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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Soldiers Reflect on Year of Change

From Multi-National Force - Iraq:

Sergeant Jeremy Haycox monitors battlefield activities at Combat Outpost Murray June 6. Haycox, of Albuquerque, N.M., said his vantage point allowed him to see the positive changes taking place in the south Baghdad area in a unique way. Photo by Sgt. Kevin Stabinsky.

Monday, 09 June 2008
By Sgt. Kevin Stabinsky
2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division

COMBAT OUTPOST MURRAY — As Spc. Robert Manchego sees the end of his deployment approaching, he reflects on a year of change. Most of the combat he now encounters is commanding virtual armies on his laptop computer during his downtime.

It wasn’t always so quiet for Machengo. When his unit, Company A, 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, first arrived into the area of Arab Jabour south of Baghdad, the place was anything but calm.

For four years following the liberation of Baghdad, the area was largely unoccupied by coalition forces; insurgents used the area as a base of operations.

“When we first got here it was pretty much all al-Qaida,” said Spc. Eric Strazeri, a driver for the battalion’s operations officer. “We had to fight our way all around the sector.”

The fight itself wasn’t only against al-Qaida. The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division Soldiers also had to work to gain the local population’s trust, which was often the more difficult task.

“The people were very shy, wouldn’t come up to us,” Manchego recalled.

Sergeant Jeremy Haycox, a native of Albuquerque, N.M., had a different view of the battlefield from the battalion’s tactical operations center. He said although his job kept him from seeing the enemy or citizens face-to-face, the insurgents’ hostilities were evident on the screen of his work station.

“It was real bad, extremely hectic. I saw lots of red, enemy activities, on my screen,” he said. ”It was bad - lots of IEDs. We discovered some, set off others, had some guys hurt, had some guys die.”

As a veteran of several missions, Strazeri, a native of Miami, experienced some of the incidents on Haycox’s screen first-hand.

During one mission, Strazeri was accompanying the scout platoon and came under small-arms fire south of COP Murray.

“We took fire (and) returned fire,” he said, noting one Soldier was injured during the event.

Small-arms fire was always a concern, although not as big as the threat posed by IEDs, Manchego said. As the 1-30th Inf. Regt. pushed into the area, they performed a lot of missions – patrolling the streets, setting up observation points and going after targets such as insurgents, weapons caches or IEDs.

While putting a face on the insurgency, the Soldiers also tried to put the best face on themselves. To endear them to the local populace, the Soldiers worked to help improve the citizens’ quality of life.

“We did a lot of projects, getting the schools up and running, helping restore businesses through microgrants,” Strazeri said.

As they carted off weapons caches and removed IEDs from the streets, the Soldiers improved things in their place: water, humanitarian assistance and - most importantly - hope for a better tomorrow, Manchego said.

“It was cool to see little kids coming up to us for water,” he said, noting that with each good act, the fear and reservation of the citizens began to disappear. “I think once local nationals here saw we were here to help they were more receptive to us.”

Soon the citizens began to work with the Soldiers, pointing out insurgents and their weapons. Residents laid the foundation for the Sons of Iraq program in the area and began to take care of their communities.

That change, which Haycox attributes to the involvement of the SoI, came at a time when security gains began allowing the Baghdad-7 embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team to enter into the area.

The ePRT, which began working with the 2nd BCT in October, is a U.S. Department of State entity made up of experts in fields such as business, agriculture and governance. They worked hand-in-hand with 2nd BCT units to help rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure.

Through their help, and with funds from the Dept. of State and the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, things started to change.

“We did some very good projects here, opening shops and businesses; just working to improve the life of the people here,” Haycox said.

Although the 1-30th Inf. Regt. will soon depart, they leave behind their best wishes for the people they have come to win over, as well as the Iraqi army soldiers who will assume responsibility for the area.

“Hopefully the IA is able to sustain the fight against al-Qaida and maintain relationships with locals,” Strazeri said.

Haycox summarized his hopes in two words: “Maintain and improve. Maintain what we’ve done and help this place keep improving.”

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