By Edward Lee Pitts, Military Affairs
CAMP CALDWELL, Iraq -- Lt. Col. Jeff Holmes helped load the slain Iraqi leader's body onto the back of a truck. The un-named town hall leader was shot and killed soon after publicly supporting the Jan. 30 Iraqi elections. He had spurned Lt. Col. Holmes' offer for protection.
Just weeks in Iraq as part of the 278th Regimental Combat Team, 3rd Squadron commander Lt. Col. Holmes said it has not taken long for the struggle here to become real.
He said he has seen many portraits on the walls of homes showing fathers, brothers, mothers and sisters killed for their beliefs. Some Iraqis have even told Lt. Col. Homes they would rather their own sons died than a single American soldier.
"They want to fight for their own freedom, and if they get killed, they feel it is God's will," Lt. Col. Holmes said.
Officers with this Tennessee-based National Guard unit said last week the immediate task for the regiment in 2005 will be to ensure upcoming elections go forward for this emerging democracy.
But they said most of the work would be done in the weeks leading up to Jan. 30. The 278th will be taking a behind-the-scenes role on election day.
Forces from the regiment's three squadrons will be on standby to assist if major violence occurs, but the regiment will not have a presence at the actual polling places.
"Our job in the election is to really stand by and watch," said Lt. Col. Holmes, 43, of Murfreesboro, Tenn. "We'd like nothing better than for the elections to happen, and we are assembled on the other side of the hill bored out of our minds."
U.S. forces will not be at election sites so no one can accuse the United States of influencing the voting outcomes, according to Capt. Dale Bradley, commander of 1st Squadron's Apache Troop.
"This is an Iraqi process," Capt. Bradley said. "It is not our election to lead. Iraq is a sovereign nation, and we are guests of the Iraqi people. It is their future."
The 278th will advise the Iraqi leaders on security plans, but Iraqi police and National Guardsmen will take over more control of individual towns this year.
"The Iraqis need to see that their security forces are able to protect them," Lt. Col. Holmes said. "Until that happens, we will be here."
Capt. Bradley, whose unit patrols the town of Balad Ruz, said he has police officers from various towns in Tennessee and Georgia helping train Iraqis in the use of law enforcement tactics for a city with a population of nearly 100,000. Capt. Scott Leslie, the commander of 1st Squadron's Deacon Troop, said his forces spend up to three days a week training Iraqi National Guard forces.
Officers in the 278th say Iraqi security forces have learned the concepts and been given the tools needed to do their jobs. Lt. Col. Holmes compared the regiment's 2005 task to a parent teaching a child how to ride a bicycle.
"You run along beside them for a time, but eventually you have to let them go," he said. "If they fall over, you are going to go and pick them up so they can try it again."
The Iraqi police and National Guard soldiers in the 278th's sector long have gone out on patrols with U.S. forces and are now starting to conduct their own missions.
"They are not ready for the Tour de France yet, but they are going forward," Lt. Col. Holmes said.
Capt. Leslie said the Iraqi National Guard functions like a county sheriff's department. But getting the soldiers certified on their weapons at the rifle range here has brought to light unique problems caused by the lack of basic needs.
"People right now can't qualify because they can't see," he said. "They don't have any glasses."
QUALITY OF LIFE
An ongoing task for the 278th in 2005 will be targeting ways to help Iraqi towns and individual citizens improve their quality of life. The cities in the Eastern Diyala Province suffer from devastated infrastructure caused by the long Iran-Iraq war and by Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.
Maj. Rhonda Keisman, the regiment's head of civil military operations, said the 278th is taking over 34 ongoing civil projects started by the departed 30th Brigade Combat Team. The 278th also has received approval for $800,000 to fund additional projects, with more money awaiting approval from 1st Infantry Division headquarters.
Maj. Keisman said some of the money comes from Iraq itself, primarily from the millions Saddam Hussein diverted from programs designed to help his people. Improvement plans are worked out in cooperation with town leaders, and local contractors are hired to do the work so more money is put into the local economy.
"We don't want to just do something to help the Iraqi people," she said. "We want the Iraqi people to be able to help themselves."
Big building projects include an asphalt factory and several water distribution and purification plants. The regiment is planning to set up generators and eventually establish electrical plants in towns now receiving electricity for just two to three hours each day. School and medical supplies will be delivered to towns as well.
Maj. Keisman, who already has met with the mayors of seven towns, said the 278th has plenty of work to do during the next 12 months.
"I have seen many countries, towns and cities," Maj. Keisman said. "I have seen need before. I have seen poverty. But I have never seen anything like this."
Capt. Leslie said his company is building a database of the biggest needs for the three towns in its sector. Flipping though an already thick three-ring binder assessing the towns, he said priorities include drinkable water and proper sanitation.
During a recent night patrol Capt. Leslie's Humvee traveled through streets covered in human waste so thick the driver had to put the vehicle into four-wheel drive.
"That is saying a lot when you have to go four wheel drive in a Hummer," Capt. Leslie said. "I told the driver, 'Don't you dare get stuck in this.'"
Beyond providing security at Balad Ruz, Capt. Bradley said his unit has adopted the town. Families, churches and businesses back in Tennessee already are sending boxes of school supplies, soccer balls and children's shoes for the Apache soldiers to distribute to the endless stream of needy children who swarm U.S. troops.
"For all the people back home who want to help, we have an outlet," Capt. Bradley said.
Capts. Leslie and Bradley will spend the next year cultivating relationships with the mayors and police chiefs in their cities.
"We are all on the same sheet of music," Capt. Bradley said. "We all want their towns to be safe."
In the aftermath of tragedy, Lt. Col. Holmes said he sees signs of hope for Iraq in 2005. The mourners at the funeral for the slain town leader did not cower at the fatal message sent by insurgents. They, too, have stood up for the elections, Lt. Col. Homes said.
"Every time those people lose somebody, it makes them stronger," Lt. Col. Holmes said. "They are not about to let the sacrifice go to waste."
E-mail Lee Pitts at email@example.com