GOVERNMENT CENTER |
December 08, 2006
THE GOVERNMENT CENTER
Name: CAPT Lee Kelley
Posting date: 12/8/06
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
Milblog url: wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com
A couple of days ago I went to the Government Center in downtown Ramadi. This is where the governor has his office, and the local tribal leaders and sheiks meet and do business. I drove down with my Battalion Commander, LTC M (the boss), and his PSD (personal security detail) which consists of SGT C and Specialist T. I didn’t have a mission down there, but the boss had been telling me I should come down with him sometime, for the experience of seeing the local government at work. I called and asked if he had an extra seat this day. He did.
We did a convoy brief, then geared up and loaded around 1000. Once we were all in the vehicle, the boss looked over at the driver, SPC T, and the gunner, SGT C, and asked “Whose turn is it to pray?” He did not ask “Does someone want to say a prayer?” This was simply a given. They never left on a mission without a prayer. SPC T immediately said a prayer that was quick, tailored to our mission, and humble. I liked that. It’s a good way to begin a mission. It made me proud of them.
We linked up with another security element at the detention facility, where we picked up a detainee who had been "cleared" by the governor of Ramadi. Apparently they went to college together, the governor knew his family, and vouched for him. Our mission was to bring him down to the governor for a release, and also for another meeting with local leaders. We stopped for a minute at the gate to load our weapons, because once you are off the FOB, you enter a different world. No longer are you surrounded by layers of security. You are now in the red zone, not the green zone, and any atrocity or act of violence has to be expected. Ramadi is a city of half a million people who have been through a hell of a lot. First it was Saddam, and now years of being caught up in the crossfire, as it were, of that proverbial old battle between the good and bad guys. Change does not always come easily, and the citizens of Ramadi have been through many growing pains. And none of this even begins to touch upon the historical and religious implications of what they’ve experienced down through the generations. Ramadi has certainly been a nucleus of insurgent activity, but it’s getting better. We are dissecting.
I’m sitting in the back seat of a fully armored HMMWV, peering out at the world through thick bullet proof glass, scanning down countless alleys and on rooftops for anyone with a weapon, or anything that looks like a threat. By weapons I mean RPGs, grenades, AK-47s, land mines, suicide vehicle IEDs; you name it and it’s possible in Ramadi. I see children playing, adults standing around, and women walking down streets in groups of two or three. Most people watch us as we pass, a convoy of armored vehicles flying down the streets aggressively. SGT C is on full alert. Having the best vantage point as gunner, he's constantly re-adjusting his position as SPC T steers around obstacles. Out on the interstates, civilian vehicles see a military convoy coming through and they know to pull off on the shoulder, giving you a wide berth. But downtown, the streets are narrower and there are more obstacles. When you approach intersections, the lead vehicle sounds a siren and the gunners motion with their weapons for vehicles to make way. But sometimes you drive within feet of the locals. And you hope that the driver in one of them is not suicidal.
You have to go around big potholes and chunks of concrete blocking part of the lane. It’s not a good feeling, because all your training tells you that these are ideal sites for improvised explosive devices. In fact, as we drive past some of them, the boss and SPC T point out things like, “Oh yeah, this is where so and so hit the IED last week." The threat is very real, and you can sense it in the air. You can't think "It won't happen to us," you have to assume it will. Yet we discuss it in the same tone we might talk about last night's football game.
Most of the buildings look like run-down apartment complexes, with rugs and clothing hanging from the balconies. Every empty window looks dangerous; every blind alley seems a threat. There are over half a million people in Ramadi, and the closer you get to the heart of the city, the more cramped they appear to live. When you get near the Government Center, you feel like you’re in bombed-out Beirut. For blocks around, the buildings are riddled with bullet holes from countless firefights between Coalition forces and insurgents. The entire side of a yellow three-story building, for example, has two-inch to 12-inch spots of bare concrete from bullets, like some artist's ghastly rendition. Huge chunks of buildings are gone, and others have collapsed in on themselves. There are Soldiers and Marines manning towers and positions that are some of the deadliest in the world, much less in Iraq.
Once we arrive, I’m told by the boss and the guys that we need to run from the vehicle to the door with weapons at the ready, because there are a lot of snipers and mortar attacks here. And so I run. Inside there are around 100 Iraqi men who are all somehow affiliated with the local government or trying to participate in the process. Some wear jeans and t-shirts and smile at you. Others wear elaborate headscarves, man-dresses, and sandals, and stare at you mysteriously as they walk past. We bring the detainee inside to wait for the governor’s arrival. We exchange nods and smiles. We greet everyone in Arabic.
I’m led into a large conference room with a 20-foot table spanning the middle. There are Army and Marine officers standing around in conversation with Iraqi men, as if they were getting ready for a corporate meeting in a skyscraper in downtown New York City. They seem casual -- cool, calm, and collected. Their body armor and weapons are stacked on a chair. They’re doing the grin and grab, the old handshake polka. But if you inspect further, you notice that for every senior officer in the meeting room, there are three or four heavily-armed Soldiers or Marines, completely alert and always aware of their surroundings. They’re lurking around the room, standing in hallways, scanning the parking lot. Weapons are loaded and it takes only your thumb flipping a little switch to change your worldview from safe to semi-automatic.
The governor’s office, while perhaps a little tacky by American standards, is pretty imposing. It’s a 50-foot room with a massive wooden desk. Along both sides of the room are ornate gold-colored sofas with gold cushions. There are nice little glass tables in front of them with ash trays sitting on beaded cup holders. The curtains are also gold. There are some fake flower arrangements and a small TV. The huge rug dominating the floor has many colors, but is laced with gold. Behind the governor’s desk there is an Iraqi flag, a small grandfather clock, and some books. We hear a small commotion, and realize the big man himself has entered the building. The governor arrives, and there are some formalities as LTC M works with some Iraqi men to have the release paperwork filled out properly and signed. Once it’s over, hands are shaken all around and the newly-freed detainee seems all too happy.
After the governor’s meeting is over, we run across the parking lot and into another door farther down the building, to visit a man I’ll call Mr. H. Mr. H is the guy who sets up meetings among the government, the Americans, and the tribal leaders and sheiks. He also has a big room, though not as ornate as the governor’s. He sits on one side, on a large couch, motioning for us to make ourselves comfortable. The boss, CPT G, our interpreter and I sit across from Mr. H. Again we take off our body armor and place our weapons on the couch next to us. There’s no need to wear them. Yes, we’re literally in the heart of the lion's den, but for the next hour or so, our purpose is more political, less combative. We're sitting with a colleague having a cordial meeting. Besides, SPC T and SGT C are out in the hallway, keeping an eye on things. And they're good at what they do.
LTC M begins by asking how Mr. H’s children and family are doing. Friendly small talk ensues. Mr. H thanks us for all the school supplies we've provided the local children. He says his own son came home with some, and was quite excited about it. Mr. H looks about 50, has very kind eyes, and wears a light green suit with a tan shirt. His shoes are black leather. As he talks, he holds his silver glasses in his hand, or unconsciously folds a single piece of white paper into squares. He and LTC M discuss the future of Ramadi, the recent mosque bombings in Baghdad, the weather, and some other subjects which I cannot address here. During the talks, one of Mr. H’s assistants brings in a few glasses and some bottled water. He places them on the little glass tables. We thank him. Mr. H seems very appreciative to have the opportunity to sit and talk like this. Mr. H tells us, through the interpreter, that he had a dream about LTC M and LTC Mac. They were all at Baghdad international airport together, and they were trying to get Mr. H to fly to America with them. We all had a good laugh about that.
The boss and CPT G have the air of men who are visiting a friend they see all the time, and I guess they do. They’ve built a relationship with Mr. H, and with others in this city, and it’s exactly these kinds of relationships that are going to tip the scales for Iraq. When Americans with good hearts and a just cause work hand in hand with the same type of Iraqis, the possibilities are limitless. At one point Mr. H's eyes seemed a little wet, when he told us that he hates all the violence and he prays for LTC M and his soldiers, that we can all get home safely.
We eventually said our goodbyes. As I approached the door, Mr. H was standing near it. I stopped and motioned for him to go first, out of respect. He put his hand over his heart, smiled, and waved me through.
A few minutes later, we were saddled up again for the ride back to the FOB, the third vehicle in the convoy. We had to go out of a gate and make a sharp left before we could pick up speed. As we exited the gate, an RPG was fired at the vehicle right in front of us. I had my earplugs in and didn’t even realize it was an RPG, it all happened so fast. All I heard was a muted thump, and then I felt the tension as SPC T sped up, and SGT C swung his machine gun around. The gunner in the nearest vehicle started yelling, “I’ve got P.I.D.! I’ve got P.I.D.!” This means positive ID -- he had spotted the shooter. As SPC T accelerated, we heard the unmistakable sound of a machine gun firing at the enemy. This time we didn’t get him. He got away in the never-ending alleyways of Ramadi.
Less than a half hour later, we were sitting around a table in the chow hall talking and laughing about the whole thing. Not laughing in a childish, giddy way, but as men do when they live in a combat zone for prolonged periods. I don’t want to be over-dramatic. People see a lot worse than this every single day. But in a philosophical sense, I couldn’t stop dwelling on the fact that a man put a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder, aimed, fired, and the thing exploded within 50 feet of our vehicle. We were the objects he saw through the sight on his weapon, as he squinted with one eye and placed his shaky finger on the trigger. I’m just thankful nobody was hurt.
I am humbled by so many Soldiers and Marines I work with out here. These men and women are truly incredible. But sometimes it’s the young kids that really impress me. For some reason, young twenty-somethings like SPC T and SGT C just amaze me with their professionalism, their upstanding attitudes, and their ability to live in this environment every day and deal with it so well. Age does not better prepare you for war, necessarily, but it perhaps gives you more life experience from which to draw strength when the going gets tough. These guys sit around the chow hall after an RPG comes so close and smile, let the adrenaline subside. It’s a good feeling, to be surrounded by folks with the wisdom to pray before a mission like this, but the mental agility to laugh amiably afterwards.
"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." - William Morrow