Two Years in Iraq: 3rd ID Returns With New Mission, Focus
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 22, 2005 During the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division was racing north toward Baghdad, the tip of the spear in the coalition's ground campaign to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power.
Capt. John J.R. Rolland, with the 2nd Brigades A Battery, 1st Battalion, 9th Field Artillery Regiment, said the 3rd Infantry Division has a dual -- and in many respects, more complex mission during its second deployment to Iraq. Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Exactly two years later, the Army's storied "Rock of the Marne" division is back in Baghdad, but this time, carrying out a significantly different mission in a significantly different environment.
"We're still out there, doing patrols and beating the insurgents," said Capt. John "J.R." Rolland, with the 2nd Brigade's A Battery, 1st Battalion, 9th Field Artillery Regiment. But now the division has a dual -- and in many respects, more complex -- mission, explained Rolland, a veteran of the division's first Iraq deployment. It's helping the Iraqi people build their country, including the vital mission of helping train Iraq's security forces, specifically, the 41st Brigade "Defenders of Baghdad."
For soldiers who battled Saddam's Republican Guard and other Iraqi battalions as they thundered north through southern Iraq and into Baghdad two years ago, working so closely with Iraq's new military represents a dramatic role change.
"We went from fighting these guys to helping them fight for their country," said Rolland.
Capt. Gary Ducote, also a veteran of the division's first deployment to Iraq, faces a similar contrast in his new role as the division's 2nd Brigade project officer, tracking myriad civil affairs projects under way throughout the brigade's operating area in eastern Baghdad.
"In combat, we were focused on freeing the Iraqi people from dictatorship and tyranny," he said. "Now, we're trying to help them rebuild the economy and get the government back on its feet."
But just as the coalition mission has changed, so has the environment in which the soldiers operate.
Living conditions have improved dramatically. During their last deployment, 3rd Infantry Division troops frequently slept outside or in abandoned buildings, showered under drinking water bottles and ate more than their share of combat rations.
Now, at Forward Operating Base Liberty in eastern Baghdad, 2nd Brigade troops enjoy rooms with beds, a well-equipped gym, a phone center, free laundry service and a well-stocked chow hall with meals prepared by a military contractor. "The quality of life is great," said Rolland. "It makes it so much easier to do this."
Outside the gates, much has changed as well.
Many brigade soldiers say they're seeing signs of progress since they left Iraq. The country's Jan. 30 elections were successful, and its new Transitional National Assembly was seated on March 16.
At the local level, neighborhoods teem with activity. Vendors line the streets selling their wares. Construction projects are under way throughout the city. People are picking up trash and starting to take renewed pride in their homes. Gas lines, though still long, are shorter than they once were.
But unlike during their last deployment, when soldiers said they could pop into a local shop to buy an ice cream or CD, today they're far more guarded. No longer is the threat they face as clearly defined as it was during their first deployment here.
"Before, everyone approaching our vehicle was coming to thank us. We didn't have worries that they were trying to blow us up," said Capt. Robert Meadows, 2nd Brigade's surgeon and the only staff officer to serve with the brigade through both Iraq deployments. "And now, nine times out of 10, the people don't have a bomb, but you don't know that. And not knowing is really stressful on the troops."
"It's more dangerous now," agreed Rolland. "It seems that since we left, the attacks have gotten more sophisticated and more deadly."
Spc. George Woods, on his third deployment to Iraq with just four years of Army service under his belt, said he feels secure inside the 2nd Brigade's forward operating base. "But outside on the street, you always have to be on your toes," he said. "You have to be ready for anything."
But despite the threats they know exist, the soldiers say they're convinced that the vast majority of Iraqis they encounter are glad they're here and believe they're helping Iraq. That support isn't always as evident as during the division's first deployment here, when Rolland said "people were lining the street, cheering for us and wanting to have their pictures taken with us."
"But the people are still nice, and happy to see us, and glad we're here," he said, adding that they're tired of the deaths and destruction the insurgents have left in their wake. "The majority of the people here want their country back and they want to help us fight these guys."
The bottom line, Rolland said, is that "the average Iraqi is really no different from us." The Iraqis want to live in peace, provide for their families and look forward to a better future, he said. "What they want is exactly the same thing that we all want."
Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade said they're playing a key role in helping fulfill that dream in Iraq. "We're here to help the Iraqi people get back up on their feet and show them there's light at the end of the tunnel," said Ducote. "That's something worth fighting for."
Rolland admitted that while he had mixed emotions about leaving his family behind to return to Iraq so quickly, his latest deployment here is proving to "be good for me mentally."
"When we left, we had won the war but hadn't yet won the peace," he said. Watching news reports of ongoing operations in Iraq left him frustrated and wanting to contribute. "It's not really that you want to be here, it's that you know you need to be," he said.
Now, back in the country he and his fellow soldiers helped liberate two years ago, Rolland said, "it's good to be back and helping the Iraqis make a difference."
Winning the peace here will ensure that the combat operations the unit conducted -- and the seven losses the 2nd Brigade took from the time it crossed the border from Kuwait until it secured Baghdad -- won't be "for nothing," he said.
And someday, Rolland said, he hopes to return to Iraq again. But on that visit, he said, "I'd like to be able to bring my kids, to show them a free and democratic Iraq."