A year on the edge: 2nd BCT bound for Colorado after grueling tour in Ramadi
First in a four-part series on the 2nd Brigade’s year in Iraq.
Joseph Giordono / S&SAs their yearlong tour in Iraq comes to a close, soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team stand on a bridge overlooking Ramadi at sunset.
Joseph Giordono / S&SU.S. and Iraqi troops question Iraqi men during a night raid in Ramadi.
Joseph Giordono / S&S A young Iraqi girl watches a passing patrol of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.
Joseph Giordono / S&SFirst Lt. Judson Bennett, left, Capt. Kevin Capozzoli and 1st Lt. Matt Miller from 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry seek some shade.
Joseph Giordono / S&SA soldier from 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment mans a .50-caliber machine gun while patrolling Ramadi.
RAMADI, Iraq — They marked the passage of a year not by the numbers on a calendar, but by their memories of extraordinary events.
The day a beloved platoon sergeant was killed. The four-day, running battles to secure polling places in a city whose population refused to vote. The outdoor birthday celebration interrupted by a million-to-one mortar shot hitting an artillery piece and killing four men.
After one year, 68 deaths, and 498 Purple Hearts awarded with “several hundred more” pending, the 3,900 soldiers of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division have left Iraq. They were an experiment of sorts for the Army, deploying from bases along the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea, the first time units there meant to preserve a Cold War peace were sent directly to a shooting war. They will head to an entirely new home in Fort Carson, Colo., taking over the barracks of yet another unit deploying to Iraq.
For many, it was the second or third straight year without their families. They served in one of the most violent cities in Iraq, in some cases living on austere bases where the latrines were crude wooden frames atop metal buckets. They were mortared nearly every day, through a pair of brutal summers and a muddy, cold winter.
A volatile year“It seems like the elections were forever ago,” said 1st Lt. Matt Miller, an artillery officer who had spent his year attached to the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, training Iraqi recruits. “I came back from leave and almost forgot about them.”
While the elections to form the beginnings of a new Iraqi government were a success in other parts of the country, Ramadi’s Sunni population heeded both the boycott calls of their own leadership and the death threats of insurgents. Fewer than 1,000 people in this city of 250,000 voted on Jan. 30.
In many ways, the situation hasn’t changed since election day. Gunfights still erupt frequently downtown and there are persistent reports of masked insurgents controlling the streets when U.S. patrols aren’t around.
But there also are signs of progress, particularly on the city’s fringes.
In the spring, U.S. forces kicked off Operation River Blitz, screening traffic across the main bridges over the Euphrates River and the canals that form a natural boundary around Ramadi. The checkpoints are still there, stifling the freedom of movement insurgents once had between Ramadi and the flash point city of Fallujah. Weapons and fighters still trickle across the waterways, despite at least one operation in which U.S. troops disabled dozens of small river boats used to ferry contraband.
The blockades, along with a change in tactics, have produced results in Tamin, a district along Ramadi’s western edge. Since the soldiers began sending out sniper teams and stepping up night patrols with Iraqi forces, said Capt. Kevin Capozzoli, commander of Company A, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, things have improved.
“Between May and June, when we started the (Iraqi Security Force) patrols, there’s been a 65 percent decrease” in the number of homemade bombs, he said. Between July 2 and July 20, there was only one detonation in Tamin.
“They are the ones who are going to finish the fight,” the brigade commander, Col. Gary Patton, said of the new Iraqi forces.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have expanded their presence in the toughest neighborhoods downtown, he said, establishing two-week “strong points” in insurgent havens. “We have turned the corner. The avalanche has started and it’s not going to stop.”
Applying pressureThe violence in Ramadi went in cycles, soldiers said. The first big spike was in November, around the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The attacks waned after the elections, but they increased again in the spring. Soldiers point to two reasons for that.
First, the five Iraqi National Guard battalions that had been imported for election security were disbanded. They were inept and unorganized, so 2nd Brigade leaders cut them loose.
Second, a series of offensives farther west in Iraq drew a lot of combat power from a military stretched thin across the country.
“I knew they were going to hit us when the offensives kicked off,” Capozzoli said. Over a few weeks, eight of his soldiers were killed. It was a low point for the 1-9 Infantry and there were signs the unit was feeling the strain nine months into its tour.
“But you had to keep going. You had to do whatever you could to keep fighting through. That was a credit to the leadership,” Capozzoli said.
In May, the brigade started receiving and training new Iraqi army soldiers. Through July, 2nd Brigade soldiers said, the new Iraqi units have performed much better than the first group.
“There’s still some problems, but it’s a lot better,” said Sgt. Eddie Vargas, one of the trainers. “They still have a ways to go.”
Soldiers say they’ve also noticed a small but significant change in the way Ramadi residents describe the insurgency.
The locals now refer to either “the terrorists” who seem to kill at random, or “the local resistance” who fight for ideology and enjoy some measure of support and succor.
“Ramadi is symbolic,” said Maj. Tom Munsey, the brigade’s fire support and information operations officer. “So goes Ramadi, so goes Anbar province. Both sides realize that.”
Echoes of the pastFor some, the deployment was occasionally a mind-bending knot of family threads. Staff Sgt. Dustin Roderigas’ father, grandfather and great-grandfather fought in wars for the United States.
His father, a Vietnam-era helicopter door gunner, retired and ran his own aviation firm. Roderigas was born while his father served in Vietnam; Roderigas’ own son was born the day the unit shipped off to Iraq. After Sept. 11, 2001, Roderigas’ father joined a contractor supplying helicopter maintenance experts downrange. When the younger Roderigas deployed to Iraq, his father was in Taji, north of Baghdad.
On May 22, Dustin Roderigas’ Bradley fighting vehicle was blown up by a roadside bomb He survived with a serious leg injury, and was sent to a military hospital in Balad. After pulling some strings, and with a little help from the aviation units he serviced, the elder Roderigas swung a hospital visit to his son. “I was in the bed, on a morphine drip, and all of a sudden there was my dad,” Dustin recalled later.
“I thought I pressed the morphine button too many times.”
Going homeSix months after the election, 12 months after they arrived, some things have changed and some things haven’t.
New faces have replaced the dead and wounded who were sent home.
A piece of graffiti scrawled on the wall of a plastic portable toilet at Forward Operating Base Ramadi seemed to sum it up back in January: “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” it read.
By late July, as the 2nd Brigade soldiers packed their things for what they all called the Freedom Bird home, someone had added a postscript: “You said it brother. But we’re still standing. And we’re outta here.”