Dangers of war persist for soldiers left in Iraq
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 12:13 AM
FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARHORSE, IRAQ - Col. Malcolm Frost knew there would be questions. The official end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq was approaching, but his soldiers, operating in two of Iraq's most dangerous provinces, would still be here.
He sat down and penned a letter to the soldiers' families. "01 Sept. 2010 does not mean a light switched on or off in Iraq," the brigade commander wrote. ". . . The weight of responsibility upon our shoulders is great, because we must follow through to the very finish."
For the soldiers in Frost's brigade, Sept. 1 will mark an arbitrary milestone. There are fewer troops here, just under 50,000 now, consistent with an Obama administration pledge, and the troops leave base less often. But Americans still die in Iraq, and the fight for stability is far from over.
Iraq remains a battleground, American soldiers say, even if they are no longer kicking down Iraqi doors.
Instead of carrying out combat missions, Frost's unit has been designated an "advise and assist" brigade, like five other American brigades left behind in Iraq. Its task is to train Iraqi security forces, gather intelligence, assist Iraq's fledgling air force, and, ultimately, close up shop and go home. The lower-profile approach under Operation New Dawn is the latest step in a transition that began more than a year ago when American soldiers were pulled back from Iraq's urban centers and for the most part retreated into their bases.
But less than two months into the unit's deployment, two of Frost's men have already been killed. The mission still involves risks as the soldiers escort commanders and trainers to appointments with Iraqi officials. Around them, assassinations and violence seem to be on the rise, although at drastically lower levels than during the darkest days of Iraq's civil war, between 2005 and 2007.
Last week, as news reports in the United States hailed the departure from Iraq of the last designated combat brigade, family members eagerly called their loved ones here, asking whether they too were headed home. No, the soldiers told wives, mothers, fathers and grandmothers. They have more than 300 days left in Iraq.
The day after other troops celebrated their exit from Iraq, soldiers at FOB Warhorse mourned the passing of Sgt. Jamal Rhett, a young medic killed on Aug. 15. A grenade was lobbed into his vehicle as he and his platoon left federal police headquarters in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad. They were escorting a police training team.
Despite their new title, soldiers know that the battle is not over, not for them and not for Iraq. The names of Rhett and 1st Lt. Michael L. Runyan, both from the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, were added to a memorial of the fallen that spans at least five concrete blast walls at the base.
At the trailers where the Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment lives, Staff Sgt. Gilbert Ayala, 28, limped to the showers. Shrapnel ripped into his side and legs about two weeks ago, when Rhett was killed.
Ayala said it doesn't matter to him what the mission is called. This is his third deployment, and he has been wounded and lost friends before. But this wound was the deepest, this loss the hardest.
"I find new holes in me every day," Ayala said. He scoffed at the idea that the war was over. "It can't be, because things like this are still going down. Boom, and my friend is gone, right in front of me."