By Army Capt. John Landry
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 27, 2009 - Most field artillery troops don't expect to work in civil affairs support, but that's the way it is with the quickly changing role of U.S. forces here. For many field artillery units, nonstandard missions have become a way of life, and the 2nd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery, Task Force Pathfinder, is no different. As part of the Army's first Advise and Assist Brigade, the Pathfinders provide military support to developing civil capacity across three provinces in southern Iraq.
Working closely with provincial reconstruction teams -- which are U.S. State Department teams composed of a range of experts in governance, agriculture and similar fields -- the task force cooperates with Iraqi partners to develop local economies, reinforce stable and responsive local government and provide essential services. Army Lt. Col. Mike Eastman, Task Force Pathfinder commander, said he believes this is critical to the long-term success of Iraq.
"We must focus our efforts on projects and programs that are sustainable, not only after this task force departs, but after all coalition forces depart from Iraq," Eastman said. "The PRTs are in the lead. This task force supports their efforts at many levels, providing everything from security and movement to coordinating literally hundreds of projects designed to improve the quality of life for the Iraqi people. Our efforts are not oriented on the months that we will be here. They are focused on the years after we depart."
The Pathfinders created a unique organizational structure, including additional lawyers, engineers, health professionals and a variety of technical experts, all working to assist their State Department and Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry counterparts.
On the ground, this support includes movement teams that help coalition forces to get out and interact with local Iraqis. In addition, the task force provides logistical support and secure basing for reconstruction team personnel.
"The task force's subject matter experts and strategic approach to our goals could be a huge enabler for us," said Ethan Bond, director of Project Compass, a part of the reconstruction team in Dhi Qar.
The Pathfinders also are responsible for the Commander's Emergency Response Program. These funds are allocated to specific projects and programs to address emergency needs across Dhi Qar, Maysan and Muthanna provinces.
Commander's program funds have brought clean water and power to numerous cities and villages while bringing Iraqis into the process to ensure these projects will be sustained by local governments.
Members of the task force are not necessarily subject-matter experts on governance and economic development, but that has not impeded the mission.
"Our soldiers have adapted and shown the ability to positively impact any mission," said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Hector Font, Task Force Pathfinder senior enlisted leader. "These great young Americans have stepped up to the plate and are truly [valuable] to this mission."
Many of the Pathfinders prepared for this new role by receiving training on subjects ranging from basic Arabic to project management.
Within 30 days of their arrival in Iraq, Task Force Pathfinder soldiers began to impact the way the military interacts with reconstruction team members.
"The new job shows me a whole new side of what we are a capable of and all the things we can accomplish for the people of Iraq and that makes me proud," said Army Pfc. Marcus Moser, an assistant resource manager for civil military operations. "It's a complete 180 [degrees] from what we are trained to do coming out of basic training or in artillery."
Both Task Force Pathfinder and the reconstruction teams share the goal of a stable, self-sustaining and prosperous Iraq. While in its early stages, this partnership already has brought rapid improvements to the Iraqi people's quality of life.
"You might think that soldiers would not be excited about rebuilding a country, that they were not trained for this mission," Eastman said. "We are finding the exact opposite. This gives our soldiers the chance to impact hundreds of lives each day. The Iraqi people want the same thing each of us desire: a safe place to live, access to basic needs like water and power, and the chance for a brighter future for their children."
(Army Capt. John Landry serves with the 1st Armored Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team).