By Edward Lee Pitts, Military Affairs
When the 30th Brigade Combat Team hands over this Northeastern Iraq sector to its National Guard counterparts from Tennessee, the North Carolina unit will return home having lost five soldiers. Capt. Matt Handley, the 30th's public affairs officer, said the nearly 4,300-soldier-strong unit also sustained about 103 wounded in action during its 10-month deployment. But 95 percent of these injured soldiers returned to duty, he said.
Despite the casualties, Capt. Handley said the region that soon will be the domain of the 278th Regimental Combat Team is 85 percent to 90 percent in support of U.S. forces. He said very few of the locals favored the regime of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
"If the 278th takes the time to meet the Iraqis, they will find out the reason why we are here," he said.
Capt. Handley said hearing stories about life under Mr. Hussein gave most 30th soldiers a sense of purpose while living in the middle of the desert more than 6,000 miles from home.
"The locals tell you about how glad they are that we are here," he said. "They feel like their country is moving forward. Life is better."
Lt. John Wilaby, 37, the executive officer of a 30th infantry company, said the Iraqis are hospitable people.
"You knock on their door in the middle of the night to search their house, and they still offer you tea," he said.
But Capt. Handley said the area still has its share of "bad guys." Since arriving in Iraq last February, the 30th has conducted more than 6,000 combat patrol missions and confiscated about 370 weapons caches in the region.
Because the sector is near the Iranian border, the 30th has had to deal with commerce-related smuggling of items such as fruit and animals. The 30th also confiscates illegal shipments of alcohol.
"It was funny seeing a five-ton load of alcohol on the back of four donkeys," said Spc. Joseph Hayes, 38, referring to one incident of an Iraqi trying to sneak alcohol into Iran where it is illegal.
The 30th averaged about one to two violent incidences a day, primarily involving roadside bombs set by insurgents. Three of the 30th Brigade's deaths occurred from those IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.
The brigade lost two soldiers to direct fire during hostilities last June in Baqubah that Capt. Handley called "the largest National Guard battle to happen in Iraq."
The 30th has trained thousands of Iraqi security forces.
Capt. Handley said the 278th would find more confident and skillful Iraqi police, border patrol and National Guard soldiers. These forces are taking a larger role in monitoring their county, he said.
"They have matured and become much more capable of handling their own searches," he said. "We are just providing outside security."
Capt. Handley said an Iraqi army brigade is based in the area and the 278th will continue the 30th's mission of providing convoy escorts whenever area Iraqi soldiers are sent elsewhere in the country to fight.
Cpl. Pierre Purchase, 34, with the 30th's 1st Battalion, 120th Infantry, said overcoming the language barrier and cultural differences has been the biggest challenge the 30th faced. He said the brigade should have learned some basic Arabic phrases before beginning its deployment.
"When missions get thick, interpreters get spread thin," he said. "It is a hindrance not knowing what people are saying to you."
The 30th provided the region with more than $5.7 million in U.S. money, mostly for security, education and water-sewer treatment. In addition, the brigade refurbished schools, repaired mosques and built hospitals, among its 393 improvement projects. The area is rural, with date palms and grains being the crops of choice.
"Before we were here, they only had power for three hours a day," said Lt. Wilaby. "The whole area was trashed. The power is staying on 18 hours a day now. It is still not anywhere close to being as clean as the worst city in America, but they've cleaned up a lot."
Because of the region's filth, Cpl. Purchase said the 30th will not miss the region's abundance of flies and fleas. He said 278th soldiers will learn to wear flea powder and flea collars once the weather warms in the spring.
"I've developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder where I can't stop washing my hands," Cpl. Purchase said. "I even use hand sanitizer on my gloves."
E-mail Lee Pitts at email@example.com