Two 1st Infantry Division soldiers watch for suspicious activity in the yard of a gas station in Buhriz, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Two 1st Infantry Division soldiers watch for suspicious activity in the yard of a gas station in Buhriz, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Courtesy of the U.S. Army)

This story is a companion piece to Part III of a three-part series, “The Big Red One: Nearly a century of war”.

To hear most American troops tell it, duty in Iraq is boring, full of mundane tasks and daily drudgery.

Until something happens.

“You’re there, and it’s really boring for a long time,” said Sgt. Larry Underwood. “Then something happens, and you can’t let it overwhelm you.”

Soldiers call it the “violent calm” — a time when training and reflexes trump panic — and it’s experienced by countless troops while deployed in Iraq. Underwood’s “violent calm” moment helped him free fellow soldiers who were trapped in a burning Bradley in July 2004. For his efforts, he received a Silver Star.

Moments of sheer danger amid long bouts of the daily grind were a fact for the 1st ID’s Iraq deployment. The division arrived just as the insurgency started to flare up in early 2004.

“The war in Iraq changed just as the 1st ID came in,” said Steve Bowman, a historian who is working on a book about the division’s time in Iraq. “Instead of a nation-building operation, the insurgency really started.”

Division headquarters was situated in Tikrit, in the Sunni Triangle. “They were in an area that was the most unforgiving,” Bowman said.

But the 1st ID was playing a part in the war before it even set foot in Iraq.

In early 2003, with about 6,000 soldiers, the 1st ID moved to northern Turkey to set up a staging point for the 4th Infantry Division’s planned invasion of Iraq from the north. The division spent months opening up airports, repairing rail lines and a host of other jobs to prepare for the invasion force’s arrival, said retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the 1st ID through Iraq.

But then the Turkish government declared that an invasion force could not use their soil, Batiste said.

“Politically, it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “We rolled it all back up and went home.”

They would finally make their way to the war some 12 months later, and once on the ground, the need to balance diplomacy with fighting insurgents quickly became apparent, Batiste said.

Standing up Iraqi security forces was especially difficult, given the logistical challenges of getting funding and equipment, he said. Division mechanics ended up working on old Soviet vehicles so that Iraqi forces would have some armored protection.

“We improvised an awful lot, but we worked hard to communicate our requirements and doggedly attack the bureaucratic system,” Batiste said. “It was much harder than it needed to be.”

Division units also took part in major combat operations in Samarra in October 2004, and Fallujah in November.

Cleaning out the city of Samarra involved trying to end the cycle of violence there, Batiste said.

“The last thing you want to do is hurt, injure or kill innocent people,” he said, adding that the division worked quickly to fix whatever they broke and to try to get basic infrastructure running. “We were ready to go with money in hand, projects already planned and prioritized.”

Capt. Paul Krattiger, who served with the 1st Squadron, 4th Calvary Regiment, said walking the areas of operation became a good way to reach out to the local population.

“What we saw with the unit we relieved, in our area, there was almost no interaction between soldiers and civilians,” said Krattiger, who now is attending graduate school. “If there was an interaction, nine times out of 10 it was a U.S. soldier kicking down the door of somebody’s house.”

While combat patrols continued, Krattiger said, foot patrols became more frequent as the months progressed.

Encouraging the Iraqi forces to stand on their own was a constant challenge, he said, as was keeping the soldiers focused on the incremental progress they could see themselves. Unlike division deployments during World War II, there was no uniformed enemy in Iraq, and no unified force fighting its way together, he said.

“When you have soldiers that cannot see the progress they are making on a daily basis, then it’s going to burn them out,” he said. “It took us a while to really recognize that and figure out how to do that.”

In all, 193 division soldiers and attached personnel perished during the Iraq deployment.

Other division forces have deployed to Iraq during the war, including the 2nd Brigade, which headed out from Germany this summer.

Although Iraq is unlike any other war fought in The Big Red One’s history, Krattiger said the affinity with those who served before is still there.

Division command had a ceremony to don combat patches on June 6, the anniversary of D-Day, when 1st ID forces led the charge into Europe during World War II.

“You think of those guys on that beach, who were wearing the same patch as you, all those years back,” Krattiger said. “That’s us storming the beaches.”

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