An Interview with Captain Eric Coulson

Video shot by Captain Coulson of an IED detonation. See This post brought to you by Force Protection & Ultra Machine & Fabrication for a larger view.

FALLUJAH, IRAQ: One of the best sources of news on the situation in Iraq is from the officers and enlisted serving in the theater who maintain military blogs. While at Camp Fallujah, I met up with one such Milblogger. Captain Eric Coulson is the commanding officer of Alpha Company, Task Force 321 Engineers (Task Force Pathfinder), and the author of Badgers Forward, one of the finest Milblogs out there. Captain Coulson’s battalion replaced the 54th Engineers, a unit I embedded with last year to go on an IED hunt in Ramadi.

At his blog, Captain Coulson provides insight on the the fight against the insurgency in Anbar province and the hunt for roadside bombs [IEDs], as well as a look at the the daily life of a soldier serving in Iraq. Road Work, Night Moves and So what does an IED look like? are essential reading for understanding the fight in Anbar province. A Cold Wind Blows and Battle Update Brief provide insight into camp life and the challenges of command. Captain Coulson also has a blogger in the ranks. The Teflon Don runs Acute Politics, another fine military blog that should be on your reading list.

Below is an interview with Captain Coulson:

Please explain the mission of your unit? What is your area of operations?

We conduct Route Clearance operations; our mission is to make roads safely passable for Coalition Forces and Iraqi civilians by identifying and reducing obstacles, particularly Improvise Explosive Devices. We are based at Camp Ramadi, Iraq but our Task Force Covers all of Al Anbar Province. Currently, I am focusing on the region around Falluja while other parts of our task force cover the remainder of the AO.

What are your greatest challenges on a daily basis in Iraq both professionally as a company commander of an Engineer Company, and personally as individual soldier?

The professional challenge is too keep all of my equipment running and ready to support my and my higher headquarters missions. Much of the equipment is of recent acquisition to the Army and Marine Corps systems so we struggle to learn how to keep this new equipment running. We are by and large very successful, but it takes up a great deal of my time.

Personally I struggle to remind myself of the importance of being here, of why I am sacrificing being away from my wife, particularly when I read the news on the net or see the TV and it seems like people back home don’t understand what is at stake here and don’t want to bother to really understand it. At the very least they are very 2002 in their opinions of this war.

Without getting into specific numbers or violating operational security, how would you rate the effectiveness of the IEDs being planted on daily basis, and your ability to defeat this threat? Are insurgents changing their tactics on a regular basis to overcome your countermeasures?

On October 12, 1984 the PIRA [Provisional Irish Republican Army] set off two bombs in the Grand Hotel, in Brighton, England. Prime Minister Margret Thatcher was there along with her entire cabinet. None of them were killed although several high ranking Conservative MP’s were killed. When the PIRA claimed responsibility their statement said ‘Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.’ Such is the way with IED’s, I can take 5 IED’s off the street in one night, but if one IED in another part of the country hits the right vehicle the effectiveness can be rated as high, no one hears about the ones that did not go off. Since we are so cagey about what we have done to fight this battle one big IED hit can look bigger than it really is in the military picture. This war though is about Information Operations as much as anything.

Our ability to defeat this threat is about manpower and equipment. Of course we need to be doing more than just looking for IED’s – we need to set the conditions where the IED planter is no longer safe.

The insurgents change and we change. That’s what Counterinsurgency is all about.

What recommendations would you make to reduce the effectiveness of IEDs? Does the solution require technology, manpower, training or some combination of the three?

How do you measure IED effectiveness? Is it a tactical military problem? Is it an operational problem? Is it a strategic information problem?

I can tell you it is not an operational problem. The US Armed Forces simply take the threat into account when planning operations. Is it a tactical problem? Yes it is, one that we overcome on a daily basis. Do we do it perfectly? Of course not. The enemy gets a vote and occasionally stumps us. He also has volume working for him, that does not make it impossible to defeat.

On my blog, Badgers Forward, I have a post about what an IED looks like. One comment took me to task indicating they felt I said the job is easy. I reviewed the post and don’t believe I can any sort of indication that it is easy. It is tough, very tough. But it is more than doable. I would say IED effectiveness lies in the ability to make people here (the US) believe that there is an IED around every corner. That is simply not the case. I have traveled with my platoons as they have gone about Al Anbar province. Only once has an IED gone off with us having no indication that it was there. See my reference to the Brighton Bombing above.

It is a complex, deadly, but solvable tactical problem. Technology, training, and manpower are component parts to the solution to the problem. But there are other parts as well. The IED issue cannot be solved in isolation.

The Boston Globe recently reported “US troops in Iraq are dying in roadside bombings at a higher rate than any period since the war began…But commanders still have no effective means to monitor the deadliest routes for patrols.” How would you respond to this characterization?

In the broad picture the JIED Defeat Organization is a reflection of the very typically American idea that technology can conquer any problem. I am fairly well versed in an at least one program this office is working on. It’s not that the project has no promise; it’s that people are trying to field complex systems and solutions overnight to problems and weapons that were not foreseen. Look at how long things like the V-22, F-22, and F-35 have been in development, and remember we build aircraft well. We have asked these guys and gals to come up with a solution overnight.

Some people act as if the mere use of this weapon system and its ability to have devastating attacks is sufficient reason to leave Iraq, but let’s perform a thought experiment. Assume that Hussein and bin Laden were thick as thieves, assume Iraq was lousy with obvious WMD, and lets also assume the war is fairly popular with recruits overwhelming the recruiting stations. What would that change about IED’s? Nothing.

The IED is just one of many weapons an insurgent can use; it is relatively cheap; allows him to engage in an economy of force operation, allows for force protection for his troops, and need only be successful occasionally to sow terror in the hearts of those that travel the road.

Even if we left Iraq tomorrow, this has been a learning environment for enemies of Western civilization. Just as we cross talk with our allies so do our enemies. My own website has had hits from Google Searches regarding IED construction. These sites have been the US Army ensuring that I am not writing about specifics; I have all also had hits from Arab Countries and Venezuela.

What do we need to do to combat the IED threat?

Allow the JIED Defeat Organization to continue its work.

Increase Route Clearance assets in Iraq.

Continue to Develop our intelligence networks.

Eliminate the conditions that allow for IED emplacement.

Has the training you received prior to your deployment to Iraq prepared you for the challenges you face in Iraq?

The Army Reserve mobilization process leaves a great deal to be desired. It does not focus on task specific training, rather it focuses on a set list made up by somebody somewhere that has no real apparent knowledge of what is going on over here. That might be inaccurate, but that is sure what is seemed like. My biggest complaint so far would be about the mobilization station, not deployment to Iraq. We sent a large number of people to schools before hand and we had a fairly productive NTC [National Training Center] rotation prior to this, but I think we as an Army can do better.

Are you training the Iraqi Army to conduct route clearance missions?

Not yet. I think it is clear on the macro-level that is the direction we need to go, but I have had no indications that such training or mission is on the offing for us, although I would very much like to do that.

What is the morale of the soldiers under your command?

Excellent. My Soldiers are highly motivated and trained and want to be on the roads of Iraq looking for stuff. Some of them enlisted after we were notified that this might happen. They are committed to each other and the mission. I could not be prouder of them . It is humbling to me to be associated with such dedicated young men.

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Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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12 Comments

  • Laertes' Son says:

    Bill, both your articles on 22 Dec 2006 were even more outstanding than your regular work (and that is saying something).
    Thanks to you, and thanks to Capt. Coulson and the other great men and women out there who are taking it to the enemy, and thereby keeping us all safer this Christmas (and Channukah!)

  • Rubin says:

    Captain Eric Coulson: My Soldiers are highly motivated and trained and want to be on the roads of Iraq looking for stuff. Some of them enlisted after we were notified that this might happen. They are committed to each other and the mission. I could not be prouder of them . It is humbling to me to be associated with such dedicated young men.
    |
    ..and it’s ever so humbling back here at home to realize how incredibly indebted we are to all of them.
    thanks ever so much Bill, Merry Christmas to You and Yours!! Please pass along our good tidings and Merry Christmass-es. 🙂

  • Justin B says:

    I am so amazed every single time I talk to a military officer or former military officer of the depth of their knowledge and the planning and leadership that is required of them. These men and women leading our military are the cream of the crop and once again, the Captain confirms what I firmly believe–our men and women in uniform are the finest in the world. Not just the finest military in the world, but the finest people in the world.
    The IED problem is not unsolvable. It is simply another challenge for our military to overcome. Let’s go back to WWI and militaries would lose more troops in a single battle than we would lose in 20 years in Iraq. It is a new tactic in a battlefield where enemies change tactics. I guess the American people think that when our military shows up, the enemy is supposed to surrender to CNN like in Gulf War I. It is strange that the tolerance for errors or setbacks is near zero and that the American Media reports every negative story about an IED to paint a picture that the entire country is nothing but explosives on every single street corner.

  • Penelope Coulson says:

    As Captain Coulson’s mother I cannot tell you how much admiration I have for my son. He choose to go on active duty because he told us “you cannot send a bunch of young men to Iraq without some more experienced leadership. I have years of training and it is something I need to do.” He is bright, objective and a good man. Because of many like him we can celebrate Chanukkah, Christmas or choose to ignore the whole thing. What a gift.

  • Nancy Robertshaw says:

    Bill,
    I just want to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thank you so much for being there and reporting the truth. Loved your interview with Capt. Coulson. I believe that our military has the bravest and brightest men and women serving today. God bless you all!
    Warm regards,
    Nancy

  • Bogdan Jodkowski says:

    Captain Eric Coulson: A Very Merry Cristmas to you and to your proud Mother. Thanks to blokes like you, all thinking and caring people of the modern world feel like citisens of the United States. I’m coming originally from Poland, country that has regained her freedom thanks for the courage, bravery and perseverance of patriots like you, and your soldiers-comrades, and the dreamers, and risk-takers like your presidents: Ronald Reagan and George Bush Junior. No matter what is the level of ignorance and confusion among your opponents in your own country, but also in other parts of so called “free world”, those are you and your President who are right. There is no doubt that the decision to conduct a military operation in Iraq (I refuse to call it invasion or occupation) was strategically absolutely correct and the history will vindicate your stand. All the best to you and your families!

  • Lawrence Grabowski says:

    I simply wanted to remind you that, regardless of how discouraging the seditious media scribblers might be, many, if not most of us here in the US, not ignorant of world affairs or historical perspective, deeply appreciate the work you and the rest of our service volunteers do on our behalf.
    May your Christmas be merry and may God bless you and return you and all our soldiers safely to the homes of the loved ones you hold dear.

  • Jamie Irons says:

    G_d bless you and keep you and your justly proud mother, Captain Coulson.
    And Merry Christmas!
    Jamie Irons

  • Cindy Anderson says:

    Merry Christmas and thank you for your sacrifice. While my family and I sat comfortably and safely inside our home in the US enjoying Christmas today, I could not help but think of all the soldiers overseas who are away from their families in far less comfort and safety than we enjoy, and comfort and safety that we are blessed with, thanks to them. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and THANK YOU for the sacrifices you make daily for the benefit of people like me and my family. I truly believe that the Lord will bless the sacrifices you are making. Merry Christmas!

  • Thank you for a very informative interview. And thank you very much for all your hard work and sacrifice. Merry Christmas and Best wishes for a safe and successful New Year. Kevin Dayhoff: //kevindayhoff.blogspot.com/

  • Marjie Nelson says:

    To The Best and Brightest.
    There are more of us than you know who support you.
    I do not watch the regular news, nor do I read any newspapers. I rely on the people I know are doing the right thing to pass on the truth.
    Tell them to keep five yards.
    We love you all dearly.

  • Maggie45 says:

    What Marjie said!!!! God bless you and keep you safe.

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