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thedrifter
03-16-08, 10:03 AM
For Texas-based soldiers, Iraq anniversary eclipsed by mission
'What we're doing is something important.'

By Mark Lisheron
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Col. Pat Hamilton's Red Team completed its training at Camp Mabry and left for Afghanistan on Friday, days before the war in Iraq entered its sixth year.

Hamilton and the others hadn't given the fifth anniversary of the conflict much thought. They had been deep into training for the Red Team, a special project of Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq.

The idea is to train specially chosen soldiers to think critically about the culture of American war-making and the cultures in which the war is made to help recast military policy. A similar team is operating in Iraq, and its existence is a signal by Petraeus that to achieve success, the U.S. military must be prepared to continue engagement in the Middle East for a long time.

All Red Team members were keenly aware that before their time was up in Afghanistan, they would be serving under a new commander in chief, which could mean a dramatic shift in military policy. And polls that say a majority of Americans have tired of war are not lost on the team. This anniversary, like the others before it, will be marked by protests organized by groups that have opposed the war from its beginning.

For a soldier in war, Hamilton said, all of this is really beside the point. Presidents change, policies change, and soldiers keep their sights fixed on the next mission.

"When I see the good that we have done, I am so proud of our country," Hamilton said. "Whether we agree or disagree with the war is really irrelevant. We took an oath. We are sworn to do the best job we can."

Hamilton, a graduate of Texas A&M University and the U.S. Army War College and a full-time National Guard officer since 1990, said the decision to commit more troops to Iraq has been a success.

Capt. Gabe Simonds is impatient with the American public's short view of the war. Hamilton chose Simonds for the Red Team in part because of his education, a bachelor's degree in international affairs from the University of Maine and a master's degree in political science from Northeastern University. He is, by temperament, a political junkie, with an eye on the long view.

As a lieutenant in the Army's 4th Infantry Division, Simonds took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom to begin the war.

For months afterward, Simonds and his fellow soldiers toiled in an Iraqi village on the Iran border, helping people rebuild.

From the houses in this village, ditches carried a family's human waste into the street. For the people in this and other villages — who had just exchanged dictatorial terrorism for military devastation and had seen tribal, political and religious hatreds loosed — American military personnel launched indoor plumbing projects.

"For these people, having an open sewer from the house to the street has worked for 1,500 years," Simonds said. "They didn't view it as a problem; we did, and by devoting our energy to it, we weren't helping to solve the problems they really had."

To Simonds, the story is an allegory for the war and for the American public's attitude toward it. Simonds stopped short of saying what some analysts have said about Petraeus' Red Team strategy: that the teams were being attached to military units to correct the ways the military misunderstood and reacted incorrectly to the Iraqi culture.

"Too much of the mental makeup of the American people is that we go in, fix a problem and then get out," said Lt. Col. Steve Johnston, the deputy Red Team leader. "We are going to a place (Afghanistan) where they have endured 30 years of civil war. Those people are not on any timetables."

Johnston is a West Point graduate who spent 11 years in the Army and has been a member of the National Guard since. Had it not been for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Johnston said, he would have gotten out of the Guard. The Red Team is an opportunity to build on the work begun by the men and women who served before them, Johnston said.

"Sometimes, you'd like to be able to say, 'Hey, wake up. Terrorism is not going to go away,' " he said. "There is a frustration that comes from not being able to make people understand that what we're doing is something important."

Col. Randy Neal is not part of the Red Team, but he shares both the resolve and the anxiety in a time of political change. Neal, who is in the Army Reserve, is teaching decision-making to Reserve brigades at Fort Hood before their deployment to Iraq in the next few weeks.

Neal spent most of 2005 as a battalion commander escorting convoys all over Iraq before returning to his job as a vice president of risk management for IBTX Risk Services in San Antonio.

"We like the corporate performance model that rewards immediate results," Neal said. "Other societies, particularly in the Middle East, don't think that way."

Neal said he thinks this mind-set gives America's enemies an advantage.

"If we show weakness, they can say that we don't have the resolve," he said. "They figure they can wait us out."

Tania Glenn, who heads a counseling group in Austin, travels extensively under a government contract, counseling and teaching stress management to Marines and National Guard members after they return from deployment.

She said the military people she speaks with admit to a frustration that their successes in Iraq are drowned out by the noise of opposition. They worry about what will happen to the people who have been helped if Americans pull out.

"This is a tremendous position to be put in," Glenn said. "The military trains for success. They want to be given the chance to succeed. There is concern about not being able to finish the job."

Still, Hamilton seemed confident as he prepared to take his Red Team to foment military change in Iraq. He's said he's a believer in the Constitution, which he said paves a very narrow lane with deep ditches on either side so the country won't go too far astray. When he is asked whether America will support his confidence, Hamilton is careful to say that he's answering not for the military, but for himself.

"It would, for me personally, be a disappointment not to follow through," he said. "I believe that region needs and deserves some stability. I feel sorry for us, for a population that is so blissfully ignorant of what we have done."

mlisheron@statesman.com; 445-3663

Ellie