Mike Tharp: Soldiers whose duty is to keep us safe

07/04/2009 1:28 AM

07/04/2009 2:50 AM

On this Independence Day, say howdy to some American soldiers who believe in their mission of putting their lives on the line for you in Iraq so you can keep that freedom.

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MAJ. SCOTT NAUMAN: From Spearfish, N.D., the 36-year-old operations officer of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, has been instrumental in making sure the handover of security sovereignty to the Iraqis went smoothly in his corner of the war.

The Vanguard Battalion, as it's nicknamed (the brigade's is Dagger, the division's is the Big Red One), has been patrolling northwest Baghdad since it landed in Iraq last November from Fort Riley, Kan. The outfit also has been busy planning, if not its own obsolescence in the war, clearly a much smaller role in it.

On May 15, for example, the battalion changed its mission statement from "control, follow and support" the Iraqis to just plain "follow and support."

Nauman has been one of the main planners. A West Point grad, the 5-foot-9-inch blond comes across more as a college tennis coach than a warrior. But just ask the 11 Americans detached to Nauman's unit who went missing for a dozen hours about the rear-chewing they got when they finally reported in to him at 3 a.m. Something they should have done long before a Baghdad-wide APB was nearly issued.

It's with Iraqis that Nauman shines. The soft-spoken officer has eaten sheep's brains, boiled for 12 hours and scooped out of the head, with his Iraqi counterparts. He's picked through the cartilage of carp caught near a raw sewage discharge pipe in the Tigris River. He's drunk thousands of cups of chai tea, with a quarter-inch of sugar at the bottom of a two-inch cup.

All the while, Nauman has built his cred with the Iraqi army officers now in charge of their nation's security. The major's mantra to them: We're just a radio call away. When an Iraqi army or national police unit gets in the manure, the Americans can be on the scene fast with sniffer dogs, an unmanned surveillance flying machine or a helicopter gunship.

If, as Napoleon said, an army marches on its stomach, in the 21st century, it fights with information. Nauman's talent lies in cross-pollinating real-time information and probable scenarios among U.S. and Iraqi forces. And how will the Iraqis do with this military Onstar capability? Says Nauman: "I'm pretty confident they can handle it."

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STAFF SGT. MARK EVAN LANCASTER: Techno-thriller novelist Tom Clancy wrote that noncommissioned officers are "the guys who make the army work." Staff Sgt. Lancaster does that every day and night in northwest Baghdad. He's a liaison with his NCO Iraqi counterparts in the National Police, keeping them in the American intel loop and showing by doing.

One recent afternoon the Nashville native spent three hours sitting on a sofa with a changing cast of Iraqi noncoms. Touchy-feely folks would call it bonding. Lancaster, basically a grunt with a higher-echelon mission, knows that to go along, you've got to get along.

So he schmoozes with these guys from another culture -- who, when you get right down to it, aren't so different from the Scotch-Irish ridge-runners among his ancestors who wore Confederate gray in the Civil War. "I've heard it takes some guys eight or nine months to get anywhere" with the Iraqis, Lancaster says. "Took me less than a month."

As he enters the 6th-floor room of the national police building in northwest Baghdad, the Tennessean kisses five Iraqi police sergeants on both cheeks while shaking hands, just as they do one another. Then he sits and shoots the bull. Another U.S. sergeant drops by with beef jerky and a foot-long chew bone for one of the Iraqi's pet dogs. A series of dirty jokes, some with the chewy toy as a prop, follow.

Between the ribald laughs and idle chatter, Lancaster will slip in an operational question or suggest a tactic to the cops. They're more like Italian carabineri than American police officers, and it's their presence at thousands of checkpoints that at once protects and frustrates Baghdad residents. "They're savvy," Lancaster says, "and they know the enemy best. It's just a question of being here every day."

He's a military history buff and names the Union general at Gettysburg from Maine ("Chamberlain!") before a visitor can finish telling him about a book called "Warriors." And on a night patrol from Forward Operating Base Justice, the young man shows more than book-learning. He walks point, one of his green-gloved hands leaving his M4 rifle to signal the patrol to slow down, look around, stop. Scanning the roofs for snipers, peering around palm trees before advancing, he'9s every warrior who ever went out at night with a mission and a gun.

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LT. COL. JOHN VERMEESCH: Vanguard Battalion commander, he's another West Point grad. Back in Manhattan, Kan., near Fort Riley, he's got four stair-step sons, all young. But he treats his soldiers like men, and women, and they like it. "I'd follow him anywhere," says one staff sergeant before they leave on a morning patrol through a once high-crime, high-explosives neighborhood.

It's called Huriyah, and is ground zero of the battalion's area of operations in northwest Baghdad, which resembles one of the gerrymandered congressional districts in the Valley. Eighteen months ago, dead bodies piled up in its streets at the rate of 6o to 100 a week, many of them Sunnis trying to resettle among Shia residents. In the past seven weeks, though, there have been no such attacks. As Huriyah goes, so goes Baghdad, so both Iraqis and Americans want to keep it that way. "But it can flip," Vermeesch warns.

He rides shotgun in his armored Humvee and breaks off the route when he sees four ambulances; six blasts were heard just before the patrol left Camp Justice. The patrol investigates and finds nothing amiss. Its members dismount near Market Street and start down the street. It's only two days before the handover of military authority to the Iraqis, and the commander wants to hear some street talk.

At a fruit and vegetable stand, he asks the proprietor if he has any questions about June 30. The man says he's looking forward to Iraqi patrols. "We'll still be here to help out," Vermeesch says through his interpreter. A few blocks down an older man asks loudly if the Americans are going to build a shrine to Michael Jackson. The colonel replies, "We've got bigger things to worry about." When he learns the man served in the Iraqi Air Force for 20 years servicing MIG-21 jets, he thanks him for his service.

A balding man in a dishdasha, a long white robe, accosts the colonel: "Are you still patrolling? I thought you weren't going to be here anymore." Vermeesch tells him the Americans still have a big role to play in protecting Iraqis.

Back in his office, the colonel, who served in Desert Storm and an earlier tour in Iraq, notes that "from Day 1, our focus has remained helping improve the Iraqi army, national police and police to the point I feel pretty comfortable that they can fly on their own."

Any problems with soldiers' morale now that Americans' attention spans have moved on to the economy and Afghanistan, not the 130,000 American troops still in Iraq?

"We've tried to communicate all along to our soldiers, down to the private and specialist level, that the ability of the Iraqi security forces to accomplish their mission is the key to all of us going home," he says. "As long as soldiers get up in the morning and believe in what they're doing, you won't have any problems."

Today, people who know the most about Iraq say the county's future lies in its ability to forge representative political institutions and at least something close to a market economy. Because of the efforts of people like Nauman, Lancaster and Vermeesch, the Iraqi army appears ready to handle its responsibilities.

Will the other sectors in their society do their part to take care of the Iraqi people? Looking at their performance so far, it's doubtful. That will leave Iraq with one reliable organization--the military. And that's where we came in.

Happy Fourth of July from Baghdad.

When he returns from Iraq, Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com

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