Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 28, 2007 - They have their differences. In fact, they often don't even speak the same language. But U.S. servicemembers and the Iraqi people here have the same goal: security and stability for Iraq's Anbar province. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Robert Sanders, operations chief for Battery K, 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, helps to bridge the cultural gap.
Sanders developed an understanding of Arab culture during his upbringing in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He was born at Fort Benning, Ga., but his father's discharge from the Army after the Vietnam War led to a job as an oil field worker, which kept the family on the move.
Now Sanders' own travels have taken him back to a familiar culture, but with his new extended family -- his fellow Marines.
"Staff Sergeant Sanders is our bid for success in the villages," said Marine Corps 1st Lt. Matthew Thompson, executive officer for the battery. "He has found his niche in working with the Iraqis. He can communicate with the Iraqis without an interpreter, and they can communicate with him."
Thompson, a Presho, S.D., native, credits Sanders with helping to gain rapport between Marines and the people in the nearby village of Kabani. In addition to the battery's plans to build a new water treatment plant, a rebuilt school now stands as a testament to the coordination between the Marines and the villagers.
Sanders has put his cultural and linguistic skills to use for the military before. He lived among the Iraqi people for seven months at the East Fallujah Iraqi Compound during his 2004 deployment.
He supervised civilian contractors there and grew comfortable with the Iraqi people and their lifestyle, even getting used to the food and water to the point where returning to his old eating habits upset his stomach when he returned to the United States, he said.
Things were different then, the staff sergeant said. This was before thousands in Anbar province turned against the insurgency to cooperate with coalition forces in what came to be known as the "Anbar Awakening."
"I remember sitting at Fallujah, and you could sit up on a Hesco barrier and you could watch car bombs exploding in the distance," said Sanders. "Every night, we'd sit out there on the Hescos and smoke cigars, and you could watch tracers shoot across the sky. You don't hear that anymore."
Bonding with the people, he said, was a major part of the solution. Sanders has held classes to further his Marines' understanding of the Arabic language and culture.
"It definitely makes our job a lot easier," said Lance Cpl. Hunter Leger, a fire team leader with the battery. "We've been able to handle things without having to call someone up."
Leger, a Lake Charles, La., native, said he and his colleagues are knowledgeable enough to work the entry control points without the help of an interpreter. As one of Sanders' Marines at their home station of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., he said he's developed a respect for the staff sergeant's professionalism. It seems many of the local Iraqis have done the same.
When the battery sends Marines to Kabani to coordinate with the muqtar, or mayor, he first asks them 'Where is Abu Iskander?' in reference to Sanders, the father of Alexander.
As Sanders has with many of the village's people, he has developed a friendship with the muqtar, who jokes that the Marine could win over enough popularity in the town to beat him out for his position in the next election.
"The people like him too much," Muqtar Ismail Mohmood Hamad said. "They come in from time to time to see what's going on, and he always likes to help the people."
(Marine Corps Cpl. Andrew Kalwitz serves with the 2nd Marine Logistics Group.)