Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Tracking Faraway Action From an Iraqi Base

By ROD NORDLAND AL TAQADDUM, Iraq — It is not that the war in Iraq is over, exactly, just that the one in Afghanistan sounds like a lot more action. For the Marines, guarding provincial reconstruction teams from the United States Embassy and baby-sitting Awakening Councils is not what they had in mind when they answered the recruiters’ call to join “the few and the proud.” As more and more American soldiers withdraw into bigger bases, like this one on an old Iraqi air base in Anbar Province, there is less and less of the exciting sort of work to do. That is particularly true in Anbar, where the Marines turned cities and towns over to Iraqi forces months ahead of the June 30 deadline. The men and women of the Marines’ Helicopter Medium-Light Attack Squadron 167 got a taste of just how much more exciting it could be. A detachment of Cobra gunships from their unit, based here, recently returned from three months on loan to a Marine battalion in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, where the Marines just began a major offensive. “You definitely felt more, well, necessary,” said Capt. Andrew Wimsatt, 27, of Laytonsville, Md., a Cobra pilot. “Even though you know you’re doing good here, just by your rotor noise, keeping them away.” Scaring away insurgents with their prodigious racket is not what the $10 million Cobra gunships were designed for. In a war where civil affairs and reconstruction are what really matter, a gunship may seem as useful as a hammer at a chess match. So far in Squadron 167’s tour in Iraq, which ends this month, the gunships have mostly gone on reconnaissance missions. On one mission the Cobras escorted a medevac helicopter carrying a wounded dog. “But it was a military working dog,” said Captain Wimsatt. The squadron, stationed in Jacksonville, N.C., whose official motto is “Have Guns Will Travel,” may well leave Iraq at the end of this tour without having fired a single shot in combat. That proved far from the case in Afghanistan. “We were doing what we were trained to do,” said Maj. Erik Arrington, 37, from Van Nuys, Calif., who led the 55-person detachment. “It’s kind of like football,” said Captain Wimsatt. “You train all summer, you lift weights, you go to practices and then a lot of times you just sit on the bench. There you actually get to go out and play in the game.” “It was exciting, we were all eager to go,” said Capt. Jessica Hawkins, 27, of Coral Springs, Fla., another of the Cobra pilots and one of a growing cohort of female combat aviators; there are 2 women among the 40 pilots in Squadron 167. “We knew we’d be in support of combat troops actually fighting. More flying, more excitement.” In three months in Afghanistan, they had to scramble to the report of a “T.I.C.,” meaning “troops in contact,” nearly every day; here in Iraq, they have had no T.I.C.’s this tour. Their maintenance crews lived and worked with them in tents, unlike the hardened containers here, and they all ate in the British Royal Marines field kitchen, a far cry from the sprawling, air-conditioned dining facilities here. “I may be old school,” said Cpl. Caitlin Liberson, of Ofalen, Mo., a mechanic who at the age of 20 was on her second deployment to Iraq when the Afghan mission came along. “But I like the whole thing in tents.” Before Squadron 167 left Helmand, it had 21 engagements involving exchange of fire. The detachment was sent because of a temporary shortage of air support as the Marines rapidly increase their presence in Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand. President Obama has ordered an additional 21,000 American soldiers to Afghanistan by the end of this year, building total troop strength there to more than 60,000. The Afghan trip was “pretty cool,” said Captain Wimsatt, but it had its sobering moments, such as when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded between his helicopter and Major Arrington’s. “That morning you can wake up and have no idea it’s your last day on earth, and then all of a sudden...” Captain Hawkins will attest to that. The Marines on the ground got into a heavy firefight at close quarters in the middle of a village. “I was overhead watching the whole situation develop, and this will stick in my mind forever,” she said. The gunships often could not find targets to fire at because the Marines and the Taliban were too close to each other. Two Marines died on the ground. “By 1500 I was back at the ramp ceremony at the C-130,” she said. That is a ceremony for the dead before their body bags are loaded into the cargo plane for repatriation. “You just feel, ‘I didn’t do my job that well.’ I wish I could have made more attack runs, better understood what was happening.” Captain Hawkins considered it an invaluable lesson. “It did make it more of a reality, that we’re not invincible,” she said. “We may have all this technological superiority, but the enemy, they are a competent enemy.” “We were really bummed when we had to leave,” Major Arrington said. Even the scenery in Afghanistan was better, the officers said, especially compared to the flat expanses in most of Iraq. On their base here in Iraq, there are signs everywhere reminding them of their biggest enemy: “Complacency Kills.” The pilots know that the next time they are deployed overseas, it may well be to Afghanistan. While there are 130,000 troops in Iraq now, their numbers are due to fall off rapidly beginning in September. “I don’t imagine we’ll be back here,” Captain Wimsatt said. “But who knows?”

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