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Col. Robert Brown, a strapping West Pointer, is in charge of U.S. Army operations in and around Mosul, Iraq. The Indiana National Guard 113th Engineering Battalion is one of the units he directs.

This interview was conducted in Brown’s office, located in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. The U.S. Army now calls the complex Forward Operation Base Courage.

Sentinel editor W.S. Wilson spent three weeks embedded with the 113th, which is based in northern Indiana and about halfway through what is expected to be a year-long tour of duty in and around Mosul.

Tomorrow: Brown discusses women and courage.

SENTINEL: I’ve sensed a little bit of rivalry between the Guard and regular army units.

BROWN: You know, I would tell you that before I had this experience I had only gotten to see National Guard to occasionally train and occasionally work with them back in the States, and you had just like active duty, you’ve got great units, you got average units, you got some that need a little bit of work. You know, it is kind of very similar.

What I found here is the Guard brings a whole other dimension to the battlefield that we (regular Army) don’t have: the experts from the civilian world in their regular jobs. You know, they’ll have electrician’s, they’ll have guys that are financial guys, guys that run companies. We got guys that are, you know, that are like “Big Country,” the vice principal of a school (Sean Begley, of Lake Central High).

All of that is extremely valuable to have, and really brings a great dimension to the battlefield and the complications that you have here. As you can see we are dealing with everything every day from electricity, power, gas, food and then the insurgents.

It’s been fantastic and I’ve been nothing but impressed by the 113th. You know, the 113th came in at a critical time. We were all worried. I’ll be honest. We had a great unit from Virginia, and the 113th came in two weeks before elections and we were kind of nervous. I’ll tell you what, they were amazing. The 113th – they have been terrific.

SENTINEL: I talked to a kid yesterday who got hit by a suicide bomber and looks like he might lose an ear. I’m wondering, as a leader, how do you handle that? What’s your message to the families and to him?

BROWN: You work as hard as you can to train, as hard as you possibly can for any situation. I can tell you without a doubt I could look any of the family members, parents, wives, siblings, anybody, right in the eye and tell them that I know that this unit trained as best as we possibly could. There is not a leader or person here that, or the government, thatdidn’t pour resources and money and effort into training to prepare us for what we face. But war is a terrible thing, because people get hurt and people die and it hurts.

It is the hardest thing in the world when you lose a soldier. It is something I was not prepared for. I don’t think you could ever really prepare for. It is very, very tough.

I would say that the important thing is was he doing the best he could? Was the unit doing the best they could? Yes. That’s the nature and the tragic thing of warfare. No matter how good a job you do, people can get hurt.

Thank God we have heroes like those who paid the ultimate price out there and those who have been wounded. We have had some pretty severe wounds. I just talked to a lieutenant the other night who is blind now from an IED (improvised explosive device) and will never be able to see. He is my best lieutenant in the brigade and it ... he is going to go on and be very successful in life, but it is very tough, you know, the challenges. We have soldiers who have lost both legs, multiple soldiers have lost one leg.

It’s a very tough thing, but as long as you know you are doing the best you can. They have the best equipment. They have the best training. They are prepared as good as they can possibly be. They do amazing things out there every day that prevent a lot more from getting hurt. They really do.

I’ll tell you it is amazing. And the equipment we have protects us, and if I didn’t have Strykers (a high-tech assault vehicle) and we didn’t have the body armor and all things the government has given us, my gosh, we’d have thousands hurt. So it clearly, we are very fortunate in the equipment we have. We have the best equipment in the world and the best army in the world.

SENTINEL: This kid is really hot to get back in the turret.

BROWN: Well, they all are. It is amazing. Again, I’ve visited guys who have lost a limb, guys who have all different levels of wounds and injuries and everything else, and the number one thing they all say is ‘I want to get back to my unit, I want to get back to my team, I want to get back in the fight,’ because they know how important this mission is.

It’s a thing that is kind of frustrating sometimes for us is that people don’t realize, but I’ve talked to these terrorists, the ones we’ve captured and I’ve talked to ones ... I’ve seen them talk back and forth to each other and if they weren’t fighting us here, they’d be fighting us in the United States. They would be fighting us somewhere. So, we have to stop these folks here, the foreign fighters. These religious extremists I think is the biggest threat to our nation and it is history and we don’t realize it yet.

We are so used to being protected by oceans and being protected by all of the things that we have, and people don’t really realize. You know, I think 9-11 was certainly a wake up call. These folks want to kill us. They they kill their own people. They just put out it is okay to kill other Muslims as long as you are working for the cause to kill the infidels. You know, I mean, what kind of religion, what kind of attitude is that?

You know, these people are very, very evil. It is one of the biggest things I’ve learned since I’ve been here – what true evil is. I thought there was evil I had seen in the world. I had not even scratched the surface of evil compared to these folks. They ignite a suicide bomb when they know children are around. They know it is going to kill innocent women and children. They don’t care. They have absolutely no concern. They shoot innocent women and children. It is just unbelievable.

They just want people to live in fear and be forced into their views. It is really sad, but fortunately the, again, the good thing is the Iraqi people know that and they know that they want a future that is brighter for their children, and they know their government is trying to get that for them. The security forces are trying to get that for them. The coalition forces are trying to get that for them. They realize that, no question.

SENTINEL: So you have a sense that the political wheel is turning here in Iraq?

BROWN: The wheel turned on Jan. 30, no question about it. Before January 30 it was very hard to get people – they were afraid. It was very hard to get them to tell you any information. They did but very reluctantly and not great numbers. But now, since the elections, I mean we get every day, you know, dozens and dozens of tips every day and people stepping forward. Everything from contractors rebuilding Iraq to people pointing out terrorists to brave soldiers signing up in record numbers for the security forces, police forces.

So the people realize. It was very clear to them. I think some things helped. They had thought that the terrorists – some of them had believed their lies that they were really true religious experts that were just trying to help the Muslim religion. And I think that turned into, clearly, that people in Iraq saw that these folks are lying, that all they want is fear and power and it is all about money and power and it is all about killing innocent people. I mean it is pretty bad.

SENTINEL: Tell me a little bit about this berm. How it is different than the Great Wall of China, which had its troubles?

BROWN: Well, it’s been interesting. What we have been trying to do is – we have always wanted to isolate Mosul. It is a city of two million people. It is pretty tough, because there’s 12 main paved roads that lead into the city from all directions, north, south, east and west. And so you have to have check points on those entries and then there’s another 40 to 50 trails, major trails, that come into the city.

So the problem is the terrorists will come into Mosul. They will blend in among the two million people. As the people point out who they are and things get too hot and we get close to catching them, they will pop back out of the city for a while or we will catch them. We have caught some 4,000 of them, so they don’t get away from us that easy. But they will hop back out of the city when things get too tough. They will come back in the city and they will bring in supplies. They will bring in just a little bit of supplies into the city center, because they know we can find them. They keep supplies out on farms. They keep them buried out along the river. They keep them out in villages in the middle of the desert, all over the place. So, until recently, we have not had the forces available to occupy all of the 12 check points that are needed around Mosul and to shut down those 50 to 60 trails I was talking about that come in from the desert.

Now we do have the forces, because they brought in some more forces out west and the Iraqi forces are getting better and better and more of them are getting more confident. So the Iraqis are manning the security check points, along with the police. As they come back on board, we have more of them and they are able to do that.

The 113th’s huge contribution is blocking all of those 50

to 60 other routes from the desert, and so the wall that they have erected. It is a berm to stop a civilian truck or car and it goes some 50 kilometers around Mosul. In

between to get in you have to go on one of those main roads with a check point, which means you have just limited the terrorists’ freedom of movement.

Now they can’t hop back in and out of the city as easy and avoid the check points. They have to go through a check point where the guys have pictures of what they look like. You know, they check the cars, they search them, and if they find explosives or artillery rounds or weapons, they will confiscate them and detain them.

So you have really limited what the insurgents can do and 113th has played a huge role. They are amazing. Every engineer I’ve ever known, active or guard or reserve, they love to dig. We told them get out there and put in these, and they went out and spent a lot of time figuring out where it would be effective to block the traffic and then started digging like crazy and did it in record time. I thought it would take them about a month and really they did it all in two weeks.

SENTINEL: So this thing is almost as much a funnel as it is a wall?

BROWN: Yeah, in fact, in some cases, if they go over the wall or the berm, that’s fine, because we are going to watch it and we are going to know where they go and that

will tell us something and we can track them if we want.

So the engineers were key to set up the blocks. In some cases they didn’t

put a berm. Say, there was a bridge to cross, they just blocked that bridge and they would keep that bridge blocked so they couldn’t drive right in without any obstructions. Very, very effective. And they did it, again, in record time. Now we have got to go back, as you heard us discussing, we’ve got to go back and strengthen the wall or the berm in some places.

Where some farmers need access, we will put in a gate that they can open and close themselves and we will keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t become an enemy gate. Also we will watch it from air. We have an unmanned aerial vehicle that we own, four of them, which is something different about a Stryker brigade. You know, other brigades don’t have that. And then we also have helicopters that watch it, that work with the cavalry squadron that will circle and watch it and catch guys trying to cheat, go over it and around it and everything else. It will disrupt them for a while, which is good. Whenever you disrupt the enemy, they make mistakes, and that will allow us to capitalize on their mistakes.

SENTINEL: We were out in Tall Afar the other day and one of the guys on the crew said they have been hearing more and more gun fights at night and he believes that local citizens are taking up arms against the bad guys. Is that accurate?

BROWN: Well, I don’t own (Army slang for being in charge of operations there) Tall Afar anymore, but I did at one time, and when I did own Tall Afar, we saw that happen.

In fact, we see that in Mosul. I can give you numerous examples. About a month ago insurgents came into a neighborhood and were going to set up a mortar and the locals came out and beat the guy up, took the mortar away, gave it to the Iraqi security forces. We have local citizens who have talked insurgents into turning themselves in, family members, you know, you are going to be caught, they have your picture, turn yourself in, and they have actually turned themselves in. We see that happening more and more and more.

We also have seen the level of foreign terrorist has changed. Before they were pretty well trained foreign force that came from, you know, different parts of Africa. They were Yemenese, Syrian, Saudi, pretty well trained foreign fighters before the elections. Now what we see after we capture the guys. We caught Nigerian, Yemenese, Syrians, Saudis.

What we see is they were lied to to come here. They actually say during the interrogations, they’ll say boy, we realize we were lied to so we would come here and be a suicide martyr but the things they tell us are happening in Iraq that we are trying to spread our religion on them and all the other stuff that is not true. They are being lied to. The Iraqis are just trying to get better. They don’t want to kill innocent people.

Then we have some that we caught the other night. It was three Algerians that were on drugs of some type. We don’t know what it was but they were really wired. They bit the battalion commander in the arm and wouldn’t let go. It was just bizarre. The next day they were totally different when they finally came down from their high and whatever they were on. So, they dope them up. You know, I’m sure you’ve heard the stories.

Sometimes they chain them to the steering wheels, the suicide bombers. Sometimes they tape their feet to the pedal. You know they do all kinds. They have safety valves, so if the guy decides not to do it, they can blow up the vehicle with him in it anyway. You know, just really bizarre, like I said, they are evil people.

SENTINEL: There is a web site that describes the berm as a moat, which suggests to me that you guys got quite a political problem or perhaps a communications challenge.

BROWN: I think it is just a lack of understanding. It is just probably a translation in the terms between English and Arabic. I don’t really care what they call it.

The idea is to control the terrorists, control who moves in and out of Mosul. Interestingly enough, the Iraqi people understand. I’ve talked to them when they have been stacked up at a check point, a mile-long line. Now if that were America, you can imagine how upset people would be in that line. They would be going through the roof. I’ve gotten out and, thinking like American, and gone up to people ‘I’m so sorry’ and every time they are like ‘Oh, no problem whatsoever, no problem at all. This is security. We want this.’ You know,are not even upset. Even in over 100-degree heat, they will sit there. If it is security, they understand it and they want to be secure.

It is kind of funny, if you want to describe it, you could go back and say, like you were saying, I mean over history there has been walls erected, you know, that didn’t work real well. It is really kind of wrong to call it a wall. It is just really controlling movement in and out of Mosul, so it’s harder for the insurgents to blend in, act like it is a truck carrying vegetables, when it is a truck carrying harmful mortars, you know, and artillery shells and all that other stuff just to harm innocent people. The enemy will adjust. They always do. And change their methods. And we’ll change ours to catch them and we always adjust too.

Editor’s note: W.S. Wilson was embedded with the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Combat Engineering Battalion, based out of northern Indiana and now deployed near Mosul, Iraq. Most of the 113th’s soldiers are from northern Indiana.

To contact Wilson: wsw@rochsent.com.

Published June 24, 2005