- Published: Friday, 25 May 2007 00:00
Memorial Day weekend is upon us. I am out here in Anbar Province with Task Force 2-7 Infantry. The area around Hit (pronounced “heat”) is so quiet previous units likely would not recognize the still. There was a small IED incident this morning, and the explosion was a direct hit, but the bomb was so small that mechanics had the vehicle back in shape by late afternoon. Calm truly has fallen on this city.
Dishes are appearing on rooftops and people are communicating more freely. During today’s prayers, one mosque announced that divorce is bad and that parents should take care of their children. One mosque cried about Christians and Jews, while yet another announced that Al-Jazeera is lying and people should not watch it.
Long-time readers know that I deliver bad news with the good. I was first to write that parts of Iraq were in civil war back in February 2005, well over a year before mainstream outlets started reporting the same. I was also the first to report, back in 2005, that Mosul was making a turn for the better. Mainstream outlets hardly picked up on that story, however, although the turn was easy to see for anyone who was there. When I returned from Afghanistan in the spring of 2006, after writing about the growing threat of a resurgent Taliban, bankrolled with profits from the heroin trade, I wrote that parts of our own military were censoring media in Iraq. The recent skirmishing over blogging from Iraq supports that contention. These reminders are for new readers who do not believe that a province that most media outlets had put at the top of the “hopelessly lost” column is actually turning a corner for the better.
Although there is sharp fighting in Diyala Province, and Baghdad remains a battleground, and the enemy is trying to undermine security in areas they’d lost interest in, the fact is that the security plan, or so-called “surge,” is showing clear signs of progress. The city of Hit, for instance. Only about a hundred days ago, Hit was a city at war. Today, the buildings are still riddled with bullet holes, but the Iraqi people are opening shops and painting over the scars. They are waving and smiling while hundreds of men are volunteering to join the police. I saw a “policeman” on duty today whose “weapon” was a plastic pistol. I photographed the toy. And so this man was on “duty” with a toy pistol, though he has not yet attended the police academy and is not even being paid. A writer could probably squeeze bad news from that story, but I won’t try. In fact, Hit is a place where writers who wish to escape combat and bad news should visit.
Again, another day passes, and I have no bad news to deliver other than what amounted to a trivial attack with a very small bomb. Now I did get news over the previous two days of two friends being shot in other cites. Each man might have a problem with having the facts of their wounds being used to tell only part of their story. The fact that I have written about both of these soldiers before, and both have written material published on my website, will hopefully help me avoid any wrath when I see them next.
I first met Victor Quinonez on 23 April 2005, shortly before a suicide car bomber rammed a Stryker vehicle in Mosul. We felt the thud of the distant blast and raced to the scene. Minutes later, “Q” had been one of the rescuers. We lost three people that day: two soldiers and an interpreter. Others were injured, including Lieutenant Paul Bublis who was badly burned. Q had helped to pull Paul out of that burning Stryker. Paul would later tell me that when he awoke at the burn center in Texas, he thought he was a POW, and that the enemy was trying to trick him.
Over the months of fighting, Q became like my younger brother. Q was surely a combatant. He killed enemy fighters at close range with his own weapon. After his first combat tour, I was visiting his unit, the 1-24th Infantry Regiment, at Fort Lewis. Q was driving us up the highway when we saw that a pickup had run off the road. Paul Bublis was driving the pickup when he went into a seizure from those wounds and drove off the road. Skipping to the end of the story, Paul was okay, and Q volunteered to return to Iraq.
I managed to see him in Baghdad a couple months ago, although the occasion for the meeting was the sad news that he had lost a friend in combat. Earlier this week, a sniper shot Q in the hand. His condition is good, and my brother is returning to America as I write these words.
Then just a day later came a second message about another friend wounded in battle.
I first met Command Sergeant Major James Pippin under similar circumstances to those when I first encountered Q. I was up in Mosul, again. But this time, it was January 2007. Q had just left Mosul for Baghdad. I wanted to see if the progress in Mosul I’d written about in 2005 was holding. During a month-long embed with the 2-7 CAV, I would discover that it was not only holding, but it had been expanded deeper and further.
Yet Mosul is still dangerous. In January, a Humvee with five passengers rolled over a massive IED. The vehicle was completely destroyed. My first mission with James Pippin was the recovery of the five men killed. CSM Pippin set the leadership tone that horrible day and demonstrated moral strength far above and beyond what I believe most men could bear. CSM Pippin and I had just been swapping some emails within the past week, when a message came less than 24 hours ago that he, too, had been shot in Mosul.
I contacted LTC Eric Welsh, the battalion commander for whom CSM Pippin works, to ask what happened. Two different officers recounted parts of the story for me. There had been a sharp firefight, and apparently CSM Pippin shot and killed at least one armed terrorist. Five enemy were killed and two wounded. CSM Pippin was shot through a calf in one leg, and the exiting bullet broke his tibia and fibula in the opposite leg. I was told that after CSM Pippin was shot, he continued to order his soldiers to keep attacking.
Q has already made it to Germany and is about to be flown home. CSM Pippin is on his way to Germany. Along the way, excellent groups like Soldiers’ Angels will welcome them home, I expect. My readers will find out here where to send messages once that news is released.
Both men often lamented to me how frustrating it was to be back home and realize that the average American is not aware of practically any of the progress that’s been made in Iraq. Both men darken with something closer to anger when they consider the sacrifices made by fallen soldiers and the fact that while the media most likely counted the deaths in all instances, they also most likely failed to mention any of the good things their fellow soldiers had accomplished while in Iraq.
I plan to stay in Iraq for the rest of 2007, doing my part to tell of these and other accomplishments, and both of these men would not have it any other way. But when I do finally get home, I want to see these heroes, and be reminded what Memorial Day is all about.