Dangerous road to progress
Senior Airman Ian Ramirez performs turret duty in 108-degree heat on an up-armored Humvee as part of a four-vehicle convoy to Iraqi police stations May 9 in Baghdad, Iraq. Members of Det. 3, 732nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, perform as police transition teams mentoring, coaching and teaching Iraqi police. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Cecilio M. Ricardo Jr.)
by Staff Sgt. Carlos Diaz
U.S. Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs
5/17/2007 - CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq (AFPN) -- The numbers tell half the story: 700 combat missions, 140 joint patrols with Iraqi policemen in the streets of Baghdad, and 1,500 Iraqi policemen trained.
Approximately 150 security forces specialists from 45 different bases are members of Det. 3 of the 732nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron charged with the task of coaching, mentoring, guiding and training members of Iraqi police units.
The Airmen, who volunteered for a one-year deployment to Iraq, are involved in some of the most intense action supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"This experience can't be summed up in words," said Senior Airman Rosalia Rodriguez, a 1-1 squad team turret gunner. "It's based on your actions."
The 21-year-old Airman knows all too well about the kind of action she can encounter when she's controlling her M-240 medium machine gun.
Airman Rodriguez and her fellow Airmen are not performing normal security forces duties, which is to maintain the rule of law on a base. Instead they are training Iraqi police and patrolling the streets of Baghdad.
"This job is dramatically different from the standard security forces detail," said Maj. David Harris, Det. 3 commander. "We're focusing on mentoring the police, and we're trying to build a police force."
Major Harris said this is the only Air Force unit of this size performing police transition team missions in Iraq.
Approximately 13 members are assigned to nine squads, in which seven of those squads often conduct operations with Iraqi police forces in the Rashid District of Baghdad. Several of the Airmen met for the first time during their two-month-long training that began in September at Fort Hood, Texas. By mid November, they were "boots on ground."
To produce good officers of law and order, the police transition teams train the Iraqi policemen at their stations. This means conducting daily convoy missions through some of the most dangerous streets in the city.
"Mission preparation begins three hours before we head out," said Staff Sgt. Dwight Valeros, second in charge of 2-1 squad. "That gives us plenty of time to check our gear and equipment, load our weapons with ammo and receive our mission briefings."
Before any mission, the squads conduct thorough battle drills.
"During these drills, we go over our tactics, techniques and procedures," Sergeant Valeros said.
This involves running through several scenarios such as possible rollovers, which means pulling the turret gunner's seat off, and tightly grabbing onto his or her legs and bracing for impact. They also practice expeditiously exiting the vehicle if a grenade is thrown in from the turret, taking control of the vehicle if the driver is knocked unconscious, and knowing how to unlock a door from the outside to free anyone trapped inside after an improvised explosive device has struck the vehicle.
"The enemy is getting smarter, so we have to know how to act, react and learn," Sergeant Valeros said. "This is a three-dimensional battlefield, so you have to be ready for anything."
On a late April day, Sergeant Valeros' will was put to the ultimate test. On that day, his squad's team was attacked. An explosive fire projectile struck one of their vehicles and an interpreter's legs were blown off.
"He's my friend, and I miss him," Sergeant Valeros said of the Iraqi interpreter who was medically evacuated to Jordan. He described his friend as a comedic movie character who always knew how to bring a smile to one's face.
"While we were applying the tourniquets, he begged for water. I gave him some, and then someone quickly realized that he wasn't supposed to consume water during that situation. He then spit the water out and said, 'It's gone, you see.' He then laughed hysterically."
During that intense situation, Sergeant Valeros said he realized that a little bit of humor helped him deal with the stress of the moment. He doesn't dwell on what happened.
"I made decisions that day, and a leader has to be able to lead his troops during any type of situation," he said. "They're counting on that leadership."
Traveling through treacherous trails, doesn't get any easier for Senior Airman Cory Carpenter, a primary Humvee driver.
"I've learned to drive it well," he said, banking on this three-year driving experience with the massive military vehicle. The 21-year-old Airman has spent four years in the Air Force, and this is his first deployment.
"I'd never been on any (temporary duties), so I figured it was time to do something worthwhile," Airman Carpenter said. "It's not every day you get to do a job the Air Force doesn't normally do."
The Air Force is training a new kind of Airmen, as stated in the new Airman's Creed: "An American Airman's mission is to fly, fight and win."
These security forces members who are putting their lives on the line on a daily basis epitomize the warrior ethos the Airman's Creed specifies. Their ages vary from just being old enough to vote to 20-year veterans.
A recent mission took the 1-1 squad to a blown-up police station. It was ripped to shreds when a truck filled with vehicle-borne IEDs drove through the entry control point and detonated near the building. Several Iraqi policemen died in the attack, including many who were critically injured.
What's left of the dilapidated building still houses members of the police station, including its commander. The 1-1 squad leader, Tech. Sgt. Bayne Sullivan, conducted business with the station's commander, Iraqi Col. Mushtak Taleb.
"We discussed contracting issues with the reconstruction of the new building and the upcoming recruiting drive," Sergeant Sullivan said.
"All of us appreciate the hard work of Sergeant Sullivan and his team," Colonel Taleb said. "We have to start all over, and his logistical help has been important for our recovery."
As that particular station recovers, Airman Rodriguez said she can't forget the moment she had to protect her squad from imminent danger March 10. By employing the powerful M-240 medium machine gun, she eliminated the threat.
"I never thought I'd have to take someone's life," she said. "I never expected that to happen, but I had to protect my team, and that's exactly what I did. This whole experience makes me appreciate life that much more, and I'm grateful for everything I have."
Airman Rodriguez's effort along with the other security forces specialists are only a small part of the puzzle that eventually will bring peace and stability this city, country and region needs.
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