Aggies help town corral feuding
December 13, 2003
HAMMAM AL ALIL, Iraq — When the “No Slack” battalion first rolled into Hammam al Alil, there was mass chaos.
The tribal Iraqi city has a violent Hatfield-McCoy-type history.
Soldiers even refer to one legendary incident in May as the “gunfight at the OK Corral.” Feuding townspeople lined up on each side of a street in the northern Iraq town.
“One guy dropped a flag and everyone started firing at each other,” said 1st Sgt. John McGlinchey.
Since then, the tribal conflicts have subsided, but the criminal activity shifted to another target: U.S. forces.
“There’s less criminal activity and better security, but the violence has changed to being against U.S. forces and [their] supporters,” said Capt. Matt Konz, commanding officer for Company C, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. The battalion rotates companies from Qayyarah West Airfield to Objective Aggies, its compound in Hammam, about 12 miles south of Mosul.
A couple of times a week, Aggies falls under attack, but the mortars and rocket-propelled grenades usually fall short. The RPGs and bombs also target convoys.
No soldiers have been killed, though one troop was injured by a roadside bomb.
“This is definitely a hot spot,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ken Klinger, 33, a platoon sergeant from Klingerstown, Pa.
Aggies troops are responsible for a 15-square-mile area, home to 11,000 Iraqis. Their workload fits the battalion nickname, “No Slack,” earned during the Vietnam War. Company C originally had 125 to do the job, but about 20 have since left.
“The missions haven’t gotten any less,” McGlinchey said. “The guys are working harder. They’re dealing with it.”
They man rooftop observation points, conduct house searches, patrol the base and — the most dreaded task — burn waste from the toilets.
The scouts have spent many nights in the surrounding barren area on reconnaissance missions.
“They shoot and run,” said Spc. Clint Dwiggins of attackers. “They won’t stand and fight. I think they’re just trying to harass us,” said the radio-telephone operator, 20, from Edmond, Okla.
A five-person mortar unit stands ready at night in an old pump house in case of an attack.
“We do practice fire to show the locals we’ve got some big guns out here … leave us alone,” said Staff Sgt. Ken Trail, 25, mortar section leader from Newton, Kan.
As temperatures drop to the 30s, the soldiers pass the time telling jokes, singing and talking about home.
Taking care of business
Soldiers are also working with Iraqi police to stabilize the area, which used to have no government or police. The military established a police force and gathered local leaders to select a mayor.
Konz said that while progress has been made, “it’s still unstable. They still need a more effective police force.”
Part of the problem is police are hesitant to step forward for fear of causing a tribal feud, Konz said.
His point was illustrated on a recent day when a call came in that 1,000 locals were on the verge of rioting at Hammam’s gas station. Konz said the report mostly likely was an exaggeration and he wasn’t sending his soldiers out. The Iraqi police would have to take care of it.
“If we fix every single problem, they’ll never solve the problems themselves,” said Konz, 32, from Minden, Iowa.
About 30 minutes later, Hammam’s mayor sent a note to Aggies for help. So soldiers drove to the station, where about 150 cars (not 1,000) were lined up. The manager closed the pumps because locals, fearing a benzene shortage, were cutting in line.
The soldiers put up concertina wire and organized the vehicles into lanes.
“It’s just a typical day here in Hammam,” said Sgt. 1st Class Bill Neumann, 36, a platoon sergeant from Havertown, Pa., as he pushed a stalled car. “It’s simply that locals haven’t stepped up to take control of things themselves.”
Soldiers directed traffic and controlled the crowd while the Iraqi police smoked cigarettes and watched.
A trip beyond Aggies’ gates, even a frustrating one, can be a welcome change of scenery.
The two buildings the soldiers use aren’t very stimulating; one has rooms to sleep and work in, and the other has a small café, Internet café and pool table.
But the men are quick to point out that their digs are snazzy compared to months ago.
Looters had scorched the buildings and ripped out everything from wires to seat padding. Glass and ceiling tiles littered the floors. They slept on the concrete floors until cots arrived in midsummer.
They sleep with warm blankets, because the wiring won’t allow for space heaters. One hot meal a day is delivered from the airfield.
The troops say they are thankful they have electricity, although it goes out at least twice a day for a few hours. When there’s no power, there’s no water, and some haven’t showered for a couple of weeks.
“If living conditions were better, it would bring morale up,” said Sgt. David Borem, 25, Company D section leader from Hendersonville, N.C.
Adding some cheer is a Christmas tree with a tobacco can cut into a star for the top. Its lights — and any other lights visible from outside — aren’t turned on at night because it would make an easier target for attackers. The television room’s windows are covered with light-blocking blankets.
The men carry flashlights with colored lenses to see after sunset. Any time they step outside, they must wear body armor and helmets.
The 101st Airborne Division, based in Fort Campbell, Ky., has been deployed to Iraq longer than any other unit. The soldiers originally had 179-day orders.
“When day 180 hit, a mad depression swept across us,” Trail said. “It’s put a huge strain on marriages. Everything’s changing back home, but our life is standing still.”
They’ve been told they’ll be home by March. In the meantime, it helps to keep your sense of humor, the soldiers said.
Staff Sgt. Kenneth Hill, a squad leader, gets a kick out of some of the crazy things he’s seen.
Once at a traffic checkpoint, he put his face up to a Volkswagen car’s steamed-up back window. Staring back at him was a ram, a sheep and two baby sheep.
“And the driver had another sheep in his lap,” laughed Hill, 37, from Huntington, W.Va. “Man, that’s what a pickup truck is for.”
Even Spc. Nathaniel Rock still manages to smile despite what’s happened the past eight months: His wife is divorcing him, his parents got divorced, and a scorpion stung him.
“I’m a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, I guess,” said Rock, 20, a javelin gunner from Hodgenville, Ky. “If you dwell on it, you’ll drive yourself crazy.”