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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Earning, maintaining trust of residents

31 May 2007
By Sgt. Mike Pryor
2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division

BAGHDAD — It’s the usual happy chaos when 1st Lt. Josh Rowan arrives at neighborhood advisory council member Abu Muhanned’s house for their weekly meeting – children running amuck in the yard, women crowded into the kitchen, and Muhanned standing in the doorway in pajamas and bare feet, a cigarette in one hand, jabbering into his cell phone.

He greets Rowan warmly and ushers him and his Soldiers inside his home nestled in eastern Baghdad’s Adhamiyah District. While a security team sets up on the roof, Rowan and Muhanned move to the living room to talk. By now, it’s a familiar routine.

It should be.

Muhanned’s house was the destination of Rowan’s very first patrol in Iraq, almost four months ago, and they have met regularly ever since to plan development projects for the area.

Today, however, will be Rowan’s last visit. Rowan, a platoon leader with 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, from College Station, Texas, is moving to a different job. The purpose of this final meeting was to introduce Muhanned to his replacement, 1st Lt. Jeremy Tillman, of Walnut Ridge, Ark.

“All I’m here to do is introduce Tillman and close the loop,” Rowan said.

In the Army, the only constant is change. Soldiers are always moving from one position to another and taking over different duties. But in Iraq, the challenge for new leaders like Tillman is, how do you take over a relationship? Rowan and Muhanned worked successfully together because they had a strong personal bond. Tillman will have to build that trust all over again.

“That’s the challenge of counter-insurgency warfare,” Rowan said.

“It’s difficult,” agreed Tillman. “It’s really just about the individual person’s personality.”

Over tea and cigarettes at Muhanned’s house, Rowan made a big show of introducing Tillman.

“Sir, I look forward to working with you,” Tillman told Muhanned, when Rowan was done.

“I will put my hand in your hand. You will protect me, and I will protect you,” Muhanned replied.

The meeting continued for almost two hours, with conversation bouncing from topic to topic. One minute they were talking about putting trash cans on the street corners, the next minute about a trip Muhanned’s son was planning and the next about security threats in the area. In between, Muhanned’s wife served a huge lunch.

When the meeting was over, Tillman said it had been an eye-opening experience. At his previous unit, the focus had been almost entirely on raids and kinetic operations. Tillman could only remember a few times when he had actually sat in an Iraqi’s house and talked.

“Here, they’re interacting. They’re constantly getting out there and talking to local leaders,” Tillman said. “The mindset is just totally different.”

Since the 2-319th took over its section of Baghdad in February, the paratroopers have adhered to classic counter-insurgency theory, balancing military operations with efforts to engage local leaders, build the economy, and improve essential services. Rowan said the strategy, though slow and difficult to measure, is showing results.

“People are moving here from other parts of Baghdad because they say this is a safe place,” he told his platoon members just before his last patrol with them. “It’s the little things that we are doing that are making a difference.”

In the end, it all boils down to personal relationships, said Capt. Jonathan Harvey, Rowan and Tillman’s battery commander.

The challenge when a key leader gets switched out is to maintain the existing relationships.

“You have to be very delicate in the hand over,” said Harvey, of Nebraska City, Neb. “Iraqi culture is big on trust.”

Harvey said he made sure Tillman had plenty of time to shadow Rowan and meet one on one with all his Iraqi counterparts.

“Back in the states, a change of command is nothing more than an inventory. Here, it’s a much more deliberate process,” Harvey said. “(For Tillman and Rowan) we took 11 days, and each day had a different leader engagement.”

Despite the introductions and the crash course he received on Adhamiyah’s kaleidoscopic array of political and religious groups and their rivalries, Tillman said he still has a lot to learn. It will take time to build up the kind of personal relationships that Rowan had, where he knew not just someone’s name, but their wife and son’s names and what brand of cigarette they smoked, too.

“I know the area. As far as terrain, how to operate, tactics - I know all that,” Tillman said. “What I need to learn is who I can trust.”

Photo - 1st Lt. Josh Rowan (left), of College Station, Texas, goes over some information with 1st Lt. Jeremy Tillman, of Walnut Ridge, Ark., at a meeting with the chairman of the neighborhood council in Rabi, Adhamiyah May 21. Tillman would soon be taking over for Rowan as a new platoon leader with B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. Photographer: Sgt. Michael Pryor.

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