Mission to the Marshes

 

Written by Lt. Col. Robert Dunton - Executive Officer 115th Engineer Group

 - Published - Dec. 15, 2004

   

Lt. Col. Robert Dunton travels with an military police platoon on a mission to the marshlands in eastern Iraq.

Photo courtesy of 115th Engineers in Iraq

Lt. Col. Robert Dunton travels with an military police platoon on a mission to the marshlands in eastern Iraq.

TALLIL AIR BASE, Iraq –Hello everyone from the city of Ur.  This weekend I went on a mission to the eastern edge of the Dhi Qar province to coordinate the construction of new Iraqi police station and check points along the highways. It was a neat mission.  It gave me a chance to work with an U.S. military police platoon that was adopted by the 115th back in May and a chance to see some new areas of our Area of Operations. 

            The military police platoon was sent to Tallil to help support the local Iraqi Police.  We developed a relationship with them because of our construction of Major Ali police stations.  Different platoons have rotated in and out of Baghdad to support the mission in the southern part of Iraq.  These soldiers are combat-hardened guys that have been in some of the heaviest fighting in country.  Even though we as Engineers have come a long way with our tactical skills, it was good to be out with the best of the American forces here. 

            This was the first ride in a completely up-armored hummer.  It was good be so secure but it also takes away your ability to interact with the locals. 

            We visited a police station in the town of Al Islah, on the edge of the great marshland of the Iraq.  We are making repairs to the station which shares a building with the city manager and other public officials.  We went on the roof to inspect the construction of new watchtowers; it was very amazing to see the town and people from that prospective.  Plus, it provided a great over watch view for potential problems.  As we came out to leave there was a large body of children surround the military police, asking for candy.      

Members of the 115th team with local Iraqi officials to load a van full of clothing. From the left to right: SSG Sam Coverston, SGT Ron Hammond, SPC Louise Holfert, Ali, Mohammed, Osama, Imam Abedil Jabar Mahdee, SPC Joseph Gose, and Chaplain Joel Miller

Photo courtesy of 115th Engineers in Iraq

Members of the 115th team with local Iraqi officials to load a van full of clothing. From the left to right: SSG Sam Coverston, SGT Ron Hammond, SPC Louise Holfert, Ali, Mohammed, Osama, Imam Abedil Jabar Mahdee, SPC Joseph Gose, and Chaplain Joel Miller

    

            We continued east through the marshes of eastern Iraq where many small fishing villages dot the landscape.  This is a fresh water marsh filled by both the Euphrates and Tigris and is over 300 kilometers by 200 kilometers in area.  It is huge.  It was like looking out on the open sea and seeing nothing but marsh, reeds, waterways and dikes.  There were hundreds of fishermen, working fish nets, doing boat repairs and dealing with the day’s catch.  I saw a few women but most were on shore working laundry and other daily tasks.  One lady was drawing water from the marsh with a small bucket and pouring it into a pan where her son, about 8, was stomping on the clothes to get them clean.  Even though the marsh water is fresh water, it looks much like the water in the Jordan River.  The local people use this water from bathing, drinking and laundry. 

            There were numerous individuals washing cars and trucks along the road, using buckets, brushes, and water supplied by the marsh.  The boats that I saw were long narrow, flat bottom rigs.  The fishermen would stand in the back of the boat and propel the craft with a long pole. They cast their nets while standing and it was amazing to see the balance as they threw the nets out.  The old saying “never stand in the boat” does not apply here.  When we reached the small town of Al Chabaish, the furthest point east, there was a Toyota pickup filled with small fish heading to the market. 

            Most of the housing in this region consists of mud huts with grass thatched roofs.  Water is everywhere.  Many of the houses can only be reached by boat.  The marsh Arabs have been around since the start of time.  Saddam was attempting to drain the marsh to force the Marsh Arabs into extinction because of conflicts with his regime. The environmental damage to the area is evident by all the alkaline deposits around the waters edge. 

            When we turned around to head back to Tallil we were about 40 kilometers from the Iranian border.  I joked with the patrol that we should cross over into Iran, find a nice Motel 6 and spend a refreshing night in a peaceful country other than Iraq.  Sleep in, get a nice breakfast at the local Denny’s and then head back to the war.  Oh well, it will have to wait until March. 

            As we start looking towards coming home we are trying to set the best conditions for the unit that will replace us.  Our plan is to work up until we are told to “step away from the desk, it is time for you to go home.”

 

Transfer of Authority Ceremony for the relief in place of the 420th Engineer Brigade by the 20th Engineer Brigade.  Col. Willis, can be seen standing at front, representing the 115th Group. Also represented were all the other commands including the 372nd  Engineer Group.

Photo courtesy of 115th Engineers in Iraq

Transfer of Authority Ceremony for the relief in place of the 420th Engineer Brigade by the 20th Engineer Brigade.  Col. Willis, can be seen standing at front, representing the 115th Group. Also represented were all the other commands including the 372nd  Engineer Group.

 

 

 

            Separately, the 115th bid farewell to their former higher headquarters in a formal ceremony earlier this week.  The 420th Engineer Brigade has been the 115th's higher headquarters since they arrived in Iraq. The 420th just completed a Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority with their replacement unit, the 20th Engineer Brigade from the 18th Airborne Corps. The 115th now falls under the 20th.

 

            No less consequential, the 115th Engineer Group has helped the Army reach a milestone of 1,000 reconstruction projects in Iraq.  The 115th helps rebuild schools southern Iraq.  Additionally, their spouses have been sending over school supplies for several months to distribute once the schools open for business.  Chaplain Joel Miller recently wrote about his experience at one of these schools.

 

SPC Scott Hadfield distributes school supplies to local Iraq students.

Photo courtesy of 115th Engineers in Iraq

 

SPC Scott Hadfield distributes school supplies to local Iraq students.

Chaplain Miller writes:

            As we pulled into the school we were greeted by the principal and several of his teachers.  They didn’t know we were coming because we don’t like to advertise.  Once in the school the principal gave us a tour of all the classrooms.  The grades represented there were first through sixth, just like our elementary schools back home.  As we came to the door of each classroom the teacher had their kids stand up and recite something for us.  Most were in Arabic so I wasn’t sure what they were saying ….The sixth grade class stood up and said “Good Morning and Welcome” in English.  It was very impressive in spite of the sparseness of the classrooms. 

            The walls of the school were bare.  Not because they want it that way, but because they have nothing to put up.  I watched the science teacher teach his lesson with just a stubby piece of chalk on a black board.  And we wonder how we ever got along without computers.  Everyone was so excited to see us and not just the kids.  The teachers were very proud of their classes and stood at the door waiting for us to come by. They were so warm and friendly.

            Once got things organized, our soldiers began distributing the backpack full of school supplies.  The children were very excited and clapped their hands with exuberance, the whole school radiated.  Our soldiers were excited too.  Many of our soldiers have been so focused and engineer missions or with force protection that they never had the opportunity to do any humanitarian missions.  The smiles on the faces of the soldiers were only reflective of the smiles of the children and their teachers.

            It is so amazing to see how in spite of the lack of resources and financial support, the school stays open and the teachers remain dedicated to the education of wonderful young minds.  As an educator back home, I think about how we fight and scrape to get by with the funding and materials we get and yet we have so much compared to others.  I should not complain about funding again once I get home.  Although, I probably still will…..

            The children here are just like the kids back home.  They are bright, inquisitive, energetic and full of life.  I am grateful that I am part of this deployment to help make their future brighter and freer.  In any one of those classrooms I went into yesterday there could be future doctors, lawyers, government leaders or teachers and I hope that our small act of kindness will be remembered by them, that the Americans came as friends and helped to give them a better life.