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Second Lt. Jeremy Sauer, 23, a Black Hawk pilot from Boise with the 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and Maj. Gen. Sheik Abdul Razak, member of the Mosul City Council, dig into pie at the new chow hall at Qayyarah West Airfield in northern Iraq on Thursday. Local Iraqis officials were invited to the Thanksgiving celebration.
Second Lt. Jeremy Sauer, 23, a Black Hawk pilot from Boise with the 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and Maj. Gen. Sheik Abdul Razak, member of the Mosul City Council, dig into pie at the new chow hall at Qayyarah West Airfield in northern Iraq on Thursday. Local Iraqis officials were invited to the Thanksgiving celebration. (Kendra Helmer / S&S)

QAYYARAH WEST AIRFIELD, Iraq — Sheiks lined up next to U.S. soldiers for a Thanksgiving meal: the soldiers thankful for a new dining facility and the Iraqis grateful for improvements to their villages.

Such relationship-building efforts are key to stabilizing the area, said the commander of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.

“I don’t claim to have it all figured out,” Col. Ben Hodges said. “But I do believe the key to success … is finding that balance between conducting aggressive tactical operations and a really aggressive policy of engagement with the Iraqis.”

Jassim Mohammed, head of the regional planning committee for Tigris River Valley, was one of 20 Iraqi officials at the celebration.

“We’re very happy, not like in Baghdad,” he said. “The brigade helps many people repair schools, hospitals, roads and cities. We must make our area more secure. Without that no one could work.”

Americans and Iraqis patrol the area, which covers 5,400 square miles. The region is rich in archaeological sites, which eventually could attract tourists and bring in more money.

“We tell the sheiks there’s no way people are going to come here if it’s not safe,” Hodges said. “What person other than Indiana Jones is gonna want to come here?”

The 1st Brigade’s “Bastogne Bulldogs” from Fort Campbell, Ky., have been with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq since the beginning of the war, longer than any division. The brigade is based about an hour south of Mosul at Qayyarah West Airfield.

Since April, the brigade’s missions have included guarding industrial plants, ammunition sites and the Iraq-Turkey pipeline. Soldiers also balance promoting good will with humanitarian projects in the 600 villages and searching houses for insurgents.

“We’re aggressive, but we don’t want to make any new enemies,” Hodges said. “After you go to that house [for a search], follow up with a neighborhood visit with wheelbarrows, paint, tools, soccer balls, anything that we can provide that helps take the edge off it.”

The brigade has built or repaired 112 schools, though there aren’t enough teachers for all the classes.

The U.S. military is working with Iraqis on four huge industrial projects in the area: an oil refinery and cement, thermal power and sulfur plants. For the first time in 17 years, smoke is pouring out of stacks at the oil refinery plant, which produces asphalt and employs 450 people. The power plant, a more massive undertaking, won’t be open for a few more years. Hodges said the sulfur plant, which employs about 1,200 people, will start producing sulfur in about a year.

The biggest problem in the Tigris River valley is unemployment, Hodges said.

“That’s why these projects are such a big deal,” he said. “You get people to work, they’re a lot less interested in causing problems.”

The airfield’s remoteness has served it well, its flat wheat fields making it difficult for attackers to hide. In the past seven months, rockets have landed on the air base three times. Since a rocket launcher would be too easy to spot, they lay the 107 mm rockets on a berm and ignite them.

“It’s like a little boy shooting bottle rockets,” Hodges said. “It’s not very accurate.”

Hodges said three soldiers killed under his command have died in combat here, all in an ambush while looking for roadside bombs.

The 1st Brigade expects to head home with the rest of the division by March, Hodges said. They’ll be leaving an airfield dramatically different from the one they found six months ago.

The burn latrines have long since been replaced by portable and flush toilets, and most soldiers get a hot shower a few times a week. New shower and toilet facilities should arrive by December, said Lt. Col. Jeff Kelley, 426th Forward Support Battalion commander.

Troops moved out of the last tents a few weeks ago. Some live in hangars and buildings, others in furnished tractor-trailer containers.

The new dining facility opened Monday, and construction starts this week on a 20,000-square-foot movie theater expected to open in about a month. Next to it, a recreation center that opens in January will house a weight room, library and basketball court.

Over Thanksgiving dinner, troops said the improvements on base, especially the chow hall, are a boost for morale. But they’re ready to go home.

Spc. Anthony Romeo is nervous about adjusting to life back home, like watching his language around his family since he’s grown accustomed to cussing in the infantry.

He also dreads the questions people are bound to ask.

“There’s gonna be so many questions; some I’ll want to answer, some I won’t,” said Romeo, 19, a medic from Charleston, W.Va., with the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment. “I wouldn’t want to tell my mom stuff I went through because there’s probably a chance I’ll be coming back here.”

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