News: Paratroopers begin replacing Marines in Al Anbar
Story by Spc. Mike MacLeod
CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq — On the road between Ramadi and Fallujah lies the sediment of six years of violent conflict. The concussive forces of war, insurgency and terrorist brutality have turned much of the mason block construction into what must surely be the dictionary description following the word rubble. If this to block and mortar, what then to the lives of the Anbaris who lived here?
It is Sunday morning, Sept. 6. A man runs hose water over his shiny green sedan. A shopkeeper props open the doors with jugs of juice. Barefoot children play in the dusty streets and hold their hands to block the sun as they wave for candy from Soldiers rolling past in armored vehicles. They are used to seeing Marines here.
The MRAPs, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, roll on and pass arid graveyards where impromptu headstones are barely distinguishable from the desert rocks. There are many such graveyards.
Back on the hardball, the vehicles pass a new construction site, and then another and another, then a construction yard full of new block and bags of mortar. Within one of the MRAPS, a paratrooper wearing an 82nd Airborne Division patch and an eagle for his rank says two words that seem prophetic to the moment: "New construction," he says.
Army Col. Mark Stammer, commander of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, and Marine Col. Matthew Lopez, commander of Regimental Combat Team 6, are traveling to Camp Al Taqaddum, where 1st BCT's storied 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, will be ceded authority to operate in east Al Anbar province by 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.
The battalion of paratroopers is part of the first unit to deploy to Iraq as a fully-developed advisory-and-assistance brigade assigned the mission of security-force assistance to help Iraqis maintain security and stability, and ultimately, economic prosperity.
The ceremony will mark the beginning of the end of five-and-a-half years of Marine Corps presence in Al Anbar province, and a continuation of the drawdown of U.S. combat forces in a free Iraq.
A NEW PARADIGM
In a speech before soldiers and Marines whose combined campaign streamers stretch from the beaches of Guadalcanal to the skies over occupied Holland, Lt. Col. Scott Fosdal, commander of 1/7, thanks his Marines.
"I asked you to do two things," he says, "to carry yourselves with quiet confidence, and to wield precise and disciplined violence against any who openly threatened us. I firmly believe that because you did the former, we were seldom called upon to do the latter. I feel a perverse pride that we fired less than 10 rounds in 7 months."
There is no greater sign of the times than to hear those words from a Marine commander's mouth. After inheriting the Fallujah area from elements of the 82nd Airborne Division in March 2004, the Marines took many casualties in high-profile battles in and around Fallujah. Many Marines died in Al Anbar province.
"As we prepared for our first joint patrol [with the replacement Army battalion]," says Fosdal, "Army Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Cage told his soldiers, 'Pay attention and be smart, too many Marines have given their lives for us to mess it up now.' With those words, I knew that our mission was in good hands, and that we were being replaced by leaders who could complete what others had begun."
Leaving Iraq before the mission was completed is bittersweet, admits Fosdal afterward.
"Most of my Marines are junior enlisted, and this is their first deployment. I wish they could have seen what it was like here before to appreciate the change."
"Marines don't join the Corps to stay on the base and not fire their weapons. To that end, they've done an exceptional job. To those who've been here before, I am grateful that they didn't do what they did in 2004-2007, but have done what is required to do today. That's the only reason we are able to leave," he says.
Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Okinawa: these are templar names in every Marine's life, but after a half-decade Marine presence in Al Anbar province, so are Fallujah, Karmah and Habbaniyah. "It's not so much what we've done in the past, but it's, 'Look, we are upholding the traditions of the past here today,'" says Fosdal.
By all accounts, the transition between Army and Marines at "TQ" was going as well as any can between sister services. Capt. Sean Thurmer, battle captain of 1/504's tactical operations center, said that, despite an earlier-than-expected transfer of authority, the battalion's command-and-control center was fully functional. Warrant Officer Erik Escobedo, a motor-pool maintenance technician who worked with Marines during Operation Iraqi Freedom I, said that, except for differing terminology and parts issues from using different vehicles, the transition had gone smoothly.
Lt. Col. Xavier Brunson, commander of the incoming 1/504 "Red Devil" paratroopers, is well pleased with the handover, he says. "With this being the first TOA, I think it sets the tone across the BCT. If you look at my brothers' battalions, they're working hand in hand the same way."
The Red Devils are not just part of the "next" U.S. combat troops to occupy Al Anbar province, but in all likelihood, the last, with the last big milestone being the second Iraqi national elections in January 2010.
"We are here in a very exciting period of history," says Brunson. "We've got an awesome responsibility to support the institutions that are going to continue the democratic process. Our greatest export is a little bit of hope, and a whole bunch of training."
The Marines of 1/7 case their colors, and paratroopers of 1/504th unfurl and post theirs. Within the hour, chain-of-command photos begin shifting on the walls in the rough-paneled hallways of headquarters.
Outside on a covered porch, an unassuming soldier sits on a bench for a moment, enjoying the shade from a sun that means business.
This is his sixth deployment, and the best "relief-in-place" he's experienced, he says.
He is a father of two young children. He has been to Kosovo and Afghanistan, once up north and twice to Baghdad. "That's where I lost my buddies," he says, without even the slightest dramatic pause. But then he adds, "It was in April 2004, the bloodiest month of the war for us."
He says the Marines have been very proactive with the turnover, providing the paratroopers with time-tested procedures that evolved from the battle-space, maps and routes, and much word-of-mouth knowledge, acting almost like tour guides during an evenly-paced transition.
"We just had the TOA ceremony, and our very next patrol will be just us with no Marines. We feel very comfortable with that," he says.
A smiling first sergeant walks by the porch rail and hails the soldier.
"Cage," he hollers. "You made the paper this morning."
"That's what I hear, first sergeant," the soldier says of being quoted in the commander's speech.
For a senior non-commissioned officer with soldiers in his care, being recognized before his peers as a leader doing the right thing has impact. The day is one he won't forget, he said. He explains his remark:
"The lowest private can affect the mission of the entire brigade," he says. "If I have a gunner who shoots inside a hostile-looking vehicle and there's a family in there, we have loss of innocent life and an international incident. The locals will be saying, 'Here we have a new Army unit taking place of the Marines, and is this what's going to happen to us?'
"Across the battalion, that's what's on our minds. We want the Iraqis to take over, to feel like they're running the show. We don't want to come back here.
"The battalion commander reinforced that one day," Cage says. "We pulled into a parking lot next to a school. From last deployment, I was so used to watching out for sniper fire, moving the guns around. 'Hey Sgt. Cage, we can't do that anymore,' the commander said. 'Don't move your weapons around as much; just be in your sector and be ready.'
"We can't operate with the same posture we did in 2004," he says.
Sgt. Cage looked at his hands and lifted his chin. "I have lost a few buddies over the years, so coming back here to complete the mission is important to me. I didn't want to see my buddies' lives wasted," he said.
He might have been talking about his paratrooper buddies who died south of Baghdad; he might have been talking about his Marine brothers who died here in Anbar. It didn't seem to matter.