Iraq, Afghanistan veteran speaks at Rock County banquet
LUVERNE — Maj. Charles Erickson saw plenty during his tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he shared his experiences in pictures and in words Monday night.
Erickson, who is with the Minnesota Army Reserve’s 467th Civil Affairs Battalion, was the guest speaker at the Rock County Veterans Day Banquet inside the Blue Mound Banquet Center. Erickson graduated with Rock County Veterans Service Officer Dave Haugom in 1990 at Camp Ripley, and has been busy since then.
“I spent the first part of my career as an infantry officer and after a few years switched to civil affairs,” Erickson explained early in his remarks. “In Afghanistan and in Iraq, we worked to get civilians on our side and to get them to assist us in defeating our enemies.”
Improving the living environment for Afghan and Iraqi citizens was also a primary goal, said Erickson, who spent the initial portion of his presentation showing slides from various Afghanistan locales.
Erickson described that country as “about the size of Minnesota and the Dakotas combined” and “fairly dry,” with an economy that has roughly 80 percent of its people employed in agriculture and making an average of $3 per day.
Erickson offered slides of farming life, Kabul (Afghanistan’s capital) and dress typical of males and females. He also displayed a photo of a scene that would never be found in a U.S. classroom.
“There are an awful lot of land mines, unexploded rockets and mortar shells ... and this was taken in an elementary school outside a fourth-grade classroom,” Erickson explained of a scene he said he was arranged to warn children of the dangers around them.”
Schools were a common part of Erickson’s work in Afghanistan, he added.
“We did a lot of school rebuilding, and we were always working with local contractors so we could create jobs for the local people there,” he said.
In both Afghanistan and Iraq, Erickson and others in his unit labored to familiarize themselves with leaders in both governments and local communities.
Slides of Iraq included photos from the ancient city of Ur, which Erickson stated was the birthplace of Abraham according to the Bible. Other photos included agricultural scenes, though the nation only employs about 20 percent of its citizens in farming — about one-fourth that of Afghanistan.
“Iraq is much wealthier — the average income in Iraq is about $7,000 (a year), as opposed to Afghanistan’s $1,000,” Erickson said.
Date palms were once a significant part of Iraq’s agricultural landscape, and efforts are ongoing to revitalize the date industry, said Erickson. Of course, oil is common in Iraq, and a slide of a refinery in Basra was shown.
With summertime highs in Baghdad in the range of 125 degrees and lows in the upper 80s and low 90s, flat roofs of Iraqis’ residences often serve a somewhat practical purpose.
“A lot of people sleep on the roof in the summertime,” Erickson said.
A key component of Erickson’s time in Iraq was in the ag sector.
“One of the major projects we undertook was re-re-establishing the poultry industry in the area south of Baghdad,” he explained. “It had been a major industry for them, and it had kind of shut down during the time al-Qaida moved into the area. … But by 2007, which was my second tour there, we had run them out of that area.
“We also sponsored events like ... a business expo where local Iraqi businesses could compare their products and services, not only for fellow Iraqis but for U.S. government agencies, foreign governments and foreign contractors,” he added.
Erickson also described the success of what he deemed “counterinsurgency warfare” while noting what he called “Erickson’s Law of Counterinsurgency.”
“Most people are normal,” said Erickson, describing his own “law.” Most Iraqis, like other typical citizens in other nations, want to do their jobs, raise their families and send their children to schools. At the same time, he said, they don’t like danger to their families, violence or extremist views.
“The problem is, through 2006, that idea — “most people are normal” — was working against us,” Erickson said. “What we did with the surge was not just an increase in number of troops there. … We started emphasizing protecting of the Iraqi population. We set up bases all over the place — with equal numbers of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers doing joint patrolling — and we were actually living in their neighborhoods. Once we showed them we were going to protect them and their families, they responded as normal people do.”
Erickson said there were also considerable efforts to establish “democratic choices” in both nations, stressing that “both these countries established new constitutions; both had new rounds of elections.” There were also strong inroads made in education — 7 million students are currently being educated in Afghan schools, compared to just 700,000 in 2001.
Erickson spoke for about 30 minutes and was preceded — and followed — by vocal selections from Luverne’s Barb Antoine. In addition to tributes to veterans in attendance, a ceremony of the Glen’s Coffee Clique Last Man Club was also included.