I recently returned from a tour in Iraq with my National Guard brigade.
Among the mementos of my sojourn there is a shield-shaped plaque emblazoned with “Italia” (in both Roman and Arabic letters), a map of Iraq and the inscription “Operazione Antica Babilonia” – the Italian military mission in Iraq. On the back are the names of some of the Italian soldiers with whom I was privileged to serve.
You don’t hear much about this in the mainstream media, but Operation Iraqi Freedom is still an international coalition. Our allies there are making valuable contributions, and they deserve credit. One of our principal allies in Iraq is Italy. The Italians have several thousand troops, located in the southern province of Dhi Qar. They are responsible for the security of the entire province, with the exception of two U.S. military bases. The Italians also have military contingents assisting us in Afghanistan and the Balkans.
I served four months with the Italian Army (Esercito), as a liaison officer. My job was to maintain contact between U.S. Army and Italian forces, so both would know what the other was up to, and to avoid friendly fire incidents, which we were able to avoid.
Working with the Italians was a great opportunity to see an allied army from the inside. I was impressed with the professionalism and valuable contributions the Italians are making in Iraq. They are good allies.
Assembling an effective military coalition is more than a matter of inviting various countries to send their armies and park them in Iraq. It involves careful planning and consideration. Coalition militaries arrive in Iraq organized in their own units. They wear their own uniforms, bring their own equipment and weapons, fly their own national and unit flags, and operate under their own chains of command. But they are part of a larger whole.
Iraq’s territory is divided into sectors known as "divisions." Each nation’s military is assigned an area of responsibility, and chains of command are established. This is to avoid duplication, confusion and “ friendly fire” incidents.
The coalition is an integrated military effort. Military elements from various countries work together and support each other on specific operations. Serving as a liaison with the Italians, I was able to see firsthand how this functions.
The Iraqi countryside was rife with unexploded ordnance. When our troops on patrol ran across it, the Italian EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit was contacted. They, in turn, would remove and destroy the explosives, thus removing the danger to coalition troops and the civilian population.
One night, my National Guard unit, carrying out a ground operation, requested and received air support from the Italian Air Force. Another night I personally witnessed an Italian recovery vehicle towing a disabled American vehicle to a more convenient location. In a joint humanitarian operation, the Italians donated a wheelchair so an American patrol could give it to an Iraqi girl who can’t walk.
Besides security and humanitarian operations, Italian forces have done a good job defending Iraq’s archaeological patrimony from looters and smugglers. Italians have experience in dealing with “tombaroli” (tomb robbers) back in Italy and they have brought this expertise with them to Iraq.
Looters of antiquities have been captured, and ancient artifacts recovered. The Italians have trained Iraqis to continue such operations. This is important for Iraq’s future. Not only is archaeology a key to the past, it is a valuable economic asset for the future, and an incentive to take better care of the nation’s heritage. After all, this is Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization, we are talking about.
The Italians too have had their share of casualties in Iraq. Their largest loss of life occurred on November 12th, 2003, when 19 Italians (and 9 Iraqis) were slain in a single terrorist attack. And yet, the Italian troops have soldiered on in Iraq, and are still serving alongside our troops. Why hasn’t our mainstream media pointed this out?
I was honored to work with the Italians, and I salute their good work in Iraq. They also knew how to enjoy themselves, bringing a taste of Italy and its culture to Iraq. The Italian base where I worked had Italian stores, Italian television and an Italian church. There was a pizza parlor on base, and besides that, some soldiers I worked with had their own brick oven where they prepared their own pizza from scratch.
The Italian soldiers I worked with were hospitable and friendly. I can’t count the times I was invited to join them for food or drink. We also exchanged addresses and I received invitations to visit Italy in the future.
The relationships military liaison officers build with our coalition partners are important, because in the future we may be called on to perform more joint operations with them. I know my liaison experience afforded me a great appreciation for our Italian allies.
So I salute the Italian forces in Iraq, with whom I was privileged to serve. I say to the Italians – as should every American – “GRAZIE!” – Thank you very much!
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