Nov 14, 2007

Observations from Ramadi

So Much Has Changed…
Observations from Ramadi

By Douglas Halaspaska, Special Correspondent

This was my first assignment to Iraq, and I had expected it to be both rough and dangerous. My editor had embedded in Ramadi during 2006 and 2007, and shared his improvised explosive device (IED) experience and some other stories with me before I departed, so I had strong concerns about embedding with the Marines. While I’m pleased to say that the living conditions of the Marines at the joint security stations are still rough – Marines wouldn’t have it any other way – the dangers related to being in Ramadi have virtually disappeared..

“As though waking from a nightmare and not being sure if the dream was real or not”, was the example a Marine used in describing the differences between being deployed to Ramadi during 2005 versus what he sees here every day. As a first-time observer, I look at the thriving and friendly Ramadi streets, and frankly cannot comprehend what these Marines experienced one and two years ago.

Today many of the Marines tell me that they would prefer to patrol without body armor and helmets, since they no longer feel endangered. They have requested to their chain of command that they be allowed to drop this gear, but have been told not quite yet.

Again and again the Marines of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion 7th Marines (3/7) would point out significant changes that they believe best demonstrated the Ramadi resurrection.

I asked Cpl Brett Prochaska, a member of a 10 man Marine Augmentation Team (A-team) assigned to Iraqi Police Station of Thaylat, about his present duties as an A-team member. As the intelligence section leader of his A-team, Prochaska lives with 100 plus Iraqi Police for 24 hours a day – 7 days a week and has done so for 7 months.

Prochaska was an infantryman in Ramadi during the worst of the fighting in 2005, so I asked him about his relationship with the Iraqis before becoming an Augmentation team member. What I heard surprised me, “My roommate was killed during that first deployment to Ramadi – I hated all Arabs, not just Iraqis.” “What are your feelings now after living with the Iraq police,” I asked. “They are my friends and I will miss them,” was Prochaska’s final comment on the topic.

Another experience was during a patrol through the Ramadi market when I was motioned to an Iraqi store by 1st Lt Mauro Mujica. “At the beginning of the deployment that store keeper would not sell to Marines,” stated Mujica. Minutes before his comment, I watched Cpl Alexander King walk into the same store and buy a pack of cigarettes. “What was his reason for refusing to sell to Marines?” I asked. “He lost a family member during the war and blamed the Marines,” said the Lt. But now he either forgave the Marines or simply felt it bad business to turn away steady customers, and I purchased a can of soda from the shopkeeper before pushing on with the patrol.

Later the same day came an event that demonstrated how the differences between the Ramadi citizens and Marines have come to an end.

As I was sitting atop a sand bag wall interviewing a sergeant, a Marine 1st Lieutenant approached me. He explained that he was going to confront an Iraqi Policeman (who we’ll call Mohammad to protect his true identity) who was suspected of being involved in the insurgency during 2005. The situation was all the more extraordinary since Mohammad and the lieutenant are friends. As the Lt. casually mentioned that I would be able to ask some questions, I jumped off the wall, quickly gathered my gear, and wondered about what I would be witnessing.

Sitting in a small room lined with cots and gear, the lieutenant talked to Mohammed through an Iraqi interpreter. “We know you were an insurgent during the fighting – you’re in no trouble – I just want you to tell me the truth.” Mohammad was now visibly shaking and appeared nervous before he quietly answered “yes.” “Did you ever fire on any Marines,” was the lieutenant’s first question. Mohammad was clearly concerned and replied with a long answer, but ultimately ended with a simple yes. “I was in Ramadi during the same time, so you could have possibly been shooting at me,” stated the lieutenant. “It’s okay Mohammad - if you were shooting at me then I was firing back at you,” joked the lieutenant. The rest of the session involved the lieutenant and Mohammad exchanging promises to never fight again, and to work together to protect the city of Ramadi. Furthermore, pledges were exchanged that this new understanding, between friends, would not affect their friendship.

It was beyond heartwarming to see these two former advisories – one a Marine, and the other an Iraqi Policeman – now working together as friends and comrades for a common cause. I came to Ramadi expecting a war and what I found was a city that has grown from the carnage, and all its inhabitants – both Iraqi and American – healing.

I was not expecting what I found in was better then all of that.

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