Monday, April 4, 2011
History in the Making
"Let me say this as plainly as I can: by August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."
President Barack Obama, Camp Lejeune, February 27, 2009
According to a press release, which is posted on the WhiteHouse.gov website and dated 1 August 2010:
When President Obama took office in January 2009, there were 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. At his Camp Lejeune speech on February 27, 2009, President Obama announced that the United States would end its combat mission on August 31, 2010, and retain a transitional force of up to 50,000 U.S. troops to train and advise Iraqi Security Forces; conduct partnered and targeted counter-terrorism operations; and protect ongoing U.S. civilian and military efforts.
For anyone keeping track, the 352 is part of that transitional force. They have been in country for about a month now and, as of a couple of weeks ago, they are in full control of daily operations.
With the exception of the Marines and Special Forces who are almost always the first on the scene in any combat situation, the units deploying to the Middle East are replacing other units who are ready to get the Hell out of Dodge. The final days prior to re-deployment are filled with tying up loose ends, cleaning the billets (lodging), and training the incoming unit. Before the outgoing unit can fly home and the incoming unit can take over, they must complete "left-seat/right-seat rides." Just like learning how to drive your parents' stationwagon in the K-Mart parking lot, each incoming Soldier must observe his/her outgoing counterpart during the course of their day...learning the tasks, asking every question that comes to mind, trying to understand and anticipate what challenges lie ahead. The left-seat/right-seat rides are designed to ensure that the new unit is as successful as possible at completing a smooth transition. We have been through a lot of left-seat/right-seat rides.
As Neal explained it to me a couple of days ago, everyone has their own function within the unit. Some Soldiers are working with the contractors...they are the external side of things. Some are visiting FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) and camps to determine the best way to begin shutting them down. Neal is basically Human Resources. He works the internal side...checking to see who needs more training and who is up to date, preparing the PowerPoint slides for the daily briefings. Even he, as the glorified Office Manager, had to complete a left-seat/right-seat ride.
What occurred to me last week is that is the last left-seat/right-seat he will do during this deployment.
No one is coming to replace them.
That has never happened before.
When people ask me where Neal is deployed to and I tell them Iraq, they get this sort of disappointed look. Like Iraq is no longer good enough. (You should have seen them when I said Kuwait last time. I may as well have said, "He is sunning himself on the French Riviera for the next 12 months. He should be a well-fed, bronzed god by the time he returns.") And when I say "Iraq" the way I do..."ear-rock"...more blank stares. I pronounce it that way because Neal once told me that if we ever hope to have peace and understanding between the countries, we should respect them. Part of respecting them is pronouncing the name of their country correctly.
So, I tell those who ask about him that his unit is shutting down operations in Iraq and will be turning over the keys and closing the gate behind them by 31 December. Except very few Americans understand the scope of this project and the historical significance behind it. While no deployment is ever "typical," the 352 has been granted an amazing privilege...to close down a base for the first time in...I don't know...60 years?? Although we still have military personnel in Korea, Japan, Germany...seems like no one ever said to us, "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."
Even when the 352 and 50,000 of their closest friends exit Iraq, Secretary Clinton and her merry band of state department staff will be coming in. If they decide they would like to keep the chow hall, the PX, the Green Beanery...then the 352 will have a place to eat, shop, get caffeinated until they board that home-bound plane. If not, there will come a time when breakfast, lunch, and dinner is an MRE, toiletries will be hard to come by, and the mail will cease to run. It's like invading a country, but backwards.
So, please don't look disappointed when I tell you about the 352's mission. No disrespect to any veterans or the way we have left (or not left) countries in the past. This one is about trying to give control back to where it belongs, in the hands of the Iraqi police and military. It's not any more or less important than what is going on in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Libya...but it is a mission worthy of our attention and respect.