Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Day in the Life at JSS Sadr City

(Glossary of acronyms located at the bottom of this post)

0430H A runner from the TOC knocks on the door of the PSYOP billets. The Iraqi Army 44th Brigade is mounting an enormous, unannounced cordon/search in nearby Tharwa neighborhood in 2 hours. The S3 wants PSYOP loudspeaker support with counter-EFP messages.

0450H Hastily dressed in flame-retardant ACU's, I don my pistol and run to the TOC to confirm with the Battle Captain that PSYOP will support this mission. I provide the S3 with the wording of our loudspeaker broadcast and find out which line Company will be escorting us. It's Renegade Company, 3rd Platoon, 1/6th Infantry - the guys who live just down the hall.

0510H I hunt down the PL of Renegade 3rd Platoon to determine the SP time for the patrol. SP time is 0630H at the main ECP.

0520H I notify my two teammates and interpreter of the mission: the start time, task, and purpose. My guys get dressed and head to the MRAP to prep for the mission. They will make sure everything runs smoothly on the truck - machine gun is mounted and armed, secure radios are up and functional, loudspeaker system is working, cooler is stocked with water and snacks.

0545H Grab cereal and milk from the always-open dining tent for a hasty breakfast.

0600H Patrol-briefing at the motor pool, given by the 3rd Platoon PL. The PL outlines such details as the "order of march" - which vehicles will sit where in the patrol, "actions on contact" - how we will respond to varying levels of enemy fire, and other items such as medic location, current threat-level in the OE, and call-signs & radio frequencies in use.

0630H After completing radio checks with 3rd Platoon and test-firing the loudspeaker, we don our body armor, load weapons, and head out the gate to link up with the Iraqi Army, already in place for the cordon/search in Thawra neighborhood.

0645-0845H Nothing too exciting happening on the ground. Competent Iraqi Army platoons, dressed in the mish-mash of different camouflage colors and patterns that characterizes their uniforms, go house-to-house in this Sadr City suburb, searching for wanted fugitives and unauthorized weapons. PSYOP team makes several counter-EFP broadcasts and stays with 3rd Platoon in an "overwatch" position, providing a security perimeter for the Iraqi troops on the ground.

0900H The Iraqis finish their search early, allowing 3rd Platoon to return to base.

0930-1030H While the rest of PSYOP team showers and grabs hot food from the dining tent, I head to the S3/Plans office for the weekly 9:30am planning meeting. Several staff officers are present to discuss missions coming up in the next few days, track progress on reconstruction projects, and work out logistical details of supply and maintenance for our little JSS. I give an update on new PSYOP handbills and posters being created for the OE, and the S3 provides me with an updated tracking spreadsheet for the dozens of PSYOP billboards in Sadr City.

1045H An explosion is heard nearby. Not one of ours.

1100H A patrol of MRAPs belonging to a nearby MP unit pulls into the JSS. The lead vehicle got hit by an EFP - an Iranian-manufactured, shaped-charge explosive deployed by local Sadrist cells against the Americans. This particular EFP was aimed up at the turret-gunner, where the armor is thinnest. Copper spalling accelerated to 8000 feet per second effectively cut the gunner in half. I run outside to help with the stretcher detail that is rushing the wounded to our aid station. One soldier is DOA on the stretcher, blood everywhere. I can't tell which end is his head and which is his feet. Two more soldiers on stretchers follow. They are torn up pretty badly, but still breathing and conscious. Our medics will prep them for a life-flight helicopter to the military hospital at nearby Camp Liberty. The one soldier's death will be counted among 6 others for this month, the lowest military death rate in Iraq since the invasion in 2003.

1200H Lunch! The cooks at the field kitchen put out a meal of chicken tenders, ravioli, onion rings, hamburgers, and mixed vegetables. SPC Ward, the head cook, blasts rap music while he works. The dining hall features fresh fruit, a variety of dessert cakes, and soda & juice. US soldiers, interpreters, Iraqi soldiers, sanitation workers, and contractors all share the small dining room. A flat-screen TV on the wall plays the AFN station, an Air Force-sponsored amalgam of US news, movies, and sitcoms.

1300H PSYOP smoke break!

1330H Wander over to the local Haji-Mart (small concessionary run by a local Iraqi), purchase some Toblerone, check out the selection of pirated DVD's.

1400H PSYOP team loads up the product box with comic books, flags, PSYOP hats, handbills, school supplies, tip cards, and hard candies. We have a 1430H mission with Warlord company, another cordon/seach in Tharwa II.

1430-1830H PSYOP team is on the ground with 2nd Platoon, Warlord company, along with two squads of Iraqi Stryker Platoon soldiers. We make sure the Iraqi soldiers have plenty of tip-cards to pass out (with the hotline phone number to report bad guys). As the families invite us in to talk, we distribute other PSYOP promotional items, mostly to children: "I love Iraq" hats, flags, school supplies, comic books, and handbills. Using our interpreter we hold several discussions with the adults. Today's talking points include: attitudes regarding the Status of Forces agreement, visibility of local reconstruction projects, levels of trust in the provincial government, and awareness concerning upcoming elections. All the info we gather will be condensed into a report sent up our chain of command via secure internet later this evening.

1900H Driving back to the JSS, an Iraqi boy urgently flags down the lead MRAP and points hysterically to a pile of rubble at the foot of an upcoming concrete barrier, making explosive gestures with his hands. The PL halts the patrol and dismounts with an interpreter to speak to the boy. Turns out the boy saw two men hiding an EFP there earlier that day. The PL calls up to headquarters for an EOD team.

1920H The EOD team arrives on site in a batch of custom MRAPs. They deploy a remote-controlled robot to roll up and investigate the EFP from a close distance. This particular EFP had been encased in foam and painted light-blue to match the color of the concrete walls in front of which it was placed. The aim-point of the EFP was upward, at such an angle so as to hit the turret gunner of an MRAP.

1945H The EOD robot handily deposits a charge of C-4 explosive adjacent to the EFP, then backs up to the trucks. PSYOP team makes a loudspeaker broadcast to the neighboring houses, telling them that foreign-backed criminals were at it again, trying to disrupt progress in their neighborhood with their EFPs, and that we would be blowing it up soon, so please don't be alarmed.

2000H -BOOM-

2030H Back on the JSS, we refuel the MRAP, shed our protective gear, and head to dinner. Since it is Friday night, steaks (thin, gristly, & overcooked, but who's complaining?) and breaded shrimp are on the menu.

2100H I head up to the S3 office, where our Panasonic Toughbook laptop is plugged into the Army's secure internet, and start composing today's SITREP. While we were away, PSYOP headquarters sent us a new RFI survey along with a broadcast message for the small radio station we run out of our room. The RFI is a Request For Information, with questions regarding new PSYOP product ideas, that local Iraqis are supposed to answer. The radio station is a limited-range (1-2km) "Radio-in-a-Box" setup provided by the American embassy. A mast antenna on the roof of our barracks broadcasts a steady program of Arabic pop music mixed with PSYOP messages and Public Safety Announcements into Sadr City.

2200H The SITREP has been sent to my boss at nearby FOB War Eagle. Free at last, I run by the satellite phone bank, eager to call my wife (11 hour time difference) and ask her how her morning is going. Afterwards I retire to my bunk where I watch "Family Guy" reruns with the rest of the team, then drift off to sleep.

0300H Ali & Muhammad are wiring up their EFP's. See you tomorrow, Ali & Muhammad!

TOC = Tactical Operations Center, i.e. the Battalion's command center on the JSS. Picture lots of video feeds, radio chatter, and clocks on the wall.

S3 = The Operations Officer on a Battalion Staff. S1 = Human resources, S2 = Intel, S3 = Operations, S4 = Supply & Logistics, S5 = Public Affairs, S6 = Communications

EFP = Explosively Formed Projectile, a coffee can-sized bomb with precisely formed copper plate topping it. Upon detonation, the copper plate forms into a high-speed slug capable of penetrating most armored vehicles in the US arsenal.

ACU = Advanced Combat Uniform, the new digital-pattern blue/green camouflage worn by the American Army.

PL = Platoon Leader, the officer in charge of an infantry platoon. Usually a young first- or second-lieutenant.

SP time = Starting Point, departure time of a patrol

ECP = Entry Control Point: a manned, defended gate restricting entry into an Army Base. ECP's may have an interpreter, explosives-sniffing dog, metal detector, and special search area as well as armed fortifications.

MRAP = Mine-Resistant Armored Personnel vehicle: one of the new generation of heavily-armored trucks used to protect soldiers from roadside bombs. Characterized by a V-shaped hull and extra reactive armor, these trucks are 2-3 times bigger, heavier, and more expensive than humvees.

OE = Operational Environment, i.e. the area in which an army element operates, such as a certain neighborhood, village, or building, depending on the operation.

MP = Military Police

JSS = Joint Security Station: a small-ish army base, usually located in an urban neighborhood, where both American and Iraqi forces reside

EOD = Explosive Ordnance Disposal, aka the Bomb Squad. A specilized unit of soldiers with robots and bomb suits who disarm and detonate bombs.

SITREP = Situation Report. For a PSYOP team, a formalized report format that must be submitted every night, detailing the day's missions, PSYOP product dissemination, and passive intelligence gathered.

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