By Army Spc. Michael J. MacLeod
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 22, 2009 - Early morning in the combat outpost was like that hour before sun up on a Louisiana frog pond, with rumbling, bullfrog snores and socks stinking like pond muck from days of bathing in boot dust and sweat. Carried on the morning dew, the smell of 40 grimy infantrymen racked out in a room too small for morning vapors best described as weaponized funk. Automatic-weapons fire through the night rasped like knuckles against sleep. There were mortars popping, calls down the hall for a patrol, for a gunner, for a medic.
The preceding day's mission had escaped the grip of these 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers here to provide backup for Iraqi police officers and soldiers as the town of Suliyah tried to open a new police station. A female suicide bomber had slipped past Iraqi security forces and detonated herself at the base of the inaugural podium.
Well, some 4,000 people took a notion that she did. It wasn't like she was really dead or even blown up. In fact, she was filling a cup at the water cooler.
Welcome to 1st Brigade Combat Team's rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center, where a day in "the box" is worth a month in Iraq, and notional events beget combat readiness.
"Just today, we've had four indirect-fire attacks, a suicide bomber, an improvised explosive device, and five separate incidents of direct fire, with one lasting a full hour," said Army Capt. James A. Horn, a quick, stocky Texan who commands C Company, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. "When you integrate both the combat actions with the utilities assessments, civil affairs, and partnerships with the local police and army, you really see everything that you're going to get into in Iraq, but in a much abbreviated timeline."
Suliyah was a town of some two dozen buildings nestled in Louisiana pines; its citizens and dignitaries are contract role players. Other soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C., were brought in — with orders not to shave — to play Iraqi police soldiers. A busload of Arab-speaking interpreters was brought in to bridge the assumed language barrier.
The rifles, machine guns and mortars were real, but the bullets were blanks, and the rifles fired only lasers that killed only sensors that all parties, security forces and civilians, wore. The suicide bomber was from around these parts.
One might assume that in a notional world, there would be heroes in every Humvee, but in fact, nobody wanted to die. The weapons in the paratroopers' hands were the very ones they would be carrying into Iraq in a few short months, and even in play, the soldiers of Charlie Company were serious about their business.
The police station inauguration was postponed for a day, but insurgents countered. They executed the mayor in his own home.
Instead of backing down, the Iraqi role players and Americans pressed on. Security nets were wrapped around the town, intelligence was analyzed, and the bad characters were sought out.
The job was not a natural shift for paratroopers accustomed to kicking in doors, 3rd Platoon leader Army 2nd Lt. John J. Griffin said. With the new security agreement between the United States and Iraq, the rules have changed on what U.S. forces can and can't do. They are to advise and assist, and the days of operating independently of the Iraqis are past, he said.
"It's hard when you know someone is bad, and you're not allowed to go after them into a building," said the young, freckled, redheaded lieutenant. "All you can do is to watch them from outside and try to get your Iraqi counterparts to help build a portfolio on them so that they can arrest them," he said.
At times, the training was humbling for America's "shock troops," Griffin said. "There's still a lot for us to learn to transition from door kickers to a police, advisor role. We're realizing that we're going to have to step up our game," he said.
The new rules of engagement are meant to limit collateral damage to innocents on the battlefield, but the battlefield at times makes itself king.
"We were hit by a rocket-propelled grenade attack yesterday in Suliyah and took 17 casualties, which wiped out a lot of the security of our company here," Griffin said. Charlie Company was forced to bring in people from outside to help to secure the town.
"I talked to the gunners on the rooftop and asked them why they didn't fire at the room where the RPG came from," said Griffin, his freckles lost in a heat-flushed face, fatigues dark with sweat.
They told him they didn't have positive ID.
"Had we been going through this training last year, when our role was less of a police role, the first thing they would have done would have been to light up that room," he said. "We have a lot of young guys who don't yet know how to enforce [rules of engagement], who are afraid they are going to go to jail if they shoot a weapon in a town."
Even so, 3rd Platoon detained four suspected insurgents and found a weapons cache, all working through local Iraqi police on the front lines in and out of doors most of the day, and all without a single casualty to themselves or the Iraqis, Griffin said.
"The Iraqis designed all of the operations," he explained. "We were just there for backup."
However, as they prepared for the second attempt at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the tension in the partnership mounted. Iraqi troops refused to patrol with the Americans at night because they would not give them night-vision optics, and the Americans refused to allow the Iraqis to use flashlights, Horn said.
"Or they can't go on patrol because they don't have enough bullets or gas, or they have a flat tire. A lot of things are tied to their logistics. We've run into all these things here in six hours," he said.
The Denton, Texas, native said that the only thing JRTC could not mimic was the long duration of a tour in Iraq. "The opposition forces do everything they possibly can in a short amount of time," he said.
As contact with the enemy continued, casualties flowed into the aid station manned by Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Miguel A. Brizuela of Weed Army Medical Hospital at Fort Irwin, Calif., and his team of medics. Amid the stink and humidity, the El Salvador-born doctor was happy to be there.
"The training is very real," he said. "Some of the cards don't give you much to play with, but I have made an agreement with my medics that we would try to treat each as real as possible," he said.
Hot chow – the first in many days – brought in an RPG attack, "killing" and "wounding" many of the first to be served. The medics treated bomb victims, gunshot wounds, paratroopers wounded from mortars and RPGs, civilians and even enemy combatants.
Shortly before the rescheduled ceremony, the "Devil Brigade" commander himself, Army Col. Mark R. Stammer, arrived and met with the local commissioner, Iraqi police chief and an Iraqi general "outside of the wire" of the combat outpost. His lack of body armor and helmet are a declaration to the citizens of Suliyah that to day, the good guys will prevail.
The procession is a carnival sight. There are Arab dishdashas and suits, boonie caps and body armor, policeman blues and Army combat uniforms, and cold steel bristling against all agents. Yet the partnered leadership shares one brash goal – it seems brash even in this notional world – to stand up against the roadmen who haunt all ages and generations, who think nothing of stealing the dignity and humanity of their very neighbors in the name of some this or that.
They walk a block to the new police station, where chairs, a podium and a bright red ribbon are waiting. The citizens gather like iron filings to an anvil. Everyone wonders which one is strapped with the bomb today. The old Iraqi man on the wheelchair scooter? A widow among wives on the lawn?
The local commissioner, Raffi ibn Rashid Ghazi Hasani, is a dignified gentleman, tall with wispy black hair and graying stubble. He looks Iraqi, as many of the leading role players are. Even in this assumed role, there is a feeling that the passion in his speech is authentic.
"Today is a very sad day with the loss of our mayor, but also at the same time, this is a new day for us to look forward," the commissioner says. "Frankly, I know that among my neighbors, the citizens of Hamza Qadaa, there are many brave people who want to protect themselves and their country.
"It has been five years that we have shed our blood to bring about a democratic Iraq, and God willing, I am very optimistic that people will come forward to sign up to work in the army and police forces," he continues. "I have talked to the division commander of the Iraqi army, the main chiefs of the Hamza district, and Colonel Stammer, and we have come up with a plan to bring security and stability to the civilians, and God willing, it will spread out all over the Hamza."
The speech draws applause and appears to genuinely move many in the audience.
The police chief pledges to bring new police stations to other areas. When the ribbon is cut, he says, it will mark not only a new police station, but also a new era in the partnership to bring peace to Iraq.
And the ribbon is cut.
Two mortar rounds burst nearby, but miss their target. The so-called "OPFOR," or opposing forces of JRTC, have been unable to carry the day this time. The Iraqi police and army and the American paratroopers have learned from their mistakes. As with all military operations, the exact tactics are closely held. The soldiers of Charlie Company roll on and continue to do what they do in spite of the heat and spartan living conditions.
"Yesterday, the commissioner was not satisfied with security or the cooperation between Iraqi security forces and coalition forces," said Army Lt. Col. Trevor Bredenkamp, the battalion commander who was on the scene for the event both days. "He told the Iraqi 5th Division commander that we needed a better plan before conducting the ceremony. We worked with the Iraqis to ensure the police conducted better internal security today.
Unfortunately, yesterday could be seen as a victory for the insurgency," he continued, "but the opening was not our decision, but the commissioner's decision. They are taking the lead, and we will respect that. Today, we had better coordination and synchronization between the police, the Iraqi army, and the coalition forces. It was a success, but don't congratulate me. Congratulate the Iraqis."
(Army Spc. Michael J. MacLeod serves with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team public affairs office.)