Building the New Iraqi Army

E-mail Harrigan

Feb. 10, 2006

Sometimes an anchor asks a good question and you don't have the answer until the next day. Trace Gallagher asked me on the air how long it takes to train an Iraqi soldier from start to finish, from a civilian to someone ready to fight.

I hear the question a lot, often with some impatience as to how slow the process is going. It seems to me now, in our third week watching the training, that it is the wrong question.

It is in fact not complicated to train an Iraqi soldier. As one U.S. captain said to me today, most of them have been around Kalashnikovs their whole lives. The problem is, one soldier does not make an army. If you don't have what the Army calls "life support" — housing, electricity, food, running water, a pay system — that Army could fall apart.

We have seen flash points here, (when lunch was late, when the barracks were not ready) that have already caused some Iraqi soldiers to leave, to go back home. There have been visible signs of improvement as well. Local contractors now take out the garbage, and there is a regular water and food supply. Pay day happened, in cash, and it happened without any fist fights.

Our next package should run Friday at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET. Note the dramatic, moving shots by P. Rudden.

Sand's blowing today, hard to open your eyes in the morning. Sun's a white ball through the haze, you can look right at it.

Feb. 8, 2006 4:44 p.m.
57-minute run

Six soldiers were on sandbags. I heard the sergeant curse that morning that all the "chews" (CHU or Container Housing Unit) needed to be sandbagged. Now, into the night, they were passing the bags hand to hand. Cameraman Rudden had a light set up outside for them with an umbrella on it.

Each bag hit the side of the chew with a thump. You could hear the sand move. From inside the chew you could see the shadows against the windows and hear the soldiers talking to each other as the bags got higher and higher. It felt like being buried.

Earlier they were listening to "Simple Kind of Man," a version I did not know. Then, they listened to another song whose chorus was a scream of "Kill you, kill you, kill you, kill you."

The rain had formed a small lake in front of one HQ building. A big sergeant from Florida was skipping stones. I looked for a rock. Plunk.

"You're just out of practice," he said, then looked down in the sand. After a moment he came up with a flat, smooth, oval rock and handed it to me. I skipped it.

"That's it," he said.
Knock, knock, knock, knock.

"Come in," I said. It was early, before 7 a.m., and I was still sleeping. I lay there a second and heard .50-calibers in the distance — one, two, three, four. That was the knocking.

The 4th Iraqi Battalion had 700 soldiers in Kirkuk. Only about 400 made the move here to Beyji. After payday, yesterday, 200 more Iraqis left. They got their pay and they left. The count today stands at 230. So in the two weeks I've been here to witness, in microcosm, the building of the new Iraqi army, that army has in fact shrunk by 75 percent.

Feb. 7, 2006

"So did the Red Sox win?" — Cameraman Rudden

Before reviewing a chow hall, I prefer to dine there at least 30 times. This allows me to go through the full rotation of meals. Readers of previous missives may recall the praise given to lobster night in Al Asad, the gloom of c-rats along the Syrian border, midnight steak in body armor in Karbala or, most recently, a brass quintet in Camp Victory. And yet, no chow hall has ever achieved the exalted rank of four plastic forks — until now.

This was the second time around for meat loaf at Summerall. My first one at the FOB was so remarkably flavorful and moist, I initially attributed it to hunger. Tonight the standard remained the same. I went with meat loaf, chicken cordon blue, mashed potatoes and gravy. For a beverage I went with what I saw one soldier do the other day, a mix of sweetened and unsweetened iced tea from two different dispensers. Despite attempts at regimentation, soldiers are always experimenting.

Rudden eyed the chicken, which I had cut up to let the flaming yellow stuff inside cool.

"How is it?" he asked.

"Not that good," I said. It was in fact excellent, and Rudden was ruing his selection of spaghetti and meatballs to complement the meat loaf, which I suggested.

"How about some of this for some of that?" he asked, proffering me half a slab of meat loaf, balanced precipitously on a plastic knife. I agreed and the transfer was made.

TVs with sports are on one side of the room, the news is on the other, but the volume is not as intrusive as in many halls. The staff is hardworking, polite and friendly. What puts Summerall over the top for me is the dessert selection. In addition to pies, cakes, cookies, there is a real ice cream bar, genuine Baskin Robbins, at least 8 flavors a night with real giant Baskin-Robbins cups. You wouldn't think the container matters with ice cream, but it does. The pink and brown circles remind you of the other world.

Feb. 6, 2006
36:31 minutes

A memorial service today for a soldier killed in action. The entire regiment attended. Empty boots and helmet. His friends and officers spoke about him. There is a part of the ceremony that I had not seen before, that caught me by surprise and caught Rudden by surprise also. The company commander began to call roll, the first two soldiers responded to their names, then the commander called the name of the fallen soldier. I looked to the boots. There was no response. Now the name was called again, urgently, with the first name included. It hung in the silence. Then it was called a third time, with the middle initial, and a sense of finality, and it hit everyone there.

Feb. 4, 2006 5:05 p.m.
37:21 minutes, 18:25 split

I saw the new Iraqi battalion at weapons training this morning. 25 meters with Kalashnikovs, set on single fire instead of spray and pray. Three shots to get in a small circle. They lay down in front of three sandbags and popped off three shots. Some had mats to avoid laying on the sand. I saw one Arab-speaking American soldier loading his magazine with gloves on. He tore the yellow paper off the bullets and held a scrap in his mouth, not letting it blow away into the desert. There was a lot of instruction from the Iraqi officers, and a lot of yelling. The movement of the Iraqi soldiers to me, does not resemble the dignified step of a soldier, but more of a nervous servant afraid of being yelled at by the boss. Even with Kalashnikovs in hand, they scurry.

I stood in the back and watched formation. In the back row, far from the teachers, one portly private enjoyed a smoke, while those in the front stood at attention. He stepped forward to take a water bottle from under another soldier's arm and had a drink. He turned around and saw me watching him.

First live shot this morning on the videophone, all okay. E eating ostrich biltong.


Very good story, wish you could have been with us in Viet-Nam.



I have recently started reading your blog and it really takes me there and brings back lots of memories. I am a former Field Artillery battery commander and my son is currently in Kuwait. Your description of the Roll Call portion of the ceremony was especially haunting. It brings home the fact that our soldiers know and understand the risks they are taking and yet they are still there serving.

Thanks for your reporting and giving us back home a feel for what is going on. I especially like the mess hall rating system, keep up the good work.

Rod Simmons
MAJ (Ret)


Thank you for your reports from FOB Summerall. It helps to visualize what life is like in the unit. If you run across my son I'd be appreciative if you told him Dad said, "Hi". - Capt.. Jim Lacovara, HHC/1-187-Commo.

I am not unaware of the risk you are taking to provide this layer of reporting... again, thanks.

Telford, PA


This was the first time that I have read your column and I found it very enjoyable and interesting. I am in the military and like the way that you handle/tell your stories. Keep up the great work

SFC Colquitt


The paragraph about the Iraqi's leaving after payday is because of cultural differences that many American's do not understand. I fully expect that the Iraqi's will return in a week or so.

Something hard for us to understand is the fact that banking systems as we know them do not exist. There is no such thing as having a bank account, checking account, or any method to wire money home. So the Iraqi soldiers have no way to get money to their families who depend on their paychecks. So they have to go home to take money to their families. It is not an indicator of their loyalty or willingness to serve.

We must adapt and find solutions to work around these differences, so we can have an effective Iraqi Army but also take care of the personal needs of the Iraqi soldiers based on their economic infrastructure, not ours.

LTC (Ret), US Army Special Forces


I really enjoyed reading your accounts, but I must say I am most excited to see a photo of my friend Ethan on your page. He is a hero to all of us here at home. We pray for the day to see him at home again and go sit at Java N Jazz and just hang together.

Randy O

Your reporting on the good, the bad, and the ugly of soldiers' lives "over there" is superb. Great insight -- I have e-mailed your commentaries to several of my friends, including a few Army Moms. You offer an entirely different viewpoint than that of so many others in the media. Thank you for solid, forthright reporting. The soldiers you represent in your commentaries must appreciate your honest and encouraging words as well.

Fond du Lac, WI


I want to Thank You for your posts. My husband is where you are and we don't get much time to talk, when we do get to talk. When he was home on leave, we didn't spend our time talking about Iraq. Your posts give me a feeling of closeness to my husband. I am hearing about things that I have not heard about. Hearing about the little things like the chow hall has made me feel good. I just want to say thank you for giving me a sense of comfort! I look forward to reading more!

Dallas, GA
Husband out of Fort Campbell

I just wanted to tell how much this posting means to many family members in the states. My son is at Summerall, Wallingsford, I like seeing where he is and know some of the things that he is doing. You are providing many of us with a contact to our loved ones. On the Rakkasan site they speak highly of the FOX site as well. Some of the loved ones of soldiers visit the forum regularly and stay in touch with your site. Everytime something new is posted they pass the info along so we can all check out the latest. Thank you for this it really helps us moms, wives and other family members feel a little better.

Wally's Mom


The blog about the memorial service hit home. I have personally seen the empty boots and helmet. It was not a sight I wish to see again. It was for my brother in law, SSG Robert C. Thornton KIA Iraq August 23, 2004. The roll call also caught me off guard, I really wanted to hear him say "Here Sergeant!" I did not and never will. The war is ugly, and bad but I feel it is every bit worth it. I have 4 beautiful daughters that he bravely gave his life to protect.

Rainbow City, Al.

I have known Private First Class Jeremy Johnson since he was a young boy and work with his Mother. We were so thrilled to see his picture on the FOX News website.

Take care of yourselves and if you get a chance, please let all of our soldiers know how proud we are of them and the work that they are doing.

Aiken, SC


Tell the soldiers we haven't forgotten them. Thanks for posting their pictures.


Thanks more than anything else for the very good photographs of our wonderful men over there. Look at those faces.



I notice that you get and post e-mails from Viet Nam vets. My ex-husband was there from 69-70. He was in the signal corps, other than that I to this day have absolutely no idea what he did. He never said and I didn't ask. Seems you are a good outlet to bring back some of those buried memories ever so gently. It's a good thing.


Don't get bogged down in all that mud. We will all be watching tonight for your package. Thanks.



Are you saying we need to include good flypaper in the care packages we put together? That makes perfect sense having been in that area of the world myself. Thanks for keeping it honest.



The "Laidlaw flyswatter" post was the most amusing one I have seen from you, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

It's good that we can keep our sense of humor in dangerous circumstances. I kept mine in Viet Nam - it's what gets you through the days and nights.

Birmingham, AL


Please give my thanks to those you have contact with.


E-mail Harrigan