SAHL SINJAR AIRFIELD, Iraq --
From the Rumaylah oil fields in Operation Iraqi Freedom I to Operation Phantom Fury during the retaking of Fallujah to patrolling the western border of Iraq, and now providing security and training for the 11th Iraqi Army Brigade, the Wolfpack Marines have fought our country’s battles in light armored vehicles.
The Marines of Task Force 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion were one of the first LAR battalions to get their treads dirty with Iraqi soil and will be the last LAR battalion to do so during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The battalion has deployed five times throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom’s eight-year transformation, conducting varied operations from the initial invasion to fighting an insurgency, to rebuilding and training the Iraqi Security Forces.
“I see victory all over Iraq today,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth R. Kassner, the battalion commanding officer.
However, Kassner has also witnessed a great deal of struggle during his previous deployments with TF 3rd LAR that show how it has taken many years for the people of Iraq to be victorious.
“There was a time when you wouldn’t see a kid in the street,” Kassner said. “The fact that kids are playing outside and you can see adults playing a soccer match is a victory.”
These small victories are from several years of sacrifice, given to sustain a strong Iraqi government and Iraqi Security Forces.
Kassner stepped on deck of the battalion in May 2004 and deployed soon thereafter as the battalion executive officer, constructing battleplans to retake Fallujah in Operation Phantom Fury. He also deployed with TF 3rd LAR to conduct counter-insurgency operations along the western Iraqi border the following year. Now he is back as the battalion commander.
“The ISF have a greater capability and willingness than ever before,” Kassner said.
Through his past deployments, he has been witness to the progress that has occurred Anbar andin the professionalization of the ISF
“The enemy was much more aggressive then,” Kassner said.
Using fear tactics and attacks against their own people, the insurgents tried stopping civilians from helping Coalition forces.
“There were people who wanted us here, but they couldn’t express their gratitude because of what would happen to them,” said Cpl. Aaron Garner, an LAV crewman with Headquarters and Service Company, TF 3rd LAR, originally attached to Delta Company, TF 3rd LAR, during Operation Phantom Fury.
“During their first [national] election, it was really creepy,” said Master Sgt. Bill Denman, the operations chief for Bravo Company, 3rd LAR. “Sometimes it would be really quiet and sometimes we would get shot at.”
With weakened security, Iraqi political officials had a hard time enforcing laws and governing their populace.
“Often times the local government was unwilling or unable to effectively govern,” Kassner said.
The Iraqis weren’t alone in the attacks. During the first half of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Marines were repeatedly targeted by the same insurgents attacking the ISF and the government of Iraq.
“Even though the enemy was quite elusive, he would constantly attack Coalition forces with [improvised explosive devices] and indirect fire,” Kassner said.
During his first deployment to Iraq, Garner’s vehicle was struck by multiple IEDs, indirect fire and a rocket-propelled grenade.
“An RPG landed about 25 feet in front of my vehicle,” Garner said. “It knocked me off the vehicle and I sustained a class three concussion and a perforated eardrum.”
With help from 3rd LAR and many other Coalition force units, the ISF began to build a stronger force, protecting key leadership from terrorist attacks and allowing the rule of law to govern.
“Everything we do now is by, with and through the Iraqi government,” Denman said.
“Iraq has been made safer by the battalion doing its part fighting the insurgency and showing a strong presence during its deployments,” Garner said.
Kassner, Denman and Garner see a big difference in Iraq today.
“The differences I see now are enhanced ISF security, more effective local governments, increased willingness to work with Coalition forces and a significant decrease on Coalition-force dependence,” Kassner said.
“I go through a lot more water than ammunition now,” Denman said.
With time, the ISF have built a strong military and police force to combat insurgent activity. “We combine our efforts (with the ISF) to interdict and disrupt foreign fighters and smugglers,” Kassner said.
In the past few years, Coalition forces have given the roads back to the GOI and ISF. Now, Iraqis can be seen driving past Marine convoys with Iraqi children waving to the drivers in the tan, behemoth, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles.
Kassner said that for the past six years, all Iraqis knew about the rules of the road was to get out of the way of Marines driving along the roads. This was to prevent any attempts to attack Coalition forces with vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.
“I remember driving on the other side of the road to not allow any VBIEDs to hide with the other [passing] vehicles,” Kassner said. “Our LAVs were attacked by them in the past.”
Kassner has seen the good and bad of Iraq. He’s seen the Iraqi people make the brave choice to help Coalition forces, knowing their lives and their family’s lives were in danger, and he’s seen the ISF put the citizens’ fears to rest.
Being able to see the beginning and the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom has allowed Kassner and other Iraq veterans to contemplate the sacrifices their fellow brother and sister warriors have made to make Iraq what it is today.
To Kassner and the Wolfpack, those sacrifices were not made in vain and will be remembered as the legacy of LAR in Iraq comes to a close.