Deployment viewed as a team effort with Iraqis

Maj. Chuck Roede spent much of his last deployment to Iraq planning combat missions for a Fort Lewis Stryker battalion trying to quiet a raging insurgency.

Now back in the country as the operations officer for 17th Fires Brigade, Roede said the daily aspects of a deployment have radically changed. Violence has dropped. Planning has changed. Iraqis conduct most operations.

“The biggest change I’ve seen is the length that we’re going through to share information with the Iraqi security forces,” Roede, 39, said in a recent telephone interview. “If something looks suspicious or out of place, the first thing we do is call the Iraqis.

“We ask them what help they need … and often their answer is none.”

The brigade of 1,000 soldiers left Fort Lewis in July and deployed to the southeastern corner of the country, with its headquarters in Basra. It is training Iraqi security forces and providing support to the State Department-run provincial reconstruction team.

The city’s strategic location near Umm Qasr – Iraq’s only deepwater port – historically has made it the site of heavy fighting. The British controlled the military battle space in southeastern Iraq until earlier this year, when it withdrew its last troops.

The 17th Fires Brigade arrived about three months after the British departed. It’s the third Iraq deployment for the unit.

In Iraq, the brigade uses armored Humvees and Mine Resistant Ambushed Protected vehicles, and has participated in one large-scale operation so far. Roede declined to discuss specifics of the operation because he was speaking over an unsecured connection.

“There are still bandits in Basra, and there are still bandits in Iraq,” he said. “But the Iraqi security forces have the capability to defeat just about any threat that’s out there. What we do is back them up with things they don’t have or need help with, like unmanned aircraft and intelligence.”

The Americans’ level of involvement in operations varies widely, depending on the Iraqi unit, Roede said.

“If you’re asking senior leaders, they prefer us to be out there with their brigades,” he said. “Once you get further down the chain of command to some of the battalions, there are some Iraqi commanders who are cool toward us. They believe they can do it themselves and don’t need help.”

The American military also can fade into a supporting role because of decreased violence.

Capt. Carrie Mitchell, who handles transportation issues for the 308th Brigade Support Battalion, has seen the varying stages of the war: She deployed with the 1st Infantry Division during 2004-05 and with a military transition team in 2007-08.

“In 2004, it was more of a combat zone than it was today,” she said. “There were more threats than there are today. It’s just a much safer place than it was back in 2004. It just feels safer.”

The brigade’s mission in Iraq might be different than what it trains for – shooting rockets and artillery – and the difference can be a bit jarring, Roede acknowledged.

“The State Department is out there budgeting, talking about collecting trash more efficiently,” he said.

“It’s certainly not what I was trained to do as a young officer, but it was interesting being here during the surge and it’s rewarding to see the struggle pay off.”