Friday, December 01, 2006

Notes from Salah ad Din Province

Last week, I accompanied Major General Caldwell to FOB Summerall -- just outside of Bayji in Salah ad Din Province, about 200km north of Baghdad -- to attend a memorial service for Command Sergeant Major Donovan Watts, the senior NCO for the 1-505 Parachute Infantry Regiment. (The 1-505 PIR is part of the 82nd Airborne, the Division MG Caldwell commanded until April of this year). This was my second excursion to Salah ad Din in the last two months, the previous trip being with Ambassador Khalilzad to FOB Speicher outside Tikrit (Saddam's hometown) to inaugurate Salah ad Din's Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).

Herein are some random notes from the last Friday's trip . . .

-- Because we are travelingg on short notice, we have to fly in a UH-64 provided by Blackwater rather than an Army Blackhawk. Our pilot for the flight was a heavy set contractor with gray hair and a brown mustache, wearing a loose Hawaiian shirt. He looked like the stereotypical Hollywood helicopter pilot who, when not drunk or sleeping, flies the renegade CIA agent/hero into some Third World hot spot that no sane or respectable pilot would go near, providing comic relief along the way. Once we are out of Baghdad, about ten minutes into the flight, I swear I saw him unfold a map on his lap as he was flying, as if to find the directions to Bayji.

-- Because we were flying in civilian chopper, and hence kind of stand out against the autumn Iraqi sky, we travel about 15-20 feet above the deck, at 120 knots for the hour-long flight. Although this allows us to see details of the ground more clearly, it also made the trip feel like an amusement park ride. We barely clear the domes of mosques and pass below the top floor of several high rise apartments. Occasionally, we climb suddenly to avoid the power lines that dot the countryside, than just as quickly dip back down to our “cruising” altitude.

-- Flying over Baghdad, one can see mile after mile of tan, two-story homes stretching out to the horizon, satellite dishes visible on almost every roof. The day before our trip, Sadr City was hit by six car bombs, killing more than 180 Shi'a civilians and wounding 200 more, so the traffic today is relatively light. Many side streets appear to be blocked by the residents with trash or other improvised obstacles in order to prevent VBIEDs. The Iraqi children take advantage of this to play soccer unobstructed in the street. Unlike American cities, the neighborhoods appear to get worse the farther we fly from the city center, until eventually the city’s outskirts are dominated by fields serving as impromptu garbage dumps.

The country side transforms from green fields to a mixture of brown dirt fields bisected either by tall roads sprouting from irrigation canals or rows of palm trees. Soon, the only vegetation visible is the sparse scrub brush sprouting from the white, chalky ground. Eventually, the landscape becomes desert, and old fighting positions for tanks begin to appear. As with the First Gulf War, the Iraqis made the mistake of not digging deep enough into the ground so that the position is not surrounded by an obvious berm of raised dirt, thereby giving away the position from a distance. In addition to the fighting positions, there are much deeper holes dug, with unpaved driveways about 50 feet long, wide enough for two trucks, and descending about 20 feet deep into the desert floor. I saw these on my trip to Tikrit as well, and had no idea what they could be. My best guess is that they are wells, although before the flight I was talking with one of the Blackwater guys relayed a story about four fully loaded Scuds that were just recently dug up, fully intact.

-- The landscape is dotted every few miles with single story, mud brick houses the same color as the surrounding desert. We come across some small farms farther out in the countryside. A man and a woman in a hijab are digging by hand with hoes. I cannot imagine what a rough life it must be for these rural Iraqis to hue a living out of this barren earth. And yet they've been doing this here for thousands of years. On the other hand, we also fly over fields with rows of crops covered with plastic insulation and more modern irrigation/spraying systems.

-- Our gunner, a former Special Forces operator armed to the teeth, makes an effort to wave back to everybody on the ground, who are surprisingly friendly: all the children on small farms we pass, boys shepherding flocks of sheep; a farmer waving a reed at us near a small mosque with the dome destroyed. Not all Iraqis were so friendly: on the trip back to Baghdad, we fly over a boy who appears to try to throw a rock at the trail helicopter.

-- As we cross over the Tigris, tall reeds (somewhere between 12-15 feet high, I'd guess) in which a person could disappear dominate the surrounding marshland. We pass two zaugurats (sp?) (circular pyramids that to most Westerners probably resembles a giant stone Cinnabon), one near a city, the other amidst the ruins in the middle of the desert. We fly over a gleaming white city with a large water tower over a small at a bend in the river. On the way back, we pass an ancient palace whose mud walls are still intact. One of the tragedies of Iraq is that there are so many beautiful old architectural sites that would allow the Iraqis to make a fortune from tourism if they would only stop killing each other.

-- After an hour, we arrive at FOB Summerall, which sits on a plain outside the city of Bayji, home to one of Iraq's largest oil refineries. A long series of hills hovers in the distance. One of the first sites visible after leaving the helicopter pad is a set of three 15-ft. high concrete barriers atop a small rise, standing like ancient obelisks. They are painted with the crests of the units that have served here, and with the names of their dead written below. CSM Donovan Watts is the last name on the 1/505 marker, with the date of 21Nov06 by his name. The 1/505 battalion flag flaps silently in the breeze at half mast.

-- If you have never been to a military memorial service, it is one of the most heart wrenching ceremonies you could imagine, so much so that in the States they usually recommend that family not attend. The most riveting part is a tradition known as "The Final Roll Call." After the chaplain and commander have delivered their eulogies, the company's first sergeant comes to attention and calls the name of a soldier: "Jackson"
A soldier from somewhere in the ranks responds, "Here First Sergeant!"
"Here First Sergeant!"
Silence. . . . "Donovan Watts."
Silence. . . . "Command Sergeant Major Donovan E. Watts."

The final silence sits heavy in the air, bringing with it the realization that your comrade in arms is never coming back. This silence is broken by the first mournful notes of a trumpet slowly playing "Taps."

Although the 82nd Airborne is filled with testosterone laden young men eager to show how physically and mentally tough they are, willing to assume the most dangerous task the military offers, as the trumpet wails there is hardly a dry eye in the formation. CSM Watts was killed by an IED on the 21st after 27 years of military service. One of the worst thing about this war is randomness with which death strikes. It has little correlation to a soldier's skill or experience, as most of the fatal attacks are by unmanned weapons such as IEDs or car bombs that do not give the soldier the chance to fire his weapon in defense. Death here seems more often to be the result of a receiving a losing lottery ticket than due to a lack of tactical proficiency.

-- In front of the battalion formation is a memorial for CSM Watts - a rifle with bayonet point in the ground, a helmet on the rifle butt, with a pair of combat boots on either side. After the service, the paratroopers march in front of the shrine in groups of four, execute a right face when they get to the picture of CSM Watts and render a salute. It takes over half an hour for the entire battalion to pass by, but they clearly would have waited twice that to pay their respects.