Rising hopes in Tarmiyah tempered by recent violent past
TARMIYAH, IRAQ: Not much lingers of this youth center's former role in the city of Tarmiyah. An entrance to the building, now bracketed by T-wall barriers and a weapon's clearing barrel, shows an old mural of children at play.
Refurbished and rededicated in August 2006, the youth center was a source of Army civil affairs pride before grim setbacks six months later.
Now, in 2008, the center has become a Joint Security Station (JSS), manned by US soldiers with Iraqi Army and police operating from a new police station next door. A company of US infantrymen use this place as their residence and headquarters.
Hopes are rising here, but now they're based on painful experience.
In the latrine at the JSS, over the urinals where soldiers have to read them, red-bordered signs tell part of the story. There, the leadership of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division has posted urgent reminders - tips about IED searches, what not to do, and how to avoid insurgent traps and kill zones. Each warning is a lesson learned the hard way by some soldier, sometime, somewhere.
Along with the signs is tacked up the old 2006 Army news release, heralding the youth center's opening, at the cost of $200,000 - it was under a new, point-making headline "When Security Fails a City."
Alpha Company's presence here is not a triumph, but a necessary position of force brought on by the collapse of the city's security's situation last year. In February 2007, a previous US unit's city outpost was destroyed by a car bomb that killed several soldiers. That was two US units ago.
US soldiers needed a new outpost within the city limits, and the size and space of the youth center fit the bill.
The US unit that Alpha Company replaced occupied the youth center first, but rotated back and forth between here and nearby Camp Taji, doing very little in the way of improvements when they had a rotation to the Forward Operating Base to look forward to. It didn't take long for conditions to deteriorate. When Alpha's soldiers arrived last December, they said they found leaking walls, rats, and ice-cold temperatures.
Now, the Joint Security Station is - almost - a mini-Forward Operating Base (FOB). While it does not have a mammoth dining facility like Camp Taji, it does have two dedicated cooks who spend a lot of time to make sure soldiers have real meals before all-day patrols. It doesn't have complete latrines, but it does have water for showers, and port-a-johns instead of burn barrels. Instead of sleeping in the halls, or in cots filling every spare foot, the soldiers have removed walls, remodeling interior rooms into large platoon bays, replacing cots with bunkbeds and mattresses. The youth center's old outdoor basketball court is now the parking lot for the unit's Stryker combat vehicles, but they built a new basketball court in the center courtyard. Since it's less than a true half-court in size, it makes for some brutal pickup games.
Soldiers make fun of the stereotypical description of the place as "Spartan and austere," which it is. As infantrymen, they make clear they have had it much worse. They all brag about the improvements they've put a lot of sweat and work into, to make the place more livable.
"From what it was here to what it is, it's leaps and bounds," said Staff Sergeant Christopher Wessling, a platoon sergeant. "Soldiers did this work."
Coolers full of Gatorade and water are almost always stocked full, and one hallway is a makeshift weight room constantly in use by soldiers who need to stay in shape for the hard duties in the Iraqi summer heat.
An Internet cafe has five computers and phone lines, so contact with home is never that far away.
The 25th Infantry Division's real home back at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii is represented in an image that covers the main entry hall. It's a painting of the Hawaiian Islands in the blue of the Pacific Ocean.