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Iraqi soldiers and Marine ‘Dragoons’ sweep and clear the deserts of Al Anbar province

AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq – Sand blows in small funnels across a narrow, deserted Iraqi highway. Minus the roadway itself and distant high-tension wires, there is not a single identifiable feature, only silence and the blowing sand. That is until the silence of the barren, unforgiving desert landscape gives way to the distant hum of vehicle engines.


Lance Cpl. Jason Hernandez
April 28, 2009

The roar of 250-horsepower Detroit 6V53T engines powering two Marine light armored vehicles may have made the sound, but the first vehicles to emerge from the swirling dust and sand were two Iraqi Army tactical vehicles. Within minutes, these Iraqi vehicles are joined by LAVs and a small convoy of other tactical vehicles.

This was no ordinary Sunday drive. Instead, operating under the bright Iraqi sun and a cloudless blue sky, soldiers from the 7th Iraqi Army Division and members of Company D, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 8, were busy sweeping and clearing Iraq’s vast western desert.

The mission was the latest undertaken by the 7th IA Division, who are now in the lead of securing their sector of the Al Anbar province. In doing so, and as forces from Multi National Force - West step further back from frontline combat and counterinsurgency duties, the Iraqis are increasingly demonstrating they can secure and safeguard their own country.

Though the Marines of Company D, nicknamed the ‘Dragoons,’ made their presence known during the two-day mission, the entire operation was planned, organized and set in motion by the Iraqis.

“Our role on this [mission] is simply support, nothing more,” yelled 1st Sgt. Larry Buenafe from the turret of his command variant LAV. The senior enlisted Marine from Company D was covered from head to toe in the dust constantly boiling up from the road and ground. “The Iraqis are the ones who got the ball rolling on this one.”

When they weren’t busy clearing roadways, the Iraqi troops searched the open desert and swept through a long-abandoned compound that had once been used by the Saddam Hussein regime. While the searches were underway, other Iraqi soldiers and the Marines stood nearby providing security or chatting and trading military rations for loafs of fresh bread.

The Iraqi Army, a fighting force of seasoned, yet still learning, professionals is seeking to restore order and the rule of law to every corner of Iraq. This operation and its results are but another chapter in a new Iraqi history.

After securing and clearing the former regime compound, the units moved out across the open Iraqi desert. As they moved in an orderly manner across the soft desert sands, Capt. Andrew J. Kressin, the Company D commanding officer, used the featureless landscape to teach an Iraqi Army colonel the fundamentals of map reading.

By the end of the operation, the Iraqi colonel understood how to effectively navigate the near-featureless terrain using a global positioning system and more importantly the age-old map and compass method.

“At The Basic School they teach us everything we need to know to be an infantry officer; then they teach us how to teach someone else,” said Kressin, “so I took the time to teach their commanding officer how to read a map and navigate accordingly.”

For the junior Marines participating in the operation, the experience was a little more personal.
“I think operations like this really give us the opportunity to understand who the guys we’re supporting out here really are,” said Lance Cpl. Dustin A. Wilson, a rifleman with Company D. “It’s funny how no matter how different the parts of the world we come from are, people are still pretty much the same.”

Wrapping up their first day with a road cleared and a compound secured, the Marines and soldiers of the combined force stopped and set up camp in the center of the desert, posted a guard force, and grabbed a few hours of sleep.

Afterward, the Dragoons and IA soldiers pushed on to the next objective of their mission – an abandoned oil-pumping station. Once the building was cleared and determined to be free of insurgent presence, the units packed up and rolled out, heading back to Al Asad Air Base with another successful and incident-free mission under their belts.

Once they reached Al Asad, the Marines stopped to take stock of what they’d accomplished, or for that matter, what they’d witnessed the Iraqis accomplish – three major highway routes cleared, a former regime compound secured and an oil-pumping facility identified for possible future use by the Iraqi people.

Standing beside their LAV-25s, the Dragoons looked at one another and didn’t talk about how they felt about having supported such a mission, what interesting stories they’d have to tell their children some day or even how they felt about being partly responsible for rebuilding a nation. No, looking back at one another, then up at the yellow, dust-filled sky, Lance Cpl. William Sewell said all that needed to be said, “Let’s go grab some chow and get ready for tomorrow.”