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• Video: Baghdadi's Finest
May 5, 2006
I met a lot of Marines on my recent embed, and I did my best to pass on the kind words so many of you have written.
Every chance I got, I thanked them for their service, and I reassured them that the folks back home appreciate what they're doing. You'll be happy to know none of them seemed surprised to hear it. They feel the support, and they're grateful for it.
I wish I'd had more time to spend with them, but we were moving around quite a bit, hopping from unit to unit, most from "America's Battalion," the 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines out of Oahu, Hawaii.
Even though the trip was short, it's clear some things never change. Marines are switched on. They're polite, but tough as nails. They like giving candy to the kids, but they're on guard and itching for the fight. Most important, the guys I spoke to all believe in what they're doing. They're proud of the progress being made, and remain dedicated to the mission of liberating Iraq from the insurgents and terrorists, while training the Iraqi security forces to take the lead so our troops can start coming home.
"This is the most rewarding job ever," one young Captain from Kilo Company told me during a Humvee ride across the Al Anbar desert.
"We planned the mission, we're executing the mission, we're working with the Iraqis, watching them grow and improve."
There's been no drop in morale, according to the captain, and others told me the same thing.
Sgt. Patrick Whalen, who suffered a concussion when a roadside bomb hit his vehicle, couldn't wait to get back to his unit after four days in the hospital. His gunner was badly hurt and his driver was killed.
"It's the fight we're fighting,” he told me. The attacks only increase his focus on getting the job done. The Iraqis, he said, "lack discipline and need more training, but they're coming along."
Most describe the Iraqis as brave and eager to learn. Staff Sgt. Steven White, on his second tour of Iraq, is learning Arabic, along with most of the other Marines in the battalion. There's still a language barrier, and it increases the challenge, but he's "very confident" about the future of Iraq.
The Regimental Commander of RCT-7, Colonel Blake Crowe says, "We're doing the right things." Three of his Marines were killed the night before we embedded. When I asked how he and his men stay focused, he told me, "We work hard not to get hard-hearted. The people are not the enemy, the enemy is hiding among the people."
May 3, 2006
The U.S. military is heavily focused on getting Iraq's security forces up to full strength. The thinking makes sense for Iraq, and for America. When the locals can handle the insurgents without our help, our troops can go home and this country won't fall apart.
Iraq is a big place, so there's lots of ground to cover and lots of towns and people to protect. The western Al Anbar province, for example, is the size of South Carolina, and is filled with medium and small cities and towns. The soldiers and Marines based here can't possibly protect them all, and neither can the Iraqi soldiers and police. There simply aren't enough of them to go around, at least not yet.
What often happens is soon after coalition forces clean up an area and move on, insurgents fill back behind them, terrorizing residents and using the town as a launch pad for attacks, which these days is almost exclusively roadside bombs. The Marines we were with are trying to clean up the trouble spots, but it's a tough job, and the terrorists have gotten pretty good at staying a step ahead.
The small town of Baghdadi has become a case study of sorts in locals taking charge. When Saddam's regime fell, Baghdadi's 30,000 residents were left with no police, no court, no judge, and no military presence. Insurgents and criminals took advantage of the situation, and things grew increasingly dangerous, until one man had enough. Shaban Al Ubadi, who calls himself "Colonel Shaban," organized a couple hundred local men into a police force. They had no uniforms or official vehicles, and weren't recognized by the Iraqi government, but the Colonel didn't care. His goal was to stop the terror.
Soon, his ragtag team of cops started catching bad guys. With weapons and ammo supplied by the Colonel himself, the Baghdadi police rounded up dozens of suspected terrorists and turned them over to the Marines at the nearby Al Asad air base. The Colonel's men were inexperienced and young, some of them teenagers, and they weren't getting paid for their work, but they were brave and determined to protect their own.
The Marines were impressed by Colonel Shaban's spirit and performance, and decided to help. They provided weapons, helped get police vehicles, sent Shaban to Baghdad for additional training, and rallied the government for more assistance. They also moved a company of Marines into a forward operating base in town, setting up shop in an old Republican Guard theatre, bringing in Iraqi soldiers for training and additional security.
The Colonel clearly welcomes the help and appreciates his American partners, but he'd be go without if he had to. He's a charismatic guy and is passionate about his cause. He's also an even bigger target for terrorists, because he's so outspoken about defeating them. Colonel Shaban told me he's prepared to die to save his people. Let's hope that doesn't happen.
May 2, 2006
If you think flying commercial is a pain, you've probably never flown military air.
Don't get me wrong. I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity to travel on Blackhawks, CH-53s and Chinook transport helicopters, especially when it allows me to meet and spend time with Marines and soldiers in country.
That said, there is one thing you need an abundance of if you're relying on the military for a ride: patience.
From the time we landed at Al Asad, our embed lasted roughly 63 hours. It took another 51 hours to get from the base back to Baghdad. Plus, since we arrived at midnight, we had to wait another nine hours for a ride back to the bureau.
Here's a comprehensive (yet abbreviated) play-by-play of the journey out and back:
BAGHDAD TO AL ASAD
18:00 — Arrive at LZ Washington (LZ: Landing Zone), a helicopter pad inside the green zone.
20:00 — "Showtime" to register for the chopper ride to Al Asad, an air base in the Al Anbar province of western Iraq.
01:10 — Scheduled departure time.
02:30 — Our Blackhawk takes off.
05:05 — We arrive at Al Asad, after passenger pickups, drop-offs, and refueling stops in Fallujah, Balad, and another unidentified base.
EMBED: Multiple convoys, multiple stops, lots of adventures, little sleep.
AL ASAD TO BAGHDAD:
20:00 — Showtime at hangar to get on manifest for flight to LZ Washington.
21:30 — A Marine uses a Sharpie to mark the backs of our right hands with our destination and the letters "SA." When you sign up for a military flight, you want to be "ASR" (air support request), which means you're guaranteed a seat. "SA," or "space available," is like flying standby. When your flight is called, you grab your gear, get on a bus and head out on the tarmac to wait for the bird, but it's up to the pilot whether you get a seat. One civilian on our bus had been SA five nights in a row and been denied a seat every time. I'm told the record is 21 days.
21:45 — Board bus to the "can" on the tarmac, a two-room trailer-like terminal building about 200 yards from where the helicopters land.
23:00 — Both Baghdad-bound Blackhawks come and go. There are empty seats, but the pilots won't take us or any other SAs. There are no more flights overnight, so we collect our gear and get a ride back to our hooch to sleep.
06:45 — Clarissa gets up early to check the flight schedule. There are no daytime options. We have confirmed seats to Camp Al Taqaddum, midway between Ramadi and Fallujah, and are guaranteed a connection to Baghdad within 24 hours. The flight is scheduled to leave at 22:15.
20:00 — Back at the terminal. Repeat check-in steps above.
00:15 — We take off late and make one stop on the way to TQ
02:00 — We land, learn there are no overnight flights to Baghdad, and get a lift to the VIP cans to sleep for four hours.
08:00 — We're back at the manifest window to check on the final leg to Baghdad. We're in the terminal long enough to watch the entire film "Varsity Blues" on a big screen TV. The good news: we're ASR to LZ Washington. The bad: It doesn't leave until 21:00.
20:00 — Back at the terminal
21:00 — We drag our gear to the edge of the runway. There's no bus for us at TQ.
21:30 — We board a Chinook for another night flight, with stops in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). We land at LZ Washington shortly after midnight, and spend the night in the terminal. Almost home...
• E-mail Rick
We just want to thank you for your recent article from Iraq dated May 3rd. Our 20 year old son is with the 3/3 Marines and told us fox news had visited them. He was disappointed that he was not there at the time because he was getting his Humvee permit. (Our family is a big fan of fox news). As a parent, it is incredibly comforting anytime we hear about our son's unit or know on any given day he is alive and well. We have only had a couple of phone calls from him the whole time he's been there and ironically we got a call the day after you were with his unit.
Keep up the good work and be safe!
Shawn & Debbie
Iraq has a genuine patriot and natural leader for the forces against the terrorists in Col. Shaban.
Thanks for sharing your experiences to the American people. With your stories, I hope that folks realize the hard work that our troops do out there. I have served twice over in Iraq so I know how you feel. It's funny that you mentioned about your struggles with the military flights, you reminded me on how the military flight is an adventure in itself. Thanks for your support for the troops.
We mothers of deployed Marines in 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment are wondering when the piece that you have been interviewing them for will air on FOX News. We would all like to see it. This is a very special Battalion, nicknamed America's Battalion. Their history makes quite a story.
Proud Mom and former Marine,
Thank you for the article on Colonel Shaban. It was very good. I am sending it to all my regular email folks. Thanks.
Rick: What is it really like over in Iraq?
Wanted to thank you for the visit to paid to RCT-7 at Camp Ripper, Al Asad. It was good to see a news team from FOX News rather than the other guys.
If you think flying military air is cumbersome try taking a whack at being married to an aviator... It has been seven out of 28 months that he has been home. Perhaps your next report should be spending a month with a military family and seeing the amount of patience it takes to be a military wife.
It's a phrase that I learned shortly before I became a military wife and have come quite familiar with since that day:
"Hurry up and wait."
Thanks for all the good work you're doing over there.
Copperas Cove, TX
Keep up the good work. I really enjoy your reports. They are the only glimpse of what is really going on. Our son is serving at Camp Liberty with A Company of the 1st BSTB of the 10th Mountain Division (Pfc Ryan Reser) and it is a constant worry. Your stories bring us a little
closer to our loved ones. Stop by and say hi to them if you are ever at Camp Liberty.
Hi Rick. I enjoy reading your blog. I was especially interested to read that you are at Al Asad. My son is with the IRP (Incident Response Platoon). I have only received 2 e-mails from him since he deployed in late January ’06. I sure would love to hear his voice. Keep up the good work.
Our son, a Marine with America’s Battalion (3/3) told us that you recently spent some time imbedded with his unit. We can’t wait to hear whatever stories you might pass on to us. Thank you for being there. Semper Fi!