Sgt. Patrick Lair
115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
KHAN BANI SA'AD, Iraq — Cautiously stepping from his Stryker vehicle into the dusty village road after a clearing operation, Staff Sgt. Thomas "T.J." Edwards was greeted by a crowd of Iraqi children. They circled about him, tugged at his pants and asked for candy. Then one of them introduced himself, shook Edwards' hand and gave him a kiss on the cheek, a gesture of greeting in Iraq.
"That was kind of special," said Edwards, a section sergeant and truck commander in the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, based in Fort Lewis, Wash. "It reminded me of my own kids."
Edwards, 32, and a native of Milton-Freewater, is currently serving on his second 15-month deployment in Iraq. He works out of a joint U.S.-Iraqi army compound in the city of Khan bani sa'ad, or KBS, about 10 miles north of Baghdad, conducting joint missions and training Iraqi security forces. Much of his work involves providing security for the residents of KBS.
"The kids are the future of this place and they mostly want better things for themselves," he said. "They want to meet you, touch you, know your name. They're kind of amazed by us just like we're amazed by them."
Edwards recently took part in a major operation to clear insurgents from the KBS neighborhood of Al-Askari. Al-Qaida militants moved into the village a year ago, evicting more than 100 families from their homes and using the empty buildings to launch attacks on Shia populations and coalition forces, he said.
They buried more than 50 explosive devices in the roads to make them impassable and used the rooftops to take sniper shots at civilians and soldiers and launch mortar attacks on various targets throughout the city.
On Sept. 6, U.S. Stryker vehicles surrounded the neighborhood, and the U.S. Air Force provided close air support, as Iraqi security forces cleared the neighborhood, house by house. Multiple buried IED's were found and destroyed, as well as a weapons cache of 37 mortars. Iraqi security checkpoints were established along the roads and the Iraqi federal government is offering between 4 million and 10 million Iraqi Dinars, or $4,000 to $10,000, to assist each displaced family who returns to the area.
"Our plan is to bring back the families of Al-Askari, both Sunni and Shia, to live in harmony and peace," said Col. Karim Wahid Salman Al-Ubaidi, Iraqi army commander in KBS. "Our short-term goal is to assist the families with food rations and assist the municipal government in cleaning the streets and reinstating water and electrical services."
The day after the mission, as Iraqi soldiers handed out more than 100 tons of food and water to local residents, Americans were surprised to see kids playing soccer again in the roads.
"When we first got here you wouldn't see anyone. Today, you see people all up and down the streets," Edwards said. "I tell my guys to wave at them. I think that's important."
A 1994 graduate of McLaughlin-Union High School, Edwards has served more than 10 years in the U.S. Army, previously deploying to Baghdad with the First Armored Division in 2003. His son, Coltyn, 13, still lives in the area and plays football for the Central Cougars, the same team Edwards played for.
"It's good to go home and see where you were raised and see old friends," Edwards said, looking forward to his next trip to Oregon. "I like the small town feel. Living in Seattle, there are so many people it takes an hour to drive home. In Milton-Freewater, you can get anywhere you want in five minutes."
Speaking of his current mission in KBS, Edwards said the situation is dire but he has hope for the future:
"The people actually are very good people but they're so afraid. Now, they're finally embracing us and seeing that we're here to help. They'll stop us and let us know where the IED's are buried."
Asked if he had anything to say to the people back home, Edwards responded: "Even if they don't support the war, tell them to support the troops."
This work, Milton-Freewater Soldier in Iraq says kids are the future, by SGT Patrick Lair, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.