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One of many in the call of duty

By Marion Edwyn Harrison
web posted January 10, 2005

Anybody who went through The Infantry Officers School, as I once did, can joke perceptibly that he also serves who merely stands and waits. In a more scholarly and serious mood, one preferably might apply the rendering "He serves [us] most who serves his country best." Pope, The Illiad of Homer , Book X. How meaningfully that applies not only to our military serving abroad or supporting those who so serve but also to their families, who carry on their daily lives while awaiting the return of the soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman.

That spirit, that duty -- by civilians often unseen, more often unheralded -- appropriately and rather intimately is recorded in the following piece written by Captain Matthew Scalia, whom I first met, as the corny saying goes, when he was a pup. Captain Scalia graduated from West Point -- "the Point," as esoterically it is called -- and has made the Army his career. Married in the beautiful West Point Catholic Chapel, the father of a (then) six-months old daughter when deployed to Iraq, he served 13 months in the 1st Armored Division. He typifies our competent, conscientious and courageous career military. Luckily for the reader, he also observes keenly and writes readably and informatively -- somewhat of a chip off the old block, in light of his remarkably literate parents.

Read on. Future generations of historians will do so.

"I deployed to Iraq in May '03 as an infantry company commander in the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division. We had been preparing for months and thought we would be part of the ground war, so most of our training focused on that. However, when the ground war ended in April, we quickly refocused our training to scenarios we were more likely to face, including crowd control, searches, traffic control points, and convoy operations. Our division commander told us to expect to be one year. Due to our experiences in the Balkans with shorter deployments, few of us thought it would actually be that long.

"We flew into Kuwait and spent two weeks receiving our equipment, conducting additional training (including weapons fire, basic Arabic terms, and Iraqi culture) and acclimating to a hot desert. Camp Udari, our home for those two weeks, was miserable. The heat and sand storms were unbearable, we were anxious to move north.

"On May 27, 2003 (my second wedding anniversary), my brigade convoyed over 500 kilometers to Baghdad. It was a 24-hour movement that took us through the open desert and tiny villages of the countryside and into the capital city full of palaces and monuments. The contrast was striking. I was surprised by the number of huts that stood in the middle of nowhere, and the number of Iraqis walking in the dirt road with no water and no village in site. How did these people survive?

"Conversely, it was obvious that Baghdad was once a beautiful city. There were wide streets, many lined with trees, and small parks and beautiful mosques throughout. However, streets and sidewalks were in disrepair and buildings were dirty. It appeared not to be the result of the war, but rather years of neglect.

"My company's movement ended at the Al Shaheed, or Martyrs' Monument. Saddam Hussein built it in 1989 for the Iraqis killed in the Iran-Iraq War. Like our Vietnam Memorial, the walls are engraved with their names…so numerous they cover the walls on the inside and outside. My company spent two days at the monument as our division got situated.

"We then moved to Baghdad Tourist Island and began preparing for our new mission. My infantry company was cross-attached to an armor division, a normal procedure to combine…strengths… The task force…consisting of my infantry company, two armor companies, a headquarters company, mortar platoon, and scout platoon -- was responsible for…northeast…Baghdad. My company specifically had Zone 22, which included two neighborhoods, Al Beida and Hay Ur.

"Al Beida was a fairly affluent neighborhood with a mixture of Sunni and Shi'a Muslims and Christians. Crime was not as much of a problem there. Hay Ur was largely Shi'a and bordered Sadr City (formally Saddam City, where Saddam stuffed three million Shi'a to live in poor housing). Here crime was definitely a problem.

"At first we spent most of our time in Hay Ur handling petty criminals. As we received more intelligence on insurgent activities…, more of our missions were raids on suspected insurgent homes in Al Beida. The crime in Hay Ur diminished dramatically.

"Our mission was twofold: Defeat remnants of the old regime, while assisting the Iraqi people in rebuilding their country. Each unit had specific sites that required constant protection from looters or insurgents. My company maintained a force at all times at an electrical station and a United Nations food distribution warehouse. Because of its central location, Iraqis came…for assistance, to report crimes, or to provide intelligence (including locations of suspected Ba'ath sympathizers).

"On a typical day, scores of people came to our gate complaining of the lack of electricity, reporting crimes, or telling us where we might find Saddam. Because we were responsive to problems, my platoons developed a very strong relationship with the residents. I have many memories of patrolling through the streets receiving smiles and 'thumbs-up,' from the children especially.

"One of our first missions…was to establish a neighborhood advisory council. The NAC was supposed to be a cross-section of the community, with members of different religions, social standing, education, occupation, and sex. Commanders were allowed to select them, but most of us were encouraged to hold neighborhood meetings to allow residents to vote. The meetings for Al Beida and Hay Ur are some of my best memories.

"Each meeting had thousands of people, mostly men, but many women as well. Their enthusiasm and interest was incredible. It was the first time in over 30 years that Iraqis could provide input into their representation. Although my soldiers had some difficulty dealing with the noisy crowds, we knew we were participating in history. Many of us also thought of the creation of our own country and how this might have been comparable.

"I spent many hours with NACs in the following months. The weekly meetings averaged over three hours. We worked together to fix the neighborhoods' problems, including security, distribution of propane (their main fuel for cooking and heating), youth services, area beautification, and garbage collection. We prioritized use of reconstruction money and fixed up schools, clinics and youth centers. After a couple of months, many new businesses…opened; the gunfire we had heard all night, every night, when we first arrived became rare; and many schools reopened.

"I developed some strong friendships with NAC members. Though some had less-than-noble intentions, many were truly committed to improving Iraq. One close friend, whom I saw just before Christmas when he came to my new base to give me a present for my daughter, was killed in his home in front of his son for being a member of the council. That was a threat they all felt.

"The schools in my zone were in terrible condition. We spent hours removing ordnance. Most had broken windows, desk, and bathrooms, and had not been painted in years. In fact, I was told nothing at all had been done to them in years. Seeing the numerous palaces that Saddam had built since the Persian Gulf War, I couldn't help but conclude that the sanctions had failed.

"As the summer of 2003 progressed, we conducted fewer and fewer routine patrols. We were making room for the new Iraqi defense forces to take over. Some of my soldiers trained facility protection guards (who eventually replaced us at the electrical station and food warehouse) and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. The Baghdad police force was also growing. All of these forces enabled us to focus…on the insurgents, who had been increasing their attacks.

"In September I left my infantry company to take command of the Brigade Headquarters Company in Baghdad. Although it was good for me professionally, I hated to leave the men I had been with for 13 months. I was so impressed by their conduct and discipline. Under extremely stressful conditions, 19- and 20-year old soldiers were maintaining their composure and not succumbing to frustration or anger. It is a testimony to Americans and the high standards we set for ourselves.

"Throughout my 14 months in Baghdad, I had plenty of interaction with Iraqis. The interpreters we hired became great friends. Because they came to know us so well, they were also helpful in our public relations. They saw all the efforts we took to help the country and greatly appreciated it all. Yet most of them chose to keep their jobs a secret from their neighbors. Many quit because of threats to them or their family. But others stayed, enduring the threats of improvised explosive devises, mortars, and ambushes along with us. I truly wish that the average American could meet the average Iraqi, because he would realize that we are needed and wanted over there.

"My time in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom was an incredible experience. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would lead an infantry company into a combat environment. I am extremely proud of my service and my units' performance.

"However, it is the families at home who deserve the greatest recognition. They had to deal with not knowing what their soldiers were enduring. They had to live in the same homes with all the memories. It is difficult to imagine the loneliness my wife felt, and even more difficult to imagine that I will likely deploy again. It is not just soldiers who enlist and re-enlist; it's families, too."

Marion Edwyn Harrison is President of, and Counsel to, the Free Congress Foundation.

 

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