Not at this rate:
The New York Times
November 19, 2006
A Captain’s Journey From Hope to Just Getting Her Unit Home
By KIRK SEMPLE
BAGHDAD, Nov. 18 — Capt. Stephanie A. Bagley and the military police company she commands arrived in Iraq in December 2005 brimming with optimism about taking on one of the most urgent tasks in Iraq: building a new police force.
Now, as the 21st Military Police Company approaches the end of a deployment marked by small victories and enormous disappointments, Captain Bagley is focused on a more modest goal.
“I just want to get everyone home,” she said. In the past several weeks, Captain Bagley, 30, barred her troops from foot patrols in the most violent neighborhoods and eliminated all nonessential travel. “I’m just not willing to lose another soldier,” she said.
The local police force in her region, as in much of Iraq, remains undertrained, poorly equipped and unable to stand up to the rigors of this conflict. It offers little resistance to the relentless Sunni Arab-led insurgency and has at least partly come under the sway of wily Shiite militias. Casualties are high, morale is low and many police officers do not show up for work.
Captain Bagley, a West Point graduate and the daughter and granddaughter of military policemen, said she has come to realize just how little she and her unit knew when they arrived, and just how much was stacked against their success.
The company’s challenges crystallized in a moment late last month during a routine assignment. Some of her soldiers had gone to the Baya Local Police Station, one of 18 local stations in the troubled southern outskirts of Baghdad where her unit has worked this year. They were picking up a contingent of Iraqi policemen for a daily patrol of Dora, an especially violent neighborhood here in the capital.
On these patrols, the Americans, swaddled in Kevlar from head to hips, travel in Humvees and other armored vehicles. The Iraqis, wearing only bulletproof vests, ride in soft-skinned pickup trucks and S.U.V.’s, the only vehicles they have.
The Iraqi policemen begged the Americans not to make them go out. They peeled off their clothes to reveal shrapnel scars from past attacks. They tugged the armored plates from their Kevlar vests and told the Americans they were faulty. They said they had no fuel for their vehicles. They disappeared on indefinite errands elsewhere in the compound. They said they would not patrol if it meant passing a trash pile, a common hiding place for bombs.
The Iraqis eventually gave up and climbed into two S.U.V.’s with shattered windshields and missing side windows, and the joint patrol moved out. One Iraqi officer draped his Kevlar vest from the window of his car door for lateral protection. During a lunch break, the officers tried to sneak away in their cars.
Later in the day, back at her command center on a military base in southern Baghdad, Captain Bagley said the pleading and excuses were common. But she did not blame the Iraqis. They are soft targets for the insurgency, and scores of officers have been wounded or killed in her area during the past year. The police stations’ motor pools are so crowded with ravaged vehicles that they could be taken for salvage yards.
“I’d never want to go out in an Iraqi police truck,” the captain said. “But we still have to convince them. We’ve been given a job to train them.” But she also points out that her orders were to help train and equip a local force to deal with common crime, like theft and murder, not teach infantry skills to wage a counterinsurgency campaign.
Captain Bagley has spent most of her days this year shuttling from station to station, checking on her soldiers and meeting with the Iraqi commanders to discuss their problems over potent, sugary tea. Fresh-faced and fit, her long hair knotted under her helmet and a pistol strapped to her thigh, she has moved through this loud and overwhelmingly male world with a calm, understated authority that the Iraqi commanders have come to depend on.
The government’s sclerotic supply chain — clogged by bureaucracy, corruption and lack of money — has failed to provide the stations with the necessary tools of policing, from office supplies to weapons, uniforms and police cruisers. “Even something as simple as a pen, they have to get it for us,” said Maj. Muhammad Hassan Aboud, the commander of the Belat Al Shuwayda station in southern Baghdad, pointing to Captain Bagley. “If we lose them, we’re pretty much going nowhere.”
The captain said, “We’re holding their hands so much now.” If the Americans were not involved, she said, some senior commanders would not have the fortitude to confront the militias. “A lot of times I’m just the motivator,” she said. “I’m motivated because I’m going home soon. But what motivates them?”
Days earlier, she recalled, a death squad had killed the family of another of her station commanders. “Yet,” she continued, a tinge of exasperation in her voice, “you’re given the mission to motivate these guys to protect Iraqi citizens.”
At the beginning of her deployment, she hoped that by the end of the year the police would be able to respond to calls from any neighborhood without American help. But after the bombing of an important Shiite shrine in February incited a surge in sectarian violence, she decided that goal was unrealistic.
She decided to focus on developing the top officers, particularly the station commanders. “We realized that if we didn’t have a strong leader, the station won’t work,” she said.
But the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police force, has frequently changed commanders, often citing reasons of incompetence or death threats, sometimes offering no explanation at all. The Rashid station has had eight chiefs since it opened in late April. Absentee rates there have soared as high as 75 percent, though the rate had dropped to 25 percent by late last month, in large part because the latest chief was docking the pay of absent officers.
Over the course of the year, as sectarianism spread in the police force, Captain Bagley saw Shiite policemen balk at orders from Sunni shift commanders and Shiite station chiefs clash with their Sunni deputies.
She has also had to confront the creep of militia influence, as militia loyalists within the force used their leverage to avoid punishment or intimidate senior leadership. She intervened after a deputy station commander told her that his commander was being pressured by the militia of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr to free several captured militiamen. The men remained in jail.
The job of inspiring her Iraqi and American charges alike has become increasingly difficult as the violence has escalated in Baghdad in recent months.
As part of the American military’s push to wrest control of the capital’s streets from insurgents and militias, she was ordered to move some of her soldiers out of the police stations and into the streets of Dora to conduct daily patrols. Following an effort by American and Iraqi troops to seal off and clear that neighborhood, violence there has risen sharply, and attacks on her joint patrols have become frequent.
On Oct. 2, her soldiers were accompanying Iraqi police officers on a patrol through the Dora marketplace when a sniper shot and killed Sgt. Joseph Walter Perry, a 23-year-old turret gunner from San Diego. He was one of at least eight American soldiers killed in Iraq that day. Numerous soldiers from Captain Bagley’s company had been wounded over the year; in April, a bomb destroyed a Humvee and tore off the driver’s left leg. But Sergeant Perry’s death was the company’s first here and it devastated Captain Bagley.
“People from other units will say, ‘You’ve only lost one?’ ” she said, her face tensing in indignation. “Only? We haven’t had it so bad as others, but I can’t minimize Perry’s death.” She paused. “I’m the one who sends them into the market.”
After the death, Captain Bagley started counting the days to the end of the tour and her company’s return to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. She found herself lying awake at night, thinking about how to keep her company alive amid a worsening war. She started micromanaging her soldiers’ movements. She tried to relax in the evenings by hanging out with her lieutenants or reading paperbacks that she describes as “trashy.” But the relief was always fleeting. “I’m in no-sleep mode,” she said.
As the death toll among American troops has risen in Baghdad, and the security plan has faltered, Captain Bagley’s soldiers say they have tried to resist the urge to question the larger American enterprise here, whether it was right or wrong to come to Iraq in the first place, whether and when American troops should leave. They are here to do a job, they say, and are duty-bound to complete it.
But Captain Bagley has asked herself those questions “all the time,” she said. She ponders whether it has all been worth her soldier’s leg or her soldier’s life. She wonders what the American command will do to turn things around.
Loyalty to the armed services is in her blood. Her father served in Vietnam, her grandfather in World War II. She grew up on military bases in the United States and Germany. Her sister is an Army nurse. She has served three other deployments since 1999, and, partly as a result, has two divorces behind her.
Her phone calls with her father sometimes touch on the faltering course of the war. “He asks, ‘Why the heck doesn’t it calm down?’ ” she said. She is at a loss to explain why.
Her discouragement is plain, but she keeps her deepest thoughts private, in part because she wants to protect her soldiers from doubt at this most critical time in their lives. She knows that their job is difficult enough without the suggestion that their sacrifices may have been in vain. “You can’t pass it along to your soldiers,” she said. “You can’t question it. It would lead to the destruction of the company. You got to keep it together.”
The company has done everything it could to help rebuild Iraq, she said, but now they want to go home. “It’s been a very frustrating year,” she said. “We all want to get out of here.”