82nd Airborne Unit Winds Down Short, Fulfilling Deployment
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq, Dec. 29, 2005 An 82nd Airborne Division unit has again proven the division's unofficial motto of "America's 911 Force" during its deployment to Iraq's Anbar province.
Soldiers of 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, conduct a daytime insertion northeast of Asad, Iraq, in September. The unit is wrapping up an eventful four-month deployment. U.S. Army photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
It was a short, violent and ultimately fulfilling deployment for the paratroopers of Task Force 3-504, said its commander, Army Lt. Col. Larry Swift.
The unit - built around the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and under command of the 2nd Marine Division while in Iraq - was one of two battalions deployed in September from Fort Bragg, N.C. The unit worked with other coalition and Iraqi forces to shape the Anbar province battlespace for the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum and the Dec. 15 national election.
In the unit's four-month deployment, five task force soldiers were killed and 25 were wounded as the paratroopers directly confronted the insurgents and foreign fighters intimidating the population and planning operations against coalition and Iraqi forces.
The unit bulked up before arriving, with elements of the 313th Military Intelligence Battalion; 3rd Battalion, 319th Field Artillery; the 307th Engineers; and a liaison team from the Marines Corps.
After the task force's convoy to Iraq from Kuwait, "we almost immediately started combat operations," Swift said. The "Wild West," as some paratroopers called it, was a hotbed of the insurgency. The task force used intelligence to target insurgent leaders, deny terrorists safe havens and protect the people of the region from the insurgents. The task force operated in Haqlaniyah, Habbaniyah and Ramadi.
Most of the paratroopers were combat veterans, and that helped immensely, said Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Meyers, the unit's sergeant major. He said their experience meant they understood the need for cohesion and communication.
Still, the bonding and the way the fire teams worked together surprised some of the unit's members. "We had our squabbles in the rear area, but when it all came down to taking fire or getting in a situation where we have to make sure we're doing the right thing, everybody melds together," said Pfc. John Ryle, a B Company radio operator.
The first time his unit took fire, he said, everyone snapped into action. "The team leaders instantly had control of the situation; they sent the paratroopers where they needed had to go," he said. "Everybody who had a specific task they had trained for, did them."
Army Spc. Jason Knorr, an automatic rifleman with C Company, said that moment happened for him when his unit took fire while entering Habbaniyah. "Back in the rear, we train constantly for the mission," he said. "When it happens for real, your training takes over and you don't have to think about it - you just do what you need to."
Once the action was over, the paratroopers were able to relate to the Iraqis in the area. A D Company medic, Pfc. Dustin Lehmann, said he was surprised and pleased that when the unit moved into an area, people started bringing their sick children and other family members in to see him. "They rely on you and trust you to take care of them," Lehmann said. "And knowing you can help was an amazing feeling. We treated lot of small children with malaria, a lot of burn injuries and bullet wounds."
The unit also gave protection to Iraqi doctors trying to provide care to their countrymen. He said the Iraqi equipment was poor, but the Iraqi doctors were "high-speed," and knew what they were doing.
All in the unit were surprised at the level of insurgent intimidation. "In one town, this man wouldn't cooperate with them, so they kidnapped his son and left his headless body on the street in front of his house," Swift said. "In another, they kidnapped this woman's husband and raped her son right in front of her.
"They perpetrate just heinous acts to keep the people quiet and to get them to provide shelter," he continued. "It's an insurgency based on nothing but fear."
Swift said he saw no surge of support for the insurgents. Families in the region cooperated with the insurgents, he said, because of simple fear or because someone paid them to plant an improvised explosive device or fire on a coalition patrol.
"(The insurgents) have nothing to offer," he said.
The paratroopers noticed quickly what effect they were having in these cities, towns and villages. "The first few days, no one would come out," said Army Sgt. Abel Peterson, a fire team leader with A Company. "But then you would see folks start coming out into the street. They felt safe seeing us around."
In one instance, his company cleared a street and one woman came out and hugged his platoon sergeant. "She had lost her husband to Saddam's thugs; her sons had been run out of town by the insurgents," he said. "But that night she knew she was safe. It sticks in my mind."
Asking Iraqis for information on the terrorists also got easier as the coalition forces stayed in an area, Swift said. "You would go down a street, and people would tell you that they didn't know the insurgents; they didn't leave their houses," he said. "And then we found one man who had 'had it' with the insurgents. He was too mad with them to be scared, and he told us who the insurgtents were, where to find them and how they operated."
In many cases, the Iraqis didn't know who the insurgents were because they always wore masks. "It's dangerous to cooperate, because you don't know if it's your neighbor behind that mask," said Meyers.
The unit worked most often with Marines of the 2nd Marine Regimental Combat Team, but an Iraqi platoon operated with each paratrooper company. All the soldiers said the Iraqi troops were fearless. "They would charge into anywhere," Peterson said. "They couldn't wait to go on patrol with us. They wanted to do the work of security for this country."
He said that off patrol, the Iraqis mingled with the paratroopers and cooked local food and brewed chai for them. "You realize they are like us, just from a different culture and part of the world," Peterson said.
The paratroopers said they believe they accomplished a lot in their short deployment. They believe they made the areas safe enough to encourage people to vote. "When you come down to it, the Iraqis are just like us. All they want is to be left alone to raise their families to be better off than they are," Peterson said.
The soldiers also felt they were protecting Americans. "The whole reason we want to do this every day is so (Americans) feel safe, so when you turn on the lights they work and you can drink the water and you can sleep peacefully every night," Lehmann said.
As the deployment winds down - most of the paratroopers leave Iraq shortly - they have assessed their performance. Peterson said his soldiers have been extremely professional and done all that was asked of them and more. "They have grown up more in the last four months than their peers have in four years," he said.
Ryle said he is proud about the way the mission is going in Iraq. "I am taking away from here experiences that will help me grow as a soldier and an individual," he said. "I'm going to share some of the good times with my family - leave a few things out, too. I'm just going to tell them I'm proud to be doing what I'm doing. And when the time comes for me to come back over here, well, I'll do it again with no regrets."