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17th Fires Brigade sees Iraq ‘turning that corner’

Post by Scott Fontaine on Oct. 5, 2009 at 10:15 am with No Comments »
October 4, 2009 11:51 am
Soldiers from 17th Fires Brigade arrive by air and convoy to assist the Iraqi army with distributing humanitarian assistance to the citizens of Faddaqhryah and Bahar in Basra province on Aug. 18. (U.S. Army photo)
Soldiers from 17th Fires Brigade arrive by air and convoy to assist the Iraqi army with distributing humanitarian assistance to the citizens of Faddaqhryah and Bahar in Basra province on Aug. 18. (U.S. Army photo)

Maj. Chuck Roede spent much of his last deployment planning combat missions for a Fort Lewis Stryker battalion trying to quiet a raging insurgency.

Now back in Iraq as the operations officer for 17th Fires Brigade, Roede said the daily aspects of a deployment have radically changed.

Violence has dropped. Planning has changed. The Iraqis conduct most operations.

“The biggest change I’ve seen is the length that we’re going through to share information with the Iraqi security forces,” Roede, 39, said in a telephone interview last week. “If something looks suspicious or out of place, the first thing we do is call the Iraqis. We ask them what help they need. We just don’t go out there ourselves.

“We ask them, and often their answer is none.”

The brigade of 1,000 soldiers left Fort Lewis in July and deployed to the southeastern corner of the country, with its headquarters in Basra. It is training Iraqi security forces and providing support to the State Department-run provincial reconstruction team.

The city’s strategic location near Umm Qasr – Iraq’s only deepwater port – has historically made it the site of heavy fighting. The British controlled the military battle space in southeastern Iraq until earlier this year, when it withdrew its last troops from the country.

The 17th Fires Brigade arrived about three months after the British departed. It’s the third Iraq deployment for the unit, which moved to Fort Lewis from Fort Sill, Okla., in August 2007.

In Iraq, the brigade uses armored Humvees and Mine Resistant Ambushed Protected vehicles, and has participated in one large-scale operation so far. Roede declined to discuss specifics of the operation because he was speaking with a reporter over an unsecured connection.

“There are still bandits in Basra, and there are still bandits in Iraq,” he said. “But the Iraqi security forces have the capability to defeat just about any threat that’s out there. What we do is back them up with things they don’t have or need help with, like unmanned aircraft and intelligence.”

The Americans’ level of involvement in operations varies widely, depending on the Iraqi unit, Roede said.

“If you’re asking senior leaders, they prefer us to be out there with their brigades,” he said. “Once you get further down the chain of command to some of the battalions, there are some Iraqi commanders who are cool toward us. They believe they can do it themselves and don’t need help.”

The American military can also fade into a supporting role because of a decreased level of violence across the country. Capt. Carrie Mitchell, who handles transportation issues for the 308th Brigade Support Battalion, has witnessed the varying stages of the war: She deployed with 1st Infantry Division during 2004-05 and with a military transition team in 2007-08.

“In 2004, it was more of a combat zone than it was today,” she said. “There were more threats than there are today. It’s just a much safer place than it was back in 2004. It just feels safer.”

Sgt. Wendy Jonas, who helps manage the Arabic and Farsi translators for 1st Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment, is on her first deployment. Her interpreters, many of whom are hired from Basra and surrounding communities, tell her life has improved.

“They tell me, ‘Iraq is a better place than it was before,'” the Sacramento native said. “They see the changes every day.”

The brigade’s mission in Iraq might be different than what it trains for – shooting rockets and artillery – and the difference can be a bit jarring, Roede acknowledged.

“The State Department is out there budgeting, talking about collecting trash more efficiently,” he said. “It’s certainly not what I was trained to do as a young officer, but it was interesting being here during the surge and it’s rewarding to see the struggle pay off and see the Iraqi security forces turn that corner.”

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