March 03, 2007

Pushing on for focus through the fog and friction of Iraq war

Editor's Note: Gaster, an Air Force chaplain (major), stationed at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., is serving his second combat tour in Iraq. The Daytona Beach native is currently assigned to the Air Force theater hospital at Balad Air Base, Iraq, ministering to coalition forces and civilian patients. The theater hospital treats some 700 patients each month, including U.S. service members and civilians, as well as Iraqi army/police and civilians. The hospital has achieved a 98 percent survival rate from battlefield traumatic injuries.

From the Book of Job: "Read the history books and see -- for we were born but yesterday and know so little; our days here on earth are as transient as shadows. But the wisdom of the past will teach you. The experience of others will speak to you . . . ."

Well, let's consider something from recent history that has some bearing on where we are today. Real time. Right here. Right now.

At 5 a.m. Friday, March 21, 2003, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force crossed over the border from Kuwait into Iraq. Destination? Baghdad! A week later, in the early morning hours of Friday, March 28, 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, arrived at the Qal'at Sukkar Airfield. It is east of the town of Qal'at Sukkar, less than 200 miles southeast of Balad-Anaconda. Their mission that day was to recon the field. Intel reported a tank and anti-aircraft guns were present and wanted to confirm it was a British parachute regiment that was going to land there and secure the airfield at sunrise.

2nd Platoon scouted the area. At the last minute, just as it was breaching a chain link fence surrounding the airfield, Company HQ radioed "all personnel on the airfield are declared hostile," which meant the Marines were to shoot first and ask questions later. The platoon commander, a first lieutenant, questioned the call, but surmised his chain of command must have intel that warranted the decision, so he passed the order on to his men.

Minutes later, seeing shadowy figures with what appeared to be rifles in the hours before dawn, they opened fire. A family, complete with camel, had been on the airfield -- a field that sunrise would expose as overgrown, desolate and probably abandoned for a couple of years. No tank, no anti-aircraft guns, no enemy soldiers, nothing . . . except an Iraqi family with two sons shot by U.S. Marines.

The British parachute regiment cancelled its drop. With their destination as Baghdad, the Marines had to "get over it and get on with their mission." The Marines were good men who were devastated. They had gone to war, obeyed orders, followed them to the letter, and two innocent boys were shot and dying at their feet. How do they press on with their mission? What does the lieutenant say to them?

After he had time to collect his thoughts, he visited his men, gathered them together, and then he shared three things with them:

"We followed orders and made a mistake. We acknowledge it and learn from it. It happens in war. It happens in life when you're not at war. It's beyond our control.

"We have to compartmentalize this and press on . . . we must stay focused in the 'now.' We'll have to deal with our emotions and feelings later . . . we can't allow our feelings to sidetrack us or halt us.

"There is to be no second-guessing, no armchair quarterbacking. We make decisions every day. We make them fast, and seldom do we have all the information we wish we had. Most times we're right, but sometimes we're not. We can't hesitate tomorrow because of a mistake made today. That could get us killed."

Hear the words of the young lieutenant; he knew they had to stay focused on their mission. Those three lessons are every bit as relevant and true for us today here at Balad AB. We'll all make many decisions during our rotation, and we won't always have all the information at hand we wish we had. But we can't hesitate. We must stay focused in the fog and the friction of war. Let history teach us. Let the wisdom of the past teach us. Let the experience of others teach us. And learn well, for these are lessons hard to come by. If we don't need them today, chances are we will before our rotation is up. God be with us -- right here -- right now.