Thursday, May 10, 2007

Patrol Base Dragon: Living in "Al Qaeda Land"

From Army Magazine
By Dennis Steele

The bare steel and concrete ribs of a massive unfinished power plant tower above a lazy curl of the Euphrates River in the farmlands southwest of Baghdad. The Russian construction crew that worked on the plant for several years dropped everything and left when Coalition forces stormed across the Iraq border four years ago, leaving the huge complex a derelict monument to grandiose plans, halfhearted workmanship and the sudden realization that no more of Saddam Hussein’s checks were going to clear.
Cranes, cable spools, welding sets and boxcar-sized turbines sit rusting in the yard, but the plywood walls of a mess hall, weight room, command post and sleeping areas are recent additions.
American soldiers have moved in and cobbled the ghostly complex into an outpost called Patrol Base Dragon. Today, it is home to Company A, 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry (A/2-14 Infantry) from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry).
Posters are tacked to the walls; handheld video games, MP3 players and laptop computers lay on cots; and air conditioners are jammed into cutouts. An Internet cafĂ© is open around the clock, and a jerry-rigged shower drips around the clock, too. The shaving water is tepid, but steaming breakfasts and dinners are served from a mobile kitchen trailer; boxes of Hot Pockets are set out for lunch. You can get a cold soda from a brace of refrigerators anytime you want—until the week’s soda allotment runs out, which is about the third day after delivery—but soldiers share with each other goodies they receive in care packages from home. You find that selfishness diminishes in direct correlation to how rough soldiers live. All in all, life’s not bad at Patrol Base Dragon. Certainly, it’s nothing to
compare with the relative creature comforts of the big American camps and forward operating bases (FOBs) in Iraq: that would be like comparing a shantytown to Las Vegas. However, the soldiers of A/2-14 Infantry say they would rather be at the patrol base than a super FOB. They say it feels rather strange when they rotate back to Camp Striker for less than 72 hours every nine or 10 days. Most of them feel it is useful only for getting
laundry done, grabbing a haircut and restocking snacks. OK, sure, you can grab a milk shake, but you also have to put up with overhearing soldiers who never leave the FOB called “fobbits” in the current vernacular) talk about how rough they’ve got it.
Morale is exponentially higher among small units at places like Patrol Base Dragon because of the intangibles: a sense of collective self-reliance; making do with what you’ve got; depending on your buddies and taking care of your buddies; only the arms room really needs a lock; everyone talks to each other; everyone pulls his weight; and, if you really need it, somebody will give you his last pair of clean pair of socks … or a pint of blood. There’s no way to name it all, and no price you can put on any of it.
Another thing they have is an around-the-clock, real-world mission—sharp-edged, ground-pounder stuff: finding weapon caches; raiding improvised explosive device (IED) factories; catching bad guys … shooting it out with them if it comes to that; sitting though a rainstorm on a crummy observation post; working to gain the confidence of the locals and joking with their kids. A place like Patrol Base Dragon means soldiering at the retail level. Sure, it’s dangerous, but at the end of a patrol, there’s a good chance there will be something to show for it.
The 2nd BCT, 10th Mountain Division, has patrol bases scattered throughout its area of operations (AO); it focused on establishing them as soon as the brigade arrived in Iraq.
“During our training [for the deployment], we tapped into Vietnam veterans to learn from their experiences,” said Lt. Col. John Valledor, commander of the 2-14 Infantry.
“They said you need to live forward in-zone to successfully engage in a classic counterinsurgency operation.”
“The insurgency we’re fighting [in this AO] is strictly … Sunni extremists, who have been here for quite some time,” Col. Valledor explained. “[Among them] we have
the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades group, which is involved with al Qaeda. … All told there are probably four distinct and [discordant] Sunni groups, and the fact that they are
not working together makes it easier for us. My feeling is that the strong al Qaeda guys have been displaced and that we’re dealing with factionalized Sunni extremist groups
that are still here because of the lack of governance. And that is why we are trying very hard to convince the sheiks and everyone else to become involved in the political
“Fighting an insurgency involves being out there with the people, not fighting from an FOB,” Col. Valledor said. “Our soldiers are fighting in-zone. We don’t drive to work.”
A/2-14 Infantry occupied the power plant in late October after a short stint at the nearby Gator Swamp patrol base. The plant had been an off-and-on insurgent training camp and launch point for attacks and kidnappings, but the company took the facility without resistance. An Iraqi Army company has since colocated with the American soldiers
at Dragon.
Most of the operations and routine patrols launched from the base are dismounted. “Patrol bases are fantastic,” said Capt. Daniel Hurd, the A/2-14 Infantry commander. “We’ve detained 40 insurgents in the past two and a half months and not one of them was
in a truck; we haven’t struck an IED in one of our vehicles because we don’t use vehicles.”
“The most dangerous part in being out here is going back and forth to
Camp Striker,” added 1st Sgt. David Schumacher. “You can sit in a vehicle on the highway all day long, but that won’t make you safer,” Capt. Hurd said. “We’re safer here not because we sit on the road and wave at people. We’re safer because we get out and get around.” “We have soldiers wearing 60 pounds of gear running down a guy who’s not carrying anything,” the first sergeant said. “Our dismounted operations disrupt the enemy about 10 times more effectively than if we were just rolling around. Being dismounted keeps our guys safe, and they are more likely to spot something.”
“Our soldiers are better focused,” Capt. Hurd added. “When they step outside they know they’re in al Qaeda land. And because we’re always here at the patrol base or on patrol, the local people see that we’re here to stay,” Capt. Hurd said. “They are opening up and talking.”
“Maintaining this patrol base isn’t a logistics nightmare. We’re pretty low maintenance,” said 1st Sgt. Schumacher. “We’re fortunate here because the place is so big that we have room for a dining facility, maintenance bay and aid station, but a patrol base will work no matter what you have. All you need is a house that you can secure and, brother, you’re in sector.”

No comments: