Olmsted was determined to make a difference in Iraq. "The sooner the Iraqi government doesn't need U.S. support to provide security for its people, the sooner we will probably be asked to leave."
Editor's Note: This is the last blog Major Olmsted posted on RockyMountainNews.com before he was killed in Iraq. Comments have been disabled. Click here to leave a tribute to Major Olmsted. Separate registration is required.
The Muslim world recently celebrated Eid al Adha, the festival of the Hajj. The Hajj, of course, is the fifth pillar of Islam: the requirement of all Muslims to take a pilgrimage to Mecca at some point in their lives. There are so many Muslims that not everyone can go every year, so while only a small selection of Iraqis got to actually visit Mecca this year, everyone celebrates Eid al Adha for four days.
This meant several things. First, since there would be lots of people celebrating, it was an opportunity for the enemy to try and pull off some high profile attacks, so our unit was working hard to bolster local defenses to minimize the chances of any successful strikes. Second, it meant that the the IA had an opportunity to win a few friends with a gesture or two of aid and goodwill towards the local populations. We have been fortunate enough to receive a lot of gifts from the United States: clothing, food, personal hygiene items, and toys, mostly. A lot of the guys have worked the phones hard in their home towns and collected a great variety of things that can help Iraqis down on their luck, and they suggested that we give all that to the IA to distribute to the locals, since the Iraqis are far more likely to make sure the stuff goes to the truly needy.
It's hard to argue with that kind of logic, so we packed up the HMMWVs and headed to one of our Iraqi units to make the pitch. They didn't need any convincing, and suggested a small community that is made up largely of refugees who have fled more violent parts of Iraq for the relative calm of this area. We transferred the boxes to Iraqi vehicles and rolled out.
Handing out gifts is great fun, but in Iraq you always have to be alert for the possibility that the enemy will take advantage of the opportunity to turn such an event to their advantage. Iraqi soldiers handing how clothing is good for building relationships between the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi people. A suicide bomb in a crowd of children seeking gifts could destroy that in a heartbeat, however, so while we enjoyed the scene of the Iraqi soldiers handing out clothes, toys, candy, and more to the hordes of Iraqi children, we were pleased to see that they also remained alert to potential threats, and they handed out a lot of great gifts that, we hope, will provide just a little help to families down on their luck.
Thanks to everyone back in the U.S. for your kind donations. Until you see how little a lot of these people have, you don't really understand poverty; your donations go a long ways.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 01:50 AM | Comments (161)
From all of us on Team Nightmare to our friends, families, and fellow citizens: have a very Merry Christmas, and know that you are in our thoughts. We'll be home for next Christmas, but until then, our hearts are with you.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 12:04 PM | Comments (4)
The Army did a lot of work to prepare us for this mission. We spent better than two months at Fort Riley training, and that training was remarkably extensive, although the broad brush necessary to train people going all over Iraq did mean that we weren't particularly precisely prepared for exactly what it was we would end up doing here. But that's inevitable; the only way they could have done that would have been to detract from the unit on the scene by having them put together a training program for us, and that's simply not practical. So given the constraints of reality, the Riley program was pretty good.
However, one area that we didn't spend enough time on, and I think we could not have spent enough time on, was culture. Almost every day when we deal with the Iraqis, we end up with misunderstandings and confusion because we just don't understand how they think, and vice versa, although to a lesser degree. (Iraqis see a lot of Americans, and the Iraqi Army has figured out how to understand us pretty well.) And from these confusions we tend to see a lot of anger, particularly on our side. Why, we wonder, do the Iraqis do the things they do? Can't they see the problems they get when they do things that way? It's hard, sometimes, not to think that the Iraqis are somehow stupid or ignorant. But that's a trap. It should come as no surprise to anyone to learn that Iraqis possess the same range of intelligence, wisdom, bravery, and every other human trait that Americans do. The 'problem,' at least for us as advisors, is that their culture is different than ours and so they express these traits differently than we do.
Over time, we've started to learn a bit about these differences, and our working relationship has improved to that degree. But it is an incredibly difficult process, because it involves trying to step outside the cultural norms that we have internalized over decades of life so that we can see them and how they differ from those of the Iraqis. By the end of our year here, we will probably have begun to have some real understanding of how Iraqis think.
I'm reluctant to point out this next part, but it's true. Having spent a year learning a little Arabic and a little more Iraqi culture, we will all head back to other more traditional military assignments, and the Iraqis will get a brand new crop of advisors, all of whom will be starting from ground zero once more. I wouldn't recommend leaving us here beyond our year; at six months we're already getting a bit stir-crazy. But I think the Army might be wise to consider developing a crop of people who are good at this job and rotating them through it more often, rather than simply training a new crop every eleven months or so. I don't know how long we're going to be in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I do know that cultural literacy is too difficult a skill to throw away lightly.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 10:52 PM | Comments (4)
There are only so many ways for us to get from our FOB to our battalion's FOB. That means that the enemy has an easier time of targeting us if he so chooses, because there are so many places we can be. Since we want to spend our time targeting the enemy and not being targets, we are always looking for ways to turn the tables. The other day, the XO came up with a good one: he located an alternate route for us to take.
Whenever we get off the main roads, we see very different sites, largely because the Iraqis aren't used to our being there. Some of them even run when they see us coming, and indeed, a passel of them did as we were heading down this new route. These guys weren't content to just run, however. As our lead truck approached them, the men on the ground opened fire on us, actually striking the lead HMMWV several times. Our gunner returned fire at once, and the rest of us began maneuvering on the enemy, trying to bring our (hopefully) superior firepower to bear. Unfortunately, we were too slow, and the enemy was able to break contact and get away.
One of the more interesting things about being in contact was that, although the actual duration of the combat was probably less than five minutes, from that point on we couldn't be sure when it might return as we searched the area, coordinated with some helicopters, and did what we could to track down the enemy and finish him off.
Still, it was a reasonably successful engagement for us. Everyone stayed calm and relatively cool, we drove them off with absolutely no injuries or damage to us, and we established that the Coalition isn't afraid to face the enemy on his own turf. A pretty good day's work.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 04:47 AM | Comments (3)
As I should think anyone who follows the war already knows, improvised explosive devices, aka IEDs, are a huge headache for everyone in Iraq. You can't drive anywhere without being aware of the possibility of the road exploding beneath you; I don't know how the Iraqi Army and police have the courage to go out day after day with their often-unarmored vehicles; I might be happy to just stay inside the FOB myself, if I didn't have duties elsewhere.
Needless to say, eliminating the people who build, emplace, and detonate these devices is an important part of what the IA does. They are pretty well-motivated to find these people, for obvious reasons, and one of the things they do to try and locate them is just being out and about as often as possible, so the locals get to know them and feel comfortable speaking with them. From what I have seen, most of the locals don't want their roads strewn with these devices, but they are very aware of the possibility retribution against them by AIF if they tell the Iraqi Security Forces what they know. When the Iraqi Army is seen on frequently, the locals are more likely to believe that they will be protected if they speak up. So a large part of our job is just going out with the Iraqis while they interact with local citizens.
The other day that paid off for us, as one of the citizens approached the patrol leader to let him know about a group of individuals who they had spotted emplacing IEDs not far away. They claimed to know where the bomb makers were hiding, so we developed a hasty plan to search the area and started rolling.
Things didn't go quite as we planned. The description of the enemy hideout apparently matched two separate sites, and we hit the wrong one first, so we lost 15-20 minutes surrounding and beginning to search the wrong place. Once we sorted that out, we rolled to the correct site and began a search of the area. As is so often the case, there were no military aged males there, likely because they saw our dust trails and were able to flee, so we were only able to search the area. Our Iraqis acquitted themselves very well. One of the women was clearly unhappy with our presence, but the Iraqi soldiers refused to react to her presence, speaking with her politely and explaining why there were there and remaining respectful but firm at all times.
The search did not turn up anything incriminating, so in that respect it could be considered a failure. But, while we cannot rule out the tip being based on an attempt at retaliation, we had enough intelligence to believe that it was good, and the Iraqis did the right things. It's not a huge day, but we take progress where we can find it.