View Full Version : Area troops look back on Iraq

03-16-08, 07:48 AM
Area troops look back on Iraq
March 16, 2008 - 12:58AM

It began with "shock and awe."

March 19, 2003, the U.S. launched an attack against Iraq. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters the attack "will be of a force and scope and scale that has been beyond what has been seen before."

John Crosby, now a Marine master sergeant, was a part of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment then. As huge explosions rocked Baghdad, Crosby was focused on securing bridges in An Nasiriyah.

"Most of the Marines who went in had never seen combat," Crosby said. Any expectations those young Marines had were based on what they had heard from veterans.

The combat phase didn't last long. On April 9, Saddam Hussein's statue - and his regime - came crashing down.

The transition was not easy for Marines in Crosby's unit.

1/2 lost 18 Marines on March 23. Just weeks later, the unit had moved from heavy combat to stabilizing the area and "winning hearts and minds."

"Psychologically, it was difficult," Crosby said. "One day you're in a firefight with the whole city," and the next, the unit is working to rebuild and stabilize that same city.

"You have to suppress your emotions and do the job," he said. "I think a lot of the Marines didn't really get to adjust until they were back on the ship (leaving Iraq)."

At the time, Crosby said, he didn't know how the conflict would develop.

"As a trigger puller, all you see is combat," he said. "You don't know what the big picture is. ... You live day to day not knowing what you're going to do tomorrow."

When he left in mid-2003, Crosby said he did not expect to return.

"We thought it was the end of the war," he said. "We did our job. We thought we were done."

May 1, 2003, President Bush announced that major combat operations in Iraq had ended. But the rebuilding effort had just begun.

"The hard part was not the battle itself," said Chief Warrant Officer Terrence Washington, who returned in December from his third deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom. "When it was war, it was war. Then we had to build them back up. It doesn't happen overnight."

Washington first deployed to Iraq in 1991, during the Gulf War. He and Crosby returned in the summer of 2004.

At the time, Washington's unit supported stability operations, partnering with the Iraqi army. Washington trained two groups of Iraqi soldiers, he said, preparing them to take over security of the region.

While Washington was working west of Ramadi, other Camp Lejeune Marines were waging a battle in Fallujah.

In November 2004, at least 19 Camp Lejeune Marines - most from 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment - were killed by hostile fire in Fallujah.

January 5, Washington was traveling in a vehicle that was hit by an IED. The vehicle was destroyed, but he walked away with a headache.

Washington left Iraq in February 2005. Six months later, now-Capt. Patrick Francescon arrived in the western Al Anbar province with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.

At first, Francescon said, the area was "pretty rough and tumble." The Marines worked to clear the major cities in their area and establish bases.

Francescon's first time "outside the wire," he was mortared twice a day.

But within a few weeks, the Marines were doing routine patrols and meeting the residents.

"We were dealing more with sheiks and mayors, rather than hunting terrorists," he said.

But the rules had changed from 2003, Crosby said.

Though 1/2 suffered many casualties in the first days of the war, no one was killed or injured by an improvised explosive device. He remembers opening a shed and finding stacks of mortars with wires sticking out - but nothing exploded.

"The mentality to booby trap was there," he said. "I think they got better at it."

IED attacks increased as the conflict moved forward. While 27 locally based troops died in 2003, not one was attributed to an IED, according to data collected by The Daily News. In 2004, at least six locally based troops died in IED blasts, out of 53 total. In 2005, the number of local deaths attributed to an IED or suicide car bomb had climbed to 45 out of 75.

While the enemy was changing its strategy, the Marines were updating theirs. Before Crosby hit the ground in 2003, he was briefed on Iraqi culture, but he said he only enough Arabic to "get them on their face."

By 2005, the Marine Corps had developed Mojave Viper, a monthlong training exercise designed specifically to prepare Marines for Iraq.

"A lot of the training prepped us for what we were getting into," Francescon said. "I felt pretty prepared going in."

While Crosby remembers being focused on fighting the Russians, Marines now are thinking about fighting terrorists with no uniform and no country.

The gear also changed, Crosby said. The first days of the war, his unit was riding around in trucks with canvas doors. Now, most ride in armored vehicles specially designed to resist IEDs.

"The requirement to deal with these things changed," Francescon said. "As the bad guys would take a step forward, we would try to take two."

In many areas, the violence decreased. Francescon's unit saw about two vehicle-borne IEDs a week in early 2006 and "thought that was slow." By his next deployment, from December 2006 to December 2007, he would see only one a month throughout an entire province.

1st Lt. Barry Edwards, who served as a Huey door gunner during the initial invasion, deployed as a public affairs officer to Fallujah from January 2007 to January 2008.

In 2003, he said, Iraq was "a country that was in kind of chaos."

"The enemy was easily identifiable," he said.

In Fallujah, Regimental Combat Team-6 initially had major problems recruiting Iraqi police. By the time they left, Edwards said, "we were turning away recruits."

"West of Baghdad was a big success story in 2007," he said.

"Americans want things to happen like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "Turning a country around that was oppressed for (decades) doesn't just happen at the snap of your fingers."

Washington agreed.

"It's a painful process," he said, overcoming "10,000 years of oppression."

While the mindset of the Marines has changed, the mindset of many of the Iraqi citizens also has changed, Washington said.

"They're wary at first," he said, but have learned to trust some of the Americans. Many citizens call tip lines to report IEDs or other terrorist activity, he said.

"We all have plenty of ‘brothers' over there," he said. "You make a friend, you've got a friend for life."

It's a difficult process, learning to work with some of the same people who may have killed fellow Marines a few years ago, Washington said.

But, Crosby said, "you might have killed his brother in the first (Gulf) war. So it is a mutual trust."

Though Washington emphasized that every area of Iraq is different and not every Marine has the same experience, he said the mission of "winning hearts and minds" was working in western Al Anbar.

And the idea of living, working and training with Iraqi forces - what Washington's unit was doing in 2004 - is spreading, he said. Now, small groups of Marines or soldiers live with Iraqi soldiers or Iraqi policemen, preparing them to take over security operations.

Those transition teams, as they are called, get the job done and mean a reduced military presence, Washington said.

Edwards compared coalition troops patrolling the streets in Iraq to National Guard troops walking the streets of Charlotte - it gives residents the feeling that something is wrong.

"Eventually (in Fallujah), we could let the Iraqi police take the lead and pull more Marines out," he said.

"Do the Iraqi people want us to leave? Yes," Edwards said. "But if you ask them, they would say that they don't want us to leave before the job is done."

Contact interactive content editor Jennifer Hlad at jhlad@freedomenc.com or 353-1171, ext. 8467.


03-16-08, 07:51 AM