RAMADI, Iraq — On March 20, 2003, the 1st Marine Division crossed the Kuwaiti border and rapidly made its way north alongside British allies into Iraq.
A year later, the heavily decorated unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif., took authority over one of the most contentious regions in the country. Marine Maj. Gen. James Mattis is now the top coalition commander in Multinational Division-West, taking over Saturday for Army Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
For the Marines, who left the country in the fall only to return half a year later, Iraq is familiar territory. Almost two-thirds of the force served in the country last year.
Mattis said that experience “is invaluable,” especially for junior leaders. “These young corporals and sergeants make the difference.”
He said the region itself is different from what it was when his Marines left, and he gave credit for that to the 82nd, which ran MND-West for the last seven months.
Mattis said his Marines initially faced a “repressive government regime we were trying to tear down. This time, we’re trying to build up.”
Since Task Force All-American took over operations in Al Anbar province, 68 American servicemembers lost their lives and so did hundreds of Iraqis — many of them serving in the fledgling security forces.
In his remarks during the transfer of authority ceremony, Swannack paid tribute to those who gave their lives as well as to the more than 500 servicemembers who were injured. He said their sacrifices helped make the region a better place for the Iraqi people.
“We can be justifiably proud we have set the people of Iraq in this region on a new course,” he said.
For his part, Mattis told the Iraqi dignitaries attending: “I have confidence that we can work together for Iraq’s future and for the good of your children.”
After the ceremony, he said that those who resort to violence won’t be a part of that future.
“Those who want to fight ... they’ll regret it,” Mattis said. “We’ll handle them roughly.”
Both commanders said the two divisions have plenty in common.
Swannack said that airborne soldiers often jump into a hostile area, while the Marines take boats. But once in theater, “we’re both here doing infantry tasks.”
Both divisions have been heavily deployed since Sept. 11, 2001. While the Marines begin their second stints in Iraq, no other unit in the military has been as busy as the 82nd, with continuous missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In fact, when the division’s last brigade heads back to the States in early April, Swannack said it will mark the first time in his command that he’s had all his soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., at the same time.
With the Army’s current missions, he doesn’t expect that to last for long.
Much of the division needs to regain jump status, and artillery units need to retrain as well, he said. Both of those operations could take months.
Still, he expects to have a brigade’s worth of troops ready to deploy anywhere by May 7.
Mattis said his Marines took advantage of their brief time back in the States to train as well. Units went through weeks of courses on language and culture to try to help them better understand the Iraqi people.
He said Marines would interact with local residents constantly and learn more about them along the way. Knowing their mission is making a difference for those people will give his troops “a sense of purpose that keeps morale high.”
The Marines actually will have more troops in the region than the 82nd had in their task force, with an increase to around 22,000 from about 18,000. Mattis said some of the Marines who just arrived in Iraq would rotate out in seven months. The Pentagon has yet to announce a schedule following the current rotation, which is still taking place.