‘At Times It Seems We Won’t Accomplish Our Mission’

The Iraqi infantry and U.S. forces successfully fought back Sunni insurgents in November in the town of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. U.S. Army Capt. Damon Holditch took part in this firefight and shared his account of the situation with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan.

Holditch, an infantry officer for more than 15 years, was mobilized to active duty and deployed to Iraq in June. His wife and three children live in Alabama. Holditch is the operations officer for a U.S. military transition team (MiTT) embedded with an Iraqi infantry battalion.

Tell us about your assignment. I serve as personal adviser, mentor and coalition liaison to the Iraqi operations major of an Iraqi infantry battalion. I work with the intelligence office to develop targets. … I also make recommendations to the Iraqi army to ensure troops are utilized to defeat and disrupt anti-Iraqi forces.

What’s going on in Iraq and how does your role as a trainer fit into U.S. efforts there? The Iraqi army is struggling to take shape and lead its own country. The coalition has reorganized the force, funded, equipped and provided basic training. I am part of the U.S. effort to observe and train the leadership in order for them to become an effective fighting force.

Our goal is to train them to fight, take ownership of their duties, understand the concept of duty to nation, understand the leadership aspects of an all-volunteer force and gain the independence to operate independent of coalition forces.

The violence there is troubling; do you think our presence makes a difference? I believe I and my team make a difference here every day. We work on behalf of the world to help the Iraqis stabilize their country and learn to live free. By example, I show them the West is not filled with infidels, but God-fearing and good men.

They have made a difference in my life. I live with the Iraqis. I have watched them fight, celebrate, die and mourn. I have listened to their stories about their families and children and the incredible cruelty of Saddam and his “government.”

In turn, they have seen my sacrifice and heard my stories. We find that we are not very different after all. And, even a world and a religion apart, we bleed the same, pray a little differently and love our families equally.

The government of Iraq is above my pay grade, but if they do not get a functioning government that can provide law and stability to the masses, all will be lost, and sooner than later.

Have you seen progress and what are the challenges? My experience has been mixed. I like the Iraqi people and the soldiers, but the leadership and officers lack a lot. They are willing to just say, “It’s God’s will” and be done with it rather than work to help the situation or make it better. Sometimes I feel they are just tolerating us and getting what they can before we lose interest and go home. Then whatever happens will happen.

Unfortunately, I have not experienced any positive progress, and we seem to move two steps back for every one step forward. We were sent here to help them establish their own logistic system that would support their own operations. The Iraqi army can request and write memos, ask for, beg and have all its needs known to its higher headquarters, but nothing flows. The system is broken beyond my ability at my level to fix. That is frustrating.

Have you seen combat? Yes, we are in combat about every day. The Iraqis we live with are an infantry battalion and first-line fighters. I have been blown up in a Humvee by an improvised explosive device. We have had mortars dropped on us during operations. … We were involved in action [in Baqouba] that resulted in 18 dead insurgents and 19 wounded.

How are you treated by the local Iraqis? The kids are great. They want to see you and touch you. They say “mister, mister” and ask for everything – your watch, sunglasses, gloves, etc. We hand out school supplies, candy and toys.

The adults tolerate us. I am not sure we help the everyday Iraqi very much. Since we have been here, there has been a lot of violence, so I believe they think we are the cause.

What are the best and worst aspects about serving there? The best thing is being involved in something bigger than myself; serving like my grandfather did in France during World War II for a country that has called me to service to defend freedom. The worst is being away from my wife and kids.

How’s the team’s morale? It depends on the day. One year is a long time to stay in combat and away from your family.

It is frustrating working through the Iraqis. At times it seems we will not make a difference and won’t accomplish our mission. But that passes and we dig in and try from a different angle.

Morale is generally good, but we all have our moments. It helps that I work on a good team that cares for each other. I have a good team leader and I know he is committed to accomplish the mission and bring us all home safe.

Anything else you wish to share with the American public? I appreciated the overwhelming support of the American people. I came home on leave in September and was amazed at how strangers responded to me in uniform. My wife and I took a trip and met wonderful people that just wanted to show support for our service and sacrifice. They would buy us dinner and wanted to know the truth and details of what we were doing over in Iraq.

Every day we receive packages in Iraq from strangers that take time to buy snacks and items they think we might need or like, letters from children and people with words of encouragement and thanks for our service. They make a huge difference to us and I wanted to say thank you.

Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan can be reached at mylinh@mylinhshattan.com.

Keyword: Commentary, to read other recent Voices From The Front stories and more on the media coverage of Iraq. The Tribune arranges interviews with service members through U.S. Central Command. Keyword: Commentary, to read other recent Voices From The Front stories and more on the media coverage of Iraq. The Tribune arranges interviews with service members through U.S. Central Command.

Dec 3, 2006

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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