By Army Sgt.1st Class Jon Soucy
United States Division–Center Iraq
CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq (4/12/11) - Many of the positive changes and progress that has taken place in Iraq over the past few years has been a direct result of the efforts of the service members deployed there, said Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates during a recent visit with Soldiers from United States Division – Center at Camp Liberty, Iraq.
“The difference that you and those like you have made in this country is evident around you every single day,” said Gates. “You’ve gone from establishing Joint Security Stations, that I visited in Baghdad in 2007, to now and [fulfilling] the advise and assist role. It marks the progress that you and those that have sacrificed so much have brought about.”
Gates reiterated that because of those efforts, the U.S. drawdown in Iraq is continuing as scheduled and that any continued presence beyond December would have to come from a direct request from the Iraqi government.
“That’s basically a decision for the Iraqi government to make,” he said.
Gates also said that as the drawdown continues, he doesn’t want to see the Army as a whole lose out on the experience and knowledge that Soldiers have gained, especially at the company level.
“I gave a speech at West Point and I talked about both this war and the war in Afghanistan being, essentially, the captains’ wars,” said Gates. “These are fundamentally small-unit wars. We’re not dealing with corps in the field, or divisions in the field, but, at the largest the brigade and a lot at the battalion and the company and the platoon level.”
That has led, said Gates, to increased responsibilities at lower levels.
“A lot of younger officers, company grade officers – and NCOs for that matter – have been given a lot of responsibility, a lot of independence, a lot of freedom to innovate,” said Gates. “[They have had] to do things differently and deal with a whole range of issues, everything from shooting the enemy to holding village [meetings] or building roads or a hundred other things like that.”
Gates said that experience should be used in positive ways throughout the military.
“What I talked about at West Point was my worry about what happens when the men and women who have been given that kind of freedom and that kind of opportunity come back and end up in a closet in the Pentagon preparing (briefing) slides,” he said.
That experience level has also led to an unprecedented level of readiness within the military, said Gates.
“We now have the most battle-hardened – and senior military guys will tell you – best military that we have had. I’d hate to see us squander it after we’re out of active combat by not having innovative, open-minded personnel policies that take advantage of the experiences that you all have had in places like Iraq.”
Gates said one way to ensure that experience isn’t wasted is by having those Soldiers teach others and pass on their experiences.
“Some of the things that I’ve talked about are increased opportunities to go back to school, get a degree or a graduate degree,” he said. “Maybe to teach at one of the service schools or any of a variety of experiences, so that you’re not just plucked back down into a cubby hole somewhere in the Pentagon.”
Gates also discussed other issues affecting USD-C Soldiers, such as recent unrest in places like Libya and how that may affect other areas within the Middle East.
“I don’t see any repercussions from Libya coming here,” said Gates, referring to Iraq.
Gates stressed that Iraq is already at the end state that is driving much of the unrest in other areas.
“In terms of the broader disputes and turmoil going on around the region, in a way it’s a measure of what you and the Iraqi [Security Forces] have already achieved,” he said. “Iraq is already where a lot of these other countries want to be. That is, having elections where anybody can run, having people from multiple sectarian groups running and then having a pretty good democratic government.”
Other areas touched on by Gates during a question and answer session with Soldiers from the division included possible changes to Army policy, such as opening combat arms positions to women.
“Frankly, the policy hasn’t caught up with the reality in some respects,” said Gates. “I’m confident that this is an area that is going to change. The timescale of the change, I have no idea.”
But no matter the changes to come, Gates said his big reason for visiting was simply to say thank you.
“I don’t know how many trips I’ve made to Iraq, maybe 14, and this will probably be my last one,” he said. “I just wanted to come and say thank you and tell you that working with you all has been the greatest privilege and the greatest honor of my life.”