Departing Iraq troops advise stay safe, busy
There isn’t a field manual out there that can give anywhere near as good advice as what can be found from talking to soldiers.
After months of living in Iraq, soldiers have built up a reservoir of knowledge that they’ll pass down to the 100,000 troops who will replace them next year.
They know what works and what doesn’t for everything from electricity to enemy tactics, and pretty much everything in between.
The most important piece of advice?
“Stay vigilant,” said Sgt. Craig Weatherall of the 186th Military Police Company in Baghdad. “Stay safe always.”
“When you’re traveling through Baghdad and there’s nobody [civilian] at an intersection, it’s not a good place to be,” said the 186th’s Sgt. Brett Blazicek. “Pay attention to the civilian population.”
Sgt. Mark Hadsell of the 361st Psychological Operations Company has spent a lot of time with the civilian population, passing out bumper stickers seeking the location of Saddam Hussein or updated posters of the “Top 55 most wanted.”
He also shakes a lot of hands.
“Bring a whole lot of hand sanitizer,” he said. “If you’re one of the people who get out in town … a lot of people will touch you or kiss you. Don’t be offended by it.”
Baby wipes are even more important than hand sanitizer, and specialized clothes will help make a soldier’s stay a little more comfortable. Hadsell recommended special undergarments that draw moisture away from the body, especially during the long, hot summer.
Moisture will cause painful rashes and make a soldier’s time in Iraq seem agonizingly long. Time passes slowly enough.
“The big thing is boredom,” Hadsell said. “Bring books or Game Boys; there are lots of PlayStations and Xboxes.”
Mini-DVD players will help time go faster, said Weatherall of the Iowa National Guard. Bootleg DVDs and VCDs, which can be played on nearly any computer, are available everywhere and feature many recent movies.
“I’d say bring extension cords,” he said. Power will be available but not necessarily right at a soldier’s tent or room. Power’s the key, he said, to making life more comfortable.
“If your unit can somehow purchase microwaves, that’s definitely a big help,” Weatherall said. Refrigerators and freezers can be purchased in town, but they might get passed down from unit to unit.
“Whoever comes to replace us, we’ll probably dump a lot of stuff to them we can’t take,” he said, “like microwaves and refrigerators, but not power strips.” Those are going home with the soldiers.
At Freedom Rest, the 1st Armored Division’s rest and recuperation hotel in Baghdad, Spc. Kenneth Speight and Pfc. Cornell Wright both said staying busy was one way to make the time fly.
“Our first six months flew by,” said Speight of the division’s 47th Forward Support Battalion. That’s because the work was continuous and there was little down time, he said.
When there is down time, find something to fill it. Wright spends his time writing to friends and family back home.
“It helps. It gets my thinking process going,” he said. “It makes me think about other things.”
Speight, too, had some practical advice for those follow-on troops: Bring cold-weather gear.
“It gets cold down here. Don’t think it don’t get cold,” he said.
And Wright said troops shouldn’t focus on the time left in their rotation. That can be a downer.
“Just take it day by day,” he said.
First Lt. Troy Gordon had some practical advice, too, just before checking out of the Freedom Rest on Friday. For one, he said, bring extra uniforms.
“That was my advice to all my buddies coming down,” he said.
His soldiers in the 1st Brigade’s Brigade Reconnaissance Troop, part of 1st Battalion, 1st Cavalry Regiment, have complained about having only two uniforms. With the heat, dust and the abundance of concertina wire, the uniforms take a beating.
“Some of the uniforms look terrible,” he said.
His other piece of advice is even more practical and, perhaps, even lifesaving.
“Keep the fiberglass doors on [the Humvees],” he said. “They catch a lot of shrapnel. You wouldn’t think they would, but they do. That’s been a tough lesson to learn.”
Some soldiers remove the door, thinking it won’t protect them and will impede their ability to maneuver their weapons or slow them down if they have to get out of the vehicle during a firefight.
Gordon said that might have been true a couple of months ago when the enemy attacked with small-arms fire. But now, he said, the weapon of choice has been the improvised explosive device, or IED.
“I haven’t been in a shootout since July,” he said.
Despite their thin appearance, he said, the Humvee doors are able to prevent a lot of shrapnel from entering the vehicle.
Soldiers shouldn’t expect these IEDs to be sitting in the open, either.
“They’re resorting to using dead animals alongside the road,” said Weatherall.
They’ve also heard of IEDs being placed in the orange U.S. Mail bags.
“Anything out of the ordinary,” he said. “The thing is, these guys are getting more and more creative.
“Don’t take anything for granted.”