Civil Affairs Teams Help Put Baghdad Back Together
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, Iraq, May. 4, 2003 "Hey, Mister! Hey, Mister!" "Hello! Hello!"
These are kids shouting and running alongside Humvees carrying members of Direct Support Team 2 of the 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion through Baghdad's streets.
Capt. Richard Cote, who commands the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based unit, says this is pretty much the same response they always get. "We're here to solve problems," said the Army reservist, "the Iraqis and ours."
The civil affairs team is attached to the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, and "crossed the berm" from Kuwait with the unit March 19, the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was the first civil affairs unit attached to a battalion-sized unit.
"Our job was to get people out of the way," Cote said. "They were expecting a large number of displaced persons and other refugees. It didn't happen."
Amidst tanks and armored personnel carriers, the team drove Humvees through the desert and into the Euphrates River valley, engaging in combat alongside the squadron.
Then their work really started upon arriving in Baghdad.
The team is the liaison between the Iraqi people in the zone and the military. The zone they maintain, located between the airport and downtown, is a poor to middle-class neighborhood. With garbage collection interrupted by the war, trash chokes the street gutter and is spread in area fields. The stagnant pools of water the Humvees drive through stir an incredible stench.
"Our job isn't to do things for the Iraqis, it's to help them do the job themselves," Cote said. The team travels with local translators and a Free Iraqi Forces member who actually grew up in the neighborhood, even though he now lives in Dearborn, Mich.
The mission May 3 was to go into and assess neighborhood schools. Cote needed to see if they were open, their state of repair and the number of people who work at them so they could get paid.
"It's important to get the kids back in school," Cote said. "We don't want them to lose this year of education."
At each spot, the reserve captain, a Myrtle Beach, S.C., fire department lieutenant, met each school's director. He sat in each office and listened as each principal gave the number of staff and students.
"We have 37 teachers and 700 students," said one primary school director. "We have cleaned up this school with our own hands."
Some schools were looted. Vandals took electric switches, wires, desks, blackboards and plumbing. But the schools he visited were at least intact. "Many times, after (vandals) looted them, they'd set fire to them."
Desks and blackboards topped the list of supplies needed when Cote asked.
He also assessed local mosques to get the number of employees not the religious leaders so they could get paid also. Cote did not go in the mosques, but waited outside the grounds to get the information. "Getting these people money will help jump-start the economy," Cote said.
The team is a focal point for the people of the community. As he was leaving a mosque, a man came up to Cote and explained through an interpreter that he had unexploded ordnance lodged in his roof.
Cote walked to the man's house and climbed to the roof. Sure enough, an unexploded mortar round was in on corner. "Don't touch it!" he warned the owner. "We'll have (an explosive ordnance disposal) unit come by."
Cote marked the house via a Global Positioning System device and made a note.
On his way back to this camp, he also used the system to mark the position of a disabled fire truck. Engineers would respond and retrieve the vehicle later.
The team performed other missions too. Spc. Randy Hinton, normally a junior at Elon University in North Carolina, contracted with a local man to begin garbage collection in the zone. Spc. Raymond Weldon, who lays tile back home in North Carolina, helps get medicine and equipment for the clinics in the zone. Another soldier specializes with water, another in education.
Assessing the electrical and sewer problems in the zone also falls to the team. Cote said the men of the team are champion scroungers. "We look for resources and get it to the people who can use it," he said.
Everywhere the team goes, kids surround it. They introduce themselves and try to talk to the soldiers. There are so many, in fact, that the team cannot stay in an area too long or it would be immobilized. Going through the streets, children and many adults wave to the members of the team.
Even with the constant outpouring, problems persist. "Celebratory fire" people shooting into the air is still a problem: The ammunition they fire up must come down, sometimes with tragic results. Collapsed sewer lines, electrical problems and unexploded ordnance continue to plague the citizens.
Security is still a problem too. Another civil affairs team in downtown Baghdad was attacked by "dead-enders." One American died and four were wounded in the incident.
Finally, one problem is self-imposed. The teams move from one area to another often. "We need continuity," Cote said. "We need to stay for a while so we can establish a rapport with the populace."
But even with their limited interaction, they carry out their mission everywhere they go, helping to return Iraq to its citizens.