SAQLAWIYAH, Iraq -- Many young men and women across America can say they work for the government, but how many can say they’ve helped re-build a foreign country’s government, almost from the ground up?
Pfc. Eric Gunderson can say this and more as he patrols the streets and helps safeguard the citizens here.
On the afternoon of April 27, while others his age sit inside a college classroom learning about foreign culture and history, the 22-year-old Madelia, Minn., native was getting a cultural education - hands on.
“Today, I’m providing security for the ‘higher ups’ as they talk to the tribal and community leaders to see what we can do over here,” explained Gunderson, an infantry rifleman with the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based unit, Company A, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.
The 2001 Madelia High School graduate, fellow Marines from 2nd platoon, Company A, and Iraqi soldiers worked hand-in-hand to secure the city hall here. Once secure, officers in Gunderson’s command, an Iraqi military leader, and several community officials held what his command called “a breakthrough meeting.”
“This was the first town council meeting they (city officials) have held with this amount of people,” stated Capt. Daniel Zappa, Gunderson’s commanding officer. “We managed to touch base with the town’s leadership, identify goals, and understand where each other were coming from.”
Zappa added that these talks would help improve community relations between the Iraqi and American military forces and the townspeople. It is through the daily actions of infantrymen like Gunderson, however, that the forces will win the hearts and minds of the people.
“Since we’ve been in Saqlawiyah, we’ve been doing a lot of patrolling, and a lot of cordon and knocks,” Gunderson said.
During a cordon and knock, personnel establish a perimeter or cordon around the area to ensure no one enters of leaves the space while the operation is taking place. The Marines then enter the location and question those present while others search for things such as weapons, ammunition and anti-Iraqi government propaganda.
Gunderson’s unit has already conducted several successful raid operations like these.
“We’ve been finding some weapons caches and rounding up some key (insurgents),” he said.
The unit has uncovered illegal arms, explosives and ammunition, along with materials used to make improvised explosive devices. These roadside bombs are currently one of the highest threats to troops in Iraq.
Iraqi soldiers also participate in these missions along side Gunderson and his fellow Marines.
"It’s good to have the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) around,” he continued. “They can understand more than we can. They’re usually the first ones to go into houses we search, they help search cars (for illegal weapons and cargo), and they just know how to interact with the people better.”
Gunderson added that he believes the local community is supportive of the Iraqi and Marine troops’ mission here.
“I think the community in general likes us because they’re realizing that we’re here to help. Hopefully, things will continue to get better and people won’t be scared of us, so they can start telling us where there are hidden weapons caches.”
Although his unit will continue to perform these missions over the next several months, Gunderson will depart from Iraq early. His enlistment contract expires later this year, so he will head back to the U.S. in June.
“This is my fourth deployment with the Marine Corps,” Gunderson said. “I’m glad I got to come out here, but don’t have to stay the whole time. It gave me a chance to make some money before I get out, and be able to tell a few more stories when I get back home.”