Excruciating delay gave way to deadly deployment
By MARK ST.CLAIR | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 24, 2008
The “Dagger” Brigade first got word to prepare for deployment to Iraq in November 2005.
Two years later — after the Army threw the 1st Infantry Division unit two curveballs — many 2nd Brigade Combat Team soldiers were still in the sandbox.
First the soldiers received warning orders in November telling them to prepare for a May deployment. Then the Pentagon decided to change plans, leaving in limbo the unit’s more than 4,000 soldiers and some 3,000 family members living in Schweinfurt, Germany.
The final deployment order came two months later while the unit was on a training exercise in Grafenwöhr.
“I know that both our soldiers and our families have shouldered a heavy burden of anticipation as we have waited for a final word on this brigade combat team’s deployment. That word is here, and I know that we are fully ready,” brigade commander Col. J.B. Burton told his troops on July 16, 2006.
The second curveball came in April 2007, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that active-duty soldiers would deploy for 15 months instead of 12.
That meant the families — who initially expected to their soldiers to be home by June — would now have to wait until Halloween.
No mission too difficult
More than half of the “Dagger” soldiers in formations were with the unit when it was sent to Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit in 2004.
This time around, the base of operations would be northern Baghdad — and four of the unit’s six battalions would end up attached to other units for the entire deployment.
The 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment was the first unit to deploy in early August, with the majority of its soldiers living, working and fighting in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah district. The brigade’s other infantry unit — 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment — was headquartered in the southwestern portion of the capital.
Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment were sent west to Ramadi, where its troops worked with the Marines. Troops from 1st Battalion, 7th Armor Regiment worked in and around the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib.
Of all the battalions, only the 9th Engineers and the 299th Forward Support Battalion stayed with “Dagger” headquarters throughout.
“Thank goodness we were able to integrate formations that were built around great soldiers,” Burton said during a post-deployment briefing in December.
The main portion of the brigade worked with 12 Iraqi army and police battalions in the Kadhamiyah and Mansour security districts in Baghdad. Burton referred to Mansour as “the gates of freedom.”
“How this region goes is how the country goes,” he said.
The “Dagger” Brigade was responsible for 36 square miles of urban sprawl holding more than 1 million Iraqis.
“In short, we had to get out into the city, live among the citizens, fight alongside the Iraqis and deny insurgents, criminals and extremists free access to the population,” Burton told the Pentagon press corps in October.
When the brigade arrived in Baghdad there were scores of murders every week, said Lt. Col. Steve Miska, the unit’s deputy commander. “Every mission we went out on, we found bodies.”
Throughout the 15 months, 14 joint security stations — small coalition and Iraqi headquarters — were stood up in the neighborhoods where the soldiers were living and working. Burton said that the stations’ successes resulted in an 85 percent reduction in violence in northwest Baghdad from May to October 2007.
From June to August, the number of weekly small-arms fire and deadly roadside bomb attacks went from 50 down to five, and, according to Burton, the number of reported murders in the brigade’s area during the deployment’s final two months was also down to five.
Within a week of one of the joint security station locations opening, the local murder rate dropped 50 percent, Burton said. As the people’s sense of security rose, so did commerce, which in many cases was helped by microgrants or small-business loans. “The entreprenurial spirit in northwest Baghdad is phenomenal,” Burton said.
And whereas some of the young men living in Baghdad happily became shop owners, many of the area’s traditional elite felt it wasn’t their place to do that; their birthrights were to lead. Those men, Burton said, were heavily recruited to join the Iraqi army and police forces.
“We wanted to employ these local men, these military-aged men, into doing something other than shooting at us.”
In the Mansour district alone, more than 2,000 men signed up for police training during the brigade’s stay. “They knew that their future rested in their ability to be recognized as legitimate in their local communities,” Burton said of the recruits.
The brigade found success partnering with local city leaders, both Sunni and Shiite alike, with citizens electing to “get over their sectarian agendas” and “not subscribe to [a] continued cycle of retribution and violence,” Burton said, adding he recognized that successes in the volatile region are fragile and in constant flux.
When the brigade formally took command of its area in November 2006, the number of hostile actions in the region — murders, direct or indirect fire, roadside bombs, etc. — was more than 600 per month, peaking in January at more than 750. When the brigade left last October, there were just over 100.
“I believe that there’s another five hard years (in Iraq), but those are decisions well above my level,” Burton said of the outlook on the war.
And any successes the brigade had while deployed were countered with great loss.
No sacrifice too great
Since 2001, no Europe-based unit had been hit harder during deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan. One battalion lost 25 brothers-in-arms, another lost 20.
At times, it seemed that the road leading to the chapel on Ledward Barracks was permanently blocked, traffic being re-routed for memorial services.
In all, 59 soldiers fell. The average age of the dead was just under 24.
The first, Pfc. Edwin Andino III, was killed Sept. 3, 2006. The last, Sgt. Kevin Gilbertson, died Aug. 31, 2007.
Recently told by U.S. Army Europe to uproot itself from Schweinfurt and travel east to Grafenwöhr, the brigade is on the move again.
Though the move is expected to take two years to complete, another deployment could take place before its done.
“We need to be prepared to deploy within a year of redeploying,” Burton said in December.