In May I was embedded with a detachment of the 8th Engineer Support Battalion Explosive Ordnance Disposal [EOD] at Camp Fallujah, Iraq, headed by Navy Lt. Cameron Chen, and later wrote about them. In a war in which most U.S. casualties are caused by bombs, no unit is more important – or more hated by the enemy – than EOD. Upon finishing his deployment, Lt. Chen sent out this eloquent letter which (with his permission) I share precisely because it is unlike what you're accustomed to reading in the newspapers.
Dear Family and Friends,
I am sitting on the flight line awaiting a helo [helicopter] to take me away from Fallujah. Our time here in Iraq is quickly coming to an end.
We have had an outstanding deployment. The number of responses we have conducted has been absolutely astounding. As a detachment, we conducted 1,009 EOD response missions. We neutralized 327 actual IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and 3 VBIEDs [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices], investigated 69 post-blast scenes, cleared 209 UXO [unexploded ordnance] calls and eliminated 146 weapons caches.
Fallujah looks completely different from when we first arrived. The progress in the city has been frustratingly slow but impressive nonetheless. A steady stream of people flow in to re-inhabit its neighborhoods. The new police force is on every street corner.
Every effort is being made to get the Iraqi people able to manage themselves. The Marines are still omnipresent on the streets but you see more and more Iraqi police replacing them. A lot of the trash has been removed, reconstruction is occurring everywhere, and the bustle of people on the streets engaged in commerce is refreshing.
I noticed a gaggle of young girls in uniform blue dresses, pig tails, and white shirts on their way to school. The number of families implies to me that people are fleeing to the security provided by the Iraqis and Marines inside the checkpoints that limit access to the city.
We are still wary of the environment and the surge of incidents correlating with the beginning of Ramadan confirms that the Wild West has yet to be tamed. Detachment 9's [his unit's successor] arrival corresponded with a renewal of activity. They hit the ground running with 30 calls in the first 3 days.
Chief [Warrant Officer] Kellogg was interrogating the witness on the scene of an IED incident when a sniper shot the witness in the back directly in front of him. Chief said he had never been so amped ["excited," obviously in a bad sense] in his life – a rude awakening to another day in the city.[Since this was written, one of Chen's former response trucks was hit by an IED killing one man and seriously wounding another.]
What matters most is how this experience has changed us. Untested, you inevitably doubt yourself and how you will act when the shooting starts or you're on top of an improvised device about to explode. Now we know. It's a gut check when you jock up every day and go outside the [protective] wire not knowing if you will come back. It's exhilarating.
Mac, like most of us, is intensely competitive and nothing excites him more than beating an insurgent at his devious game. Nothing is more clear-cut than going out there and beating the bad guys by disrupting their bomb. But despite all that, he misses his kids. It wrenches his heart to be absent.
Jehu is more introspective. He feels that life here changes your perspective on what is important. In comparison, most problems are trivial especially when compared to the plight of the Iraqi people stuck in the middle of this mess.
We have had a number of close calls that can only be explained by God's grace. Just yesterday we recovered a video tape with footage of Bryan and Mac taken by an insurgent trying to detonate an IED on them. It really brings it all very close to home.
I firmly believe we have made some headway and added to the security of this country and ours. I am not hopelessly optimistic though. The IED incidents are symptomatic of a deeper problem. This is a culture that begets violent regime change. Until people are educated in non-violent protest, all we can do is disarm the masses which will make them inevitably vulnerable.
Regardless of the outcome though, at least people are learning to voice their opinion in a democratic manner.
The helo has come and moved us on to our next stop on the trip home. I can't adequately describe the feeling of sitting in a bird and flying out of the familiar yet alien place that has been your "home" for so long.
It's very odd to leave others behind and watch the lights fade away in the darkness. The rumble and noise of the chopper blades amplifies your senses. The sensation of being lifted away from danger is like being rescued by an angel.
We have been incredibly fortunate to have the privilege of serving here in Iraq. This has been one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. We have done all we could possibly do. We cleared innumerable roads of hazards and prevented countless loss of life. We were in the right place at the right time.
Everyone is grateful for the assignment and thankful for having survived to tell the stories. I want to thank everyone for your continuous support and encouragement regardless of political persuasion and opinion of the war. We couldn't have done it without you.
LT Cameron Chen, USN
Michael Fumento, formerly of the 27th Engineer Battalion (Combat) (Airborne), was embedded with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, to which the 8th EOD Support Battalion is attached.