The surge: Gunners on patrol

Forward Operating Base Loyalty, Baghdad, Iraq — The signs of war are never far from the men and women of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, currently stationed at Forward Operating Base Loyalty in eastern Baghdad. Yesterday at lunch, a sergeant entered the building yelling, “ATTENTION IN THE CHOW HALL! ATTENTION IN THE CHOW HALL!” This is usually a command given when a high profile visitor such as a general or someone of similar distinction arrives in the building. Instantly, everyone seated stops eating, and everyone standing moves to the position of attention in military precision.

This time it was for another reason, though. The initial announcement was quickly followed by another:

“ALL MEDICS REPORT TO THE CLINIC IMMEDIATELY! ALL MEDICS REPORT TO THE CLINIC IMMEDIATELY!”

A handful of soldiers jump up, grab their trays, and head out the exit. An officer indicates that this is an indicator of a “mass cal event” or a “mass casualty event” where the number of incoming wounded from an IED or EFP attack or similar fight is expected to quickly overwhelm medical staff on hand. The event is just another reminder of daily events here.

As part of the normal rotation process of units coming into Iraq, the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division from Fort Carson, Colorado arrived in Iraq in November 2006 and assumed operational control of the whole Baghdad Area of Operations as the unit they were relieving had done before them. Their brigade became responsible for establishing security for a city of several million people – and steadily growing sectarian conflict – with about 3 maneuver battalions.

After several challenging months, additional brigades began to arrive as part of the surge and started conducting additional security operations by March. With these additional troops, 2nd Brigade, or “2/2 ID” was able to operate more effectively for two specific reasons. First, they received three additional battalions under their operational control, around 1,500 more soldiers. Next, with more units arriving, they were able to split up their huge battlespace into thirds to be shared with two additional incoming brigades. As the surge kicked in, they finally had a chance to really focus on operations within a reasonably manageable area with more “boots on the ground.”

2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery – Gunners on Patrol

One of the initial maneuver elements to arrive last year was the 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery. “2/17 Field Artillery” is not unlike many other units in Iraq right now or over the course of the war. They arrived last fall with the rest of 2nd Brigade here at Forward Operating Base Loyalty, and, for the first three months of their deployment, actually executed a number of Field Artillery missions. Due to the significant amount of mortar and rocket attacks coming in from the Sadr City area, 2/17 Field Artillery often fired 105mm howitzer rounds right from this Forward Operating Base in the middle of eastern Baghdad. On one occasion in February, Loyalty came under indirect fire from two separate enemy mortar team simultaneously, and the guns of 2/17 counter fired and silenced both teams in short order.

As the surge kicked in around March, however, the battalion was again required to operate in a role more similar to a typical maneuver unit like an infantry battalion. In fact, 2/17 Field Artillery is the only field artillery unit to actually manage their own sector of operations, rather than supporting the infantry’s fight as battles have been traditionally fought in previous wars.

On this 130 degree Fahrenheit day in August, 3rd platoon of Blacksheep Battery prepares to make the daily run out to their “outpost” OP Sullivan. This combat operation post or “COP” was built in April and named after Sergeant John Sullivan, a leader from 3rd Platoon who was killed in an EFP or “explosively formed projectile” strike back in December. Serving as the stepping off point for most raids and patrols, it is the focus of operations for the battalion in their sector. Alpha “Rock Hard” and Bravo “Black Sheep” Batteries are the main elements of the battalion loosely compared to typical infantry companies, but with about half the manpower of traditional infantry units. One of the strategies of the surge — pushing troops out to fixed positions in their areas of operation — has led to units like 2/17 Field Artillery building outposts like OP Sullivan, a miniature fort about six miles south of the Forward Operating Base.

After a quick but detailed convoy brief by Capt. Antonio Hardy, the 3rd platoon leader from Atlanta, we load up into Humvees and pull out onto the dirt road from the front gate right into the center of the city. The Forward Operating Base sits on major roadways going through the city, but the convoy makes it a point to avoid these, carefully picking their way through the various neighborhoods of the city. Right now, the Mahdi Army is the primary threat in eastern Baghdad, and there is a perception that JAM (or Jaish al Mahdi, another name for the Mahdi Army), in a similar vein to Hezbollah, will often try to avoid collateral damage when setting off their EFPs. The convoys will pass through hundreds of Iraqis in the streets of these neighborhoods, with many running up to the vehicles to wave at them and ask for gifts.

OP Sullivan

After about a 45-minute drive, the convoy arrives first at the Joint Security Station or “JSS” which jointly houses US and Iraqi forces and is located next door to the COP. Meals are dropped off for the Americans there — the Iraqis have their own cafeteria nearby — and the patrol leaders check in with the US soldiers serving as the liaison/Quick Reaction Force for the region. Soon after, the convoy heads on to the COP itself to relieve the platoon that is waiting to head back to Forward Operating Base Loyalty.

Each of the platoons of 2/17 Field Artillery’s two “firing” batteries rotate through force protection and patrolling operations at the COP as well as provide manning strength for the JSS. When a platoon comes into the COP, it takes turns with other platoons to perform each of the tasks. Different from how many units have operated in Iraq over the last two or three years, these soldiers now essentially live and work off-base in their “home away from home” for the majority of the time they are here in country. The battalion has worked hard to set the standard to increase their soldiers’ quality of life and make their daily lives as enjoyable as possible: OP Sullivan has regular power, water, air conditioning, internet, and secure phone communications. At the same time, there is very little that separates a guy’s work from the rest of his life and each basically lives out of his knapsack for a week at a time.

The arrival of 3rd Platoon to the COP most importantly signifies dinner time. Given the unpredictability of a typical soldier’s life, events like the daily arrival of dinner signify a bit of normalcy for the platoons. OP Sullivan receives one hot meal a day and today’s dinner consists of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and noodles with marinara sauce — which seems to be popular on the chicken and potatoes as well — with an assortment of sodas and Gatorade. This platoon and others at the COP spend the evening enjoying their meal, sending e-mails, making phone calls, and preparing for the night’s activities, whether they take shifts manning guard positions around the COP or go out on frequent patrols or on a specific raid.

A wide variety of soldiers from different backgrounds serve in 2/17 Field Artillery, as is typical with any military unit. One guy is here in Iraq for the first time — he actually enlisted almost 17 years ago for the first Gulf War and missed that one! Another guy is in Iraq for his third tour — he previously served in Baghdad in 2003 and also in 2004/2005. Many of the soldiers have served in this unit for a number of years and served together during a previous tour in Ramadi. A few female soldiers occasionally come out to the COP when their work specialties are needed; however, none are here now. Most of these soldiers are resigned to the fact that this likely is not their last tour of Iraq, and of course, they are also resigned to the fact that their 12-month tour has just been extended by three months.

Written by Joe Talley of Tango Alpha Productions, who is currently embedded in Baghdad. Return on August 23 to read: Conducting the surge, one raid at a time.

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2 Comments

  • David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 08/22/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  • Bobk says:

    Thanks for your embed and time. FOB Loyalty is home to a couple guys I talk to and know. Say hi to Sgts Bob(my son) and Ron(medic) if you run across the HHC PSD team.
    Look forward to more of your onsite posts about this area of bagdad and sadr city.

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