For troops at joint security station, customer service is key
May 18, 2008
JISR DIYALA, Iraq — They come like clockwork. It’s 9 a.m. The soldiers are into the third hour of their 12-hour shift, and it’s time to greet the “customers.”
The first person to drop by the joint security station is a middle-aged man who says his car was crushed by a coalition tank several months ago. At the front gate, he asks a Task Force 1-35 Armor soldier whether any progress has been made on his claim.
“It’s still pending,” Sgt. Arturo De La Garza tells the man, who at least seems happy that his name is still on a list of 40 or so people waiting for word on their damage claims.
A few more people follow into compound, seeking help for troubles big and small — the release of relatives held at Camp Bucca; finding a cell phone that has gone missing. It’s the beginning of a long, drawn-out day for these 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division soldiers, who are in the early stages of their 15-month tour.
At the JSS, which is part 911 call center, part customer-service hub, soldiers and members of the Iraqi National Police seem to do it all. Consulting with families looking for medical assistance, processing reports of bomb detonations and weapons caches are part of the daily routine.
For the troops based in Baumholder, Germany, the JSS is a way to engage the locals, obtain tips and intelligence on enemy activity and keep in contact with their Iraqi security force partners.
But over the course of the next 15 months, the goal is to transition toward giving more responsibility to the Iraqi National Police for day-to-day operations at the JSS, according to Task Force 1-35 leaders. The effort to put Iraqis in charge of the facility matches what is happening throughout the Jisr Diyala region, where security gains over the past year have enabled Army leaders here to place more focus on services.
Already, much of the day-to-day workload is shouldered by the Iraqi National Police’s officer in charge at the JSS.
Indeed, Lt. Hidar Mahdi Asah is the facility’s spark plug. He’s the one who keeps close tabs on his officers and is known to give them a swift kick if they doze on the job or get lackadaisical while pulling guard duty. Other than occasional trips to visit family, Asah calls the compound — situated between Combat Outpost Cashe South and city hall — home.
“I want to stay here 24 hours a day because I’m responsible for what happens,” Asah said. “The security, we have it. I’m able to control things here, but we still need coalition forces.”
Both U.S. soldiers and national police members stand guard in the bullet-riddled tower overlooking downtown Jisr Diyala.
The soldiers say the busiest time of day is usually between 9 a.m. and noon. That was the case on a recent morning when customers in search of help came knocking. One of the visitors arrived with pictures. The man said his home was leveled in December by coalition forces in search of suspects.
“They have no right to blow up my house,” said Qasim Kalaf Hamad. “In Iraq, not all people are bad groups.”
While the circumstances surrounding the alleged bombing weren’t clear, Hamad’s previous claim form seemed to have gotten lost in the shuffle. The man was given another from to fill out. The soldiers explained that they had only recently arrived in the Iraq and would look into the matter.
Hamad nodded, took the forms, and headed back into town.
One challenge for the military is sifting the false claims from the legitimate ones. For instance, one veteran JSS soldier recalled the time a man arrived at the compound seeking compensation. He claimed that a raid at his home shocked his pregnant wife into labor and forced a C-section. The man wanted $10,000 for medical bills.
Regardless of the case, Capt. Joseph Phillips said he makes sure the claim forms move up the chain of command.
“The people can be very emotional. They come back and come back and come back. I give them my word that I will follow up,” said Phillips, 1-35’s officer in charge at the JSS.
By lunch hour, the clock begins to crawl.
“This is when things start to dip” said De La Garza.
Chunks of time are filled checking e-mail, messaging friends and shopping for gadgets online.
For some of the soldiers, the slower pace is a welcome change.
“I haven’t heard a single mortar since I’ve been here,” De La Garza said, adding “I’m into the customer-service thing.”
Since arriving a couple of weeks ago, the only gunfire De La Garza has heard is from passing wedding celebration convoys.
Another soldier was less optimistic at first about his new assignment.
“The one thing I said before deploying is ‘Whatever you do, don’t put me on radio watch. I want to be on patrol and working with the people,’ ” said Spc. Tim Hockman, who is trained as an artilleryman but now spends his days rooted to a chair.
Sure enough, Hockman now mans the radio at the JSS. But it’s a job he’s growing to like, he said.
“I feel like I’m making a difference,” he said. “The people who come here are looking for help.”
About 2 p.m., a report of a bomb detonation at a checkpoint is called in. Two “Sons of Iraq” members are injured in the strike. Around the same time, a call comes in about a weapons stockpile found nearby.
Then just as the day shifters prepare to head back to base for the night, the Iraqi police bring in a suspected terrorist for questioning. The day-shifters pass the baton to the soldiers working the second shift.
But Asah will still be around.
“In the night, the bad guys work,” he said.