New band of brothers

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The cover story of the new issue of the Weekly Standard out this morning is Michael Fumento’s long, riveting report on the men of 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) serving at Camp Corregidor in eastern Ramadi: “The new band of brothers.” This report demands and deserves to be read in full, for several reasons, but here are a few excerpts. Fumento notes the lack of media coverage:

Like every officer I spoke with, Clark bemoaned the lack of coverage for the tremendous job his men were doing. Even when Ramadi makes the news, reporters generally manage to overlook 1st Battalion. Two days before I arrived, the enemy launched a coordinated, three-sided attack on the governor’s compound in the Marine sector of central Ramadi, including firing rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and machine guns from a mosque and its minaret. Both CNN and the AP covered the event in detail; neither reported that it was actually part of a coordinated series of attacks throughout much of Ramadi including against the 1/506th. Why? The reporters were near the governor’s compound. No reporter; no news.

The conditions under which the men of 1/506 are serving at Camp Corredidor are severe:

The constant threat of snipers and of mortar attacks contributes greatly to the general unpleasantness of life in Corregidor. The camp is also short on amenities, even by Iraq standards. There is no post exchange (PX) packed with necessities and goodies, merely a truck that comes by about once a month. Just a couple of months before I arrived, the camp received its first portable toilets, although the men in some units still have to urinate in one place and go someplace else to finish their business, so that the solid waste may be burned. Chow, I was told, had also been awful, though by the time I arrived it was outstanding. On the other hand, A Company can’t eat in its chow hall because its roof isn’t reinforced and several mortar rounds have torn through and exploded inside. Compared with places like Camp Falluja–much less the Green Zone in Baghdad–Corregidor is a rat hole.

It’s also short on men. Company strength should be 136. C Company originally had 138 men, but because of casualties and normal leave time, Claburn says he’s down to only 102 men available for operations. “Luckily, I have not had any soldiers killed while on the battlefield,” he says, but “I have taken a lot of casualties due to IEDs, shrapnel, and bullet wounds. I have close to 20 percent of my company right now eligible for Purple Hearts [awarded for wounds received in combat from hostile forces] if that tells you anything.” That means that with his deployment not yet half over, he’s already well below the 80 percent level long regarded as the minimum for operational preparedness.

There is a grim predictability to the combat:

Photographer Toby Morris describes patrols with 1st Battalion as “just intense. You go out and you know something is going to happen.” But Capt. Claburn, still an excited kid at 29, tells us how long it will take to happen. He explains that it takes the bad guys about 45 minutes to arrange an attack. “Within 15 minutes the spotters usually come out, and they’ll identify your position,” he says. (I’m quoting here from a dispatch by Todd Pitman.) “Within 30 minutes the weapons get brought in,” he adds. “And usually about 45 minutes after being on the ground, you can pretty much guarantee that you’re going to get shot at.”

You can practically set your watch by the attacks. Just three minutes short of the Claburn mark, a white car bears down on an Iraqi patrol, and a passenger opens up with an AK. “Did I call it or what?” Claburn tells Pitman with a grin as the battle is joined. “Forty-two minutes on the ground. It’s a science.”

Fumento works all his themes into the conclusion:

After I left Ramadi, I began receiving emails from relatives of the troops, grateful for the photos and stories I had posted on my blog. They are a reminder of how pitifully little coverage the fighting men in Ramadi have received. “My son is in Camp Corregidor,” wrote one, “and these are the first really decent pictures of the area I have seen. . . . He doesn’t say much about the conditions, so I have to prowl the Internet to find what I can. He doesn’t want his mom and dad to worry more than we have to.”

Another, from a wife whose husband recently departed the area: “I couldn’t figure out why if it was so dangerous there, where was the news? Rarely did you ever hear Ramadi mentioned, yet I knew the danger that was there.” A third: “It’s hard to talk [to my husband] on the phone and not be able to know what he is doing or what all is happening. . . . Just hearing what they are going through for our country makes me so proud that I married into the military!”

Jennifer Vickers thanked me for a photo that showed little more than the fingers of her A Company husband along one edge. But that was a lot more of him than she’d seen in a long time. A mother wrote that her son “can not say what he does. All I get is ‘I am good’ but he sounds tired. You gave me some insight into his life.” It was signed, “Scared mom of Spc. [omitted].”

The letters seemed to reflect the same sense of purpose I saw in the men of 1st Battalion and its support elements at Camp Corregidor. Life is hard, death and injury are always just around the corner, and the men know that when they leave they’ll simply be turning the sector over to a new unit. No peace treaty signing on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri.

I pointed out to Claburn that Shakespeare wonderfully captured the feelings of men who have fought together and relied on each other in the face of death when he wrote:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile.

But the Bard was specifically describing the soldiers of Henry V celebrating a devastating and historic defeat of the French at Agincourt. There would be no such clear-cut victory in Ramadi for the New Band of Brothers. Claburn disagreed:

“Every day we go out into the Mulaab, we experience a victory. The blood and sweat that is earned will forever live with them, and the stories we share–the stories we few share–will only be understood by those who were there. You have experienced the sheer terror of not knowing if you’d make it back to the safety of the concrete barriers and sandbagged roofs of Camp Corregidor. These men do it every day and without question. They do it and they love the victory we share against the enemy.”

Fumento himself served in the Army Airborne for four years and previously reported for the Standard on combat in Anbar province last month in “Back to Falluja.” He also wrote more about his correspondence with relatives of the troops last month in “Band of brothers (and their mothers).” Fumento’s site with the photos to which he alludes in the conclusion above is here; he has posted the photos in both slideshow and scrapbook formats.

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