SFC Marcus checks a young Iraqi girl's throat for strep in Wuerdiya, Iraq.
Photograph by Jeff Emanuel.
THOUGH EASE IS AN extremely relative attribute in this case, hunting and killing the enemy in the Salman Pak region of Iraq (southeast of Baghdad) is, in fact, the easy part of the U.S. mission there. 'Terrain denial' artillery missions are staged in known al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) areas on a nightly basis, attack aviation assets are constantly scouring the area and firing on militant outposts, and, with the launching of the division-sized Operation Marne Huskey on August 15, major air-and-land offensives are being conducted in virtually every known insurgent stronghold and outpost in the region.
But fighting is what these soldiers have been trained for, and what they have been preparing--both mentally and physically--to do their entire careers. Very few soldiers have been trained to carry out nation-building or ambassadorial missions, and in the case of an area like Salman Pak, which has seen a negligible troop presence since the initial invasion, trust and rapport cannot be improved or built on, but rather must be created and constructed entirely from scratch. This is an infinitely more difficult (and time-consuming) process, but one which is absolutely essential to the coalition effort in Iraq. The key to making it happen is demonstrating, on a daily basis, that the coalition has the best interest of the Iraqi people--from security, to services, to medical care--at heart.
And there are newfound signs of success in the area just north of Salman Pak, along the road known to 3rd Brigade as "Route Wild," between the villages of Wuerdiya and Ja'ara. It all began with a phone call. During the first week of August, an Iraqi man who lived in the area, and whose brother was the sheik of the al Jabouri tribe, called Captain Rich Thompson, head of 3rd Brigade's Baker Company 1-15 Infantry and the local ground commander, and asked for a meeting. Tired of the persistent insurgent infighting in his area, the man wanted information on starting his tribe's own 'Concerned Citizens' brigade, to augment the National Police and to defend their land and their clan against terrorism.
Called "basically a thumb in the eye [of] a Maliki government that won't get its [act] together" by one officer I spoke with, the Concerned Citizens program, another brainchild of MNF-I commander General David Petraeus, puts ground-level security in the hands of the individual tribes and groups who need it most. The program allows for tribes to arm themselves and to conduct their own security operations and patrols, provided that they agree to wear easily identifiable uniforms and work with and respect the authority of the National Police and Coalition forces (in addition, members of the tribal security contingent must submit to the coalition's biometric identification database).
"I hope they're really serious about [this]," Thompson told me. "If we can get them going with their own security, and the other tribes around them can see what a good thing they have and decide that they want it too, then we could see a serious improvement in this area." The bottom line on the insurgency, said Thompson, a former Ranger noncommissioned officer, "is that I don't want them in my AO (area of operations). I don't care where they go, as long as they're not here--and, if everybody takes that attitude, Iraqis and soldiers alike, and works for that goal, then sooner or later there won't be any place for [the insurgents] to go."
At 4:00 PM on August 10th, Baker Company 1-15 pulled off of Route Wild and into the small neighborhood where the al Jabouri sheik and his brother lived. Dismounting the vehicles, Thompson and a squad of soldiers from Baker Co's 3rd Platoon moved slowly up the narrow, windy dirt road. "We're looking for a mosque," Thompson said, periodically checking his GPS to make sure that we were headed in the right direction and toward the agreed-upon meeting place.
Upon reaching the small, run-down, blue-domed mosque, the squad was met by a middle-aged male wearing a gray golf shirt and the bottoms of a black tracksuit. He led us to the sheik's house. We were invited in and, as we sat down in the large living room, were treated to the story (through Baker Company's Iraqi interpreter, 'Jim') of how the tribe had come to this point. "They burned our house," Jim translated. "They killed the people here and the dogs ate them." While the latter may be an example of the hyperbole that many Iraqis are known for, the house did in fact show the telltale signs of recent fire. Black scorch marks were clearly visible on the portions of the cement floor not covered by carpet, and, though it had been plastered and painted over, charred spots were visible on the wall, as well.
"Thank you for contacting me," Thompson said, as the sheik, his brother, and a pair of neighborhood gentlemen gathered around for tea. "We're here to help you; tell me what you need." The brothers and their companions spent over an hour detailing the transgressions of the insurgency against their tribe and their village, from the fire to alleged kidnappings, and expressed a great interest in manning their own tribal security force. "We set up a police checkpoint for you right outside the neighborhood here," Thompson reminded them. "Crime has certainly gone down since then."
"They only work from 7am to 5pm," the sheik responded, his tone showing his distaste for the National Police as a whole. "We need to be safe all the time. We need an army here, and you are not enough soldiers to keep us safe."
Thompson very quickly explained the ground rules governing the Concerned Citizens program: AK-47s are authorized but not provided, uniforms are required (the tribe had already decided on a uniform consisting of what the man who met us at the mosque had been wearing, and which would be augmented by brightly-colored running vests supplied by U.S. forces), and all personnel must submit to Coalition forces and Iraqi National Police. The latter caused a bit of consternation on the part of the al Jabouri (a sizable portion of the NP force is believed to be corrupt), but the desire to secure themselves appeared to outweigh any hesitation.
At the end of the meeting, Thompson promised to return in the near future with $3,000 for the purchase of uniforms for the sixty promised guards. In exchange, all sixty men would be present and in formation so that they could be entered into Baker Company's biometric identification database. He also informed them that, in the next week, Baker Co. would be holding a "Med Op," a free clinic, for the villagers in the area. All sick and ailing were welcome to come, and Coalition medics would treat them.
The med op was set for August 16th in Wuerdiya, a little village just off of Route Wild that was recently the site of an insurgent (possibly JAM) attack against unarmed civilians (see "Ashes and Dust" in the August 16th DAILY STANDARD). At 7:45 AM that day, Baker Co's Third Platoon arrived at the site where the Wuerdiya Med Op would soon be held--a school building (refurbished last year by the Iraqi Ministry of Education) next door to a mosque and directly across the street from the site where the insurgent attack had taken place. With the help of the building's twelve-year-old caretaker, soldiers filled sandbags and placed them along ledges and railings to make the facility more defensible, and aid bags containing wheat, barley, and rice were unloaded from the platoon's Humvees and staged for distribution. Off to one side of the exit, a room was set up for the processing and inputting into the coalition's biometric identification database of all military-aged males who would pass through the gates that day.
By 8:30, the soldiers of 3rd Platoon had taken up their defensive positions, both on foot (behind the newly-filled sandbags) and in Bradley Fighting Vehicles, staged at each end of the narrow street, and representatives of the Army's Civil Affairs unit had arrived, with a trailer of gifts for adults and children alike--including soccer balls, school bags, Iraqi national soccer team uniform replicas, and more food. As the CA soldiers unloaded the trailer, people began to peek out of the front gates of their homes, and a rush by the neighborhood's more courageous children to the site of the just-revealed goodies soon followed. With a grin big enough to clearly reveal a missing front tooth, one young boy, no older than six, accepted the soldiers' gifts of a bag and a soccer uniform and then raced home at full speed, perhaps to show his parents his new prizes, or perhaps to cache them before an older child like showed up to take them.
As the gifts were handed out, and as the Iraqi National Police began to announce, via the megaphones on their Chevrolet pickup trucks, that the clinic would be starting soon, more people appeared on the street, flocking to the school building from houses and side streets in every direction. The Civil Affairs soldiers quickly established two examination rooms and a makeshift pharmacy, and by 9:30 the gates were open and people were crowding into the schoolhouse's courtyard.
Sergeant First Class Marcus, a Special Forces medic (in accordance with USSOCOM regulations, special operators are identified by rank and first name only), manned the first examination room along with his interpreter, Yousef, a recent graduate of Baghdad University with a degree in Physics.
The first patient to make an appearance was a sixty-year-old man in a wheelchair, pushed by his middle-aged son. "He can't feel his legs," Yousef explained, as the man described his ailments in rapid-fire Arabic. "He fell down about six months ago and hurt his back, and he cannot walk or move his legs."
Marcus checked the patient's back and immediately diagnosed him with a slipped disc; however, he said, "that's not the reason for the leg problems." He quickly checked the man's toe circulation and gauged his blood pressure, then made his diagnosis: the patient suffered from a blood pressure condition, which would have been easily treatable long ago had he had access to the simplest of medications. "Take one of these once a day for a week," he told the man, though Yousef, after fetching a small package of caplets from the pharmacy, "and your legs will be as good as new. You'll be walking around again by next week."
"Praise Allah," the man said over and over again from his wheelchair in response to this amazing news, looking alternately at Marcus and at the ceiling and gesturing skyward with his hand. "Praise Allah!"
The treatment of annoying--or even debilitating--ailments via prescription of just the simplest drugs was a recurring theme throughout the morning, further proving that some of the things that are most taken for granted every day in America--like the Tylenol, NyQuil, and antibiotics, and the care of a competent medical professional--are, in this country, life-changing gifts.
This is not to say that the Iraqi people are, on the whole, weak, sickly, or overwhelming complainers. "There's an extremely high tolerance for pain among the people here, as well," Marcus told me. "If they say something hurts, then you'd better believe that it really, really hurts. I've had young kids in here with broken arms that I've had to set, and they didn't cry one bit. They grimaced, perhaps, but they dealt with the pain very, very well."
"They're not a medicated society at all," he continued, after setting a man's dislocated hand and sending him away with Tylenol. "That's why a 500mg Tylenol works wonders for them--whereas if you were to take it, it probably wouldn't do very much."
For the first half of the four-hour clinic, the preponderance of patients were adults suffering from various ailments--from cists, to infected sand-flea bites, to a surgical scar that still had not healed, but by 11 AM, an increasing number of parents had begun to filter into the schoolyard with children in tow. The majority of the children had one of three complaints: an ear infection, strep throat, or asthma--all of which could be alleviated or cured with the simple prescription of medication.
But not every case was that simple. One elderly man who came in to be treated for 'thrush,' a bacterial infection of the throat, was sent away with antibiotics and, after the door closed behind him, was declared to be "dying of an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm" by a less-than-happy Marcus. Another child showed the telltale signs of cancer. Typhoid fever and strep throat were the most common of the viral and bacterial ailments ("I've probably treated 800 cases of typhoid here," Marcus told me), and for men who labored outside, asthma was very common (though not a terrible problem), as were slipped discs--something that, without surgical facilities, the medics on site couldn't do a thing about, other than prescribe Tylenol for the pain.
However, with the only exceptions being those injuries and ailments which required surgery or, like diabetes, precise dosages of special medication, almost every person who came to the schoolhouse for treatment received it, and many left praising Allah for the painkillers, decongestants, or antibiotics that they had been given. Hundreds of people left the schoolhouse happy, with their gifts of medication, food, and soccer paraphernalia (as well cards showing the most wanted insurgents in the area, and a telephone number to call with any tips on insurgent activity), and returned to their homes satisfied with the coalition's efforts, at least on this day.
Earning the respect, gratitude, and cooperation of the Iraqi populace is time-consuming and difficult. But without the surge in U.S. forces this spring, or the new strategy put in place by Gen. Petraeus, the people of this region--as well as the other regions affected by the arrival and operations of the surge brigades---would be facing a far less secure environment, and would still be without the basic medical care and services provided by the Coalition.
"People ask me, 'Is the surge working?'," Colonel Wayne Grigsby, 3rd Brigade commander, said to me. "And I say, 'How can it not be?' We're in these areas that no soldiers have been for months and years, we've got al Qaeda , JAM , and JAI discombobulated, and we're showing the people there--people who might not have seen an American soldier in years--a sustained presence, catching bad guys, building checkpoints, and making life safer for them."
"Again, I say, 'How can it not be working?'"
Jeff Emanuel, a special operations veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is a columnist and a director of conservative weblog RedState.com. He is currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq.