Camp Taji units spreading out into the community to build relationships, curb violence
Stars and Stripes March 23, 2008
HOR AL BOSH, Iraq — Valentine’s Day wasn’t a very loving time this year for the soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment.
An insurgent shot one of the soldiers in the elbow that day. Battalion leaders also marked it as the date when they’d push more soldiers out to smaller bases in Iraqi communities — giving them less time in comparatively luxurious Camp Taji.
The events’ simultaneous occurrence was coincidental but indirectly related. Like other units in Iraq, 1-27 is pushing a higher proportion of troops into the community to build relationships that they hope will prevent incidents like the shooting.
Soldiers consider this the battalion’s own minor “surge,” and it comes as the drawdown from the Army’s actual “surge” is forcing units to spread out over more area.
Junior soldiers, though, are less charitable. One NCO sees it as a macho contest between commanders.
The frustration comes from the extra hours that the soldiers are putting in. Soldiers once rotated through a cycle of six days at the joint service station in Hor al Bosh and three days back in Camp Taji to rest and recover.
In the week following Valentine’s Day, that changed to eight days at the joint service station and one day at Taji.
The initial days were hardest. Support services hadn’t yet caught up with the push forward, and soldiers had to rough it for a time.
“We were living off Pop-Tarts and cereal,” recalled 1st Lt. Carlos Manrique, a platoon leader for Company B, 52nd Infantry, a unit under 1-27’s control.
Conditions have since improved. Manrique’s soldiers often opt to eat chow at JSS Hor al Bosh rather than return to Taji because they enjoy the food there. They also now have phones and Internet service there, and their schedule has been reduced to seven days at the service station and two at Taji for the past couple of weeks.
But soldiers say that still leaves little time to take care of personal chores back in Taji and still have time to rest up.
Staff Sgt. Raymond Diaz, a Company B squad leader, said soldiers usually return to Taji in the morning. They then must eat, drop off laundry, stock up on essentials at the post exchange, shower and do other chores. By the time they’re done with all that, it’s 5 or 6 p.m. — and they still must pack for their return to Hor al Bosh.
That leaves just one day for relaxation on the seven-and-two schedule. That’s especially problematic for junior soldiers who must deal with superiors breathing down their neck and with mundane details they’re assigned, Diaz said.
“It stresses out the lower enlisted,” he said.
Spc. Wesley Shipman, a 21-year-old vehicle commander, mostly misses the sleep he can get at Taji. In Taji, soldiers sleep two or three to a room. Sleeping areas in Hor al Bosh have considerably more than that. Soldiers returning from a night patrol often wake up those on the day schedule and vice versa.
“I tried to sleep all day yesterday, and it doesn’t do you any good,” Shipman said.
The schedule is harder for the soldiers to deal with when they see little return for their work. Soldiers on Thursday had to secure a market and clinic for a congressional visit, one of the VIP missions that happen once a week. They waited in the hot sun for the group to arrive and then returned to the Strykers for more waiting while a frequently delayed train got ready to leave Taji. Once they finished holding back would-be attackers from the mostly empty train, the soldiers secured another Iraqi site for a VIP visit — this time for a U.S. general.
Despite all this activity, Shipman said that he hasn’t seen any difference on the streets since his unit’s “surge” began.
Not all the soldiers favor life at Taji. Cpl. Kristopher Weber, a 26-year-old medic with Company B, said he prefers staying with the squads and away from the aid station. He doesn’t have as much paperwork when he’s out at Hor al Bosh, and he doesn’t have to walk softly around superiors.
Even busy days like Thursday have some perks, Diaz noted: “Yeah, it’s gonna suck. But it makes the time go by fast.”
For the most part, though, the soldiers agree that they’d prefer to return to the schedule they began with so that they could have a full three days in Taji.