Area soldiers unite for missions
SCANIA, Iraq -- Two days after Americans celebrated their independence with backyard barbecues and evening fireworks, Lt. Col. John Kolb talked of the work soldiers from southwest Minnesota are doing to bring independence to the citizens of Iraq.
In a Thursday morning conference call from Convoy Support Center (CSC) Scania, in south central Iraq, the commander of the 1-125th Strike Battalion began his report by honoring Sgt. Kyle Miller, a Willmar native killed in a June 29 explosion near Balad, Iraq.
"This is most definitely a time -- across the battalion -- when we are grieving," said Kolb. Miller's crew mates have received medical assistance, including combat stress and unit ministry, to help work through the tragedy and focus on healing. "We continue to ... be present for one another."
The loss has pulled the 1-125th Strike Battalion even closer and given the 500 soldiers from New Ulm, Jackson, Fairmont, Luverne, Pipestone and St. Peter National Guard units a purpose to do all they can in honor of Miller and in support of their country, Kolb said. The battalion also includes troops from the Kentucky National Guard and soldiers from across the country.
CSC Scania, located about 150 kilometers south of Baghdad, includes operations and support of humanitarian systems in a 900-square-kilometer area. On Thursday, the skies were clear and the temperature a sultry 117 degrees -- a day typical of those experienced by soldiers for the past month, Kolb said.
Soldiers at Scania are tasked with securing a portion of one of the major supply routes in Iraq. They also offer medical assistance to Iraqis and medical facilities, provide joint patrols and support to civil authorities, support seven schools, an orphanage and a widows' home near the base, and complete projects to bring a clean, safe water supply to the Iraqi people.
As for security surrounding the base, Kolb said there have been times of "incredible violence" and periods when there is peace and nothing is taking place in the region.
"As a trend, we are experiencing more violence in summer rather than winter," said Kolb, a St. Cloud native who arrived in Iraq with Minnesota National Guard soldiers three months ago.
Good working relationships with government officials in the 19 towns surrounding the base have proved valuable. Kolb said the base has received early warning of possible attacks or encounters because of the relationships forged between the U.S. base and Iraqis, including their police force.
"We become prouder every day of our association with them (the Iraqi police) and their capabilities," Kolb said.
The daily life of a Minnesota soldier serving in the 1-125th in Iraq typically begins at 6 a.m. with initial vehicle checks, communications tests and gear preparation for convoys, which consist of about 20 trucks. Prior to the convoy's departure, the crews discuss dangerous parts of the route. Depending on the destination, the convoy can travel anywhere from three to eight hours, Kolb said. Things like an explosion or discovery of an IED will extend the time spent on the route.
Once troops have delivered the cargo to its destination, they have about 12 hours to sleep and prepare for the return trip to base.
Kolb said the explosive devices discovered along the route have ranged from crude construction to advanced technology. Fortunately for the soldiers at CSC Scania, the majority of the convoys have so far been completed without issue.
While soldiers must be on guard for the threat of explosive devices and insurgents, they have ample time to provide some much-needed support for the Iraqi people. With the seven schools the base supports, Kolb said troops have supplied labor in reconstruction efforts, delivered school supplies and offered basic health education to students and teachers alike.
At the orphanage, troops on Thursday delivered toothbrushes and toothpaste, school and art supplies and soccer balls to the children. A medical component to the day's visit included dental and hearing checks and general health care screenings.
"We're working on some preventative training," Kolb said, adding that troops see a "tremendous number" of children suffering from severe burns -- the result of cooking on stoves powered by regular gasoline.
CSC Scania offers a clinic to the Iraqi people three days per week, caring for between 30 and 50 people during those visits. Kolb said about half of those seeking medical treatment are children.
"(We) see the absolute admiration and affection that Iraqi children have for American soldiers," said Kolb of recent observations of the clinic work. "That proves to us that there is value in our being here.
"These soldiers are doing great things on a daily basis, they're doing it with minimal complaint and under some very trying conditions," he added.
Kolb offered thanks to the people of the United States for their support, and said the troops serving in Iraq are seeing progress, particularly with the rebuilding of the Iraqi government.
He cautioned, however, that there is much work that remains in the country. For too long, the Iraqi people have struggled in simply living day to day. Getting them to look toward, and plan for, the future is a new concept.
"We are reversing 50 years of just being able to survive and replace that with drive and willingness -- just learning how to prosper -- and that's going to take a long time," Kolb said.
As for his thoughts on what it will take to win the war in Iraq, Kolb said, "We've already won a substantial victory for the Iraqi people. They have opportunity now ... they have the opportunity to transition, the opportunity to prosper as a culture and to return their culture to the richness it once was."