A letter from Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 01-Jul-08 | Author: Timothy Collins

Dear Family and Friends,

It's June and the Iraqi Summer that everyone hears about is finally here - and it's only June. We're really hoping that July, August and September bring some of those dramatic global climate changes we all hear so much about to cool this place off. The best part about this Summer is that due to drought conditions throughout the region, sandstorms are almost a daily occurance now. I'm not talking about little dustdevils whipping through the Midwest. I'm talking Scorpion King Armageddon, hand of god, from the surface to 10,000 feet, you can watch it roll in and engulf everything in it's path as it heads straight for us every time, sandstorm. I've got videos. I attached a couple of pictures below.

I wish I could write you about the "Quagmire" that we're faced with every day. I wish I could tell you about the feeling of hopelessness for a lost cause. I wish I could tell you about the obvious lack of an exit strategy. That might be exciting. I wish I could, but I can't.

What I can tell you about (and show you pictures of) are new bridge openings, school reconstruction and a local government whose capacity to effectively self-govern is growing every week. The local police force is definitely the weakest link, but not without hope. We have embedded Police Transition Teams from the Marine Corps and Army that are doing their best, but they can't hold the Iraq Police's hands forever. The Police were great when there was a lot of fighting. Now they are having some major growing pains learning about and behaving as civil servants. It's hard to give up that AK-47 and machine gun mounted on the back of your Chevy pickup. "To Protect and To Serve" is not in their best interests as far as they are concerned. They lack sufficient training from the Iraqi government, they are mostly young and immature, and worst of all - their logistic support structure is embarrassing. Oh, that and over 100 Iraqi Police in this city haven't been paid in over 8 months! Maybe that's why there are accusations of bribery and thievery by the police. Can you blame them?

This cover story title cracked us all up: "What If We Win?" http://www.the-american-interest.com/ai2/contents.cfm?MId=18

and then of course, there's Rolling Stone: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/13710030/leaving_iraq_the_grim_truth

Oh Rolling Stone . . . Stick to music and the environment. I love it, "The Grim Truth," "Beyond Quagmire." Wow, get over yourself, swear an oath and come out here in a uniform with a clue to see what's really going on . . . What a difference a year makes. The article is dated March 2007.

Every day I watch reconstruction, renovation, and new construction booming. That's about the only thing "booming" around here. Yes, there is still gunfire. Yes, there are still IEDs. Yes, we are still finding, fixing and finishing the bad guy. Too bad for him, his gunfire is sporadic and poorly aimed, his IEDs are weak and ineffective, and he's been found, fixed and finished to the point of being completely irrelevant. The bad guy is a joke. He might have a couple of haymakers, an uppercut or two left in the form of a suicide vest or a chlorine tanker bomb, but we usually know about it before he does.

Meanwhile guys like our Battalion JAG are trying to convince the citizens, government and judicial officials that thousands of years of tribal justice is not the way to go. I think a recent discussion with a prominent leader in Haditha about sums it up: "If we throw this man in jail for 60 years after he kills me, my son will wait 60 years for him to get out of prison and kill him. That is the only justice." It's a little better than that sounds, but not much.

I think the most surreal part of the past three months is how we are fixing everything that we spent five years blowing up. The process is an emotional roller coaster of frustration, sadness, and absolute satisfaction (repeat steps 1-3 every 10 minutes). I spend a few days a month helping our JAG pay for every door we kicked, every window we broke and every TV and refrigerator that we ripped apart looking for hidden weapons and IED making material. Every wall we knocked down with our tanks, every irrigation pipe we ran over with our vehicles, ever artillery shell, bomb, rocket and bullet we threw into this city is being followed by wads of your cash. You are paying to rebuild Iraq. It sounds absurd but it makes sense. We're finishing what we started. We did it after WWII. We're still doing it. You broke it. You buy it. We are following the laws and consequences of the rules of armed conflict even if no one else does. It's what we do. It's why we're America ". . . and You Can Too."

"What if We Win?" Way to go Newsweek and Time Magazine, welcome to the bandwagon. Everyone is jumping on board so you might have to share a seat next to the New York Times and Washington Times.

It's all been very overwhelming to be a part of. To be honest with you, I don't want to leave. Continuity and building personal relationships out here is so important. We're finally getting two feet on the ground, we've finally broke the barriers between us and local key leaders where they are finally giving us honest opinions, we're finally getting a feel for what contributions we can make to improve security and living conditions, and now we're already starting to talk to the unit that is replacing us. Short 6-8 month Marine deployments are great for morale, recruiting and retention, but they don't facilitate the continuity that the current situation requires. That's just a personal opinion though. The continuity comes from year long deployments by the headquarters units and Civil Affairs Group. The continuity comes from a good pass-down or turnover with the unit that's replacing us. Once again, the Marine Corps is doing this right. It just doesn't feel quite right is all. Just thinking about our replacements coming out here in two months makes my stomach turn. I even tried to extend out here and keep doing what I am doing, or something very similar (Mom, earmuffs). It's hard to believe that an active duty Captain in the Marine Corps is volunteering to stay someplace that no one wants to come to anymore and do unconventional things that no one wants to do and I couldn't make it happen. Especially me. You know I have a hard time taking "No." for an answer. I'm an only child. I want MY way. Hey, so be it. I tried. I guess it's back to Southern California for me to go be a helicopter pilot again . . . DARN.

Speaking of leaving . . . the buzz phrase, "Exit Strategy."

The little Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), Combat Outposts (COPs), Firm Bases and Expeditionary Patrol Bases (EPBs) that are spread throughout the cities in our area are undergoing a major transition. They're realigning, combining, completely going away and closing or are transitioning to the Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army. We had well over ten positions that our Battalion occupied from southern Hit to the Haditha Dam. Now, we have well under five positions that we occupy. Yes, I'm being specifically vague for specifically obvious reasons. You get the idea.

No Exit Strategy?! Maybe you don't know the United State's Exit Strategy and maybe your state representatives don't know the United States Exit Strategy. Maybe most of the media doesn't know the United State's Exit Strategy. Really? Weird. So what you're saying is that the people with no knowledge of the global political and military strategy necessary to win this conflict and leave Iraq in a realistic condition where it can defend itself from our enemies aren't involved in our exit strategy? Say it ain't so. That doesn't make any sense . . .

I don't know about the global political and military strategy necessary for us to get out of here either, but just know we are pulling back and drawing down. I see it every day. The joint Marine/Iraqi check points that guard the city are manned only by Iraqis as of a month ago. The Marines and Army have pulled back to the larger bases that surround the cities and are no longer living in the cities. A gradual, methodical withdrawal is in progress as we speak. But I'm sure you know that already. You probably hear all this good news on TV right???

Remember though, I'm speaking from Al Anbar. Let's not forget the chaos that Baghdad is in. My interpreters who are all from Baghdad just got back from vacationing back home. They returned with horrific reports of peace, stability, economic growth and really bad electricity problems. In the past, most of them used fake names like "Jacob," "Sarah," etc because they were afraid that someone would identify them out here and put their families in danger back home. Just recently, they admitted to friends and family for the first time that they were interpreters with the United States and not Iraqi Police or Iraqi contractors working jobs and projects in Al Anbar.

The infamous green zone that was "under seige" wasn't and isn't. Al Sadr is as big and bad as he ever wasn't. He talks a lot. He just disbanded most of his militia. Why? Maybe because he caught wind of the plan to surround his city and level it. I saw it. It was gonna be a BAD experience for him. He can talk all he wants . . . It makes great sound bytes for Al Jazeera, CNN, Fox and MSNBC and gives us an excuse to do what we were really trained to come here and do. Fighting is easy. It's this counter-insurgency rebuilding and rehabilitating thing that's the hard part.

I like to use a Soccer game to describe what we're doing out here. Sometimes we're playing in the game, often we're coaching, we're refereeing less and less and sometimes (and increasingly more often), when we're lucky and the moon is just so, we get to sit back in the stands and just watch.

Don't get me wrong, it's like a Soccer game remember? We don't see many goals, but when we do, oh when we do . . .

Of course, you could say that Iraq is like a herd of cats too. Try getting them to go where you want sometime.

Finally, thank you so much for all the boxes and letters of support and encouragement. We get mail about once every three weeks to once a month (picture attached). Mail goes out once every couple of weeks I'm guessing and when it does it has 10 different stops and exchanges. I'm pretty sure at least some of what I send and am supposed to receive doesn't make it.

Ah well, if mail is the only thing I have to complain about, I'd say we're doing pretty good out here.

I swear I start these emails with the intention of keeping them short. I hope they keep you entertained long enough to inform you and give you a look at what's going on out here through my eyes.