On our way from Habbaniyah to Camp Al-Asad, further west in Al Anbar province, we found ourselves out on the tarmac at Camp TQ awaiting our helo. After 15 bone-chilling minutes out on the cold and windy tarmac, we were rescued by a Marine from the ground crew, explaining that there'd be a delay and inviting us to share his crew's quarters - a Conex box, roughly half the size of a shipping container. In the blackout conditions, we sat in the light of the red and green chem-lights. To pass the time, one of the men grabbed another's iPod, mentioning out loud the musical selections found. A variety of ingenious and occasionally unprintable critiques of the various artists and songs were offered up.
We made it into Al-Asad about 5 AM and got a few welcome hours of sleep at the tent city. Later in the morning we were greeted by Marine Captain Mike Alvarez of Virginia (as shown here), a Public Affairs Officer at the base. As one indication of the progress that has been made, Captain Alvarez mentioned that when his unit arrived here in February of this year, there were no police officers in the Regimental Combat Team's area of operations - stretching over more than 30,000 square miles. After an active campaign of recruiting and training, there are now about 3,000 Iraqi police officers patrolling communities throughout the area.
Captain Alvarez had arranged a great schedule of events for the day. We began at the base's field hospital, where two Navy corpsmen shared their stories. On the way to our next stop, we ducked into a small PX. I introduced myself to a Marine there, who told me he was from Brooklyn. When I mentioned that my late father Arthur had been an Assistant Principal at Bushwick HS, the Marine proclaimed "that's where I went!" It was wonderful to make that connection. We then visited the base library/rec room, known as the Grotto. I was amused to find The Colbert Report playing on the wide-screen TV. The walls are lined with literally thousands of paper-backs, donated by people back home. My trip-mate Dave Kelso interviewed a number of Marines for his radio show back in Oklahoma City. Dave has an amazing ability to draw people out and make them feel comfortable. He gave every man the chance to send their Thanksgiving greetings to the folks back home.
Me with Enrique RomeroThen it was on to the Military Transition Team HQ here. As virtually everywhere our military operates across Iraq, training Iraqi security forces to assume operational responsibility is a key element of the work. LTC Brannigan and 1LT Quinlan explained that Iraqi recruits are typically given about 45 days of training. Only half the length of Marine boot camp, but sufficient to get recruits to an acceptable entry-level standard. While most of the recruits are Shia, many from the south, the majority of officers are Sunni. As part of the training, the recruits are encouraged to put aside sectarian differences and appreciate that a greater Iraq is possible when people think of themselves as Iraqis first and come together to form one nation. Obviously there much work remains to be done in this regard. But the experience of people from all groups and regions serving together can be an important step in the right direction.
Later I chatted with another Navy Corpsman, Petty Officer 2nd Class Enrique Romero. At one point I asked him to explain what it was like the first time he had to implement out in the field all the excellent training he had received. Here is how he quietly described what happened: as part of his duties, corpsman Romero regularly accompanies convoys out into hostile territory. On one such mission, the convoy was hit by an IED. Romero sustained significant injuries to his chin, neck and shoulder and was knocked down and out. When he regained his bearings, he realized two things - first, the explosion was cooking off his unit's own ammo in the truck, randomly setting off potentially deadly rounds. Second, there were a number of men more badly injured than himself. Despite his injuries, Romero helped evacuate and treat the badly-injured men until losing consciousness himself.
When I asked if he had been decorated for his actions, he said that he expected to receive a Purple Heart. I couldn't help exclaiming "that's all?" He finally allowed that perhaps other decorations might be in the offing. So there I was, standing in the pure, late-afternoon Iraqi sun, in the presence of a soft-spoken hero. Corpsman Enrique Romero is 20 years old.
Contact Mark at email@example.com