Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Back "Inside the Wire"

Greetings, art lovers and military types!

I am once again “inside the wire” at Camp Fallujah, after having gone on two trips to sketch, photograph, video tape, and interview marines out in "Indian Country".

My first trip was to Baharia, to visit the 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division. These gentlemen are members of my old reserve unit, the 24th, so as soon as I heard they were in country I set up a trip to spend time with them. I stayed at Baharia (a former party place for Saddam's son, Uday, which is actually quite lovely, despite all the HESCO barriers and the concertina wire!)

During my nine-day stay with 1/24, I got to go on three convoys into Fallujah, to visit the FOBs in the city. Unfortunately, two of these trips were to attend memorial services for the fallen marines of each of those two units. The third trip was to the Fallujah Mayor's Office compound, to watch and sketch a city council meeting (sketch and pictures to come). This was a very interesting time, as I got to see the local nationals, the great citizens of Fallujah, vent their citizenly frustration at the Col. who commanded the regiment and thus the town.


The proof that democracy is taking root in Fallujah is that the Fallujah City Council meeting was just as long-winded and full of useless citizen venting as any city council meeting anywhere in the USA! We're winning! The meeting was loosely run by the council's secretary (as the normal presiding official had been recently murdered) and the meeting meandered through several topics, many of which were complaints about how the marines are treating the people.

I must say that these complaints, though heartfelt and sincere on the part of the citizenry, where utterly and completely untrue, and based solely on rumor and hearsay (examples: that the marines were shooting Iraqi Police, that marines shot several Iraqi women, and that marines were keeping schools from opening-- none of it true.)

The Regimental Commander handled it smoothly and professionally, consistently reassuring the council and the people that the marines were committed to the welfare of the people of Fallujah and to helping them live a better life. I admire his tact and his calm in handling such insults. He only got a little agitated when the leader of schools brought up the part about the closing of schools. At this, the Colonel told them firmly that they were being insulting, and that they shouldn't come to him with such baseless accusations. He then firmly told them of how much the marines had been involved in helping ensure that Iraqi children went to school, and how the people of Fallujah had no better friend to the schools than the US Marines.

I wouldn't have been able to keep a straight face with half of the "issues" brought up at the meeting. But I guess that's why the Colonel gets paid the big bucks; nobody gets to that rank without being one cool customer.

On 9 November, I returned to Camp Fallujah for a few days, to work on some paintings based on the experiences at Baharia and Fallujah.

Yet before I could finish the art I’d been working on, I got word of some things of interest happening northwest of Fallujah, toward Ramadi. The 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, based in Habbaniyah, was scheduled to turn over their area of operation to elements of the Iraqi Army and in preparation for this, were going out on joint patrols with the IA, to show them the ropes and show them the turf.

This I had to be a part of-- so I got a flight up to TQ (airbase Al Taqqadum) on 16 Nov and was driven to Habbaniyah. (Why I didn’t get a direct flight to Habbaniyah has to do with the fact that I’m a newbie, and that I thought the unit was stationed in Ramadi… I’ll spare you the details!)

I was driven out to one of the OPs (Observation Posts) in an area called the Shark’s Fin, along the Euphrates River. The OP was called “OP Chargers” (also called Patrol Base Chargers), run by Lima Company, 3/2, commanded by a very capable Captain who seems cut out for infantry command (details later). I got to go out on my first patrol on the 18th of November, with, and a platoon of IA soldiers, commanded by a Captain who seems cut out for relating to the Iraqi people.

We walked and talked to several of the local leaders, and some citizens as well. The Iraqi commander hit it off really well with the people, which bodes well for the passivity of the area in the future, and for such transitions to Iraqi control in other areas. He walked with an air of confidence, and never pulled his weapon from its place, slung across his back (he seemed to need his hands to talk!). I felt this was excellent, as I have heard that the Iraqis respect strength and confidence, and don’t respect when soldiers or marines point their weapons or have them at the ready.

My second patrol was with the Battalion Commander and his JUMP Team, not only to talk to some of the citizens, but also to call in an air strike on a local house, which had been a known insurgent’s home, and a safe-house for bad activity.

I got a good sketch of the marine who called in the air strike, and a lot of good photos and video of it as well (man, I must say that 1000 lb. and 500 lb. bombs make a lot of noise and break a lot of things!).

My third patrol was once again with Lima Co and elements of the Iraqi Army, but this time it included several US Navy SEALs, who were training the IA, and had an interest in knowing the area as well. Those guys are smooth operators… that’s worth a whole post in and of itself!

I saw my first dead insurgent on this patrol, one of two that had been killed by Lima Company a couple days before (in a firefight in which the Captain mentioned before had a dud grenade fall at his feet! This didn’t stop him-- he stood up, went forward, and led his men as they killed the insurgents with grenades and small arms fire).

This day we only saw the remnants of their work. Once again, as in my previous two patrols, we saw no enemy and didn’t fire a shot. (This is fine with me, as it shows that 3/2 has becoming more and more successful in pacifying this area).

I spent a couple of days with India Company, further west towards Ramadi, which was less pacified—I wasn’t taken on any patrols, but certainly heard quite a few explosions, both ours and theirs, as I stayed at OP Bears, and OP Steelers.

I’ve got a lot of art to work on— I’ll post them as they are completed, and I’ll make sure the sketches I have finished already are posted in the next day or two.

Thanks for your patience, and for your thoughts and prayers.

Semper Fi