FUHAYLAT, Iraq -- "Progress gains momentum, and before you know it, things are going great and peace has exploded. It’s amazing.”
These words belong to Capt. Joshua N. Stephenson, squadron fire support officer with Headquarters Troop, 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, as he reflected on the events of July 23.
Soldiers with 5/7, with assistance from a Marine legal team with Regimental Combat Team 6 and Iraqi Police for security, held a civil assistance operation in the city of Fuhaylat, just south of Fallujah, July 23.
The operation was in support of Bravo Troop, 5/7, stationed in Fuhaylat since April 23. Its objective was to reimburse residents for property damage and inconveniences imposed on them by Coalition Forces in recent months while they battled insurgent activity in the area.
“We’re here to help the people of this area recover (and) help put the town back together,” said Capt. Michael C. Evans, the deputy regimental judge advocate with RCT-6, who spent the day verifying the legitimacy of all the claims.
The joint effort between the soldiers and Marines helped them make good on as many claims as they could manage with the funds allotted for the operation, said Evans.
Plans were put in place to pay on claims in the area due to the low threat level in the city.
“Since it’s a secure and safe environment this is one of the services we can get here for the people,” Stephenson said. “When we came in, much of the town experienced a persistent Coalition Force presence. A number of the households, probably the majority, relocated. From mid-April until now we’ve been securing the route, and in doing that we have been building the relations with the local residents. This is one of our phase operations for building trust between us and the local residents.”
The Albuquerque, N.M., native went on to explain how the soldiers successfully got community relations started within the city.
“We’ve gone house to house, not kicking in doors but knocking, in an attempt to meet our neighbors, get to know them a little bit and let them get to know us,” Stephenson said. “Getting face to face with them, they begin to identify us as individuals instead of a big army. It’s more personal. Suddenly, it’s not just a guy on the street. You can recognize them as the guy who lives two houses down.”
Building relationships within the communities has become the key for the success of many military units within cities in Iraq. With the local populace on the side of Coalition Forces, the enemy has little place to hide among the people. By showing respect and generosity to the people, units like 5/7 build reliable, peaceful sources of support for ongoing operations.
“We’ve established a rapport and they can trust us now,” said Capt. John A. Owens, commanding officer with Bravo Troop. “If we say were going to do something, they know we’re going to do it. This is going to build more rapport between us, the residents of Fuhaylat and people of the surrounding villages. I think this is the best thing that has happened for them in a while.”
Throughout the day, from the early morning hours, an estimated crowd of over 1,000 was seen waiting outside hoping to have their claims redeemed.
“I’ve never seen this large of a group of people show up,” said Cpl. Keith R. Socarras, a pay agent with Combat Logistics Battalion 6, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, who works many of these claims operations.
Women with children and people with disabilities were the first people in line to have their claims evaluated and paid out to get them on their way before the heat of the day rose. Claim documents brought in by the civilians were cross checked to make sure the claim hadn’t already been paid and were in correlation with Marine Corps records tracked by computer.
Damage claims can be from up to three years ago to the present, but nearly all payable claims are from within the past 90 days. Most of the claims paid out were equivalent to $100-$1,500 U.S. dollars.
Most of these payouts were small claims paid to the families for the inconvenience of the troops going through there homes to provide security and search for insurgents, weapons and intelligence, said Evans.
“When we go into some peoples’ homes there may be some damage done (resulting from) looking around in order to provide security. These are things we have to do in order to ensure weapons aren’t hidden and there aren’t insurgents,” Evans said. “Accidents happen when moving furniture around.”
Not everyone with a claim left with money in their pockets.
“A lot of the civilians don’t put together sufficient claim (paperwork),” Socarras said. “If they don’t, they won’t get paid. They can’t prove that what happened to them was the cause of (Coalition Forces) and not insurgents.”
The people can retain local lawyers who know how to put together the proper documentation to help them collect. One lawyer from the city came in to represent many of his small claim clients. As a result, Evans negotiated a deal with the lawyer that enabled him to quickly get more than 200 of the local residents paid and on their way.
“The best thing is for them to have a claims card,” Socarras, the Warner Robbins, Ga. native said. “Their claims card is their golden ticket.”
Claims cards are passed out by units in areas where combat operations took place and property is damaged or families are forced from their homes. With this system, it is Americans who vouch for the claims with documents of the date, time, place, names and damages done. It makes it easier to verify the authenticity of a claim, Socarras said.
At the end of the day more than 42 million Iraqi dinar, or around $33,000, was paid out for a total of 338 claims.
“This has been a success all the way around,” Owens said. “Being able to pay as many people as we did today is going to help the area grow. A lot of people have moved back and businesses are opening back up. This is going to help us with the commerce. It’s going to help this area and it won’t bring back insurgents. They have already started telling us when the insurgents are here, so we know when bad people come in and we know when they leave.”
Claims are but one piece of the counterinsurgency puzzle. Coalition Forces recognize the maintaining their support base among the Iraqi people is a continuous effort.
“It’s a work in progress, and you have to focus on it everyday,” said Stephenson.