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During a five-hour patrol of the area around Bashur Airfield in northern Iraq, an Air Force security force patrol alternated between driving various pre-determined routes and stopping for brief periods to demonstrate a show of force in the vicinity. Whenever the patrol stopped, Airman 1st Class Jayson Gassler would man the squad automatic weapon, or SAW, against any possible enemy.

During a five-hour patrol of the area around Bashur Airfield in northern Iraq, an Air Force security force patrol alternated between driving various pre-determined routes and stopping for brief periods to demonstrate a show of force in the vicinity. Whenever the patrol stopped, Airman 1st Class Jayson Gassler would man the squad automatic weapon, or SAW, against any possible enemy. (Kevin Dougherty / S&S)

During a five-hour patrol of the area around Bashur Airfield in northern Iraq, an Air Force security force patrol alternated between driving various pre-determined routes and stopping for brief periods to demonstrate a show of force in the vicinity. Whenever the patrol stopped, Airman 1st Class Jayson Gassler would man the squad automatic weapon, or SAW, against any possible enemy.

During a five-hour patrol of the area around Bashur Airfield in northern Iraq, an Air Force security force patrol alternated between driving various pre-determined routes and stopping for brief periods to demonstrate a show of force in the vicinity. Whenever the patrol stopped, Airman 1st Class Jayson Gassler would man the squad automatic weapon, or SAW, against any possible enemy. (Kevin Dougherty / S&S)

Life around Bashur, Iraq, has changed since U.S. forces arrived two weeks ago. Here a pair of young farmers watch airmen with the 86th Expeditionary Crisis Response Group cross a river during a patrol Tuesday.

Life around Bashur, Iraq, has changed since U.S. forces arrived two weeks ago. Here a pair of young farmers watch airmen with the 86th Expeditionary Crisis Response Group cross a river during a patrol Tuesday. (Kevin Dougherty / S&S)

Air Force Sgt. Jason Fields, left, and Staff Sgt. Damian Spaits survey a map of the area around Bashur Airfield in northern Iraq. Security forces are validating the maps in hand with what they see on the ground. Many of the maps are nearly as old as some of the airmen deployed to Bashur in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Air Force Sgt. Jason Fields, left, and Staff Sgt. Damian Spaits survey a map of the area around Bashur Airfield in northern Iraq. Security forces are validating the maps in hand with what they see on the ground. Many of the maps are nearly as old as some of the airmen deployed to Bashur in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Kevin Dougherty / S&S)

BASHUR, Iraq — At midday Wednesday, halfway into the Air Force’s first regular mounted patrol of the surrounding countryside, a radio report from home base alerted the squad to a suspicious car lurking near one of the gates to the airfield.

“A white Toyota Corolla is taking pictures of Alpha One,” the voice on the other end of radio warned.

The nine-member patrol, headed by Air Force Staff Sgt. Damian Spaits, wasn’t in the immediate vicinity, but it took note and kept a watchful eye out for the suspect car. The five-hour watch passed without another sighting.

“There are different ways to do the [security] mission,” said Spaits, who parachuted into Bashur airfield with Army paratroops two weeks ago. “You could circle the wagons or be a beehive of activity.”

Spaits and his boss, Air Force Maj. Erik Rundquist, prefer the latter. Bite before you’re bitten.

The squad members’ focus on this maiden patrol was to familiarize themselves with the environs and to update their maps, which are nearly as old as some of the airmen defending the base. This patrol and others that will follow are also intended to let the locals know the U.S. military isn’t going to hunker down and, well, circle the wagons.

“It’s like community policing on steroids,” Rundquist said later back at Bashur airfield. “I want [any bad guys in the area] to feel uncomfortable.”

That means stepping outside the fence line with regularity to make new friends and influence old enemies.

“We haven’t had a problem with the Kurds,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Ryan Ziemer, one of the senior members of Tuesday’s patrol. “It’s a one-team, one-fight effort.”

Riding along in Ziemer’s vehicle is Edouard Green and Amber Jamerson, both airmen first class. Green, 21, joined the Air Force after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Jamerson, 20, also is new to the military.

“I feel sorry for the kids,” Jamerson said as she rode past several boys, smiling and waving at the Americans. “They make me think of my little brothers [Tony, 15, and Dandre, 9].”

Also on patrol are Sgt. Jason Fields, Airmen 1st Class Ed Crofoot, Jayson Gassler and Shawn Rankins and Airman Dennis Hock. Except for Spaits, who is from Sembach, Germany, the rest of the patrol normally is assigned to the 100th Security Forces Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, England.

For most airmen in the patrol, this was the first opportunity to glimpse local life beyond the airfield perimeter. A year ago, the thought of operating inside Iraq would have seemed improbable.

As events unfolded earlier this year, the airmen figured they were headed for the desert. Instead, they find themselves in the fairly lush, mountainous region of northern Iraq.

The airfield accommodations, albeit sparse, also surprised them.

“It’s not what I expected,” Crofoot said as he stood along a two-lane, blacktop road flanked by green fields. “I expected to get off the plane, jump in a hole and live in it.”

Instead, he has a tent — but not much else — in the way of luxury.

At an earlier stop, Spaits was comparing notes with Fields when a small, red car tooted its horn and pulled onto the shoulder just beyond the parked patrol. In contrast to the tepid reception in southern Iraq, U.S. forces in the north have been warmly greeted by Iraqi Kurds.

But one growing concern of allied forces has been suicide attacks and car bombs. Spaits believes it’s important to balance force protection with community outreach, but the presence of a strange car in their midst raised the patrol’s posture to guarded, but receptive.

“Could I have a picture of you?” 20-year-old Zardana Sobhan asked, holding out a camera.

Moments later, Sobhan was flashing a broad smile as someone snapped a couple of shots of him and Spaits standing shoulder to shoulder.

The slightly built man, who had been studying English in nearby Irbil, said he hates Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. When he was 7 months old, Iraqi police spirited his father away. He hasn’t been seen since.

“I love Americans,” Sobhan said as he walked back to his car. “I love U.S. soldiers.”

U.S. forces would love for the war to end so they can go home. Until then, they’ll extend a hand to the liberated, but keep the other near the trigger of their M-16.

“We’re here to help these people,” Ziemer said, “but you don’t always know who to help.”

Kevin Dougherty is embedded with the Air Force at Bashur airfield in northern Iraq.


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