Tuesday, October 11, 2005------------------------------------------------------------------------
Okay .. this is a lazy blog entry. But I really wanted to share with everyone that comes here the story of one Indiana Congressman's recent visit to Iraq. It's long .. but well worth the read. It makes you realize how devoted these young men and women are to all of US.
Semper Fi and God Bless you all.
Below is the full essay written by U.S. Congressman Mike Pence on his recent trip to Iraq.
Two Days In Iraq
Our two days in Iraq began with a prayer and a brief reading from Psalm 91. After a short delay caused by an engine failure, we lifted off in the cargo hold of a C-130 aircraft filled with soldiers and materials returning to Operation Iraqi Freedom. On the faces of the soldiers we met aboard the aircraft, most of whom were returning from leave, was the evident anxiety of men returning to battle and sober determination. I overheard one soldier tell a colleague, "I'm here for my family, my kids and my grandkids…so they don't have to deal with these guys."
Upon arriving at Baghdad airport, we donned the helmets and body armor that would be our wardrobe for the duration of our stay and climbed aboard a Blackhawk helicopter, destination Phoenix Base, Green Zone, Baghdad.
The copters moved fast and low across the landscape of this city of several million. Different from my visit to Baghdad in 2004 when the streets were barren, the city sweeping past me below our helicopter was filled with people bustling about and large roads filled with traffic. The city of Baghdad is no longer the deserted war zone I saw before. Despite the violence of insurgents, Baghdad is alive again.
We landed at Phoenix Base in the Green Zone and attended meetings with the American Commander and the American Ambassador for situation reports. In our previous meetings in Qatar, the diplomatic and military authorities spoke of steady progress and a determined enemy, but there was no hint of defeatism or pessimism. As we learned of over 100 Iraqi Battalions deployed with American forces, schools, basic services, agriculture, one is left with the sense that our folks in Baghdad have a plan and are working the plan 24/7. As one soldier told me, "defeat the enemy, rebuild the country and give it back to the Iraqis."
From our meetings with American leaders, we boarded our motorcade for meetings with the Prime Minister of Iraq and the Ministers of Defense and Interior, three of the most important leaders to the present and future of Iraq.
Prime Minister Jaafari greeted us in a formal setting and spent the first 15 minutes expressing the heartfelt condolences of the people of Iraq for the loss of life in Hurricane Katrina. He seemed most determined to convey that the insurgents engaged in violence do not represent the feelings of the people of Iraq. I asked him, "Who is the enemy?" and he replied with a litany referring to Beirut in 1983, 9-11, Sharm El Sheik, as all the work of "the terrorists." He actually seemed slightly indignant about the question…as though anyone, with any common sense, would see that the enemy in Iraq is simply "terrorists."
In our meetings with two government leaders, two moments stood out. The Minister of Interior, a studious, bearded man, said the greatest challenge he faced was "changing the culture of authoritarianism" that followed the repressive history of Iraq. As we walked out, he and I spoke further about this point and I was moved by his ambition for his people to live under a just system of law and not of men.
The other moment came when another Congressman asked the Minister of Defense, "what neighboring nation represents the greatest challenge to peace within Iraq" to which he replied, "all of them" then added, "Kuwait is ok." It was an illuminating moment. I will never forget that this new Iraq is, with one exception, floating in a sea of authoritarian regimes with long histories of association with terror among their people and their governments.
Our helicopters set us down at ground zero for American forces in Baghdad: Camp Liberty-home of the legendary 3rd Infantry Division under the Command of General Mark O'Neill. As we learned earlier, most of the terrorist violence in Iraq is taking place in 4 of the 18 provinces...all 4 are in the area under the control of the 3rd ID. But Gen. O'Neill, a thick-necked warrior with the mind of a CEO, said, "Hey, it's what we do sir and we're glad to do it…we gotta stop these guys right here."
After getting an update on action and progress, we headed to dinner with the troops including Evansville native Sgt. Dave Newland. Dave is part of force protection for the 3rd ID and is approaching 20 years and retirement but, from what he told me, there is no place he'd rather be. When I asked about the mission, he replied with a smile, "We need to be here sir." We spoke of home, of his plans to move to Washington, Indiana and work for Crane. We spoke of the White Steamer, a diner in Washington, which turned out to be his Dad's favorite stop and one of mine. For that time we were not what we are doing (soldier/congressman), we were just a couple of Hoosiers swappin' stories from home. I told him everybody back home was praying and was proud and he said quietly, "I know that, sir."
As our C-130 took off from Baghdad airport, I thought of the men of the 3rd ID. I thought of the mission. And I thought of Sgt. Dave Newland. By God's grace does this nation still produce men like that.
Day two began at 3:30 a.m. as we headed for a day that would take us to four American bases in some of the most violent sectors of the "Sunni Triangle." First stop, Camp Caldwell, near the Iranian border which is home to the 278th of Tennessee. We were the first delegation of elected officials to ever visit this base and the soldiers seemed delighted to see us…especially Tennessee Congressman Lincoln Davis. When Lincoln presented the command group with a coin bearing the US Capitol and spoke of the time when these Tennessee Vols would "be a'comin home," there wasn't a dry eye in the room.
It being Labor Day, the base had a picnic going on for soldiers off duty, so we made our way over to throw horseshoes and listen to blue grass music. I asked one soldier after another, "What would Labor Day be without havin' a bunch of politicians show up to spoil your picnic?!" While the atmosphere was festive, when I would ask "How ya doin?" or "How's everybody back home holdin' up?" one soldier after another would pause and get that far away look that you would expect from any soldier on a distant frontier. This unit has lost 12 men but defeated the enemy in every engagement. Their effort in training Iraqis has been so successful that their unit actually will not be replaced by American forces when they head home in a few months. Iraqis will take over Camp Caldwell. Mission Accomplished Tennessee.
Our Blackhawk helicopters and their Apache helicopter gunship escorts lifted off from Camp Caldwell at midday for the American airbase at Balad, another region of recent and intense insurgent activity. As we approached the base by air, I took note of a large column of black smoke billowing from the far end of the base. As we learned upon our arrival, at approximately 6 a.m. the base came under mortar attack by insurgents. While some equipment was damaged, as we learned later in the command center from a videotape replay, the enemy fared much worse.
Using our battlefield technology and real time intelligence, our forces identified where the mortar was fired and tracked 10 insurgents evacuating the area. With incredible precision, a hellfire missile scored a direct hit on the enemy as the eerie infrared video replay showed. The professionalism of these forces, young men and women who had to make split second decisions to save American lives, left most of us speechless.
We spent lunch with American soldiers in Balad at a huge mess hall while our colleague from Hawaii, Rep. Ed Case, held his own town hall meeting with the 29th National Guard out of Hawaii.
Our last stop of the day was Ramadi, the new home of the Anderson, Indiana based 138th Signal Battalion under the command of Captain Keith Paris of Marion, Indiana. Capt. Paris and Sgt. Matt Wright of Muncie met us at the landing zone and escorted us to the long, sand colored two story building that these Hoosiers will call home for the next year. Capt. Paris is a determined professional whose patriotism, love of family and God exude from every pore of his body. In a short briefing in his modest 12x12 headquarters office, he explained how A Company was actually supplying all the real time communications for the ongoing battle in Ramadi, a city of some 500,000, that is the provincial capital of the west and a Sunni elite dominated area. Their sandbag reinforced and camouflaged operations are smack dab in the middle of a bustling base filled with moving tanks, armored vehicles and soldiers…and they all depend with confidence on the 138th.
Sgt. Matt Wright of Muncie was an impressive young married man who actually told me that his wedding was to have occurred the day before I arrived, but when word came of his deployment to Iraq, he and his fiancée decided to move it up nine months to accommodate their devotion to each other and our nation.
As we moved throughout the area, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and warmth of the men and women of the 138th. When I would ask, "Where's home?" it made me proud to hear names of the places I represent…Muncie, Elwood, Anderson. After days of meeting soldiers from across our state and nation, it just felt good to be among the men and women that I serve as our journey came to a close.
I met Sgt. James Davis of Muncie at his duty station manning a critical communications node in a plywood shack. As I walked in, Sgt. Davis stood and greeted me with a hearty handshake. A powerful soldier, Sgt. Davis was a recruiter in Muncie when he was active duty and now is serving with the 138th in the war zone of Iraq. On his simple table, I saw a photograph of his beautiful wife and 3 children, all under the age of six, seated on the grass in the sunshine. It looked for all the world like a dozen pictures I have taken with my wife and 3 small children. The difference is, by the time you read this, I will be back with my family and Sgt. Davis will be on the frontier of the war on terror for yet another year. As I started to leave, Sgt. Davis said, "When I get home, I'm gonna tell everybody that Mike Pence leads from the front!" Sgt. Davis got that one wrong. Mike Pence only has the privilege of serving leaders...and one of them is named Sgt. James Davis.
On the way to the mess hall, we encountered a Marine unit of armored vehicles headed out for maneuvers. As we reached up and shook hands with one soldier after another, I heard a voice from atop a tank yell, "Hey, aren't you gonna say hi to a fellow Hoosier?!" I looked up to see the broad smile of redheaded Cpl. Ty Cotton of Anderson, Indiana. He reached down and shook my hand as a voice cried out, "5 minutes!"… the time the unit would roll to its duties in Ramadi. I climbed up the side of the vehicle so we could talk over the din of engines and troop movements. He told me to say hello to his mom, Marla, back in Anderson and I told him I'd look in on her and tell her how good he looked. As the commanding officer yelled, "2 minutes!" I told him the folks back home were praying for him, proud and grateful for his service. As I climbed down the side of the combat vehicle, Ty smiled and said modestly, "Glad to do it, sir."
Next we stopped by the base chapel, a tent surrounded by 12 feet of sandbags and modestly appointed with folding chairs and a few podiums. Capt. Paris, a man of faith, happily took us in and explained how "this place is always open." May it ever be so. Wars are won in quiet places like this just as much as in the sound and fury of the battlefield.
On our way to the mess hall and dinner with the 138th, I spotted the real evidence of the presence of Hoosiers in Ramadi, Iraq…a heavily worn basketball goal tacked to the outside wall of the headquarters building. If that military HQ had been a barn, it would've almost been like home.
In the mess hall, the young men and women of the 138th joined me for dinner. I don't know what I expected to find among these troops but what I did find was good spirits, high morale, fitness and a matter of fact attitude about the work ahead. I asked about the war and many spoke of steady progress, even in Ramadi. One soldier who had already seen a year in theatre said, "It's gotten way better here in Ramadi from a year ago." They were confident Americans doing a hard job in a hard place, but no complaints.
Mostly they wanted to ask about home. We talked about Indiana's response to Hurricane Katrina. They were concerned about how the country was holding up after such a tragedy. In a war zone, working in 110-degree heat, sleeping behind sandbags and 8,000 miles from Mom, Dad, Wife and kids…and they were worried about us. Where do we get men and women like these?
As our Blackhawk helicopters lifted off from Ramadi, I watched the sun set over this desert encampment on the front lines of the war on terror and I felt humbled by the men and women I saw, especially the Hoosiers of the 138th. I scribbled the names of the men and women I met and purposed to pray for them and their families until they return home…victorious, safe and sound.
And I felt more confident than ever that this war is just, the battle against terror is vital and the enemy can and will be defeated here and now. I believe that not because of the armor, the firepower or the technology that swept beneath me as we passed over one base after another. I believe that because I have looked into the eyes of the men and women fighting this war at every level and their faith and courage has never and will never be defeated.
Rep. Mike Pence