Want the truth on the ground in Iraq?
Thanks to the good folks at Central Command Public Affairs, I was able to interview a Marine that's sort of been one my favorites to watch in Iraq. He is US Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Erik E. Duane, and he's a Civil Affairs detachment chief in the Denver Area of Operations. Since the Iraqis call their Gunnys "Lions" and Gunny Duane was inducted into a local tribe as a Sheik, he is Sheik Lion.
Here's the interview unedited (except for my spelling errors) with Gunnery Sergeant Erik E. Duane:
Iraqi police Col. Shaban Barzan Hamreen Al-Aubaidy (left) and Gunnery Sgt. Erik E. Duane discuss ways to improve the living conditions of the local Iraqis at Jubbah, Iraq, May 13. Duane, chief, Detachment 1, 3rd Civil Affairs Group, Regimental Combat Team 7, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, stays in constant contact with both the Iraqi people and the Iraqi police. Photo by Lance Corporal Brian J. Hallorhan.
B5: Tell me about AO Denver. What are the Iraqis like (how many are working, kind of jobs, crime rates, etc.)?:
AO Denver covers approximately 33,000 square miles, about the size of South Carolina. The area I work in is the western Euphrates River Valley near the Al Asad airbase. The airbase is the largest US base in AO Denver. The Iraqis in our area are predominantly Sunni Muslims who were primarily left alone by Saddam during his 30+ year tyrannical reign mostly because Saddam himself is a Sunni. The people here aren't much different than any other part of Iraq in the east/west/southern sectors of the country. They are mostly curious and many times great us warmly and invite us for a meal or tea. In most of the areas I travel people recognize me or my team members and are openly affectionate with their greetings. People are working here in the local area in various infrastructure jobs. We have hundreds of local policemen, and Iraqi soldiers to provide security for the region. We have hundreds of Iraqis employed in waste removal, water treatment and electrical works. Right now the best paying jobs are in the security sector with Police and Army jobs being the top of the list.
B5: Since water, electricity and waste management are key issues for Iraqis, can you give me an idea of what the status of AO Denver was last year and what it is now (do you know of any stats about how many Iraqis were sick due to poor waste management before)? How are the reconstruction projects doing in cities like Haditha, Hit and Rawah?
The area I work in is the western Euphrates river valley. All of the towns and villages have had some sort of improvement in the basic necessities (Sewage, water, electricity, trash removal) due to the efforts of Marines in our AO. Numerous trash clean-up and water treatment projects have been completed with regular services being provided and monitored through the local populace.
B5: What is the single best project that you are most proud of?
I don't have one. I'm not proud of projects, I'm proud of the relationships we have built here. I am most proud of one local community in particular. It's a former military housing complex which now houses a number of Iraqi police officers as well as employees of the various ministries. It is probably the safest community in the Western Euphrates River Valley.
B5: How did you earn the trust of the local Iraqis?
By action. We have performed various tasks that have shown the locals that we do what we say we are going to do. There was a large amount of debris and trash in the streets of a local housing complex. I said my team would set about to finding a solution to get rid of the trash. It was a health issue that we took seriously. What we ended up doing was hiring the people of the complex to pick up their own trash and dispose of it away from the complex in an appropriate manner. It provided a solution to the problem and provided jobs to over 50 local men and financial gain for their families. Actions - they speak volumes in our field.
B5: How did you come to be called "Sheik" and which tribe were you inducted into (and why)?
My best guess is that it is because I care about the locals as I would my own family. Sheiks are leaders of tribes, and tribes are families. The members of my Civil Affairs team have all become members of the local "tribe" and are accepted as family. All of my Marines are constantly looking for ways to improve the locals’ lives while ensuring the solution is an Iraqi one. We want them to help themselves, but sometimes that requires us to show them how.
B5: Have civilian organizations like Spirit of America made a positive difference in the lives of Iraqis? How have they helped you?
Absolutely. My hat is off to organizations like SOA. They have helped our relationship building immensely. They have provided much need school supplies, the much sought after soccer balls, and the ever popular beanie babies. It's amazing what a small gesture such as a gift can do for fostering positive relationships.
B5: Has the main stream media had any affect on your ability, your team's ability or the Iraqis ability to improve their conditions?
No I don’t think so. The Marines don’t get much media intake other than Stars & Stripes, CNN and Fox news and only occasionally. To be honest, when we are done with the days work they last thing we want to do is watch the news. It’s time to unwind and relax. We also operate in a an area where Iraqi people don’t seem to pay much attention to media unless they are in it. We have had our local police chief on Fox news, in the papers and some of our city council members in the papers but none of this has had any negative affects on our operations.
B5: Do you think the media has fairly portrayed our efforts in Iraq?
Not in my experience. During this deployment I have tried to stay away from negative things like MSM because I don't want it to affect my own morale thereby affecting the mission. Mission accomplishment is every Marine’s priority and I don't want to be deterred by MSM negativity. In other areas like media embeds we have had great success. Embeds are able to see things from the ground perspective and it usually gives them a positive outlook on what we are doing here.
B5: What is the one story that you would want told that is not being told about Iraq?
How much the people want democracy. I get tired of the MSM articles about how it was better before we came. Maybe it was because all of the life and will of the people had been crushed. Is that any way to live? I think not and I think most Iraqis would agree. There is a lot of healing going on in this country and it is moving forward in baby-steps. It won't happen over night, but I feel the people here [want to] be allowed to make something of their nation worth being proud of.
B5: How has morale been in your unit?
The morale has been very good the entire deployment. In the Civil Affairs community, morale tends to be the highest on the tactical level. We're the boots on the deck and have direct impact on our environment. We are fortunate enough in most cases to be able to see the fruits of our labors, whether it be to get the lights turned on at night, or provide summer jobs for high school age boys, we are able to see the good things in Iraq.
B5: Can you tell me more about the formation of the city council? How "interesting" was it (I'm from Chicago where politics is our number one sport)?
Initially it was formed with local elders and tribal leaders. In the way of western Anbar, sheiks do all the governing. It has been their way for a thousand years. It was the way they did business during Saddam’s time, and to some extent it continues. What has developed is that a few members of the community have decided to partake in the governance. They have become council members alongside the tribal leaders. So far they have felt some of the growing pains that a fledgling council would feel. Some frustration with their provincial government has been felt and they are seeing firsthand that democracy involves many people.
B5: How long would you estimate it would be before the Iraqis can do things on their own in your area? What is your guess as to their ability to continue to maintain the services?
I won't venture a guess.
B5: I know that RCT-2 was pretty busy in AO Denver last year. How much insurgent activity is there in your area? Does it affect your ability to deliver services to the Iraqis?
There is insurgent activity here still. It affected us initially when they attacked some of the local infrastructure, but the 7th Marines have done quite a job cleaning this place up and the Iraqis have stood up a working police force in the local area with a tenacious police chief at the helm. Now, we are rarely affected by insurgent activities.
B5: What do you miss most about home?
My wife and two children.
B5: Is there anything in Iraq that reminds you of home?
The families. They make me miss my own, but I know I have the support of my wife and children in this. My 7-year-old daughter told my wife that she's happy and sad about me being in Iraq. She says she's sad that I'm gone, but happy that I am helping the Iraqi people. That's enough validation to make this proud father and Marine cry. I feel truly blessed.
B5: What will you miss most about Iraq?
The people. I won't miss the weather that's for sure, but my Iraqi bothers will be missed. I will miss my adopted nephews and nieces and I will do my best to keep in touch and continue to help however I can. I pray that someday, the lives I touch will make something of themselves and make Iraq a better place. I hope to be able to point at the TV someday and say "I held Mohammed Hamreen when he was a baby, and now he's the Al Anbar Governor!"
B5: What parts of your upbringing helped you in your career and, especially, in Iraq (faith, parents, teachers etc)?
I was raised by a single mother in a bad neighborhood. Get out of that and you can pretty much do anything. I also rely on my faith for guidance. In my career, good leaders have helped me to achieve my goals and help develop me as a leader as well.
B5: What was the funniest thing you experienced in Iraq?
I can't think of one thing in particular. The Iraqis have a great sense of humor so we enjoy playing jokes on each other or telling them (jokes). We laugh a lot. Humor heals and it builds bridges. We enjoy their sense of humor as they do ours.
B5: What are your plans after returning home?
Return to my life! I have been on active duty 3 out of 6 years in this War on Terror (I am a reservist). I want to spend more time at home and with my wife and kids. I may also look for a different occupation (civilian type). I feel like after two tours in Iraq, I can pretty much do anything I set my mind to.
B5: Last question: Last night during a radio segment, I talked with a 14 year old young man who plans on enlisting in the Marines as soon as he graduates from high school. What words of advice would you give him?
Choose an MOS (military occupational specialty) that keeps you working. If you work behind a desk, the level of job satisfaction will be low and it will be difficult to keep your morale high. Choose a job that will teach you a skill that you can employ in the civilian sector after you've done your duty.
B5: Thank you for your service. Because of people like you, my kids sleep safely at night. There are many, many people who appreciate what you are doing.
Thank you! It's privilege to serve Americans like you. Keep blogging! Your efforts are helping us more than you know.