Petraeus Cites Highs and Lows of Iraqi Deployment
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., March 17, 2004 Home along with his soldiers after a one- year deployment in Iraq, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) called the division's experiences in Operation Iraqi Freedom "a roller coaster" of highs and lows.
Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commanding general, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), gives a "thumbs-up" sign to a soldier while walking alongside a convoy in Iraq. Photo by Sgt. Robert Woodward, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Since the first elements of the division began leaving their sprawling post that straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border north of Nashville in February 2003, Army Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus said they experienced amazing high points in Iraq.
Division troops engaged and killed Saddam Hussein's two sons, Uday and Qusay, in Mosul, and also captured Asa Hawleri, third in the terrorist group Ansar al- Islam's chain of command. They played a peacekeeping role, presiding over the first elections in post-war Iraq and helping to rebuild the country.
But contrasting these high moments were some tremendous lows, Petraeus said, particularly the loss of 60 division soldiers in Iraq. "There is nothing tougher than the loss of a comrade in arms. There really is not," the general said.
Petraeus said his own personal low of the campaign came the night of Nov. 15, when 17 of his soldiers died in a collision of Black Hawk helicopters.
"The loss of 17 soldiers in one night when two helicopters collided over Mosul was just a blow beyond belief," he said. "It's like losing 17 children. It's almost beyond comprehension -- a terrible, terrible blow to the organization and the individuals in it."
Two months earlier, the division had experienced another devastating tragedy, this one alleged to have been inflicted by one of its own. Sgt. Hasan Akbar allegedly threw a grenade into three tents housing members of the 101st's 1st Brigade Combat Team, killing two officers and wounding 14 others. Akbar's trial is set to begin July 12.
Petraeus said the attack, launched just as the division was preparing to move north into Iraq, could have zapped his soldiers' resolve. Instead, thanks to the "tremendous response" by leaders within the brigade, Petraeus said it served as an inspiration.
"After every death came the question, what would that soldier have wanted us to do?" he said. "And the answer was to ensure that his death was not in vain and to drive on and accomplish the mission."
The morning after the Black Hawk tragedy in Mosul, Petraeus said, a young soldier in the headquarters provided similar inspiration. As he left his morning update session, struggling to think about anything but the loss of 17 soldiers, the soldier grabbed him and said, "Sir, that just gives us 17 more reasons to get this right," Petraeus recalled.
"I drew an awful lot of strength from that particular soldier that morning," he said.
Not all the division's highs and lows in Iraq were so profound, but they, too contributed to the day-to-day roller coaster effect of the deployment, Petraeus said.
In addition to the 101st's successes during the operation from deploying to the theater in record time to successfully carrying out its warfighter role against a variety of enemy threats the division's soldiers performed equally well in their peacekeeping role.
After the division blanketed Mosul with four infantry battalions to establish order, soldiers presided over Iraq's first postwar elections last May. Iraqis in Nineveh province elected a provincial council.
Meanwhile, the 101st oversaw the completion of more than 5,000 projects, building or rebuilding more than 500 schools and dozens of medical clinics, opening hundreds of kilometers of roads, reopening Internet cafes and putting an irrigation system back into operation. More than $57 million from Petraeus's commander's emergency reconstruction fund covered the costs.
The people of Mosul are so grateful for the 101st Airborne Division's part in the projects that this week they named a street in the division's honor. "It's wonderful recognition that they appreciate what our soldiers have done for them," Petraeus said.
Yet for every success, Petraeus said, he and his troops struggled with what he called the "man in the moon challenge."
"(The Iraqis) would ask us why we could overthrow Saddam in three weeks and why we could put a man on the moon but we couldn't give them a job right then, right there," he said. "Why we couldn't throw a switch and get the entire electrical infrastructure working again."
Expectations were enormous, he said. "We used to joke that the reward for one good deed in Iraq was a request for 10 more good deeds."
Petraeus said he has "cautious optimism" about the future of Iraq, citing the country's vast oil, water and sulphur reserves, the high education levels among the people, their entrepreneurial spirit and most of all, their willingness to work hard to achieve their goals.
The caution, he said, comes from the various groups and factions now jockeying for power in the new Iraq. "At the end of the day, there has to be a spirit of compromise that prevails to allow the new Iraq to serve the needs and hopes and dreams and aspirations of all Iraqis, not just one of these particular groups," the general said.
Now that the 17,000 soldiers under his command are back at Fort Campbell, Petraeus said he feels good about the role they played in helping overthrow Saddam Hussein and reestablish peace and stability in Iraq.
"It's the greatest privilege that I can possibly imagine to have served in this division and to be blessed with such a team that we have here, at every single level, from the soldier on up to the division staff," he said. "I think our soldiers should be very proud of what they've accomplished in Iraq, and I think all Americans should be very proud of what our soldiers did."