Stryker colonel talks about situation in Iraq

Stryker colonel talks about situation in Iraq
FORT LEWIS - The commander says the loss of two soldiers hit everyone hard. We had a rare opportunity to speak with Col. Stephen Townsend from Baghdad Tuesday.

The 4,000 Fort Lewis-based soldiers have been there since last summer and now are in the hotspot, Baghdad.

"We feel pretty fortunate to be doing what we're doing," Col. Townsend said. "Right now, the Arrowhead Brigade is employed in a role that is ideally suited for a Stryker Brigade. We're being very mobile. We're going to where the tough jobs are. We're helping out with both the Coalition and the Iraqi security forces there where the tough jobs are.

"We're pretty fortunate about that. It's pretty gratifying to see the progress the Iraqi security forces are making. In fact, the operation that we're in now an Iraqi general is actually running the operation and I'm working for him rather than an American general."

Col. Townsend and the 3rd Brigade have been to Iraq before, but this is their first time patrolling Baghdad.

Cpl. Jason Ratliff out on patrol says on video provided by the Army, "We always look for weapons and we try to see if people know anything."

PFC Elizabeth Turan on patrol says, "It's kind of scary because you don't know if someone is going to pull a gun out. But it's not that bad."

Col. Townsend says the training at Fort Lewis and the Yakima Firing Range is the best in the Army, but it's nearly impossible to simulate what's happening in Iraq.

"There are dynamics about Iraq that you cannot replicate anywhere in the U.S.," he said. "We try to do the best we can with Arabic role players and these kinds of things, but being immersed in a city of 7 million people can't be replicated. Being immersed in an Arab culture rather than Arab role players you really can't replicate that. The learning has to be done when you get here."

The 3rd Brigade recently found out their June departure date has been pushed back to next fall.

"News of the extension was met with mixed reaction from the soldiers and myself," Townsend said. "But it's not news to us really. We've been expecting word since about January and preparing our families and preparing our soldiers for it. Many of us were hoping that it wouldn't come to pass, but it has. We're soldiers and we'll stay as long as we have to to get the job done.

"Our soldiers are certainly eager to come home, there's no denying that. We were looking forward to coming home in June and now we're looking forward to coming in the fall."

He's mourning the loss of two his own men, Cpl. Mike Rojas of Fresno, Calif. and Cpl. Wade Oglesby of Grand Junction, Colorado.

"It's incredibly hard," Townsend said. "It's the hardest thing we do here in Iraq to face the loss of our fallen warriors. I was at the memorial service last night for Cpl. Rojas and Cpl. Oglesby and I can't think of anything more difficult for us, the soldiers here or for the families back home."

As for the shootings at Virginia Tech, "We followed that event in the news. It's a tragedy occurring back there at home. And, yes, our soldiers are facing death here every day, but I didn't hear a single soldier say that they felt the attention on the Virginia Tech shooting was unwarranted or detracting or taking attention away from us here in Iraq. I didn't hear that and I didn't think that."

I asked him, "From your perspective, how are things going?"

He replied: "We are aware of things you see on the news back there and we know that it predominantly focuses on car bombs and suicide bombers and those kinds of things. That does happen here and there's no denying it.

"But what I see as I go around the city nearly every day, I see cleaner streets. I see reconstruction projects in progress. I see the children going to school, stores opening up all over the city. I know there are stores opening up while we're doing our operations. People see us providing security in an area and they're moving into those areas and starting to open their stores back up. I see people moving back into their homes.

"We've been operating in this security district for 35 days straight and nearly completing our mission there which is called 'Arrowhead Strike 9.' By all measures it has been very successful operation. In fact, in terms of results it's the most successful operation we've done in Baghdad to date."

He's asked, "Do you think a timeline is something the military can work with? Or would you rather see things that play out on a timeline that just shows success rather than just an arbitrary date out in the future?"

Townsend, "First of as far as what played out on Capitol Hill, I was on the battlefield all day and so I didn't watch any news and I couldn't tell you what happened on Capitol Hill today and that's probably true for most of my soldiers.

"But secondly as far as the timeline goes that's probably above my pay grade. I think that's up to the American people, the civilian leaders back in Washington to decide how long we'll be here, but my own view is we ought to be here as long as it takes."

On behalf of the 3rd brigade, the colonel wanted to pass along a message to everyone back home.

"I'd like to thank everybody in the South Sound area for the great support that Ft. Lewis and the 3rd Stryker Brigade in particular continue to receive back there. Particularly the folks down there in Lacey who are partners with the Arrowhead Brigade, the families at Ft. Lewis and the surrounding community. Thanks for your support and please keep supporting our families and keep us in your thoughts and prayers."