Leaving Baghdad, battalion recalls a long deployment

BAGHDAD, IRAQ: For American troops in Iraq, it is almost axiomatic that no two battalions are fighting the same war, so complex and varied is the situation in the country. It is equally true that no battalion fights the same war twice. Units return here again and again, sometimes three or even four times, but inevitably, they find that during their time at home, the conflict has changed, in every way.

For the riflemen of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, the past twelve months have been a drastic change from earlier tours, one more than welcome to some and less so to others. The unit, part of the 101st Airborne Division, has been to Iraq three times now: once at the start of the war, once during its darkest days, and now again in the wake of the “surge.”

For many of the younger soldiers assigned to 1-502, as the battalion is known, this deployment has been their first. Many of the officers and sergeants who form the core of the unit, though, were with it for its last deployment, and a few even for its first, more than five years ago.

“I’ve been out here three times,” said Lieutenant Colonel Joseph McLamb, the battalion commander, “and each time I’ve learned more, but each time has also been a totally different experience, and you have to be careful about applying the lessons of one deployment to another.”

During this deployment, which began last November and is now ending, 1-502 has patrolled a sector of northwestern Baghdad centered on the Kadhimiya district, encompassing the largely Shia neighborhoods of Shula, Hurriya, Fajr, and Shirkuk. The area saw fierce fighting briefly last spring, when violence flared up across Shia-dominated areas of Iraq.

When asked to describe the course of their tour in Baghdad, almost every soldier in the unit focused on the role of their squad, platoon, or company in last spring’s fighting against the Mahdi Army, whish is referred to as “March Madness.”

On a night patrol near the Kadhimayn shrine, the commander of Delta Company, Captain Brad Henry, stopped briefly at an intersection where his soldiers were ambushed in March to point out the specific buildings where enemy snipers and machine-gunners had been positioned. At the other end of the battalion’s zone, soldiers from Bravo Company stressed that during the fighting, the neighborhood they now patrol, Shula, housed senior leaders of the Shia Mahdi Army militia cells known as “Special Groups.” Shula had a reputation for being the western counterpart of Sadr City, the militias’ main stronghold in Baghdad.

The bulk of the deployment, though, both before the spring fighting and after, has been relatively calm. In Shula, in late October, there had not been a shot fired or a bomb found in days, and in other areas it has been weeks. A patrol with Charlie Company, the unit that oversees the Salaam and Fajr neighborhoods, spent more time dealing with broken water pipes than questioning locals about insurgents, something the commander, Captain Chris Bowers, said is now routine.

Colonel William Hickman, the brigade commander who oversees 1-502, made clear in an interview that the top priority in Kadhimiya and surrounding areas is no longer the fight against the militias. The focus is now on governance and the resettlement of families displaced by sectarian violence.

The security situation was not quite this quiet before the spring militia uprising, but it was close. “As we came in last fall,” McLamb explained, “the situation was changing from a kinetic, lethal fight to much more precise targeting,” allowing 1-502 to spend the winter focusing not so much on raiding and patrolling as on building the capabilities of the Iraqi military units in the area.

That is a far cry from the battalion’s previous tour in Iraq, which many its sergeants and captains remember with mixed emotions. On that deployment, which began in the fall of 2005 and ended a year later, 1-502 patrolled the rural Yusufiyah district, just south of Baghdad in the area then known as the “Triangle of Death.” At a small outpost in the battalion’s sector, one platoon sergeant recalled: “Any kind of IED you can imagine, we got hit with, and more than once. Mortars, small arms fire, RPGs, complex ambushes – it was hardcore al Qaeda down there, and they threw everything at us.” Half joking, he added, “It was a lot of fun.”

In June 2006, near Yusufiyah, a group of soldiers from the battalion’s Bravo Company committed one of the most brutal war crimes of which American troops in Iraq have been accused, raping a local girl and killing her family. Days later, in a retaliatory attack, Sunni insurgents kidnapped, tortured, and killed three soldiers from the same platoon.

“It was hard getting out of that kinetic mindset at first,” said the platoon sergeant. “We’d been through every kind of —- down in Yusufiya, Bravo Company in particular, and when we got to this place, it took a while to adjust, to realize that your life isn’t always in danger.” A lieutenant in the battalion, who was not with the unit on its last deployment, agreed. “It definitely left its mark on some of the guys,” he said. “They’d been through one of the most kinetic environments out there, with IEDs basically everywhere, and to some extent that’s what they trained for in the run-up to this deployment, too.”

Yet 1-502 has, over the past year, come to be seen by many as a model of battalion-level counterinsurgency operations, both for its role in last spring’s fighting and for its aptitude for non-combat tasks, from training Iraqi troops to resettling displaced families. Major General Jeffery Hammond, the overall commander of American troops in Baghdad, cited the battalion repeatedly when describing what he sees as the way ahead in the Iraqi capital. And officers of 1st Batallion, 18th Infantry Regiment, the unit now rotating into Kadhimiya to replace 1-502, said that during their required course at the Taji Counterinsurgency Academy, their counterparts from the outgoing unit had done a thorough job passing on advice and lessons learned to them.

One captain, an artillery battery commander attached to the incoming battalion, said that McLamb’s guidance in particular had been helpful. “You read all these books about counterinsurgency and Arab culture and everything before you come out here,” he observed, “and at the COIN Academy they throw around all kinds of references that go over a lot of guys’ heads. But as far as the different elements here, and how to interact with their leaders, he really just broke it down in a way that’s going to stick with me. You could tell this is a battalion that gets it – big shoes for us to fill.”

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3 Comments

  • Rhyno327/lrs says:

    Outstanding work 1-502, you have continued and upheld the standards of those who came before you. Happy to hear this news. I know you will continue to make us proud in the future. God Bless you all, always in my prayers.

  • Buff52 says:

    1-502 took part in the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy in World War II. It is good to hear that they are keeping up those high standards.
    May God bless them all.

  • yourmama says:

    Good report, Wesley Morgan. Thank you. And to the 1-502, great thanks for your terrific service and commitment to the mission. Bless your hearts, you all have stood tall and now you leave big boots.

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