The GI in Iraq: jack-of-all-trades
Iraq is still a dangerous combat zone - three US soldiers were killed near Mosul Thursday.
BAGHDAD — On patrol in a dusty Baghdad back alley, Lt. Mark Grado stops to talk with the man known as the "eyes and ears" of this dense urban neighborhood.
"Ali Baba [thieves] - no," says Abbas Hassen Auda, speaking in broken English. This, it turns out, is the only good news from Mr. Auda, the mokhtar, whose job under the old regime was to snoop on everyone for several blocks around.
"Power - no good," he says.
"Water - no good."
And, by the way, men from poor families have no jobs.
"All right," says Lieutenant Grado, earnestly scribbling notes in a small pad. "We're going to report this."
But moments later, Grado has something more urgent to think about. The clock has started ticking on a medivac drill for Grado and his 1st Armored Division soldiers.
"Someone just tossed an explosive out of a car - two of your men are down!" Lt. Col. Peter Jones alerts the young platoon leader.
Charged with everything from electricity repair and liquor control to intelligence gathering and combat, US soldiers like Grado serving in Iraq are jacks-of-all-trades in the extreme - and will be for the foreseeable future.
Under a new troop rotation plan announced by the Pentagon this week, tens of thousands of active duty soldiers will be assigned to up to one-year tours in Iraq. The overall size of the coalition force in the country is expected to stay at its current level of nearly 160,000 - until the latter part of 2004. In all, 368,000 Army personnel are deployed overseas this year, including three quarters of the 33 active-duty combat brigades.
With the total number of incoming foreign troops still uncertain and the training of Iraqi security forces in a fledgling phase, US forces can't look forward to finishing their duties in Iraq anytime soon - leading the Army to look "very hard" at upping its manpower, according to Gen. John Keane, acting Army chief of staff.
"Certainly we are stretched," General Keane told a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday. "We need more infantry. We need more military police. We need more civil affairs [troops]."
Indeed, a four-hour patrol with one of Grado's nine-man infantry squads vividly illustrates how American soldiers are challenged - not just in terms of numbers, but also by the kaleidoscopic nature of their mission in Iraq.
As the soldiers move down a narrow side street, they return children's waves, admire a baby, and pose for a snapshot at the request of robed Iraqi women cloistered behind the window bars of their first-floor apartment.
"These kids will try to get behind you just right so they can see through your [rifle] sights," says Pfc. Benjamin House of Grand Rapids, Mich., as two little boys eye his weapon. "They ask: 'What's your name? Chocolate?' but it can get distracting," says Private House, crouching by a wall, on security duty.
As if on cue, the drill commences. Private House rounds a corner and is hit by a fictitious grenade.
Flat on his back, House is "treated" and bandaged by a medic. Three minutes later, two Bradley Fighting Vehicles assigned to the squad charge onto the scene drawing a crowd of Iraqis. House's buddies roll him onto an olive-green stretcher of heavy plastic and then hoist him into the back of one of the vehicles.
Within 17 minutes, he's on his way to a landing zone at what used to be Saddam Hussein's private water park on the banks of the Tigris River. A Black Hawk helicopter touches down in a whirl of dust and picks up the two "wounded" men, who in a real emergency would have reached the doctor well within the "golden hour" timeframe that increases their chances for survival.
"This illustrates perfectly all the things a young lieutenant's got to do," says Colonel Jones, who monitors the scene as the chopper flies off. "He's got to be a diplomat, an engineer looking at sewage and water, and he's got to be a trainer, and a leader in combat."
The training incident also illustrates how Grado's men have to stay on alert to survive against a scattered but frustratingly persistent enemy that is watching - and learning from - their every move. So far 155 American servicemen have been killed by hostile attacks in Iraq, including 41 killed since President Bush declared May 1 that major combat had ended.
"We are still in combat, and the enemy has watched us and learned," says Col. Guy Shields, the chief US military spokesman in Iraq. Those waging guerrilla-style attacks on US forces are more sophisticated and organized than they were when Baghdad fell in April. Then, attackers would sometimes forget to arm rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) before firing them, and still occasionally went "one-on-one" against an M-1 tank, he says.
In recent weeks, the enemy has adopted new tactics - with lethal results. Anti-US fighters are combining more types of weapons - such as small arms and RPGs - in a single attack. Another deadly new tactic is to plant "improvised explosive devices" (IED) made from leftover munitions on roads frequently traveled by military convoys.
But Jones's soldiers are learning too. Recently, they have taken classes to try to learn to spot the road bombs. "You look for a trash pile that doesn't look natural, a trash pile that has lots of wires in it," he says.
Collecting intelligence is also vital, and foot soldiers such as Grado are the first line of military information gathering. "Ninety-nine percent of the people are friendly - there's just that 1 percent that makes life miserable and we have to find out who they are," says Grado. "That's our biggest problem."
To their credit, soldiers like Grado and Capt. Mike McBride are able to find humor in the dangerous and austere lives they lead in Baghdad's streets. Recently, Captain McBride says, neighborhood councils in the areas his men patrol voiced concern over the illegal liquor stands that pop up along sidewalks each evening. As a result, soon Grado's platoon will take on a new role as the enforcers of a street-side prohibition.
For his soldiers, who often work long hours in flak jackets, helmets, and 100-degree heat, this presents a truly tragic dilemma.
"If we confiscate it [the liquor], the people will just think we're going to get drunk," he said. The solution: pour it out on the spot. "I'm going to have soldiers on their knees crying as the beer goes flowing into the Tigris," he says with a sigh.