By Michael Hoffman – Staff writer
COMBINED CHECKPOINT 3, Iraq â€” Staff Sgt. Robert Patitucci spent his last two deployments to Iraq walking six-hour missions through Baghdad with Iraqis shooting over his head or planting improvised explosive devices trying to blow him up.
In his third deployment â€” this time to a remote patrol base six miles east of Mosul â€” he is fighting alongside Iraqi and Kurdish troops with their officers leading patrols.
Thatâ€™s what U.S. Army leaders want, at least. The reality is, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalryâ€™s platoon commander and platoon sergeant stay very much in control here while they urge their Iraqi and Kurdish counterparts to take the lead.
â€œWe play the role of Dad,â€ said Sgt. Brian Reed with the Nightmare platoon.
Thirty U.S., 15 Iraqi and 15 Peshmerga soldiers live together here at combined checkpoints on land disputed by the Iraqi and Kurdish governments ever since the end of World War I when the European nations drew up Iraqâ€™s borders without considering ethnic divisions.
About 90 years later and after former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein tried to gas the Kurdish people into extinction, U.S. Army leaders want the Iraq and Peshmerga armies to work together. Ghost Battalion soldiers serve as mediators at eight combined checkpoints that ring Mosulâ€™s outskirts along major roads.
â€œWe know there is a violent history between the two, but we think there is also a future,â€ said Lt. Col. Gerald Boston, Ghost Battalionâ€™s commander.
Nightmare platoon soldiers join their Iraqi and Kurdish counterparts on daily patrols through the Mosul countryside so â€œthe people here know we are here and the Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers get to know them,â€ said Sgt. 1st Class Henry Eldridge, the platoon sergeant.
Few threats face the soldiers on the patrols. Kids walk alongside the soldiers, who even allow cars to drive through their formations. Ghost battalion convoys have been hit by IEDs, but Eldridgeâ€™s men havenâ€™t received a direct attack since arriving in September.
â€œThe biggest threat we face [is] rabid dogs,â€ Eldridge said as he led a patrol to a Kurdish school two miles outside the checkpoint.
A series of car bombs targeting Kurdish police that exploded Feb. 10 in Kirkuk, killing seven and wounding 80, served as a reminder of the continual threats the combined checkpoint faces.
Eldridge and 2nd Lt. Scott Kuhn, the platoon commander, urge the young Iraqi and Kurdish officers to take over and not depend on the soldiers based out of Fort Hood, Texas. Time is running out, though.
The U.S. Army must be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011, according to agreements signed by the U.S. and Iraq governments. Ghost Battalionâ€™s yearlong deployment ends in September, with the combined checkpoint rumored to close sometime this summer. However, no final decisions have been made.
Locals beg Nightmare platoon soldiers to stay, especially the Kurds who live in the villages near Combined Checkpoint 3.
â€œI wish the Army would stay here to protect us,â€ Father Louise, a priest in the Christian town of Qara Qosh, told Kuhn during a Feb. 9 meeting in his church.
Kurdish Capt. Idris Taib led the mounted patrol to the Father Louiseâ€™s church. The U.S. soldiers rumbled down the streets in three mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles. The Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers drove in a pickup truck and what looks like a bankâ€™s armored car with a machine gun mounted on top.
Iraqi Christians have sought refuge in Qara Qosh ever since Sunni extremists targeted the minority sect in Decemberâ€™s Baghdad bombings. Father Louise worries his followers will come under attack once Kuhnâ€™s soldiers leave.
â€œWeâ€™ve made sure to patrol through there at least twice a week since to make sure itâ€™s safe and the bad guys know weâ€™re watching,â€ said Kuhn, 38, a prior enlistee.
Qara Qosh residents, dressed in Western garb in the moderate town, smile and wave to soldiers as they walk by. Soldiers do a double take as they patrol past florists with Valentineâ€™s Day arrangements displayed outside. In December, residents brought a Christmas tree to the checkpoint.
Learning to lead
Taib impressed Kuhn with his control over the unit. Previous Kurdish and Iraqi officers blew off most of the pre-mission brief. Taib briefed all three sets of soldiers, explaining where the patrol would go, how to react to an attack and the purpose of meeting Father Louise.
â€œHe did really well,â€ said Kuhn, who spent an hour the previous night tutoring Taib on the patrol and what was expected of him as the leader.
Taib grew up in Irbil. He joined the Peshmerga in 2001. Growing up, he saw the abuse his people received under Saddamâ€™s reign. He worries the relationship between the Iraqi and Peshmerga armies will dissolve once the U.S. Army leaves.
Most Iraqi soldiers assigned to units outside Mosul grew up in Kurdistan, Taib said. Iraqi 2nd Lt. Suliman Lashker, Taibâ€™s counterpart at Combined Checkpoint 3, is a Kurd. The two company-grade officers spend evenings watching satellite television, smoking cigarettes and drinking chai.
Taib said the Iraqi Army assigned Kurds up north to appease the U.S. He worries that the Arab soldiers will replace the Kurds when U.S. soldiers leave.
Every night, Taib and the rest of the commanders at each combined checkpoint issue a report of the dayâ€™s events to the Combined Coordination Center in Mosul. Officials from each army collect the reports and settle any issues that arise over land use or movement through the checkpoint.
â€œThis is where we can stop the little fires from becoming big fires,â€ said Maj. Rob Holcombe, a career Black Hawk pilot who is the CCCâ€™s deputy chief.
Much like Kuhn and Eldridge, he serves as the mediator between the Kurds and Iraqis. Holcombe and the other U.S. officers have tried to wean them off leaning on U.S. support.
â€œAny time they come to us with a problem, the first thing I ask is if the Iraqi or Kurdish officer discussed it with the other,â€ Holcombe said. â€œI want them to talk to each other first and see if they can settle it themselves.â€
This spring, U.S. soldiers plan to take a significant step back and see how the Iraqis and Kurds fare, and see if they can shoulder the responsibility.
Ghost Battalionâ€™s commander understands his soldiers eventually have to leave and maintain reasonable expectations.
â€œWe donâ€™t have the time to build a bunch of Mini-Meâ€™s,â€ Boston said, in reference to a character in the Austin Powers series of movies.
Eldridge said Iraqi officers must learn to value their noncommissioned officers. The officersâ€™ treatment of their men leaves the American NCOs disappointed.
Kuhn remains hopeful, though, that with the right leadership, the combined checkpoints will continue after the U.S. Army leaves. He constantly reminds his Iraqi and Kurdish counterparts that his time in Iraq is ending and he has but one goal when his soldiers pack their bags.
â€œMy hope is that the patrol base runs as if we had never left,â€ Kuhn said.