EXPEDITIONARY PATROL BASE - DULAB, Iraq --
“Enjoy it while you can maggots,” rasped the drill instructor into the darkness of the squad bay, “This is the most sleep you will see in the Corps, especially if you are allowed to become grunts.” The Marines with Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 2, now agree with the phantom from boot camp.
In the small patrol base which borders on the village of Dulab, near the edge of the Euphrates River, sleep truly is a commodity. The Marines of Company A, known as the “Animals,” spend most of their time on foot patrols in or around the city or in overwatch positions for Iraqi Security Forces. Any free time is spent trying to catch up on their shut-eye.
“We have a lot of area to cover and not an abundance of people to cover it,” explained 2nd Lt. Andrew D. Markoff, a platoon commander with the company. “We try to push into the desert, cover the river, and steal the night from the enemy, plus it’s all on foot. It adds up after a while.”
The platoon who occupies the patrol base, 1st Platoon, is constantly on the move.
“I would say the average length is about five to eight miles per patrol,” said Markoff, Raleigh, N.C., native. “And if we are doing an overwatch position, you can tack about six hours on to the middle of that patrol.”
Most of the Marines agree the lack of sleep is a welcome price for the progress being made in the area.
“The Iraqi Security Forces are much easier to work with this year,” said Lance Cpl. Patrick K. Mason, a squad leader with the platoon. “Last deployment we were focused on creating the IP force, but now these guys have experience. You don’t have to be afraid to go on patrols with them anymore because you’re more confident in their capabilities.”
The Iraqi soldiers and police have begun operating on their own with either little or no support from the Animals.
“Compared to last year, this is a pretty big step,” said Lance Cpl. Cameron J. Jensen, a team leader with the platoon. “This proves were doing our job here. They aren’t perfect yet, but it won’t be long. They lack the natural discipline that Marines have, but slowly they are learning not to talk during an operation, take a knee when you stop, keep a low silhouette on the horizon, stuff like that.”
The Marines in the company are being urged to foster the differences between the two security forces. Their goal is to get the Iraqi police away from a military mindset, and into the local police mindset.
“The IA here are tactically proficient, and it won’t be long before they will be able to operate solely on their own,” said Markoff. “Are they perfect? No. Are they Marines? Of course not, but they’re doing exceptionally well. The IPs have a bit more work ahead of them, we’re trying to teach them to walk a beat, talk to locals, and do proper paperwork, like police officers do in America.”
The job sounds much easier than it really is. It is common for a group of police to arrest someone, and bring them to the Marines to be detained. The Marines ask what the crime was and if there is proof. The police will vouch that ‘this man is bad.’ When asked for witnesses, more police will agree ‘everyone knows he is bad.’ The legal process is, however, making headway.
“Recently the IPs caught a man who was being paid to poison ISF members,” said 1st Lt. Oliver W. Buccicone, the company’s executive officer. “They got written witness statements, recovered the poison, and conducted proper investigative procedures just like they were taught. It’s a work in progress, but we’re getting there.”
The Animals credit much of the success in the local area to the community itself and key local leaders.
“The people definitely like us here, we get good atmospherics every time we leave the wire,” said Mason, a Hayden, Idaho, native. “The sheik is a huge asset too. He’s like a mediator between the people and us.”
The sheik, Sheik Khalil Jasem Gadban, is not an elected leader or a religious leader; rather he is a tribal leader, head of the much extended local family.
“Officially he’s the leader of the tribe,” explained Buccicone, a Rochester, Minn., native. “Unofficially, you can think of him like the Godfather. He’s the go-to guy in the community, everyone knows him, and nothing happens without his knowledge. He may not be the mayor, but nobody would get elected without his approval. He’s not the imam (religious leader), but trust me when I say he knows what each sermon will be before it is taught.”
Not too long ago Sheik Khalil’s son was targeted by insurgents, and beaten before he was killed. Since then, he has done everything in his power to close his city to the insurgency and help Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces.
“Once again, the people have control of their community, and we will not lightly give it up again,” said Sheik Khalil through an interpreter. “We love the Marines. They do not favor certain tribes or people, and they do not think only for personal gain. I would say thank you to the American people and the Marines. We do understand the sacrifice, and the work, and we appreciate their help.”
The sheik is currently working with the Animals to rebuild the local bridge, improve soccer fields, create a youth center, and establish a secondary school for females.
Despite the lack of sleep and the seemingly endless forays into the Iraqi desert, the Marines never turn down an invitation to visit the sheik and his family, a weekly occurrence in the village.
“We play with his kids, eat with his family, and talk about business,” said Jensen, a Cloverdale, Calif., native. “He likes it when we just relax and talk, even if it’s nothing to do with Iraq or the community.”
After dinner, the sheik patted his youngest daughter on the head as she looked at one of the Marines.
“If more places were like this,” said Sheik Khalil, indicating the table where infantrymen were eating alongside his children, “and more people were willing to give as you give, the world would be a better place.”
“When you look back on it though,” continued the Marine recounting his memory of the drill instructor from boot camp, “You won’t remember the lost hours of sleep, or the blisters on your feet, just the look on the kids faces as you give them toys or food, and the thanks in the parents’ eyes. Sleep is hardly a price to pay for such memories.”