FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Feb. 7 — Brigade headquarters for the soldiers from Fort Richardson is a single-story plywood building with two flagpoles in front and a set of steel entrance doors. The main headquarters and three others administration buildings form a rectangle around a large field.
If, in your mind, you transform the concrete blast walls into adobe, you could be looking at the center of Santa Fe or any of the provincial capitals in Mexico built by the conquistadores, except that here the plaza is gravel and no one is selling anything.
Two years ago, there was no 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) in the 25th Infantry Division. It was up to Col. Michael X. Garrett and the core of his paratroopers to create it from scratch. Since the end of October, 3,500 soldiers from the division have been stationed in Iraq; another 100 form the rear guard back in Anchorage.
For the next couple days, I’ll get an overview of the operations and then go out with troops.
Col. Garrett, 45, commands a substantial military force, but he’s also an occupier of three provinces. He and his soldiers drink chai with sheikhs and Iraqi officers and listen to the complaints of civilians even when they’re hunting insurgents or roadside bombs.
“It’s all about finding guys trying to kill them, but we’re also mindful of counter-insurgency,” Garrett said. “There are many problems that have a short-term kinetic solution — dropping a big bomb. That would solve the problem in the short term. But in the long term, the people would be against you.”
In December, Garrett turned over one of his regions, around Najaf, to the Iraqi army. He had to send U.S. troops and airpower back to Najaf Jan. 28 when the Iraqis weren’t able to fight a suicidal doomsday cult on their own.
Still, Garrett trusts the Iraqi army.
“The Iraqi Army in my view fights well and is loyal to the government of Iraq. It’s leadership and soldiers will fight anybody.”
“And the police?” I asked.
“The police is another matter,” he said. The Iraqi police are widely believed to be infiltrated by Shiite militia.
“They’re able to enforce the rule of law, but only when it suits them,” Garrett said of the police.
With a new defense secretary, a new general in charge of the mission, an escalation in U.S. troop strength and a new security plan unfolding, Garrett’s mission is somewhat changed. It used to be “clear, hold and build” — clear the area of violent lawbreakers, hold on to it, and build on those results. Obviously it didn’t work.
Now it’s clear, control and retain.
“Can we clear areas?” he asked.
“Yes,” he said, answering his own question.
“Can we hold them?” he asked again.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Can we retain them long enough to complete the job?”
I waited for him to reply to himself again, but this time he was silent. After a moment, I pointed that out.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Is the war lost?” I asked.
“It’s not my feeling,” he responded quickly. “We’re all Type A personalities in the Army. We don’t like to fail at anything we do.”
Every time Garrett walks in and out of the building, he passes by a wall with the pictures and biographies of the 22 brigade soldiers killed in action. He wants that reminder, he said.
He knows the details on each.
Two killed by snipers in Fallujah.
Four killed by a roadside bomb — not a particularly powerful one at that, but one that most of the time would just leave his men shook up and hurting, not dead.
Another electrocuted when he touched a live wire on a road.
Three drowned when their humvee flipped and landed in a ditch. That one was particularly terrible: the ditch was the exact size of the humvee. The four doors were jammed shut and the fifth exit — the turret — was in the mud. By the time the men could be freed, it was too late.
Another 88 have been wounded, 16 seriously enough to be returned to the United States. “A couple kids are not doing well,” he said. “They’re burned very badly.”
Whenever someone is killed, notices that “River City is in effect” a put up around the buildings. Outgoing calls and the Internet center are shut down to prevent someone from accidently leaking word before the family is notified. Later, a memorial is held in a field on base.
“You go to these memorials, you listen to the people who talk about their buddies and you think that you always lose the good ones, or so it seems.”