereignty and preventing a long-term American presence. Framing the agreement as a memorandum of understanding, possibly including a timetable, may make it more politically palatable, analysts said.

Nasar al-Rubaie, a senior Sadrist lawmaker, welcomed Maliki's suggestion of a timetable, saying that Iraq's armed forces could take over security duties within a year. "This is an important step in the right path," Rubaie said.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto characterized the Maliki statement as consistent with the goals of the Bush administration. "The prime minister is reflecting a shared goal that we have, which is that as the Iraqi forces become a more self-reliant force, we'll see reductions in U.S. forces," Fratto said.

The Bush administration has said that a timetable would play into the hands of enemy forces who would lie low until U.S. troops were gone. Instead, top military and administration officials have said that withdrawal decisions must be based on conditions on the ground. Most of the additional "surge" forces sent to Iraq last year are due to pull out by the end of this month, leaving about 140,000 U.S. troops.

Indeed, Sadiq al-Rikabi, a top political adviser to Maliki, said any timetable would be conditioned on the ability of Iraq's security forces to secure the country, something the government has long said. "In that case, American forces should return home," Rikabi said, adding that there were no discussions so far of specific dates for a U.S. withdrawal.

Rikabi and a U.S. official in Baghdad who spoke on the condition of anonymity said friendly negotiations on the security pact were continuing. Still, the proposal of the memorandum of understanding suggested that the two sides were far from reaching a long-term agreement, which U.S. officials had hoped would be signed by the end of this month. A U.N. mandate authorizing the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq expires Dec. 31.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said negotiations were being handled by the State Department but reiterated the need for a conditions-based approach. "Timelines tend to be artificial in nature," he said, "and in a situation where things are as dynamic as they are in Iraq, I would tell you that it's usually best to look at these things as they are on the ground."

In recent weeks, Maliki has spoken in strong terms to domestic and regional audiences, only to have his remarks softened for U.S. consumption by his own advisers or U.S. spokesmen. After he said last month that the negotiations were at a "dead end," officials in Baghdad and Washington explained that Maliki was referring to early U.S. drafts that had since been updated.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has said he will decide by September -- when he is due to relinquish his command to Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno -- whether additional withdrawals will be possible before year's end.

The timetable issue is a sharp point of disagreement between the presumptive presidential nominees. Republican Sen. John McCain supports the administration position and has said that a withdrawal timetable would endanger recent security gains in Iraq. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has criticized the Maliki government for dragging its feet on political reconciliation and said that a timetable would force movement.

Although Obama has long pledged to begin immediately withdrawing combat troops at a rate of one to two brigades a month, completing the process within 16 months, he has recently tempered his position with a promise to consult with U.S. commanders on the ground before taking any action.

The negotiations began in March over two U.S.-drafted agreements that in Iraq have been discussed as a single pact. The first is a status-of-forces agreement that would define the legal protections and responsibilities of U.S. troops; the second is a "strategic framework" that would govern the overall U.S.-Iraq political and military relationship.

Last week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said that progress was being made in the negotiations but that many hurdles remained. He said any agreement most likely would last only one or two years and be subject to legislative scrutiny.

If an agreement could not be reached, Zebari indicated that an interim arrangement would be necessary because U.S. troops "cannot stay in Iraq without a legal authorization." It was unclear whether any memorandum of understanding would need approval from Iraq's parliament.

Fratto, the White House spokesman, also said there is a substantial difference between Maliki's call for a timetable and similar calls from congressional Democrats, since the latter would serve to limit the options of Bush as commander in chief.

Bush and Republican lawmakers have regularly condemned any talk of a timetable for a drawdown of U.S. troops.

In remarks last month, for example, Bush praised a new war funding bill because it did not include "an artificial timetable of withdrawal from Iraq."

DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington, special correspondents Zaid Sabah and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.

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We can never forget that it’s not about what America or its leaders want to do; it is about the path the Iraqis choose with regard to their own nation and their own future. (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pictured above.)

We may not be pleased with the final agreement with regard to the status of foreign forces in Iraq, but we must accept the wishes of that sovereign government.

After all, isn't their liberty and freedom of choice what we've been fighting for?

Charles M. Grist

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Tragedy of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.

Warrior Ethos

After I returned from Iraq in late 2004, I was patrolling the streets as a cop in Central Florida. One afternoon, along with other officers, I was dispatched to a shooting. As we arrived at the apartment complex, a man met us and said his room-mate had shot himself.

Not exactly sure what awaited us, another officer and I entered the apartment – handguns at the ready – to search the rooms one-by-one. As we reached one bedroom door, there was a note taped above the door handle. With the other officer covering me, I pushed open the door.

The young man was lying on his back in bed and blood was splattered across the wall behind his head. One hand was on his chest, but the other was out to his side. Next to that hand was a forty-five automatic handgun. The bullet had entered below his chin and traveled through his head until it exited the top of his skull.

Not knowing yet whether we were dealing with a homicide or a suicide, we secured the scene and waited for the detectives to arrive. While we waited, I made a quick visual survey of the apartment and what I found made my heart begin to tighten with sadness. The note on the door was a suicide note from the ex-soldier and that note was also displayed on the computer screen in the man’s room. He was only 24 years old.

On the bedroom dresser were several souvenirs from Iraq: old Iraqi money with pictures of Saddam Hussein, photographs of his fellow soldiers in the desert, his Global War on Terror Expeditionary Medal and other special things that only an American G.I. would bring home. On the fireplace mantle in the living room, the young veteran’s helmet sat quietly in its desert-camouflage cover.

I have experienced many scenes of death as a police officer, from natural ones to gruesome homicides. Some of these people died because it was simply their time, such as the elderly woman who died at her kitchen table as she clutched her asthma medication.

Suicides are among the saddest deaths because the victims managed to fool their co-workers, their friends, the professional counselors and even their families. Many who knew them saw the sadness, the frustration or the despair, but those closest to them never really believed these seemingly-strong family members or acquaintances could really take their own lives.

As a war veteran who has seen his share of death and who has lost friends and comrades to whatever enemy we faced at the time, I am saddened that fellow soldiers could hurt themselves without at least trying to talk to one of us. Among all people, we are the ones who most understand the reasons for their pain. They are our comrades and they are part of us. Why won’t they let us help them?

This young man was only 24, but he had so much he could have given the world. He experienced the very worst of mankind, but he also saw that even good can come from the tragedy of war – the gift of liberty to those who were oppressed and hope for the pursuit of happiness among those who knew so little joy.

Had he found the courage to live, he could have taught others what he learned at war and one day his own children would have witnessed the depth of his experience. His act of pure selfishness robbed his family of his presence, but the world will never learn the lessons that are now buried forever in the depths of his anguished soul.

The following article appeared in the El Paso Times today and it tells the story of another young veteran who gave much to the world, but whose life ended because of post-traumatic stress disorder that led to a drug overdose.

A heroic photo of Specialist Joseph Dwyer appears above and our sympathies go out to his family:

* * * *

Overdose kills ex-Fort Bliss soldier

By Stephanie Sanchez / El Paso Times
Article Launched: 07/07/2008 12:00:00 AM MDT

Former Fort Bliss Army Spc. Joseph Dwyer, whose photograph depicting him carrying a wounded boy to safety during the first days of the ground war in Iraq became a symbol of the U.S. Army, died late last month of an overdose at home in North Carolina, Army officials and police said Sunday.

Officials with the Pinehurst Police Department in North Carolina said no one would be available to talk about the ex-soldier's death until today, but Jean Offutt, a Fort Bliss spokesperson, said Fort Bliss officials were aware of the former soldier's death. The Army Times reported the day Dwyer died that he had apparently taken pills and inhaled the fumes from an aerosol can.

"He was certainly a hero. ... He did have some difficulty dealing with it," Offutt said. She added that Dwyer was treated at Beaumont Army Medical Center. "It is certainly a tragedy."

In 2003, Dwyer returned to Fort Bliss after serving four months in Iraq with the 3rd Squadron of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. A native of Mount Sinai, N.Y., he had joined the Army as a medic two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to El Paso Times archives.

During his tour in Iraq, an Army Times photographer captured Dwyer as he helped a young boy to safety after his family was caught in the crossfire of a battle near Faysaliyah, Iraq. The photo ran in newspapers nationwide, including the El Paso Times.

In October 2005, Dwyer's friends told the El Paso Times he had returned from the war a different person. At first he was a religious man, but then problems including drinking, sniffing inhalants and nightmares started occurring, his friends said. Dwyer suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, they said.

Dwyer was involved an incident in early 2005 in which he crashed his car and said he saw a box he thought was a bomb in the middle of the street, his friends told the El Paso Times. In October 2005, he was arrested for shooting up his East El Paso apartment in which the police SWAT team negotiated with him for more than three hours. No one was hurt.

Offutt said Dwyer's death should make people aware of PTSD symptoms. Details of Dwyer's mental-health history and treatment at Beaumont Army Medical Center were not available Sunday.

"He served his country," Offutt said. "It is unfortunate that these things sometimes happen to soldiers when they return. Our thoughts are with his family, spouse and children."

Valerie Miller Topp, a friend of Dwyer's, said she met him when Dwyer's wife, Matina, was pregnant with their daughter in 2005.

"When I first met him he was heavily medicated. ... He didn't really talk much," she said. "As the pregnancy progressed he began to open up and talk more. They were just a really nice couple."

Miller Topp said Dwyer said the couple moved to North Carolina from El Paso in 2006.

"He (Dwyer) said, 'I just want to go fishing. I don't want anything to do with violence, guns or war. I just want to meet my daughter and go fishing,'" she said.

Stephanie Sanchez may reached at; 546-6137.

* * * *

I would ask that war veterans of any era never give up, never quit and that they seek help to deal with the memories that seem too painful to endure.

Remember my fellow veterans, when you wore that uniform you were one of the finest citizens and warriors of your generation. You were taught to be strong in the face of adversity, to endure any hardship and to solve whatever problem rose to face you.

You may no longer serve in the active military, but the essence of the warrior is still within you. Never forget your warrior training, your mental strength, that steely resolve and the natural courage that led you to fight alongside your comrades, your buddies and those who were the best friends you will ever have.

You would never quit on your fellow soldiers in combat; do not quit on yourself now. If you need help, please ask for it, but giving up must never be an option...

Charles M. Grist

Saturday, July 5, 2008

One Unit’s Last Mission in Afghanistan

The following article from the Wall Street Journal is an excellent “war correspondent’s” story about what it was like to accompany a group of soldiers on their last patrol before returning to the States. (The above photo shows other soldiers in Afghanistan.):

* * * *

Wall Street Journal
July 5, 2008
Pg. 1

The Last Patrol

U.S. Troops in Afghanistan, Set to Leave, Are Called Back For One More Mission. Will Their Luck Run Out?

By Michael M. Phillips

NARAY, Afghanistan -- It's 4 a.m., and a slender crescent moon casts a pale light over Spc. Sean Geer. He has nine bottles of water and 10 loaded rifle magazines strapped to his body armor. He has a bandana tied under his helmet to soak up the sweat. He has removed the pointer and middle fingers from his glove to give him a better feel for the trigger.

"Ready for a fun one?" Spc. Geer radios in hushed tones to a buddy. It's another patrol, and one of the other cavalry scouts jokes that this war feels like a barroom fight where you can't cry uncle.

"Enjoy your cigarettes," says a lieutenant. "Then we'll go."

Sean Geer's war is supposed to be over. But it's going to be a long, hot day.

Few war stories disturb soldiers more than the one about the man who gets hit just before he's due to go home. Not far from here, an Army medic was killed by a hidden bomb days before he was to leave. An officer in Spc. Geer's squadron, 1-91 Cavalry, stepped on a land mine within weeks of the end of his combat tour, shattering his foot.

On Sunday, Spc. Geer and his fellow scouts thought such worries were behind them. They were back in camp cleaning their gear. Sergeants were collecting night-vision goggles, ammunition and the grenade launcher. They were waiting for the helicopter ride that would start them on their journey home.

Then this comes along: The colonel needs someone to do a mission. He hands it to the captain and the captain calls the lieutenant. The lieutenant tells the sergeants and before long, the scouts know their war is on again.

They all know it stinks, but what can they do? What began as an effort to topple the Taliban government has become a drawn-out guerrilla war, and there's always another patrol -- another insurgent to be killed or another heart to be won.

The seven-year conflict has become a growing concern to Pentagon brass, rivaling the war in Iraq. Taliban insurgents have intensified attacks in the east and the south, making June the deadliest month so far for the U.S.-led coalition. The government of Hamid Karzai still struggles to exert its authority, and the lawless tribal areas bordering Pakistan have become a haven for militants. The Pentagon said this week that it is extending the tour by an extra month of 2,200 Marines sent to Afghanistan this spring to bolster coalition forces.

Spc. Geer's new orders come at a moment when he's rethinking the war. Right after he arrived in the country, he thought constantly about being shot. His mother died when he was 10 years old. When the fighting gets crazy, he drops to his knee, drinks some water and asks her to look out for him: "Tell the people who don't know I love them that I do."

At 16 years old, he dropped out of high school in Ventura, Calif., worked in a coffee shop, fixed hot rods and ran with the drug crowd. By 19 he had had enough. He got his diploma and joined the Army. Now 22 and just over a year away from the end of his enlistment, he's planning a career as an entrepreneur. He and another scout are in the middle of starting an online clothing company with T-shirts that reflect their combat experience. One shows the outline of a soldier scaling a mountain in front of a faded American flag.

"There's got to be more out there," Spc. Geer says. "We've got to be able to do more with our lives than fight this war."

When he gets word the platoon has one more patrol, he trusts his buddies to cover his back. First Platoon, Bulldog Troop hasn't lost a man during 14 months in combat, 14 months of humping heavy gear up and down steep mountains, 14 months of firefights with an enemy who's never quite in view.

That evening, First Lt. Henry "Hank" Hughes IV, the platoon leader, briefs the men. The 24-year-old comes from a long military line. One ancestor was a captain in the Philadelphia militia in the Revolutionary War. His great grandfather served in World War I, his grandfather in World War II and his father in Bosnia. His mother was a captain in the signal corps.

The lieutenant studied English and film at Boston University, where he developed a fondness for French films. He used to think of himself as something of a pacifist, but joined the Army knowing full well he'd end up at war. Now he commands 26 men, most of them not much younger than himself. Only one of his scouts has been wounded in action; Spc. Thomas Alford was shot through the jaw and neck. At his insistence, he was back with the platoon three months later.

On a white board, the lieutenant sketches the snaking curves of the Kunar River, which runs close to the Pakistan border, and draws the contours of the ridge that overlooks the village of Nangal, a couple of miles south of the Army base. In June, insurgents left the villagers an anonymous note warning them against educating women. Shortly afterwards, someone set fire to the girls' school there. When the villagers rushed to put it out, they were shot at from the ridges above town.

The Afghan government, wanting to cement its ties in the village, has dispatched the Afghan National Army to drive to Nangal, chat with local elders and hand out pens, paper and other school supplies. Lt. Hughes's platoon is going along to help protect against insurgent attacks; the Americans have heavier weapons and can call in air and artillery support, if needed.

With half of his men, Lt. Hughes will leave at dawn and go on foot to the ridge overlooking the town. The other half, in heavily armed Humvees, will escort the Afghan troops and stay outside the village to maintain security.

After the scouts leave the briefing, Lt. Hughes turns to his platoon sergeant. "Too easy," he says.

"Every plan is easy until the first shot is fired," replies Sgt. First Class Michael Burns, 38, of Fort Wayne, Ind. "Then it all goes to hell."

In Monday's pre-dawn light, Lt. Hughes, Spc. Geer and the other scouts set out past the razor wire. The lieutenant cheerfully greets the Afghan security guards at the front gate, and in a loud, clear voice says the name of a town far down the valley, well beyond Nangal, in case they're working for the other side, too.

The troops walk down the dirt road in a staggered column, leaving enough room between men so a hidden bomb or lucky mortar shot would kill only one of them. They move silently, except for the crunch of boots on rock. They pass a few bearded herders hissing at their goats.

At a quarter to five the scouts turn right up the steep hillside. Generations of farmers have built waist-high stone walls on the slope, turning it into a giant staircase of narrow terraces for planting crops. The men zigzag arduously up the terraces, reaching down to hoist each other up when the walls get higher and the rocks looser.

As they climb, a single gunshot sounds in the distance.

"You hear that?" asks Spc. Justin Jones, 24, of Jasper, Ala. It's his job to call in artillery fire if the scouts get into trouble.

"Yeah -- probably over the ridge," Spc. Geer says. It's impossible to tell where it came from, where it went or if it had anything to do with them. They trudge on.

The men have spent months carrying heavy loads in the high Hindu Kush mountains. But in recent weeks they've spent more time at the main squadron base and have lost some of their edge. As they walk, Lt. Hughes notices a young girl bounding up the terraces with her goats.

"There's the embarrassing part," he says. "An 11-year-old girl is going to pass us."

At 5:30 a.m., the sun emerges over the mountain peaks. Spc. Matthew Short, a 21-year-old from Winter Haven, Fla., reaches the top of the 900-foot ridge. He looks over, expecting to see Nangal below. It isn't there.

"We're on the wrong spur," he yells to the lieutenant.

Hundreds of yards of open ground lie between this ridge and the next. Lt. Hughes leaves half the patrol to provide cover while he, Spc. Geer, Spc. Short and two others press ahead.

Twenty-five minutes later, the men reach the top. The village still isn't in sight. The lieutenant orders the men on the first ridge to join them.

"Whose idea was it to walk anyway?" Lt. Hughes asks Spc. Geer.

"Word on the street is that it was yours, sir," the specialist answers.

Spc. Geer finishes a bottle of water, takes out his knife and slices it up. He has heard around camp that the insurgents are short of canteens and he doesn't want to help them out by leaving plastic bottles around.

Spc. Short and the lieutenant pull out their maps to figure out what has gone wrong. As best they can make out, either the maps are wrong or the satellite coordinates they were given are wrong. In any case, they have no other choice than to keep climbing.

"It never ends," gasps Spc. Short, as he tops the third ridge and sees two more ahead, like pleats in a skirt.

"It's alright," says Spc. Austin Nenneman, a 21-year-old radio operator from Sacramento, Calif. "We're almost out of this place."

A goat trail cuts steeply across the front of the fifth ridge. The lieutenant reaches the top first, and finds a sweeping view of Nangal and, sprouting from the hard, brown soil, wild marijuana. "There's weed all over here," he says when Spc. Short reaches the crest.

"Weed and surfboards?" Spc. Short asks hopefully.

The hilltop is fortified with stone trenches and bunkers, apparently built when Afghan guerillas fought the Soviets decades ago. The lieutenant puts a machine gunner on either end of his position. Riflemen overlook the village, which consists of a dozen of so flat houses.

Sgt. Michael Harrington, 28, from Muskegon, Mich., jokingly asks the lieutenant for permission to fire his grenade launcher. "It's the last mission," he pleads.
"Stop saying it's the last mission," Spc. Geer snaps.

At 7:30 a.m., the soldiers watch the Humvees carrying the other half of the platoon alongside the Kunar River road, spouting plumes of dust. The Afghan soldiers arrive soon after in tan pickup trucks.

Lt. Hughes and his men are watching the ridgelines for attackers when the river valley fills with a deep, thudding boom. Moments later there's a loud whiz from above. The big guns back at the base are firing artillery rounds into the mountains to the north. The shells can travel almost 19 miles, too far for the scouts to hear them crash back to earth.

Spc. Geer takes up a position behind a tumbledown rock wall, looking towards the river. His arms are a canvas of tattoos. His mother's death date is tattooed onto his neck with a winged heart and a cross. "Mom," it says.

Under the left sleeve of his camouflage fatigues, from shoulder to elbow, is a blue Virgin Mary, surrounded by roses and $100 bills. "Forgive me Father, for blood will spill," it says.

Spc. Geer says the tattoo symbolizes his guilt and his aspirations. "I'm sorry for what I've done here, and I'd like to be a business professional once I get out," he says.

After a few hours, the lieutenant receives word that the Afghan soldiers and their Humvee escort have safely returned to base. Just before 11 a.m., the scouts start back down the hill. As he jumps down the dried terraces, Spc. Geer thinks about the price of war; the killing bothers him as much as the dying.

"I wish there were another way to do this, but there's not," he says. "Death is the only language they understand."

The troops head for the road this time, making their way past stone houses and surprised farmers. A one-eyed man with a thick white beard walks by. "Salaam aleikum," Spc. Geer says, the traditional Arabic phrase meaning "'peace be with you." The man smiles and waves.

At noon, after eight hours and 3,000 feet of climbing, the scouts return to base. They drop in the shade, most of them too tired to strip off their sweat-soaked body armor.

* * * *

We must never forget that the War on Terror is being fought on multiple fronts throughout the world. Keep our troops in your prayers.

Charles M. Grist

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Independence Day: Celebrating Liberty & Those Who Defend It

It was on June 17, 1775 that the American rebels valiantly defended their positions on Breed’s Hill (adjacent to Bunker Hill) against two charges by the far more professional British soldiers. Lightly armed and poorly trained, these Massachusetts citizens were essentially out of ammunition and the third and final charge by the enemy would be a bloody hand-to-hand encounter.

Although the British had bayonets, the American defenders did not. When that final assault came and the two forces commenced their close-quarters battle, a British officer would recognize Dr. Joseph Warren, a member of the Sons of Liberty and one of the well-known leaders of the rebel forces. (His death was the inspiration for the famous painting above).

Warren had just received a commission as a major general in the patriot army, but that commission would not take effect for three days. The men leading the defense of Bunker and Breed’s Hills begged Dr. Warren to take command, but he chose to fight as an individual soldier. When the British officer shot Warren in the head, killing him instantly, one of America’s first citizen soldiers had given his life for the cause of liberty.

I was raised with the story of Dr. Warren as though I was hearing about a distant cousin. My grandmother, Leona Sumner Terrell Lindell, was a proud member of the Daughters of the American Revolution based on another relative’s service, but the family had “Warrens” too and we came to believe that there was at least a fair chance we were also related to this great man as well.

Today we are all their cousins and we remember the sacrifices of these courageous patriots and those who have followed them throughout our nation’s history. America is still a shining beacon of liberty to those who are oppressed or those who seek to make a better life. Every citizen must help ensure that this bright light of freedom is never extinguished, either by apathy or by conquest.

Happy Fourth of July to all, especially to America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who continue the legacy started by Dr. Joseph Warren and his fellow patriots.

SFC Chuck Grist