Intelligence battalion leaves legacy of trust
BALAD, Iraq — Lt. Col. Drew Ryan was sharing lunch with the elder sheik in a tiny Iraqi village when the sheik’s son ran up to the table, announcing that villagers had found something.
As it turned out, one of the Army’s unmanned aerial vehicles had crashed into a tree nearby.
“You can’t ask for better intelligence than that,” said Ryan, commander of the 223rd Military Intelligence Battalion, a California National Guard unit. While in Iraq, the unit is attached to the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade from Wiesbaden, Germany.
The incident, Ryan said, shows just how effective his soldiers have been in developing a beneficial relationship with the Iraqis who live near LSA Anaconda, the sprawling Army base near Balad, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Ryan and his troops had won a small battle in a war where words are often a more potent force than weapons.
“You have to develop trust in this culture. Trust and faith is everything,” said Ryan, 41, a native of Springfield, Pa. “By the way, I don’t trust anyone — but I develop trust and faith in others.”
Ryan can reflect on his battalion’s work, begun in March 2003, because the 223rd is preparing to go home. At times, Ryan and his soldiers say, their deployment has been an uphill battle.
In many ways, the 223rd is a textbook example of how some Army units — particularly in the National Guard and Reserves — were sent to Iraq lacking the basic equipment they needed.
Most of the unit’s 113 soldiers bought their own bulletproof vests, global positioning systems and handheld radios. They deployed to Iraq with aging green tents that leaked during the rainy season and lacked heating and air-conditioning. Replacement parts aren’t even made anymore for their Vietnam-era 2½-ton trucks.
Staff Sgt. Don Bottorff said that at first, he felt that some active-duty soldiers looked down on the 223rd because it clearly was ill equipped.
None of the unit’s 13 Humvees were armored, which is “crucial protection with the increase in roadside bomb attacks.”
“We came in and worked at 125 percent to make up the difference,” said Bottorff, 31, of Salinas, Calif. “We didn’t want that stigma attached to us — that we were the red-headed stepchild.”
Soldiers improvised at every turn. They bought canvas tarps to cover their tents and used Styrofoam packing material for insulation. They packed the Humvee floorboards with sandbags and hired Iraqis to build heavy steel doors and floor plates for the vehicles.
“We made do,” said Staff Sgt. Anna Berber-Giddings, 43, of Walnut Creek, Calif.
Drawn from Los Angeles to north of San Francisco — with a few soldiers thrown in from the East Coast — the 223rd was the first unit at Balad. The base now is home to more than 15,000 soldiers and airmen.
Living conditions have gotten better. In December, the 223rd moved into hard buildings when another battalion left. Shower trailers and several dining facilities are now nearby.
Life outside the wire is better, too. The unit helped build seven schools in the area, at a cost of about $50,000 each. The projects have helped engender the loyalty of locals. That, in turn, has led to crucial intelligence that cut the number of mortar attacks on the base and prompted some farmers to report deadly explosive devices.
Ryan, a Marin County Sheriff’s Department officer at home in California, likes most to talk about these successes — which he says don’t often make it into newsprint these days.
“These kids have done incredible work,” he said. “They have allowed the organization to develop patterns and sometimes to provide immediate action.”