Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Concerned Local Citizens

Death toll in Iraq continues to fall

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD -- October is on course to record the second consecutive monthly decline in U.S. military and Iraqi civilian deaths, and U.S. commanders say they know why: the U.S. troop increase and an Iraqi groundswell against al Qaeda and Shiite militia extremists.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch points to what the military calls "concerned citizens" -- Shiites and Sunnis who have joined the American fight.

He says he's signed up 20,000 of them in the past four months.

"I've never been more optimistic than I am right now with the progress we've made in Iraq. The only people who are going to win this counterinsurgency project are the people of Iraq. We've said that all along. And now they're coming forward in masses," Lynch said in a recent interview at a U.S. base deep in hostile territory south of Baghdad. Lynch commands the 3rd Infantry Division and once served as the military spokesman in Baghdad. Outgoing artillery thundered as he spoke.

As of Tuesday, the Pentagon reported 28 U.S. military deaths in October. The toll on U.S. troops hasn't been this low since March 2006, when 31 soldiers died. In September, 65 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq.

Part of the trend can be seen in a volatile and violent band of lush agricultural land on Baghdad's southern border.

The commander of the battle zone, Lt. Col. Val Keaveny, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry (Airborne), said his unit has lost only one soldier in the past four months despite intensified operations against Shiite and Sunni extremists, including powerful al Qaeda in Iraq cells.

Keaveny attributes the startling decline to a drop in attacks by militants who are being rounded up in big numbers on information provided by citizens.

The efforts to recruit local partners began taking shape this year in the western province of Anbar, which had become the virtual heartland for Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda bands. The early successes in Anbar, coming alongside a boost of 30,000 U.S. troops in the Baghdad area, led to similar alliances in other parts of Iraq.

"People are fed up with fear, intimidation and being brutalized. Once they hit that tipping point, they're fed up, they come to realize we truly do provide them better hope for the future. What we're seeing now is the beginning of a snowball," Keaveny said.

(Entire article here.)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Not All Graffiti is Bad

PS: Thanks for the awesome ideas for plant names. They were all so good, I need more plants! I tried out the suggested names to see what the plant would answer to. He (it's a boy) responded best to "Spike." Thanks again!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Welcome to My World

Dear Folks,

Happy Birthday, US Navy!!!

I’ve been requested to write about my everyday surroundings and routine. I’ll do my very, very best to make this interesting.

The way the Army runs things, there is no separation of male and female, officer and enlisted housing (roommates are of similar rank and gender). So I am surrounded mostly by guys who were born in the late 80’s. People are up and about all hours of the day and night, playing guitar, smoking, surfing the internet, talking on Iraqna cell phones, hauling their laundry. We live in a neighborhood that is a maze of giant blast walls and trailers. There is no grass; we trudge through gravel and dust. It will soon be mud.

There is a string of beautiful palm trees near my hooch.

The rows of trailers are punctuated by bigger latrine/shower trailers and drop-off points for the ubiquitous plastic bottles of water, produced on base at a purification plant.

Getting up is the worst part of the day; it always has been for me. Here it is made almost unbearable by two things: having to walk outside out in the open among God and everyone to the latrine -- and boot blousings.

There is no sink in our hooch, and in this way shipboard life compares favorably. Also, on the ship the walk to the head is usually short and relatively private. Not so here. If I could just wash my face before returning all those salutes….

For reasons I cannot explain, I hate blousing my boots every morning. (For the unfamiliar, this involves hooking a piece of elastic around your boot and tucking the hem of your trousers underneath it, to make a blousing effect.) But I may have found a work around for this. Recently, a salty petty officer showed me how he had elastic sewn into the bottom of his trou for $3 a pop.

I hoof it just about everywhere, which I like. Our group of EWOs has two NTVs (non-tactical vehicles) at our disposal, but I am worse at driving a HMMWV (“humvee”) than a regular car, if that’s possible. I figure I won’t hurt myself or anyone else while walking, probably. Plus, it’s free exercise. So I walk about half a mile to work. If I stop by the DFAC (dining facility) on the way, it’s about ¾ of a mile all together. I pack heat wherever I go.

Pimp my ride!

On the way to work, I hike down a major thoroughfare, and I get to see all sorts of Army vehicles rumbling by: Strykers, Bradleys, HEMTTs, etc. Frankly, if I were a bad guy, they’d scare the snot out of me.

Recently, this sign was posted.

I am extremely fortunate when it comes to where I work. Some of my compatriots work out of conex boxes and/or plywood shacks out at the patrol bases, but I’m in a real building, reportedly built by SeaBees. My office has a working TV and mini-fridge, and is big enough for everyone to have their own desk. We are mostly Navy, but we have a couple of civilian tech reps in our office as well. These guys are attached to Army units and have, in some cases, worked with and deployed with the same unit for years. They extend right along with their units, too.

The building is pretty ghetto compared to US standards: uneven asphalt floors and no plumbing. But you get used to porta-potties and Purell. (And porta-potties can’t really break.) The power goes out just occasionally, taking with it phones and internet. The A/C, when powered, works extremely well. The “O’Reilly Factor” comes on the Armed Forces Network (AFN) at 1300 local Baghdad time and we tune in religiously.

We have to keep our body armor and Kevlar helmets nearby. Before I got here, some industrious soul built these little trees for the purpose.

We use the bottled water to make our coffee several times a day. And we never settle for sub-par coffee. After all, we are in the Navy!

Thanks for reading.
(If I get positive feedback from this posting, I’ll continue to write on this theme.)


Sunday, October 7, 2007

Exceptionally Heroic Conduct

Today, I'd like to share with you the Silver Star Medal citation of a soldier in my battalion. The citation description is much longer than many; you can see that it was not a single moment of decision for Master Sergeant Gagne, but his entire conduct, the totality of the way he fights and lives, that earned him the award. Unlike many awards of this level, it was not awarded posthumously. The narrative describes the kinds of challenges this battalion's soldiers have faced daily for the last 14 months.

These are the types of guys and gals I have the privilege of serving with every day. And the way they conduct themselves, the way they protect their ideals, and the way they value life, make them unique in history.

Citation: The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star Medal to Eric Gagne, Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, for exceptionally heroic conduct in the performance of outstanding service to the United States as the Reconnaissance Platoon Sergeant for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2d Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2d Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, Camp Striker, from 28 October 2006 to 7 March 2007, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, 06-08.

His gallantry in the days following the Battalion's seizure of the Yusufiya Thermal Power Plant (YTPP) and subsequent offensive operations greatly contributed to the establishment of a foothold in the highly contested Euphrates River Valley (ERV) tribal lands and the Brigade's success in eliminating a former Sunni extremist safe haven in Al Qaeda's self- declared Baghdad Southern Belt.

On 28 October 2006, Master Sergeant Gagne led the Reconnaissance Platoon on a screening mission in support of a series of cordon and search operations with Company A, 2d Battalion, 14th Infantry in vicinity of Qarghuli Road and Route Caveman. At approximately 0500 hours as his team moved into a palm grove, he noticed a copper wire, halted the patrol, and used his tactical aim light with infrared filter to trace the wire to a choke point on the southeast side of the power plant's wall. The choke point was on Company A, 2d Battalion, 14th Infantry's planned ingress route. Having discovered a possible improvised explosive device (IED), he continued into the palm grove as a guide so the company could avoid being engaged in the insurgent's planned IED kill zone. The other end of the wire led into the palm grove where it was tied to a palm tree in an area littered with fresh foot prints and matted grass indicative of an active IED site.

Maximizing the use of micro-terrain and camouflage, he established a hide about 15 feet from the trigger point for immediate interdiction if the triggerman arrived. At 1309 hours, a local national male moved toward the trigger point. Master Sergeant Gagne noticed a boy following the man and decided against the use of deadly force to prevent traumatizing or injuring the youth. He waited for the triggerman to divert his attention before exposing himself, overpowering, and detaining the man and boy at great personal risk to himself.

As the patrol continued movement, Master Sergeant Gagne discovered a white grain sack containing an IED initiation system, a video camera, and a black mask. The triggerman indicated the presence of more "Koombalas" (bombs) in the area. The triggerman drew a map in the dirt detailing the location of another IED that Master Sergeant Gagne deciphered to be the intersection of Route Malibu and Qarghuli road. He immediately notified the Alpha Company element already en route and had them halt their patrol and change their route to avoid the possible IED.

Master Sergeant Gagne's recon team moved to the intersection and verified the presence of a command wire. They then moved to an overwatch position to cover Alpha's withdrawal. After the mission, an Explosive and Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team determined the first IED to be three 155-mm. artillery rounds and the second to be a forty pound directional charge.

On 6 November 2006, Master Sergeant Gagne led a patrol to overwatch the container yard to the east of the YTPP to deny its use by Sunni insurgents. At 1930 hours, the team entered a building whose balcony he intended to use as an observation post (OP). The patrol halted in place when a pressure plate was found at the foot of the stairs. The element exited by retracing their steps while he interrogated the pressure plate. He led them to another building to set up the OP, but they were forced to conduct a deliberate clearance when numerous IED components were found scattered throughout the building.

In the midst of the ensuing search, an IED composed of five artillery rounds was found atop the building's "false ceiling". The search also yielded numerous chemicals, scales, mixing devices, and a fair amount of hair clippings. The Combined Explosives Exploitation Cell (CEXC) assessed the location to be a "suicide bomber's lair" yielding the name of a known Al Qaeda member amidst pervasive insurgent propaganda and graffiti.

On 30 JAN 07, Master Sergeant Gagne led a five-man interdiction team in support of TF 4-31's Operation Polar Ice in vicinity of Route Caveman. They established an overwatch position near a presumably abandoned house that in fact contained 24 local nationals, including women and children. At 0958 hours, five armed individuals in a Bongo truck arrived at the apparent insurgent safe house. Master Sergeant Gagne audaciously attempted to detain the gunmen, resulting in a brief but fierce firefight. Two of the insurgents managed to escape, however three insurgents were detained with various weapons, ammunition, and fraudulent identification cards.

On 7 March 2007, Master Sergeant Gagne again led the recon platoon on a long-range reconnaissance patrol and screening mission in support of Operation Avalanche Landing. He covertly infiltrated deep into openly hostile territory rife with infighting among rival insurgent groups vying for supremacy. En route to their final overwatch position, he encountered two groups of insurgents engaged in armed combat near Route Trailblazers. The recon element sought cover and concealment in hopes of remaining unnoticed, but then became engaged by a three-man insurgent machine gun team. Master Sergeant Gagne gallantly exposed himself to the withering machine gun fire, neutralized the enemy position, and forced the enemy withdrawal. After capturing the enemy machine gun, he then occupied an abandoned house south to overwatch the Task Force main effort during the interrogation and removal of two semi-trucks and trailers suspected of being enormous VBIEDs.

Master Sergeant Gagne continued to provide timely aid when they were unexpectedly called upon to secure a 13-vehicle logistics patrol that was halted on Route Mustangs by a massive IED destruction of one of their vehicles. Master Sergeant Gagne and a small element interrogated and marked two potential IEDs ensuring the safety of recovery assets and the safe extraction of all coalition forces off the objective and the heavy IED-laden Route Mustangs.

Master Sergeant Gagne's superb execution of reconnaissance and sniper operations ensured he was always at the forefront of the battle against a very elusive and determined enemy. While leading the battalion's initial reconnaissance effort around the YTPP by personally locating and marking numerous IEDs, his gallant actions prevented significant U.S. casualties. His numerous exploits of marked distinction and courage in support of various Task Force missions greatly contributed to the permanent presence of U.S. forces in the former Al Qaeda safe-haven and to the Task Force's success throughout AO Dragon.

Born: at Francestown, New Hampshire
Home of Record: Francestown, New Hampshire

Monday, October 1, 2007

A Sign You Might Be In Iraq

There are a lot of signs around here -- I mean the placard type, not the divine type. I don't know where they come from or who makes them. But something about them fascinates me, perhaps the thought that the sign poster was oblivious to the humor or irony. Or perhaps it's the uniqueness of these signs to Iraq. I've selected a few for your enjoyment. I didn't get a shot of the sign said, "Potable Water, Do Not Drink." There are a few more out there I'm targeting for a Part II.

Someone had to explain to me what this meant. I thought it was just a gung-ho hooah thing.

From an Al Faw Palace terrace. I guess this was a problem.

Not what you want to find posted on the office bulletin board.

You'll know if you're authorized.

From inside a porta-potty. I like this one for the apparent universality of disapproving smiley faces. (For an explanation of why this sign is necessary, I'll have to email you off line -- it's too disgusting for public consumption.)