They are the walking, talking success stories of the War in Iraq.
As members of Vets for Freedom, combat vets Joel Arends and David Bellavia are working to give Americans the information they need to decide what is really taking place in Iraq.
The organization, founded by veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, recently sent eight of its 27,000 members on fact-finding missions to areas of Iraq where they had previously served. Arends and Bellavia both made the trip. They brought back encouraging reports but no message of hope for Obama’s 2010 timeline troop withdrawal.
“Find me a commander on the ground that has a responsibility of over four soldiers that is on board that timetable,” Bellavia said just a week before the U.S. and Iraq announced the outlines of the new agreement on “time horizons” for combat forces to withdraw from Iraq. “Under the timeline that we have right now, I believe Iraq is going to be 2005 Afghanistan. I think you’re going to have 3 years of moderate success and then all the sudden something happens in Iran, something happens across the way, and now you’re going to see how fragile this piece is.”
The pieces, however fragile, are starting to fall into place. Bellavia told how, on his return to Diyala province, he fingered holes in a wall left from where his bullets hit a terrorist. But this time, there was an unusual witness to his actions.
“As I’m doing so, I look to my left, and there’s a grandpa and his kid eating an ice cream cone,” Bellavia said. “There’s no curfew. People walk in the streets on strolls.”
During his visit, he attended an 8-hour meeting — no air conditioning — with the Deputy Prime Minister of Iran. Bellavia said not one tribal sheik asked a question about security during the meeting. Their biggest concern? Displaced people.
Arends — who, like Bellavia, is a Bronze Star recipient — saw similar improvements in Baghdad. When Arends served there in 2004, the American military did not venture out in squads — they went out at platoon or company strength whenever they conducted a mission.
“When we would go out on patrol, we would get sniped at a lot. There were a lot of IEDs (improvised explosive device), there were a lot of car bombs,” Arends said. “When I was there (today), not a shot was fired at us.”
He too found that security was no longer foremost on everyone’s mind, as evidenced at a local district area council meeting he attended.
“They were talking about, ‘I want water, and I want power for my business, and I want my sidewalk fixed because it got blown up by an IED,’” Arends said. “I think the biggest improvement that we’re seeing is we’re no longer talking about what targets we have to blow up, about what insurgents we need to catch. We’re talking about how do we create power for a local neighborhood that wants to start up a neighborhood market.”
The signs of improvement are there, but there remains the troubling question of whether Iraqis can sustain this way of life without American manpower.
Arends believes this is possible.
“When I was there, we had something called ICDC (Iraqi Civil Defense Corps). I went on patrol with those men. You know what they did? They blew their AK 47 rounds straight up in the air till they were out of their clip and then they ran away,” Arends said. “These young guys now, the first sergeants and the caoptains who are taking these guys out on patrol say that that no longer happens. They shoot like Americans, they fire American weapons, and they stay and fight. And they fight because they trust us as Americans, but they also trust the training they’ve received. What makes me think that the Iraqi Security Forces are going to stand and fight is because I’ve had young company commanders, young first sergeants, lieutenants and sergeants, who have all told me that when they’re out there on patrol with ISF, they stand and fight. “
A major difference Bellavia noticed is how the Iraqis now identify themselves when asked.
“I would ask people on patrol when I was there as a soldier, what are you? What tribe?” he said. “Today, they’re offended. As a matter of fact, they tell me, ‘You offend me when you ask me that. I’m an Iraqi.’”
There are New York police retired detectives in every single contact unit, and there are retired FBI and CIA personnel. Now, when a suicide bomb or explosively-formed penetrator (EFP) goes off, Bellavia says the crime scene is more like CSI. Previously in his sector, there were over 700 enemy killed in action in a year with a 30 to 1 ratio in detainees. Now, there are only 10 killed in action and over 400 detainees.
“The Sunni is not the enemy in Iraq today … the Kurd is no longer the enemy of Iraq,” Bellavia said. “The enemy in Iraq is the foreign jihadist, and America is a tribe. We’re the biggest tribe, we’re the strongest tribe. That is the metaphor that we need to start talking in.”