By Spc. Anthony Hooker
215th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
AL BATHRA, IRAQ – Members of the 542nd Support Maintenance Company work with local Iraqis to help sustain the flow of water into Contingency Operating Base Adder and Camp Cedar. Serving under the 7th Sustainment Brigade, the 542nd fuels and services generators located at nearby homes off base. Locals are hired to monitor water pumps and canals that run into the Euphrates River, so the team also practices community relations. Their efforts provide a steady water supply to the thousands of service members on COB Adder and Camp Cedar.
The 542nd, a unit from Ft. Lewis, Washington, travels four or five times a week to visit the three sites. They routinely check pipes for leaks, annotate if a centrifugal pump is not working correctly, and make sure no one is stealing fuel from the generators.
They also get a report of any physical activity from the Iraqi monitors. Monitors generally watch for debris and small animals like fish in the pipes. Curious children would seem to be a concern, but one Iraqi monitor said there have been no real problems.
"The kids normally don't bother the area," said an Iraqi who has worked with the military since 2005. "The kids come over when the soldiers visit but only to get stuff [like candy and clothes]."
Sgt. Kevin Tamberg, the team's non-commissioned officer in charge, said the local sheiks keep a tight guard on the area. Anything out of the ordinary is reported to the sheiks. The sheiks pass the info to a local post's garrison command through an interpreter.
Tamberg, a Hattiesburg, Mississippi native, said the sheiks are highly respected and the locals normally have no issues with the military.
"We have a tight bond and it begins from working with the locals," he said.
During these reports, it's common for the team to get requests from the monitors. At the first stop, Tamberg meets with water monitor 'Hani'. After giving his report, 'Hani' leads the group inside his hut and points out the condition of his bed. Constructed of cardboard slats and thin bed rails, 'Hani' said his wife has continually complained about its condition and said he should ask the Coalition Forces to bring a new one. Tamberg takes down the information, thanks 'Hani' for his time and moves to the next station.
Furniture requests was not an action team members expected to do when they got orders to deploy to Iraq. Tamberg said when the unit arrived in Iraq, some soldiers were nervous.
"They were worried about being shot at and blown up," Tamberg said. "Once [the soldiers] realized we were working with the locals and how important their efforts were to the leadership, they were motivated."
Tamberg said his soldiers don't feel like they're wasting time.
"They're motivated because every time they go out, they know they were making a true difference."
"We've connected emotionally with these people," said Tamberg. "They don't want anything to happen to us because we offer them more jobs, more chances to learn a trade. They may have a skill or trade they learned in the past and now can apply it – not only for us but their own people."
Children show up from near and far when the 542nd arrives on site. They come from neighboring homes, even rowing their boats across the Euphrates to spend time with the visiting soldiers. The kids have an unrelenting enthusiasm for the visitors, asking for candy, water, anything of value. The requests rarely cease even when the soldiers finish their duties and return to their humvees.
Responding professionally to the requests of the locals can be taxing. 2nd Lt. Jaclyn Adams, the convoy commander for the water canal pump team, said the job has been 'really difficult, but very rewarding' for her soldiers.
"We're seeing people who are not like us," said Adams. "It's a mixing of cultures . . . we interact, bring them food, water, clothes. Soldiers have been writing people at home so they can send stuff."
Tamberg said the children's attitude is infectious.
"Seeing little boys and girls open up with a smile opens up the soldiers even more," Tamberg said, "so even when we have to get up at early morning hours to do long days, it's made better by the time we spend with the kids."
Tamberg, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran since 2003, said the reversal of policy by coalition forces has created a different mindset for the Iraqis he meets.
"Compared to now, I rarely had any contact with local nationals (on my first tour)," said Tamberg. "Some would come on my base to do small jobs . . . some would shy from us, some would be open-minded."
Tamberg said he didn't really see many children except for those who would come to the side of the road near convoys asking for stuff. By entering their neighborhoods, the kids' curiosity toward soldiers emerged.
"They're always asking us questions, trying to learn more English," Tamberg said. "Instead of asking us for something, some will ask us to join them for supper or to kick the soccer ball around."
Private first-class Brian Lawrence said he regularly plays with the kids.
It makes them feel comfortable [with us]," said Lawrence, who has two children. "Doing that makes it easier when other convoys come; (the children) won't get nervous and start throwing stuff to hurt the soldiers."
Lawrence said, however, that it was important for soldiers not to lose their professionalism.
"If someone's not being professional at a time they need to be, BOOM! . . . there goes your truck."
The team is predominantly made of young people; 12 of 20 people are under the age of 25. Adams, who is 23, said fighting complacency is a big issue with the team.
"Guys are so young," she explained, "It's hard to keep them on their toes, from being complacent. We make sure we cover that (concern) all the time, preaching safety."
"We don't want [the soldiers] to be comfortable outside the wire, with the local nationals," Adams said. "There's a line that you cannot cross."
Adams said they have a good relationship with the locals but added there will always be potential issues with locals, so the team's fate is partially in the Iraqis' hands.
"We're on their land," said Adams, "If they have a problem with us, you never know what's going to happen."
"[We] have to make sure they like us," she laughs.