On final tour in Iraq, daily grind combines with goodwill missions
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 12:54 AM
CAMP RAMADI, IRAQ - Officially, the yearlong mission remaining for roughly 48,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is to "advise and assist" this country's security forces. Unofficially, it is to fight off boredom and to stay alert and safe in the long, empty stretches that dominate their days.
Assassinations, bombings and gun attacks have killed scores of Iraqi police, civilians and government officials since the beginning of the year. U.S. forces have not been asked to assist in any of them.
Rather, from behind concrete blast walls, in security bubbles that can seem deceptively safe, the end of the Iraq war has for most U.S. soldiers become a monotonous farewell mission of goodwill, a last good deed, impression or chance to set things right.
The front lines are mostly heavily armored office-hour visits with local security commanders and community leaders over Turkish coffee and tea, or to teach Iraqi police or Army enlistees the occasional nifty trick, like karate moves or magazine-design layout.
But the exchanges remain dangerous. Two American soldiers were killed and a third was wounded near Mosul on Saturday when an Iraqi Army officer receiving tactical training turned a gun on his U.S. military instructors.
And even when they are mostly executed safely, successes of the missions are often measured in small, subtle and subjective ways. Soldiers who have been here in darker times of near civil war, for instance, can find significance and chalk up success in a U.S.-hosted icebreaker that ends with a Sunni police chief and Shiite Army commander exchanging cellphone numbers.
For many of the rest, however, including the youngest, who were just 11 during the "shock and awe" bombing campaign that kicked off the U.S. invasion of 2003, it has become a struggle to reconcile the daily grind with what they expected of a tour in Iraq.
"I hope before I get out of the Army I get to go to Afghanistan at least once," said Specialist Randall Brown, 23. His mind wandered and others dozed on a recent morning as they rode along a cratered highway between Ramadi and Fallujah, where soldiers used to sit wide-eyed, in radio silence, praying one of the day's inevitable roadside bombs would miss their convoy.
On his first trip to Iraq and oblivious to much of the bloody history around, Brown pulled a Coke from one of three well-stocked coolers as the sun warmed the back of the armored personnel carrier. His mind was elsewhere.
"I hear they are losing people in Afghanistan every week - I don't want to go because of that," he rushed to add. "But because my job is still needed there; my job doesn't exist here anymore."
Trained to sneak over rocky terrain and scout bombing targets (the United States has dropped one bomb in Iraq in the past 14 months), Brown, of the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Ga., now spends the few mornings a week that he leaves the safe confines of his base to stand in a walled-in, muddy Iraqi police compound in Habbaniya, smoking cigarettes with a dozen other soldiers from his platoon. They're all tasked with providing security for the day's "mission'' - a mind-numbing, 90-minute PowerPoint presentation on disaster management for three Iraqi police lieutenants inside.
In a darkened room, Sgt. Michael Cosgro lectured on how to control a hostage situation. He read bullet points on a set of U.S. law-enforcement training slides, then paused for a U.S.-paid Arabic translator to repeat what he said, even though those lines, too, were printed on the slides in Arabic. Halfway through the presentation, the Iraqis' eyes glazed over like college students' at a new section titled "More Objectives for the Critical Incident Commander."