Live Blogging an Embed in Ramadi, Day 1
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  1. #1

    Exclamation Live Blogging an Embed in Ramadi, Day 1

    October 27, 2008, 5:23 am
    Live Blogging an Embed in Ramadi, Day 1
    By Eric Owles

    My window view this morning from the Marines CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. (Photo: Eric Owles/The New York Times)

    This blog is part of a series of posts providing live updates on a reporter’s embed with Marines in Ramadi.

    CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq – (12:21 p.m. Iraq time) Waiting around all day in a comfortable civilian airport can be a numbing experience. Waiting around in military hangar is probably worse. Will it be worth the wait?

    My trip to Anbar Province to embed with a Marines Recon Combat Team in Ramadi began at 0655 with a trip to LZ Washington, a landing zone for helicopters in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Washington is where many reporters begin their embeds and it is where many American soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts spend their hours waiting for flights; a few inside a trailer but the overflow, sometimes scores of men and women, outside in blazing heat of bitter chill, depending on the season.

    The dry weather this year has led to an increased number of sand storms and other weather conditions that ground all but the most essential helicopter flights. And so I’ve spent more hours than I would like this year sitting and waiting in Washington for flights that never materialize.

    Because of security concerns, reporters are not told when exactly their flight will take off. So after showing my badge to the private security contractor who guarded the front of the LZ, I plopped myself down inside a trailer across from a pair of young soldiers and tried to get some sleep (I had been up late the night before making sure my RBGAN satellite connection was working properly so that I could file dispatches from the field).

    Over the next few hours a crowd of Iraqi generals, private security contractors, Australians, soldiers and Marines streamed in, manifested for their flights and departed. They took turns making new pots of coffee, eating donuts, watching ESPN and scanning announcements on the bulletin boards.

    One of the boards is covered in Post-It notes with Chuck Norris phrases that have been submitted by the soldiers, such as “Chuck Norris divides by zero” and “Death once had a near Chuck Norris experience.”

    At 0900 I heard my name called and threw on body armor and helmet. I’m loaded down with gear for the week: a back pack with clothes, toiletries, my laptop and a small sleeping bag and a large video camera bag and tripod.

    I went to the desk at the front of the trailer and a woman took my hand and wrote “TQ” in big black magic marker for “Taqaddum.”

    Inside the trailer, you can feel the vibrations in your chest from the helicopters blades as they take off and land. Outside the noise can be deafening. I grabbed a pair of complimentary ear plugs and headed out to my flight. I showed my marked hand to the tail gunner and boarded the Marines CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter.

    The CH-46 transport helicopter is currently being fazed out for the controversial V-22 Osprey.

    Despite the inconveniences in waiting, soldiers generally agree that helicopters are preferred over traveling in a military ground convey. You can watch some video of the CH-46 at an air show here.

    After zipping low and high over the Iraqi landscape for a few minutes we came to a rolling stop at Camp Taqaddum.

    Camp Taqaddum is a relatively quiet post as is much of Anbar Province these days. I’ll be here until after dark tonight (about 11 a.m. E.S.T.) when I will take a second helicopter flight to Ramadi. I’m expecting a slow day so I’ll try to take advantage of that and answer as many questions from readers as I can.

    One note: I got an email from a public affairs officer in Falluja, Iraq. She informed me that I will be embedding with the First Regimental Combat Team, Second Battalion, Ninth Marines – not the Fifth R.C.T.


  2. #2
    October 28, 2008, 2:29 pm
    Live Blogging an Embed: Life of the ‘Terps’
    By Eric Owles

    This blog is part of a series of posts providing live updates on a reporter’s embed with Marines in Ramadi.

    FORWARD OPERATING BASE TASH, Iraq (5:46 p.m. Iraq time) — I was finally able to see the home for E Company, First Regimental Combat Team, Second Battalion, Ninth Marines this morning in the light of day. The base seems smaller than I first thought it was last night when Captain Brian O’Shea gave me a tour in dark. F.O.B. Tash shoehorns around an Iraqi police station, and the Marines work closely with them on maintaining security in the area.

    The mud has cleared up today and I took the opportunity to walk around this morning and introduce myself to some of the Marines. I found some sergeants who agreed to let me bunk with them tonight, and I watched part of the movie “Blow” with some other enlisted men before they had run off to clean the showers. While hanging out near the smoking pit I met three of the eight bilingual Arabic-English speakers who work as interpreters for the Marines. Six of the eight came to Iraq from Jordan, and they all expressed frustration that despite years of working alongside American soldiers they are unable to receive the same visas as the Iraqi interpreters.

    Ahmed, 25, has been in Iraq for about 18 months. He said he was enticed to come to Iraq because he had heard that after one year of work as an interpreter he could get a green card to come to the United States. “But we were surprised this opportunity was only for Iraqis,” he said. Like each of the interpreters I interviewed, he asked that I not use his last name.

    They said that if people in Jordan knew they were working for American soldiers they would face trouble.

    “When we go back to our country there are a lot of Iraqi tribes back in Jordan,” said Abu Hakim. “If they knew they would kill us.”
    The Jordanian interpreters said that the length of their service to U.S.forces in the Iraq war should earn them entry to the United States. “The Marines deployment is seven months,” Ahmed said. “They leave, come back and we’re still here.” He said that he has applied twice for a green card and been rejected twice.
    Firas, 38, said he has a 5-year-old son in New Jersey who he says he has never seen. “My girlfriend is American,” he said. “I am serving America, and I can’t see him.”

    The Jordanian interpreters said they have lost friends and seen friends wounded in firefights. Ahmed said the interpreters believe snipers seek them out as targets because without them the Marines can’t do their jobs.

    Before the Jordanian interpreters arrived in Iraq, they said the Marines used Shia interpreters inside the largely Sunni province of Anbar. “They don’t work well,” Firas said. He said the Shia interpreters would try to get the Sunnis in trouble, but that the Jordanians were more impartial.

    Abu Hakim, 30, has been working in Iraq since 2001. Each of the interpreters has an Americanized nickname. Abu Hakim’s is Kojak.

    Today, Kojak left E Company today for a new job managing a group of interpreters in Habaniya. The job is a step up for him, but it will mean living in a more dangerous area.

    “I learned more about Iraq in one day with you than 32 years of books,” Captain O’Brien told Kojak.

    E Company held a ceremony to mark Kojak’s departure and each of the Marines lined up to hug Kojak goodbye.

    Captain O’Shea promised that he would write a letter in support of his application for a green card. “I know you’ve seen Iraqis come and go and it’s frustrating for you,” the captain said. “Hoorah,” Kojak replied. A few minutes later he boarded an MRAP armored vehicle and left the base.


  3. #3
    October 29, 2008, 12:55 pm
    Live Blogging an Embed: Q&A With the Marines
    By Eric Owles

    This blog is part of a series of posts providing live updates on a reporter’s embed with Marines in Ramadi.

    FORWARD OPERATING BASE TASH, Iraq (5:51 p.m. Iraq time) — I’ve asked the members of E Company, First Regimental Combat Team, Second Battalion, Ninth Marines to respond directly to some questions sent in by readers. They discuss the lower level of violence, political corruption and how they feel about having a reporter live with them. I will answer some questions as well.

    Q. Are the marines seeing improvement, a return to social normalcy in the daily lives of families? Are children returning to school? Are the marines seeing improvement in the infrastructure so needed? Water and power supply not as threatened? What are the political bodies actually promising the populace? What are the political platforms these tribal leaders convey?

    – Susan Audet

    A. Every indication shows that the people of Iraq are returning to a “normal” life. Normal in this culture is much different than normal in our culture, but that could be said of almost any country across the globe. As our convoys travel the roads throughout our area of operations, we have often seen large groups of children (up to 50 in spots) playing soccer in their school clothes, with backpacks on and books in hand as they travel to school.

    We have a very involved civil affairs program, and have covered a broad spectrum of improvements with this program. Everything from sewage to education to water to basic quality of life has been improved, and we work hand in hand with not only the Iraqi government but also local tradesmen to accomplish this. While we analyze the projects needed, local contractors and laborers are given the job themselves, this facilitates ownership and pride in the area, as Iraqis see their countrymen and women improving the quality of life of all Iraqis daily.

    Water and electricity are on every Iraqi’s mind. Each day both of those infrastructures improve. Many Iraqis now have clean water and electricity. The cities were some of the first to receive these projects and be connected to city-run water and electricity. This is seen through the thousands of satellite television dishes that hang off every roof top and apartment window.

    Many street corner shops are now filled by Internet cafes all providing a continuous feed of television and the world wide web made feasible by a working and reliable power infrastructure. Many of the current projects are attempting to provide that same level of convenience to the rural areas where many farmers and herders live.

    There are still places and times when the necessary water or electricity is lacking but local leaders with the support of coalition forces and NGOs are working to improve the situation daily.

    Politics are always a sensitive subject, regardless of the culture in which they are discussed. Here, the political parties are much like those in the United States. Each party presents its agenda in an effort to win the hearts, minds and votes of the people. One thing that must be understood is that the sheiks of the 12 tribes here do not promise the populace anything politically. The tribal leaders are
    less akin to political affiliations then they are to religious beliefs. It has been this way for a few millennia, and will continue to be this way due to their culture here. We must support that, and we will continue to do so, lest we truly do become conquerors and not liberators.

    – First Lt. Andrew Johnson and First Sgt. Denis Bradley

    Q. It’s been my experience that a special operations effort, without knowledge of language and culture, is a dangerous waste of effort, money and lives. How many of these Americans speak nuanced local Arabic? And have an basic knowledge of the culture? Or are they operating with locals who are just trying to stay alive no matter who wins? Local knowledge and respect for it leads to the answers of Ms. Audet’s important questions above.

    – Axl

    A. The Marines here rely on interpreters to communicate with Iraqis. I’ve been impressed with the level of knowledge displayed by the officers here. The first thing we did upon my arrival, after dropping off my gear, was to attend a briefing with Captain Brian O’Shea in which he discussed in detail the local geography and the key Iraqi players. The younger Marines who are here on their first deployment are obviously less knowledgeable about these things. It’s difficult for an outsider, even one who speaks the language, to truly understand everything about a foreign country, but I think it is fair so say that there are some marines who have a basic knowledge of the culture.

    – Eric Owles,

    Q. From what I understand the government in Iraq is quite corrupt, so what measures, if any, are being taken to reduce that corruption?

    – Rick

    A. I understand there have been challenges with specific individuals who have taken advantage of their position for personal gains, not unlike other areas in the world. I also understand that corrective actions have been taken against these individuals. I feel confident the road ahead is promising for the people of Ramadi.

    – Capt. Brian O’Shea

    Q. First, please tell the marines they have our FULL support here at home and we thank them for the service and work they’re doing in Anbar province. Second, I’d love to know if they think the “peace” can be maintained? Do they truly believe the different tribes can work together or is there a sense that after our troops leave, they will go back to infighting?

    – Aaron in Boston

    Q. I would like to know what the marines think would happen in Ramadi if we packed up and left the province in the hands of the locals. I expect an embed would have a pretty good idea about that after a week on the ground.

    – Dave St Andre

    A. Luckily the number of marines is not reflective of the level of security. As the Iraqi police numbers grow in quantity, and more important in quality, the actual number of marines in Ramadi is decreasing. For instance the area my battalion occupies now used to be occupied by eight battalions and a Brigade Combat Team. My company takes the place of where a battalion and a tank company used to
    operate less than a year ago. You can take comfort in knowing that security in the area is actually improving as the Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition Forces make this well-planned transition. Every day the Iraqi police become more and more skilled and self-reliant.

    – Captain Brian O’Shea, USMC

    Q. Are you given special training ( Boot Camp for Journalists?) so that you’re qualified to be embedded with a combat unit?

    – Alex M

    A. I attended a week-long training course in Virginia run by former British soldiers that is designed for aid workers and journalists working in hostile environments from war zones to earthquakes. I took classes in first aid, outdoor survival, negotiating checkpoints, hiring locals and moving safely through combat. Obviously a week is not long enough to become proficient in everything you need to know to stay safe in Iraq. When I arrived in January I stuck close to reporters who had been in the country since the start of the war. Most of the time I am working unembedded, traveling and interviewing Iraqis without American troops. But I’ve learned something new each time I’ve gone out with G.I.’s. After my first night here in F.O.B. Tash, I asked to be moved to a room with some senior enlisted marines. I’ve found that talking to the sergeants is the best way to learn about the military.

    Q. You’re a couple of hundred miles down river from Sukkariyah, Syria, I know, but I’d be very curious to hear any privileged insights or reactions you might glean re: the special ops attack there. As today’s Schmitt-Shanker article says, the timing is indeed startling. The operation seems a throwback to circa 2003, i.e., the days before our high command acquired a bit of political savvy. Although our official sources claim only militants were killed, hardly anybody believes this, given our track record of tolerating collateral damage (= excessive force = murder). Why do we now risk provoking Syria into lending an even more active helping hand to anti-US militants? Please let us know what you find out. And stay safe.

    – CSThompson

    A. You are correct that we are a couple of hundred miles down river from Syria. So far down river that insight into operations along the border are outside the scope of my situational awareness. The Coalition Force and American leadership here in Ramadi continue to skillfully bring this city and the Anbar Province further out of violence and bloodshed and closer toward full participation in the forthcoming free elections. This is a process that has taken many years. To say the leaders are politically savvy would be a gross understatement.

    Capt. Brian O’Shea

    Q. Thanks for your reporting - Has Cpt O’Shea’s company had an embedded reporter before you, and how does the company, in general, feel about you tagging along? Mostly McCain supporters?


    A. I was in a unit in Afghanistan in 2004 and Geraldo Rivera flew out and did a short piece on our unit in June of that year. Other than that brief period I have not yet been fortunate enough to have a reporter embedded with my units.

    I remember watching embedded reports from marine units during the Gulf War. What made even more of an impression on me were the great pieces done by brave reporters from the current war. As a marine I was professionally proud that the American public got a chance to see what true heroes these marines, these young patriotic volunteers are. As a citizen I was excited and encouraged that the American people get to receive an objective and transparent education into the military that serves them.

    Less than one half of one percent of the American people wear the cloth of their country, even fewer do so in harm’s way. The education piece about your Corps of Marines and what they do for you is important. As a citizen I think it is important that I receive an objective and unbiased look into the different organizations of my government. I think exercising the First Amendment — an integral part
    of the Constitution these volunteers took an oath to defend with their lives if necessary — is a great way to do just that. As far as how do I feel about Eric tagging along, I am disappointed he cannot stay longer.

    I would like to answer your second question about the elections. As a member of our nation’s military I’m fortunate enough to remain apolitical. Members of service take an oath to the Constitution of the United States and not to a political party. This unbiased military loyalty to our country’s ideals has precedent back to General George Washington. As private citizens, the marines and sailors of Company E reserve for whom we actually voted and supported. I hope you will take comfort in knowing however, that we are all supporters of the Constitution and our free society.

    – Capt. Brian O’Shea


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