My stay in Support Operations was unexpectedly, but not surprisingly, cut short.
Prior to mobilization, I began to read up about Islam, Arabs and Iraqis, buying and reading an English version of the Koran, the book ‘The Arab Mind’ and other topical books. I studied philosophy in college so reading about different religions, social, political and economic ideas and various cultures was not new to me. Early in the deployment, I sent out a feeler about helping in the Civil Affairs section to the section officer and the unit’s Deputy Commander. The Deputy Commander filed away my interest in Civil Affairs until the need arose for a new Civil Affairs Officer and I was the primary [maybe only?] choice.
Less than one month in Iraq, around late March 2004, I was reassigned to replace the 167th CSG’s Civil Affairs Officer.
The transition was not smooth, this was nothing personal on my part– not to state the obvious, but there was a great deal of resentment. The outgoing Civil Affairs Officer thought the Commander was unfair or was ‘back-doored’ by me- meaning I pushed her out of the nest.
Neither was true; the officer was removed due to their actions. On a few of the previous out side the wire civil affairs missions she caused a few serious security violations putting the civil affairs team at risk: not taking her weapon, giving her weapon to the Iraqi national Arabic translator and taking her driver’s weapon, leaving SGT Hernandez defenseless.
Instead of the usual 5 or 10 day transition period, I got only 2 hours and a truck load of attitude.
Learning a new job was not my only problem. It became clear the section sergeant, an older NCO and Viet Nam and Gulf War Purple Heart veteran who I had known for many years, needed to be replaced; especially since he said to the effect: ‘I cannot do the job, my back hurts too much wearing body armor five to six hours a day, six days a week’.
Fair enough, I appreciated his honesty.
At that moment, the Army Reserve mobilization policy was not my problem and is a topic for another discussion. As an older soldier, with a back problem, wearing body armor for a few hours at a time was an issue since it was a daily job requirement.
After a few convoys with me to the Army finance unit located on a former Iraqi Army base in Tikrit called FOB Danger, which also served as the 1st ID Headquarters, the section sergeant was done, sent to Support Operations to work the night shift and was replaced by the operations section sergeant major: Sergeant Major Richard Gamache.
SGM Gamache was also an older soldier- 57 years old to be exact; he was an avid hunter, outdoors man and in general very good shape. Despite his age, there are very few soldiers over 55 in the active duty Army system, and only a few in the Reserves; he was very strong, mentally and physically tough and fit enough to keep up with the younger soldiers; a very good choice for the position.
I was very lucky.
A former infantry soldier and drill sergeant, SGM Gamache felt like a fish out of water serving as the CSG’s Operations Section Sergeant Major, a position which clearly needed a logistics, supply and transportation expert, not an infantry or training expert.
I needed an NCO who had infantry knowledge, excellent first line leadership skills and who could be diplomatic enough to work with Iraqi Police, Government Officials and key civilians but not get pushed around: Iraqis respect strength; SGM Gamache was the best possible choice. Selecting him one was of the best decisions I ever made.
By this time, after making the NCOIC change and having a few convoys to the US Army bases in Tikrit under my belt in the Iraq combat zone, I still did not feel like I was at war, just going through the motions.
Little did I know, very soon my perspective on war would change.
6 April, 2004 was one of my first pure Civil Affairs missions, in theory an easy one: conduct school assessment of three Iraqi schools located within walking distance of each other, in Tikrit.
Prior to that mission, I had limited outside the wire experience: lunch at my Iraqi translator’s house in Al Shakour Village, located just outside the safety of Camp Speicher and convoyed a few times to Forward Operating Base Danger in Tikrit and a long convoy to Logistical Support Area Anaconda in Balad.
We left the safety of Camp Speicher and convoyed south on Route Tampa from Camp Speicher to Saddam’s home town of Tikrit. For this mission, the civil affairs team consisted of 4 HUMMVs: 2 gun-tuck and 2 regular and about 15 soldiers and my Iraqi national translator.
We had been on the ground about 90 minutes, and just completed the second of our three school assessments in this Tikrit neighborhood.
My world changed.
We walked towards our third and final school when an Iraqi boy with a bloody foot appeared; looking bug-eyed scared and asked for help.
The trap had been set and we took ‘the bait’.
My driver and administrative assistant, SGT Hernandez walked over and picked the scared Iraqi boy up and carried him to one of our HUMMVs in order to examine and treat his bloody foot.
By the time she realized the Iraqi boy’s foot was not injured and only covered with blood; two unexpected and loud explosions rocked our world.
The insurgents had just ambushed my team and I with a rocket propelled grenade attack.
This is when the ‘Iraq War’ became real for me, very real.