By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 16, 2007 - When Marine Staff Sgt. John Costa arrived in Ramadi, Iraq, in August 2006, U.S. troops walked the city streets in daylight at their peril. "The place was one of the worst cities in Iraq, if not the worst. You could not conduct foot-borne operations during the day," said Costa, who served as a chief scout with the Scout Sniper Platoon, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines.
"It would be a like a group of insurgents trying to walk down the main street in Camp Lejeune at 8 in the morning," he said, referring to the Marine Corps base in North Carolina. "They're not going to get far."
The staff sergeant, a native of Somerville, Mass., is one of 10 servicemembers who served in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa who have been selected to tell the military's story to the American people at community and business events, veterans organizations and other gatherings as part of the Defense Department's "Why We Serve" public outreach program. He tells audiences how the rebirth he witnessed in Anbar province fulfilled his dream to wear the U.S. military in uniform and help the greater good.
Costa described Ramadi, a city in Iraq's Anbar province -- then one of the country's most contentious regions -- as a society that had collapsed under the weight of an endemic insurgency. With an infrastructure dilapidated by years of infighting and neglect, Costa said, most of Ramadi was in ruin when he arrived.
"I had never seen anything like that before, and that was my second deployment to Iraq," said the staff sergeant, whose first deployment was from January to August 2005 in Kharma, a city east of Fallujah in Anbar province.
"From my experience in my first deployment, the Iraqis will live, work, play -- they'll continue their normal lives -- while this war is going on around them," he said. "They'll stay in their neighborhoods, and they won't move.
"But in Ramadi," he said, "they were moving."
Costa had heard from members of the unit he was replacing that Ramadi's citizens were moving out in droves -- in "mass exodus" fashion, as he put it. When he arrived in August 2006 in Ramadi, which in 2003 boasted a population nearly the size of Sacramento, Calif., the number of residents living in the city along the Euphrates River was reduced to a mere trickle, more akin to that of a small town, he recalled.
"There were multiple buildings that are like five-, six-, seven-, eight-story apartment buildings -- huge, and totally empty," he said. "You'd walk into a house and everything's there: There's food in the fridge; there's clothes in the dresser. The people just moved."
The staff sergeant soon realized why residents had abandoned their homes. Insurgents in Ramadi, a majority Sunni Muslim city, were violently attacking local citizens. In the midst of intense fighting, they extorted shop owners' profits. They hiked prices at gas stations and skimmed sales revenues.
"The insurgents definitely made it a bad place to live for the civilians there," the staff sergeant, a 10-year Marine veteran, said.
For Costa, who decided as a boy to join the U.S. military to help the "greater good," the bleak situation in besieged Ramadi presented an opportunity to uphold the principles of selfless duty.
Costa said roughly 90 percent of the missions he and his men carried out involved protecting roads, called main supply routes, traveled by coalition convoys. Primarily, the unit prevented insurgents from emplacing improvised explosive devices along the roadside or thwarted attempts by enemy fighters to ambush passing vehicles.
But Costa also dedicated a portion of his time to cracking the insurgents' methods of communication.
"Generally there was a guy putting up gang signs, which could either send a rocket-propelled grenade through your window or some other attack your way," said Costa, who began to realize the significance of unarmed people on Ramadi's streets providing information via visual cues.
"You're watching something on the street like that happening, and you're like, 'What the hell is that guy doing?'" he recalled. "And then the next thing you know, insurgents start coming out of the woodwork."
"Signalers" -- the eyes and ears of insurgent leaders -- informed the insurgent strategists who commanded armed fighters by using hand and arm gestures. "You could see the signaler commanding troops," Costa recalled. "He just doesn't have a weapon."
To curb insurgents' ability to communicate, Costa decided on a revolutionary move: He and his unit would dismantle the enemy's communication lines by neutralizing the threat from signalers. Sparing no time, he set a tone in Ramadi that signalers would be dealt with no differently from their weapon-wielding insurgent comrades.
"We called it in that we heard guys were signaling, and the battalion would advise from there," he said, recalling the first day of the new strategy. "We locked that road down pretty well that day."
In ensuing weeks, coalition forces coordinated efforts to dismember the insurgent signal patterns entrenched in Ramadi. This helped tamp down violence and create political breathing room, which in turn allowed the forging of key alliances between local tribal sheiks and coalition operators. The subsequent progress was later dubbed the "Anbar Awakening," a societal purging of extremism by Anbaris that ushered in a level of stability unprecedented since U.S. operations in Iraq began.
"In the end, it turned out that Ramadi did a complete 180," Costa said. "I got pictures in September from the unit that had relieved us, and I just couldn't believe it. I didn't think I was looking at the same city."
Ironically, in Ramadi -- the city formerly paralyzed by insurgents, where Costa was unable to set foot in public during daylight hours upon arrival -- citizens participated in a 5K "Fun Run" in September.
Before departing Ramadi, Costa himself could safely patrol the city's streets on foot. "In my last mission there, I was out running around during the day," he said. "That really blew my hair back."