11 April, 2008

A Canadian in Iraq

A couple of weeks ago, thanks to a Canadian friend of The Castle, I read about a rather unusual person--a Canadian soldier in Iraq. Thanks to MAJ Conway of 3rd Infantry Division's Public Affairs Office, I interviewed him last Tuesday.

Canadian LTC Darryl Mills has been part of the U.S.-Canadian officer and NCO exchange program since 2004, and so deployed with the 3ID in 2005-2006. He was supposed to finish up in 2007, but with 3ID about to deploy again, he was asked to stay on. Today he's serving alongside American soldiers in Baghdad as the division's Deputy Chief of Staff, assuming the same responsibilities in the position as an American soldier would.

“I'm treated just like a U.S. officer,” he says. As a deputy chief, he is helping to synchronize the entire range of daily activities for the division--from combat operations to humanitarian assistance, to personnel administration. He seems particularly glad to have the educational opportunities available in such a high-level position. The Canadian army is divided at only the battalion level without any divisions above, so this is “great exposure…giving me a full range of understanding of what a U.S. Army Division does in Combat,” he explains with appreciation. It has also introduced him to hardware and resources that he wouldn't encounter in Canada.

The military exchange program has been in existence for quite awhile, but it's not something well-known in the civilian world. According to LTC Mills, there are currently about 300 Canadians working within their allies' armed forces, a not-insignificant number when one considers the size of Canadian Forces. Canada's goals in participating so strongly are two-fold: to increase their knowledge/skill/experience in ways they can use to improve their own military, and to improve the Canadian military's ability to integrate effectively with allies in both war and peacetime exercises. “When we come back, we’re able to bring back to our country…what we’ve learned abroad,” LTC Mills says. He also points out that it is important for Canada to improve integration for future coalition operations with allies because they recognize that due to their modest size, “We will always be fighting alongside someone else.”

LTC Mills describes the Canadians and Americans as very similar armies. The biggest difference is obviously in scale--Canada's entire combat forces (the “Field Force”) would fit within the U.S. Army's 3ID. A related difference he has noticed is that due to the limited size of Canadian forces, there is less specialization for the average Canadian soldier than for Americans. For example, an American soldier might be trained primarily to fire a 50-caliber machine gun, but a Canadian would be expected to be thoroughly competent with 4 or 5 different offensive weapons ranging from handguns to mortars. However, “We share a lot of things,” he reports. "Different acronyms, but basic soldiering and training for combat and combat itself is standard across the board.”

On the cultural side, the biggest change for LTC Mills has been the difference between the regimental system of Canada, and U.S. attitudes toward staffing a unit. Once someone is assigned to a Regiment, he/she tends to be there for the duration. They “don't move around so much,” said LTC Mills, and so there is a very strong personal connection to the home regiment and the people in it, “more of a family feel." Having American soldiers move through 3ID during his time with them has taken some getting used to for LTC Mills.

When LTC Mills deployed to Iraq with 3ID in 2005, he was Operations Officer for the Deputy Commanding General for Maneuver and Operations. It meant he was “outside the wire” on a daily basis, and had the chance to develop intimate knowledge of the people and situation on the ground. “It was an eye-opening and professionally rewarding experience,” he says. In the current deployment he's been tied to desk, and expresses a certain amount of frustration that he must rely on the reports of others for information about what is happening outside the walls. He reports a lack of comfort about that, and feeling a sense of isolation--the lament of many a staff officer who would rather be on the front lines.

[The rest is in the Flash Traffic/Extended Entry]

I also had the chance to ask LTC Mills about how things have been going in 3ID's AO, which stretches from Iraq's western to eastern borders in a band from southern Baghdad Province to south of Najaf. He reports they didn't experience any of the unrest that was sparked in Baghdad proper by the Iraqi offensive in Basra, and the rates of attack against coalition and Iraqi forces remain very low. However, several of the Iraqi units they train/mentor or assist were sent to Basra and were on their way back the day I spoke to LTC Mills. He seemed to be looking forward to hearing their reports.

In general, LTC Mills was very upbeat and optimistic about 3ID's AO. “We believe we are clearly at a point where security is good in our AO, to the point now that we really focus on capacity-building.” He credits much of the success to counter-insurgency tactics such as Coalition forces living among the Iraqis, and development of the Sons of Iraq (citizen security groups). Conditions are now such that the Iraqi people "realize there is more to life than being scared everyday about unrest and the security environment.” Priorities have been economic development, reconciliation--linking small towns with higher government--and a focus on improving the lives of women through job-training and development of social or advocacy organizations.

LTC Mills seems to believe that the section of Iraq under 3ID's responsibility has hit a tipping point, though he didn't use that phrase. As security improves, “markets pop up everywhere, providing local economy stimulation and security, which creates a Circle of Life in some ways.” Coalition forces are “no longer worrying about the crisis of the day. The Iraqi government and military are stronger each day, exercise their power more each day.” As things get better and better, LTC Mills reports they become self-reinforcing. “Once you get to a certain point there is no going back. Each day government, economy and military get stronger and it’s harder for the terrorists to come back.”

Considering how much the Canadian populace seems opposed to the Iraq war, I asked LTC Mills if he felt that his fellow Canadian soldiers at home understood or shared the perspective he'd developed from being a part of the mission in Iraq. “When I talk to my peers in Canada, I have never got the feeling that what I am doing is not right or proper or appreciated or respected,” he reported. “It’s all part of the global stability and I’m doing my part.” He's a firm believer in finishing the job in Iraq. “You can debate whether or not we should’ve come here in the first place, but we’re long past that... You can’t cut and run. I look to today and the job that we have today.”

He's also adamant about the growth he's seeing in Iraqi capabilities. “I’m here on the ground, so I see the change day-to-day, he reports. I see a government that is standing up.”

Because of his optimism and the upward trajectory of conditions in the AO, LTC Mills almost sounded disappointed when he spoke of GEN Petreaus' Tuesday testimony on Capitol Hill. “I get his comments about ‘guarded optimism,’” he said. And he agreed with GEN Petraeus' message of “let’s not rush,” but LTC Mills is obviously very optimistic and excited about the future. He acknowledged that improvements are uneven across Iraq, [But] in our area, there has been a lot of progress... it has been quite substantial.”

I suspect it would not surprise many readers that one of the bigger challenges 3ID is facing right now has to do with the homefront. As Deputy Chief of Staff, LTC Mills doesn't usually interact directly with VIPs who visit from the U.S., but he hears about the visits and has definite opinions about them. “We respect [visitors who are informed and] can speak about the before and after... who tend not to come in with an agenda. Not all are like that, sadly.”

So for the last week, LTC Mills has been working on something aimed at VIP visitors who have an agenda based on inadequate information, or who lack the contextual understanding of what is happening in 3ID's AO. They are literally putting together a presentation of “before and after” pictures and info to educate VIPs who think that because it doesn't look like America, it's a disaster. “There is a continuing trajectory of positive developments, LTC Mills explained. "However, we get some people coming out here and they look and go, ‘eww, this is progress?!’”

LTC Mills reports he has been warmly received by the American soldiers he works with (not treated as an outsider or token), and that having spent a number of years in the U.S. with his family, the thought of going back to Canada permanently this summer brings mixed emotions. The exchange program has provided him with a “sense of pride and belonging and understanding of the American people.” The more time he spends, “the more I enjoy it.. and the more I understand it.” Like what he has learned from the U.S. military that he will take home with him, he sees his family taking home a bit of American culture, too: “You can take the best of both worlds. It’s gonna be tough to go home. We’ve made a home in Savannah [home of the 3ID]--and it doesn’t snow there!”