Notes from Iraq: Lakewood Native Eric Smith Writes Home

Lakewood native Eric Smith has been serving in Iraq since May. In his first column for the Observer, he told of the flight into Iraq and described Camp Victory in Iraq. Now, he is out of Baghdad at a small base near Kirkuk, Sadaam Hussein’s former home town.

After 49 days of deployment and a month with the Division Headquarters, I find myself in a new job; perhaps the most challenging one I have held to date. I am the Battalion Executive Officer (XO) for 1-87 Infantry. As XO, I wear two hats: Second in Command and Chief of Staff. We have about 1,100 American Soldiers in the battalion itself. In addition, we oversee Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police, and the Sons of Iraq (kind of a homeguard meets job program) within the district.

The battalion deployed last September from Ft. Drum, Watertown, New York, so they have been here longer than I. That’s good news for me because it means that most everyone is familiar with their jobs and I’m the one guy that needs to play catch-up. The battalion has had tremendous success within the district since its arrival. Attacks are down significantly and we catch bad guys every day. So many, in fact, that we’ve gone through the list several times over, and regenerated it.

Our main Forward Operating Base (FOB) is located near the “county seat” of Hawidjah and we have several outlying installations sprinkled around the district to give us a presence in the vicinity of the local villages. The Hawidjah district is located north of Baghdad and west of Kirkuk. It’s a rural area that resembles any number of counties back in the southwest USA.

The people are almost entirely Sunni Arabs, and underlying tension exists with the Kurds to our east. A major pipeline from the Kirkuk oil fields runs through the center of our district and ensuring the oil keeps flowing to provide the central government with funds is one of our priorities. FOB (Forward Operating Base) McHenry, my new home, is quite a bit more austere than my last one at Camp Victory. We are a city unto ourselves and a lot of the basics of everyday life we have to provide and manage. This morning I took a crash course with our FOB “Mayor” on how we dispose of trash, manage water from the wellhead to the leech bed, house, and feed the 700 Soldiers living here.

We are linked to our higher HQ and the outside world through a variety of communications systems as well as daily convoys and helicopter flights. The improvement in security makes this task a lot easier, as I don’t have to worry about the incoming food shipment striking an IED (exploding devises such as land mines) as my primary concern, though it still occurs.

My capacity for name and facial recognition has been stretched to the utmost. Every hour, it seems, brings with it more people to meet in the battalion, at the brigade (our higher HQ), in the Iraqi Police, Iraqi Army, local governmental leaders, and the insurgent network. The bewildering array of linkages and ties between all these people is multi-dimensional and vastly complex.

For instance, I received a phone call from a company commander who had a concern from a local official who was the tribal leader. The tribal leader wanted to know if he had the authority to appoint replacement members of the city council or did they have to wait for elections. And oh, by the way, he knows of some insurgents that moved into his village last night. Can he have the police go pick them up or do we want to come get them?

Every single individual involved has a different agenda based on the vast array of loyalties that the local population holds towards family, village, clan, tribe, sub-district, district, country, ministry, employer, and on and on and on.

Most of the hands-on work falls on the company commanders (we have five of them), while it is my job to ensure that this is all synchronized within the battalion staff and serves the overall objectives set by the Battalion Commander. Every action and decision has second and third-order effects that frankly, I don’t totally understand at the moment.

Luckily, there are over a thousand other American Soldiers who can pick up my slack while I get up to speed.

The work days are intense. Yesterday I heard from another officer “We have a sleep plan: Do without, and get it where you can.” I try to be in our HQ by 0700 and the day races by until 0200 the following morning when I stagger back to my CHU (Containerized Housing Unit) and fall asleep, after setting several alarms to ensure I awake on time.

I managed to take a few photos of my new CHU. I look a little ridiculous with my eyes closed, but I’m staring into the sun so have a laugh on me!

Major Eric Smith is serving in Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division. The division’s home base is Ft. Drum in Watertown, New York where Major Smith lives with his wife Dina, three year old twins Kirsten and Skyler, and eight month old son Neil. The son of Pam and Tom Smith of Lakewood, Major Smith graduated from Lakewood High School in 1990 and was commissioned into the US Army after graduation from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.
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Volume 4, Issue 18, Posted 5:55 PM, 07.06.2008