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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Dublin Army major trains Iraqi police, sees combat

Derek Bonaldo spent a year bolstering law enforcement to make way for American pullout.

By Roman Gokhman, STAFF WRITER
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Article Last Updated: 05/03/2007 08:59:32 AM PDT.

DUBLIN — For most of his Army career, Derek Bonaldo worked behind a desk as a self-described paper pusher. But on May 1, 2006, he was in the middle of his first firefight near Baghdad, Iraq.

Bonaldo, a major in the 91st Support Division, based in Dublin, was training several Iraqi National Police officers at a checkpoint on the road between the International Zone and the Baghdad Airport when insurgent snipers on a rooftop opened fire.

We happened to be going by and providing support, and we got caught in the fray, the 36-year-old said. We brought in helicopter support, cornered them and got them with help from other units.

It was my first combat tour and my first combat action.

Bonaldo, a 14-year career militaryman, was sent to Iraq to train that countriess law enforcement force to stand on its own in preparation for an eventual U.S. withdrawal. He returned home last month after a one-year tour, and said that it will take a minimum of one more year before Iraq is ready to stand on its own.

It was a personal choice to go to Iraq, he said, and he was not required to do so. Hes not a Rambo, he said, but he felt that he needed to step up and relieve some troops that had have been on several tours already.

Although he had never trained troops before, he was assigned to an 11-member transition team as a logistics adviser to the Iraqi National Police and a liaison between the national police and the U.S. military.

His goal was to make the national police first responders self-sustainable. He instructed them in battlefield operating systems during training and prepared them for combat. He also kept his superiors informed on the Iraqi officers readiness.
The aim is to wean the Iraqi government off U.S. support and show them they can do it themselves, he said.

The main challenge was showing them there is an infrastructure, he said. Its in its infancy but its there on the Iraqi side.

By infrastructure, Bonaldo means items such as fuel, ammunition, uniforms and food.

His team was one of hundreds in Iraq, at least as of December, when there were 5,000 military transition personnel in the country, he said.

Some work with the military, some work with the local police, and some work with the national police, Bonaldo said. But they are all working to get Iraq to stand on its own and defend (itself).

In 12 months, Bonaldo spent time at bases in Taji, Baghdad Airport, Kadhimiy and the International Zone in Baghdad.

Training Iraqi police officers is hard work, even with the help of multiple translators, he said.

While Iraqi commanders have prior military service, privates usually have had none.

In the U.S., even before a soldier gets to his first unit, they still have much more experience, he said. Our boot camps are much more strenuous and they get a lot more done than in the Iraqi boot camps. A lot of times, (national police recruits) are not moving at the pace that a U.S. commander is used to.

But American troops efforts are slowly paying off, Bonaldo said.

Were they making progress? Yeah, he said. But you know how the American people are. They want results quickly. Its a slow process ... too slow for most people. The guys I was working with need at least one year.

And the Iraqi government and most residents still appreciate the U.S. involvement, he said.

Bonaldo and his unit returned to the U.S. last month as decorated veterans. All 11 were awarded Bronze Stars for acts of merit or bravery. Six received Army Commendation Medals with the Valor attachment and one received a Purple Heart.

Nobody died and we did what we were supposed to do, he said.

Once he got home, Bonaldo took a month off to spend time with his wife, Erika, and his family.

Erika Bonaldo said the two also had their first real wedding ceremony; when they were married in 2004 it was an elopement, and five planned ceremonies were postponed because of his military requirements.

She said her husband learned a lot from his experience, but also imparted more knowledge to the people he worked with.

He built a good rapport with the people there ... and it was probably easy for him.

Roman Gokhman can be reached at (925) 416-4849 or by e-mail here.

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