Wednesday, October 3, 2007

All in a day’s work

Patrick Lair/Democrat-Herald
Austin is shown on the back hatch of a Stryker vehicle.

On his second tour, Sgt. Mike Austin of Scio is giving soldier training to Iraqi forces

KHAN BANI SA’AD, Iraq — For Sgt. Mike Austin of Scio, cruising the dusty roads of Diyala province in Iraq and training Iraqi soldiers is just another day on the job.

Austin, 25, a dismounted team leader in the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, out of Fort Lewis, Wash., is currently serving his second 15-month tour in Iraq. He recently took part in a major clearing operation in Khan Bani Sa’ad, about 10 miles north of Baghdad, to remove insurgents, buried explosives and weapons caches from an embattled neighborhood of that town.

It was the first time the Iraqis planned and executed their own mission in that area, with only logistical support from the Americans.

“This is the first time since we’ve been here that Iraqis are taking the lead and we just support them,” Austin said. “It’s good to see. At least it’s a step in the right direction.”

Austin and other soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division live and work with a battalion of Iraqi Army soldiers at a compound surrounded by mud-brick walls and dirt-filled HESCO barriers in the city known by American soldiers as “KBS.”

About a year ago, al-Qaida militants moved into the KBS neighborhood of Al Askari, evicting more than 100 families from their homes and using the site to launch attacks on coalition forces and Shiite populations in an adjoining marketplace. Insurgents buried more than 50 IEDs in the roads, used the rooftops to fire sniper shots at soldiers and civilians and launch mortar attacks on various targets throughout the city.

On Sept. 6, the 2nd Infantry Division provided blocking positions around the neighborhood with their Stryker vehicles, and the U.S. Air Force provided close air support, as Iraqi soldiers and policemen cleared the neighborhood house by house.

Iraqi explosive ordinance disposal teams uncovered and destroyed multiple IEDs as well as a cache of 37 mortars. Iraqi security forces reclaimed roads through the neighborhood and then set up security checkpoints to prevent insurgents from burying more explosives in the ground.

“I was really surprised when I saw kids playing soccer in the street the day after the mission,” Austin said. “That’s the first time we’ve ever seen them playing outside since we’ve been here.”

The day after the mission, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers handed out more than 100 tons of food and water to local residents. In addition, the Iraqi federal government is giving each displaced family between 4 million and 10 million Iraqi dinars, or $4,000 to $10,000, to assist them in resettling the area.

“Our plan is to bring back the families of Al-Askari, both Sunni and Shia, to live in harmony and peace,” said Col. Karim Wahid Salman Al-Ubaidi, Iraqi Army commander in KBS. “Our short-term goal is to assist the families with food rations and assist the municipal government in cleaning the streets and reinstating water and electrical services.”

Austin, a former member of the Oregon Army National Guard unit in Lebanon, joined the active duty Army in 2003 and deployed to the city of Ad-Diwaniyah, southwest of Baghdad, in that same year. Having spent most of his life in western Oregon, Austin said he now misses the outdoor activities he used to enjoy.

“I miss the hunting, the fishing and the skiing. Mostly, I miss going to the dunes and riding four-wheelers,” he said. “The worst parts about being here though are the heat and the lack of creature comforts, like television and air-conditioning.”

When he returns to Oregon for his two-week leave, Austin said he plans to take his wife, Danielle, and their two children, David and Cody, to the coast.

Asked what his goals are for the rest of his deployment, he responds: “I’m just hoping to finish what we’re doing here and get back home.”

Army Sgt. Patrick Lair is serving in the Mideast with the 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. In civilian life he covers east Linn County for the Democrat-Herald.

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