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Returning to Iraq

By Staff | Sep 11, 2009

Captain Andrew Nathan is back at his post in Iraq following a two-week break at home in North Dakota in August.

He’s in the middle of his third military deployment to a war zone, and his second tour of duty in Iraq. His first time in the country in 2004 was as a member of the U.S. Army. This tour is with the Minnesota National Guard.

Andrew, or Drew as he is called by his friends, has been in the military since enlisting in the army in June, 1997.

This past April he went to Iraq to work as a Civil Military Operations officer.

“I’m a division staff officer,” he said. “We work to improve civil capacity of the country–in water, sewer, governance, economics, electricity, roads, bridges, that sort of thing.” The Americans work by, with and through Iraqis.

Since June 2009, a security agreement with the Iraqi government has been in place and all U.S. combat soldiers are out, according to Drew.

“We cannot actively, or on our own accord, take a military vehicle and drive into a city. That is forbidden,” he said. There are exceptions, however, when the Iraqis ask for assistance and U.S. soldiers, acting as military advisors, work with the Iraqi police and army.

“We’re moving away from actively engaging in unilateral military operations, and we’re in a draw-down position now,” Drew said of the American role. “When there’s a project building a school, road or power plant we include Iraqis in the planning and building before we turn it over to them. The training wheels are coming off, and we’re trying to let them ride by themselves. We’re moving further and further away from controlling the country.”

For as far back as he can remember, Nathan had wanted to be in the army, specifically an Airborne Army Ranger. After graduating from Leeds High School and Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn., he decided to pursue his dream.

The army had other plans for him, however, and he wasn’t chosen for Ranger school. Instead the army trained him to be a signal analyst in military intelligence and in November, 1998 shipped him to Korea for a year.

He returned a sergeant and was sent to Buckley Air Force Base near Denver where he did shift work in a secure windowless building. “Military intelligence wasn’t my idea of fun,” Drew says. “All I wanted to be was an airborne ranger, completely opposite of what I was doing.”

The only way he could go airborne was to become an officer. With military intelligence he had his foot in the door, he reasoned, and was in good shape and good health. So he submitted an Officer Candidate School (OCS) packet and was accepted. Given his choice of career paths, he picked infantry, and was ecstatic when he was selected.

In February 2001, Drew started OCS at Ft. Benning, Ga. “It was like basic training for officers and it was brutal,” he said. But he got through it and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Next up was Infantry Officer Basic Course schooling at Ft. Benning, where among other things he learned how to lead a company and write orders. Finally, in October 2001, he went to Ranger school. There he learned what brutal really was.

The physical and mental training were anguishing, Drew says. Only 20% of the people who go to Ranger school make it through and he hung on until the very last day, when he was cut from the program.

He didn’t have time to dwell on his disappointment because he went immediately to airborne school. He graduated, was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, and was leading a platoon of infantry soldiers when they got word they would be deploying to Afghanistan in January 2003.

For the next six months, Nathan and his men concentrated 100 percent on training. They jumped from planes and patrolled in the woods, without regard to the weather, hazardous situations or other adverse conditions.

Once in Afghanistan, the training served them well in the rugged mountains where their unit confiscated thousands of weapons and detained hundreds of people. They also took part in the first combat airborne mission the 82nd Airborne had performed since 1989.

“One of the guys we were after was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” Drew said. “He was one of the 9-11 masterminds and we nabbed him in that jump.” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was a senior al Quaida leader and had participated in a series of bombings worldwide.

Drew saw combat almost daily in Afghanistan. Many in his platoon were wounded, including his company commander. Two young soldiers in his platoon were killed in action. As a leader responsible for his men, that was particularly painful for Drew. Several years later, he and his wife, Fara, named their firstborn Jarod, after one of the 18-year-old soldiers who died.

The platoon’s deployment in Afghanistan lasted eight months.

Back in the U.S., Drew took another stab at Ranger school. This time the result was more positive and he graduated in February, 2004. In the meantime, his unit had been called to duty in Iraq, and had already served nearly four-and-one-half months when he caught up to them. He spent only six weeks in Iraq, finishing the deployment with his unit in Balad.

Later that year, Drew decided to get out of the regular army. Almost simultaneously he was promoted to Captain and transferred to the North Dakota National Guard.

“At the time,” Drew says, “North Dakota was heavily an engineer state and I was infantry. I wasn’t enthusiastic about being a construction engineer, so I worked at battalion headquarters.”

When the guard established a Military Police company in 2005, Drew was asked to lead it. He spent three years training his soldiers to face situations he knew they would encounter when they were deployed, based on his experiences in war. However, when the company was called to active duty in Iraq in 2008 he was not allowed to go with them. Traditionally guard commands change every three years and Drew was due to be replaced. He has since heard from some of his soldiers that the scenarios he prepared them for were right on the money, and he takes satisfaction from that.

Following his disappointment in not being sent to Iraq with his men, Drew was offered an Air Defense Artillery Battery. This unit drilled in Bismarck until January, 2009. That’s when the Minnesota National Guard contacted him to ask if he would be interested in deploying to Iraq in a civil affairs position. Even though this post would be nothing like airborne or being a ranger, Drew thought he could put his prior experience to good use, so he said yes. He transferred to the Rosemount 34th Infantry Division and trained a few weeks at Camp Ripley, then went to pre-deployment at Ft. Lewis, Wash.

Now he is stationed at Contingency Operating Base Basra, in southern Iraq, the headquarters of Multi-National Defense-South, or MND-S. MND-S is in charge of nine of the 18 provinces that make up the country. Each province has specific needs, Drew says, but water, electricity and irrigation are ones they all have in common.

“Saddam Hussein did a lot of damage to the irrigation systems,” Drew said, “but they have the potential of growing good crops.” Iraq has had drought conditions for 10 years, and since Turkey controls a lot of the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers there are water issues. In addition, the electric power grid has fallen into disrepair.

Drew’s division prioritizes problems and pushes the ones that are most important. “We try to ensure the job gets done,” he said.

According to Drew, southern Iraq is much more stable than the rest of the country.

“You don’t have the Sunni and Shia problems like in Baghdad,” Drew said. “You still have insurgent activity, but it’s far more serious in the north.”

Saddam Hussein was a Sunni and persecuted the Shia, who were always the underdog. But now the Shia have risen to power so the current situation is partly due to the Shias getting even and partly because the Sunnis are angry they’re no longer in power. Prime Minister al-Malaki is trying to stabilize the country, Drew says, but “People have long memories.”

Drew isn’t sure the Americans fully realize how tribal southern Iraq is, and that sometimes the only way things get done is by the tribal sheiks who are always trying to get something for their tribes, according to Drew. “Kinda like senators,” he said with a laugh.

He likened Iraq to an onion. “Just when you think you know what’s going on there’s another layer. Political, religious, tribal…it’s a three-legged stool. They’re constantly working with and against each other.” Sometimes Sunnis and Shias are in the same tribe. Then their motive will be for the tribe over other loyalties, Drew said.

In southern Iraq money is a huge motivator. “They’re very much into making money and improving their country. But you have to get past the tribal system,” he said.

Drew’s most recent project is putting together a bazaar inside camp. Since soldiers can’t go off the base ‘The Oasis’ will be a getaway to help keep up morale. Local Iraqis are assisting, and the bazaar will sell Iraqi goods, helping build prosperity and rapport with area residents. The bazaar will employ 50 vendors and is being funded entirely by a prominent Basra business group. A grand opening, complete with camel rides for soldiers, is planned for September 26.

In spending time with the Iraqis, Captain Nathan has had opportunities to observe the inner workings of the country, which he finds interesting. He believes good things are happening in Iraq but adds that some things are not working at all and there will be issues when the U.S. Coalition Forces pull out completely. There is tension between the parliament and major religious leaders because both groups think they know best how to run the country. But for now things are generally stable.

“It will be even more interesting (to see) if they’ll be able to maintain that stability when we leave,” he said.

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