HADITHAH DAM, Iraq -- Nearly two months have passed since the Marines and Sailors of 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment made Hadithah Dam their home. However, America’s warriors are not the only ones calling the dam “Home-Sweet-Home”.
Their fellow residents’ green camouflage uniforms in the middle of the desert and heel-driving march sets them apart from their Marine comrades-in-arms.
The Marines simply call these neighbors the “AZ’s.” The letters “AZ” are not the Greek letters of a new sorority on deck. Rather, it is the nickname of the Azerbaijani soldiers, whose sole responsibility is keeping the walls and waters of Hadithah Dam secure.
“Having the Azerbaijani Army unit at Hadithah Dam, allows the Marines of my battalion to be on the roads and in the Al-Anbar cities and towns. That's where the terrorists are and that's where we have to go to provide security for the innocent Iraqi people,” said Lt. Col. Lionel B. Urquhart, the battalion commander.
Approximately 150 troops from the oil-rich former Soviet satellite state are currently here providing security to one of Iraq’s key infrastructures, freeing the Marines to conduct security and stability operations in the Hit-Hadithah corridor.
Prior to beginning their tour at the dam in January, the Azerbaijanis completed six months of basic training in their native country. Azerbaijani soldiers serve either six months or one year in Iraq, depending on their enlistment.
“Our soldiers received all the training that make them successful here in Iraq; marksmanship, crowd control, communications, and setting up checkpoints,” explained 39-year-old Maj. Elkhan Shalbuzov, the Azerbaijani company commander. The major is from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
Relations between the Marines and Azerbaijani’s are amicable. However, a language barrier exists between the communities.
"We use hand gestures instead of verbal communication to better understand each other,” explained Cpl. Daniel K. Smith, a 23-year-old food service specialist with H&S Company. “I try not to use facial expressions when I talk with them so they don’t wrongly interpret what I’m saying,” added the Cleveland Heights, Ohio native.
The vast majority of Azerbaijanis speak Azeri and a small number have knowledge of Russian and English. Most Azerbaijanis know at least a few simple, everyday English greetings to use with the Marines.
Language isn’t their only barrier though. The two forces live in separate areas of the dam. One wing of the dam is Azerbaijani territory while the Marines occupy the other wing.
The segregation is due to the need for accountability and unit integrity.
There are some things enjoyed by everyone no matter what uniform a soldier puts on in the morning.
Both Marines and AZs alleviate boredom by working out in the dam’s sparsely equipped gym and using Instant Messenger in the Segovia Internet café to talk with friends back home.
“I workout all the time and I notice that the Azerbaijanis will copy some of the exercises that Marines are doing in the gym and vice versa,” observed Lance Cpl. Eric M. Montgomery, a 21-year-old a field radio operator with Company L.
This time that these troops do spend together leave some Marines curious about the AZ’s, who gained their independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Republic and are eager to inquire about their weaponry, customs and home country.
“I’m curious to know how much funding their military receives in comparison to ours,” said Sgt. Carl D. Nelson, H&S Company’s 24-year-old admin chief from Niles, Ohio.
Marines are also perplexed by the Azerbaijani rank structure, which gives the impression of “too many Indians and not enough chiefs.” The Marines are used to a highly structured system of ranks easily discernable by their chevrons. The junior enlisted soldiers who make up the bulk of the Azerbaijani Army don’t wear rank on their utilities.
“It’s hard to tell the enlisted soldiers from the officers since they don’t wear chevrons like we do,” stated Lance Cpl. Sean M. Hathaway, a 21-year-old field radio operator with H&S Company.
Another aspect of the Azerbaijani Army that the Marines find curious it that they are not an all-volunteer force like the Marine Corps. The central Asian nation requires military service from eligible males. Males enrolled in a university serve one year and all others serve a year and a half.
Though members of each country’s military service have their own unique traditions and procedures, their cooperation demonstrates that these two allies work effectively together.
“The Azerbaijani soldiers take their mission of protecting Hadithah Dam very seriously, whether on patrol or guarding an entry control point. Well disciplined and ever vigilant, the Azerbaijanis are a formidable deterrent to would be attackers of this important source of Iraqi electrical power,” stated Urquhart.
“We have a good relationship. The Americans send a military delegation to my country every couple months,” Maj. Shalbuzov said. “They have provided my army with mine detectors, hundreds of radios, and other equipment.”
These young Americans and Azerbaijanis have come together in Hadithah long enough to realize that they are here for the same reason; the common desire for a free and stable Iraq that began as a mutual alliance at the outbreak of Operation Iraq Freedom in March 2003 in support of the global War on Terrorism.