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    An Interview with the Lion of Al Qaim

    An Interview with the Lion of Al Qaim

    Photo By Sgt. Mike MacLeod | Marine Col. Matthew Lopez, commander of Regimental Combat Team 6, shakes the hand of...... read more read more

    CAMP RAMADI, Iraq — As Regimental Combat Team 6 prepares to hand over military operations in Iraq's Al Anbar province after over five years of Marine Corps presence, to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division (Advise and Assist Brigade), we talked with the man once known to some Iraqis as the "Lion of Al Qaim," Marine commander, Col. Matthew Lopez.

    Q: During your first deployment to Iraq, you were an infantry commander of 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6. After the fall of Baghdad, you were tasked with rebuilding the infrastructure of Karbala. How did that experience help you decide how to proceed in Karmah, the last hot spot of insurgency in Al Anbar province?

    A: In Karbala, we were very successful and had a great relationship with the people.

    Some of the philosophies and habits of thought that our general officers demanded back in 2003 have continued to make us successful today. General Mattis, the division commander back then, came up with the term, "No better friend. No worse enemy." That really became our mantra on how we thought and acted. It's even more relevant today in the non-kinetic side of operations.

    Another one was, "First, do no harm." The way it was explained to me was, if you had to kill one innocent Iraqi in order to capture Saddam, then Saddam would go free that day. So those kinds of habits of thought — early lessons learned and captured by our general officers back then — were absolutely brilliant because they carried through six years later.

    Q: You are referring to the 5-3-5 concept. Can you explain?

    A: To teach young Marines and young soldiers how to act, it's even more important to teach them how to think. "No better friend. No worse enemy" and "First do no harm" are some of the pearls of wisdom that were never really brought together in a tactical [standard operating procedure]. It doesn't matter if Marines can mimic the phrases if it doesn't alter their behavior, so we took five habits of thought (the two above, plus sturdy professionalism; be hard to kill; and Complacency kills) and we formalized them so that every Marine did not have to discern what we meant.

    Additionally, we took rules we never violate — unity of command, geometry of fire, and guardian angel — and we solidified those into a written SOP.

    [The final five refer to] the critical tools of our trade: doing proper planning using pre-combat checks and inspections, rehearsals, and confirmation briefs before we step out the gate to ensure everyone's on the same sheet of music. And when we come back from a mission, we do our after-action review and lessons learned.

    Our SOP narrows down how we think about what we do for a living, how we think about how we are going to operate, and the habits of action dictate how we are going to do it.

    Q: Have you seen 5-3-5 save lives in Al Anbar?

    A: I've seen 5-3-5 save lives every day, not just here, but in the United States. If a Marine is a sturdy professional, he doesn't let his buddy drink and drive. I think 5-3-5 has really expedited the maturing [of Marines] and helped to bring these young Marines together as one team.

    Q: Karbala is primarily Shia, while Anbar is primarily Sunni. How did that affect your mission?

    A: There are significant differences between the two in terms of the lineage from the Prophet Muhammad. Culturally, you have differences due to geography, but I also think that, early on, our lack of understanding of those religious differences, and the fact that religious differences don't automatically transcribe to cultural differences, was part of our arrogance and misunderstanding of the situation. I've had many Iraqis tell me the divide was magnified by coalition forces. Obviously it was a factor in the sectarian violence. I think those religious differences were hijacked by Al Qaeda in 2005-06 and used against the people, but I don't think the differences are as predominant as it was first sought out to be. The political coalitions we see unfolding for the national elections show the Iraqi people are willing to work across the Shia-Sunni divide.

    Q: It has been over five years since you led 3/7 against al-Qaida in Al Qaim near the Syrian border. With regards to the losses of Maj. Richard Gannon, Cpl. Jason Dunham (who received the Congressional Medal of Honor), and many other Marines, and your own sacrifices for which you received a Silver Star, has time changed your perspective of the event?

    A: I had over 23 Marines make the ultimate sacrifice back there in '04. Maj. Rick Gannon and Cpl. Dunham are just two of the 23 that I lost. In addition to that, I had over dozens of amputees in one battalion alone and over 400 wounded. In a way it has been very therapeutic to come back to Iraq time-and-time again, and to be able to see the results of those sacrifices. When you see that kind of violence and have those kinds of losses, sometimes it's easy to lose perspective. Being able to see that those sacrifices weren't made in vain makes it a little bit easier. It never gets easy. You still grieve for the families.

    Q: In 2005, you attended the Joint Advanced Warfighting School where you received a master's degree in the planning and execution of joint, multinational, and interagency operations. How did that change how you conducted business when you returned to Iraq?

    A: That year was a great year to study the profession of warfighting at the joint level. It better enabled me to serve on the [Multi-National Forces — Iraq] staff when I worked as the USJFCOM Forward Support Element to General [David] Petraeus. It also better allowed me to serve at the Joint Forces Command as the deputy director of J9 (executive agent for interagency). That helped me address the situations when I came back to Iraq when the majority of my time and efforts were spent, not on a kinetic fight, but eliminating the root causes and working with the interagency and the Iraqi government.

    Q: What played into your deliberations as to how to quell the violence in Karmah?

    A: My higher headquarters did a great job providing me with the resources and capabilities I needed. Based on previous experiences, we know it's always better in an insurgency to make sure you have the support of the local population. You don't do that with boots on the ground or bullets; you do that by helping to eliminate the root causes. That's exactly what we did in Karmah. We allowed the local leadership in Karmah to prioritize what needed to be done in the area. We had tremendous help — the local sheikh's council, the local government, the people of Karmah, and the ISF. We have been very successful because of all those contributions and the hard work of young Marines, soldiers and sailors.

    Q: You can't put a price on life, be it Iraqi, Marine or paratrooper, but with respect to the total cost of the war, do you think the American taxpayer is receiving a good value on the $7 million already spent on the Karmah Initiative?

    A: They're getting a great return on their investment, because it's not just about protecting the lives of Americans. As deploying service members, we understand and accept risk. Equally important is improving the lot in life of the Iraqis. Over the last nine months, the overall total we spent in Karmah has been more like $11 million, with a plan in place to spend in excess of $20 million.

    We didn't come here to occupy this country. We came here to free it from Saddam Hussein, and then to create democracy and a free-market economy so that we can be long-term partners with the Iraqi people.

    In Karmah, we brought water to 100,000 people and schooling to over 7,000 young children. Those are the kinds of investments that will help the Iraqi people get back on their feet to support a new, democratic Iraq.

    Q: In light of family separation, how do you explain the value of what you and RCT-6 have accomplished in Al Anbar to your family back home?

    A: The most precious asset we have is time. No amount of money can buy time. My son fully understands what [Operation Iraqi Freedom] is. The children of American servicemen and women see it firsthand. They experience the separations. The children, the spouses and significant others, in my book, are the heroes of what we do because they pay a great sacrifice so we can go out and do what our country asks us to do.

    If nobody is willing to stand up and do the right thing, my kid has no future. He understands that his dad is out there standing up to do the right thing. Even for a seven-year-old, he understands that he has a lot of great freedoms, and that his dad is one of the guys going over here to make sure that somebody else in another part of the world also has those freedoms.

    I'm teaching him to be responsible and that there is always greater value in serving other people than in serving yourself.

    Q: What advice have you given the incoming commander replacing you on how you would proceed in Al Anbar over the next 12 months?

    A: The old saying that success is born of a thousand fathers is very true in this case. I have every confidence that Col. [Mark] Stammer and [1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division (Advise and Assist Brigade)] will continue to be successful as they have throughout the unit's history. It's a great honor for these soldiers to have been picked to be the first executors of the new advise-and-assist brigade concept.

    From what I've seen over the last 25 years, that's going to be the way of the future. There are not going to be many countries or causes that are going to take us on, military on military. As a uniform military service, we have to better find out how to prevent these things in the first place.

    The Army's confidence in the 82nd [to test the AAB concept] is a great testament to Col. Stammer's leadership and the performance of the brigade, and I think AAB will be absolutely critical for future capabilities of the US Army. I wish the entire 82nd a very peaceful and successful tour.



    Date Taken: 09.20.2009
    Date Posted: 09.20.2009 07:20
    Story ID: 39040
    Location: RAMADI, IQ 

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