By LtCol Jim Rose, 1st FSSG Fut Ops/Plans Officer
Forwarded from 1stADMPAO
The Marine Team had a helluva task in front of them this month. Fallujah was just a warm up for this and really was a stage setter for the Iraqi National Election. Both will be memorable for me until I die.
We just sent the last of the Iraqi election workers home on the last C-130 plane out of Camp Taqaddum. What a sight! I don't even know how to organize all the thoughts and feelings going through my mind right now. I have been completely buried with the Iraqi election support here and today I got more out of this than I ever thought possible.
Back in November after we went through Fallujah, the election commission was ready to write off the Al Anbar province in which we operate. Too dangerous, no stability, and still a lot of bad guys roaming around that were going to see to it that elections weren't held. It was all but written off. I don't know who made the decision but we started planning this back in December as a concept.
On Jan 3rd, we got together with the UN election commission in Baghdad and put a plan together for our area of operations. By January 10th the plan was set for execution and the ball started rolling. The number of moving parts and changing information kept this completely fluid until the last.
I remember one of the things we really argued against doing was using indelible ink on the fingers of the voters. (The ink was to prevent voters from voting twice) Our logical approach was this would mark them for the insurgency and make the Iraqi voters obvious targets. The election commission was emphatic that the ink had to show. We wanted to use the ink that only showed under an ultra violet light. The election commission had the final say and the visible ink won. In hindsight, this would prove to be HUGE.
We started from absolute ground zero and had to prepare a 1000 man facility here at Camp Taqaddum. This would house the Iraqi election workers that would come from all over Iraq, consolidate here and be flown out to the polling sites in the middle of the night just before elections. The polling sites were kept secret to the Iraqi's so leaks would not get back to the insurgents.
On the third day before elections, the sites were occupied by the Marines, hardened with blast protection and security perimeters were set in place. On the second day before elections, all the polling materials, generators, lighting, food, water, even port a johns were brought in for the election workers. All this was done by the Marines.
While this was going on, we were gathering up the election workers from several locations and flying them into Camp Taqaddum aboard the Marine C-130's. Most of these people were hired off the street and promised $500 to come to the Al Anbar province, get trained and to work the polling centers during elections. Now you have to put yourself in the frame of mind they were in. The locals don't necessarily trust us. They've been forewarned by the insurgency that they will die if they vote, not to mention work the election.
I doubt many have been in an aircraft, much less a US Marine aircraft. And then to do it in the middle of the night with all those dangers to many to mention. They had everything to lose. They showed up extremely scared and apprehensive but they were here. A couple got air sick but what we always knew was once they got here, we'd make sure they were OK. We fed them, we clothed them in clothes they could fly in, (our aircraft are all open compartments) we gave them a place to sleep in our new tent city and had a shelter for them to get into if the mortar attacks started up. We knew on the 3rd night before elections that the election was really going to happen!
The night before elections, we commenced upon the largest US Marine helicopter lift since the fall of Saigon. CH-53 and CH-46 helicopters lifted in and out from Camp Taqaddum starting at 2100 (9pm) until 0500 (5am) the next morning. We moved the entire Iraqi election worker population with all the blank ballots to designated landing zones in our area of operations where they were further trucked in armored vehicles to 30 different polling sites that were surrounded by the Marines. The election workers had to be a little more than tense.
Much to the insurgent's dismay, on the morning of Jan 30th, all polling sites were up and running and ready to receive voters. It was a win even before it started. The day did not come without a price. Overall, we lost one Marine and had 11 wounded. The one Marine killed was from my unit. We prepared for much more than this. The insurgents did attack in our area but it was soon very evident that their attacks were uncoordinated and with very little heart. And the people still voted - with big smiles and dancing - and the only thing they wanted to do was show us their blue INKED index fingers. The blue ink became an instant symbol to them to show the world they were doing something they thought they'd never do. And we wanted them not to use the ink when we planned this. How wrong we were.
We figured the worst attacks would come early. If the insurgents attacked early, it would keep voters from initially going and get the most out of the media coverage. The media could play and replay the violence and the world would turn their backs along with the Iraqi's. Isn't it funny how we must plan against our own media? By afternoon we knew we were in the home stretch and regardless of the polling, the Iraqi's had won and the insurgents were handed a resounding defeat. That night the polls closed and the counting began throughout the night and into the next day.
The Iraqi election workers were brought back to Camp Taqaddum in reverse order from the way they went out. At this point they were considered a high value target due to them carrying marked ballots. By mid day yesterday (31JAN05), all workers and ballots were back to our Tent City at Camp Taqaddum.
Tent City was now known unofficially as Camp Democracy. Walking through Camp Democracy, you'd have thought you were in Times Square on New Year's Eve minus the booze. All the workers were holding their inked fingers in the air, jumping up and down, singing and dancing. (I didn't get the sense it was over being $500 richer). They were hugging and wanting to get their pictures taken with us. A bond had formed with these people and the Marines. They talked to us in Arabic and we talked back in English never knowing what was being said but we all had the same feelings. It was as festive an occasion in a war zone that I've ever seen.
I fell asleep last night exhausted and with a lot of weight off my shoulders, wondering what I had just been witness to.
Today after coming in and catching up on a few things, I went for a run. As I ran down the road past Camp Democracy, I could see the planes lining up and loading the Iraqi election workers to go to their final destination. I turned and went back, took a shower and grabbed one of my roommates, hoped in a vehicle and went down to Camp Democracy for what I was hoping to be one last breathe of yesterday.
As we arrived, they were loading up the very last C-130 aircraft of the election workers. We followed in trace of the workers as they went out to the flight line. Everyone had cameras by then and we were snapping like crazy.
They lined the last of the workers up in single file to board the plane and we all stood opposite of them as they passed, slapping their hands like two opposing teams after a game is played. After they boarded the plane, we stood there on the runway and watched as it taxied and began rolling down the runway. A mortar round wouldn't have made any of us move at that point. The plane lifted off and as it banked out over Lake Habbaniyah, We all turned to walk back in our own silence. There wasn't a dry eye on the flight line.
The election workers are probably arriving home now as I write this. They are marked men and women and so are their families. You may consider it noble or not that we are here and thankful for the troops, but today, I said goodbye and shook hands of heroes we've only read about in history books from 225 years ago. The insurgency will continue today, tomorrow and then some but yesterday, the Nation of Iraq bought into democracy and now has a vested interest that I don't think they'll let go. The insurgent can fire an RPG and die for his cause but what cause does he really have left? He'll realize eventually there is no cause for him to die. And the Iraqis will soon realize that their form of democracy will need to always be protected or they will lose what they have just gained.
As I was walking back to the vehicle to leave, my roommate ran into one of the interpreter's he knew. (She was born in Iraq but is now from Warren, MI). We began discussed old stomping grounds and then started talking about the workers that had just left. Her name was Ana and she kept telling us how the Iraqi's that just left could not believe how well we had treated them during their stay. As we were saying goodbye to Ana, she matter-of-factly mentions something that left me speechless.
She told us that she had a pile of mail that needs to get back to the states. All the Iraqi election workers had all gotten together last night and began compiling “Thank You” notes to President George Bush and needed them mailed. It was totally unprovoked by any of us.
No one wanted the moment to end. It was a lot of work up to that point but it was a moment to savor and never forget.