Notes from Iraq

The following are dispatches from the K-State delegation:

10:00 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 10, COB Adder

Another night helicopter ride takes the delegation to COB Adder, staging for a trip on Thursday to visit with an Italian reconstruction team and a side jaunt to the ancient (if oddly named) city of Ur.

6:00 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 10, COB Basra

President Schulz has 30 minutes to chat online before attending a dinner with Victory 5 (Maj. Gen. Brooks and staff) and the rest of the delegation. The general's chef works miracles with mess hall chow and has several surprises, including Powercat and Big Red One croutons. Plans are made to reconnect once the Big Red One command comes home in January.

11:00 a.m., Wednesday, Nov. 10, Minden POE

A daylight helicopter ride over the desert shows the effect of the past 30 years of war and sanctions on the country. Miles of desert are covered with sand fortifications built during the war with Iran. Carcasses of tanks and other vehicles still litter the sand and the occasional rusted hull can be seen in the waterway.

Minden is the second busiest point of entry to Iraq and represents the fault line with Iran. Fortifications still face each other, although there is lots of traffic in the form of trucks filled with fruit. Religious pilgrims walk across the border on their way to visit holy sites in Iraq.

The immersion experience continues at lunch with Maj. Gen. Mohammed, who has responsibility for the point of entry. An extremely outgoing and gracious man, the general leads a lively discussion (via an interpreter) about the operation, the border and the opportunities for Iraq. His staff continually supplies the visitors with candy, baked goods, soda, water and chai tea. In the Iraqi custom, he begins by talking about his family.

Hospitality matters in this society and the general demonstrates this by providing an authentic Iraqi meal—eaten standing up and using no utensils. President Schulz and Dean Moxley join the general and entourage in feasting on roasted lamb, some kind of fish, fresh bread, dates and other delicacies. Lots of laughter as everyone became accustomed to a new style of dining and new friends.

A decrepit tower and archway mark the border; from the top you can see the customs operations of both countries. There is a lot of security and a serious attitude prevails.

Next comes meeting with the Provincial Reconstruction Team after a quick chopper ride back to COB Basra. As the Army winds down operations in Iraq over the next year, the State Department has transition teams in each province. Eventually a U.S. Consulate will be built at Basra. Again, partnering opportunities are discussed.

9:15 a.m., Wednesday, Nov. 10, Conference Room

Art DeGroat led a discussion about future partnership opportunities with the Big Red One. There are several levels of partnership in place already, and K-State is committed to being military inclusive—not just military friendly. Our relationship with Fort Riley gives us the chance to create pilot programs and identify best practices for persistence to degree by undergraduates.

8:00 a.m., Wednesday, Nov. 10, Command Center

Attended a daily briefing by Maj. Gen. Brooks, accompanied by a tour of the operations center. Staff members obviously spend extensive time in preparing a thorough look at the current political and security situation. The depth of discussion and knowledge of the political and religious terrain demonstrate the complexity of the situation. Reducing what's happening in Iraq to a television news sound bite cannot possibly give a clear picture of a very complex geopolitical situation.

8:00 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 9, Huertgen Forrest COB, Basra, Iraq

President Schulz fires up an online chat session with K-Staters. Despite the potential for technical glitches, everything works—another technology triumph for the Army. Lots of great questions and great answers, the trip is generating even more interest in the relationship between K-State and Fort Riley.

5:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 9, COB Bara Mess Hall, Basra, Iraq

Dinner with married couples who both serve in the military. They fit within three categories: both deployed to the same place; one deployed here, the other at home; and one deployed here with the other deployed in another theater (usually Afghanistan). The discussion, moderated by Maj. Gen. Brooks, was fascinating. Dean Moxley asked several insightful questions and was rewarded with remarkably candid answers.

The soldiers were very candid about the challenges faced by dual-career couples that worked in a high-risk occupation. Not only were they willing to share with us, but several of the older soldiers offered sage advice to the younger couples. It was especially touching when those who had lived through failed marriages shared lessons learned.

4:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 9, Media Operations Center COB, Basra, Iraq

Met with the media staff, who produce video, newsletters and marketing campaigns, much as our Division of Communications and Marketing. Several great ideas were advanced to help soldiers communicate with students and vice versa. Again, the professionalism of the staff was evident.

3:00 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 9, USD-S HQ COB, Basra, Iraq

Maj. Gen. Brooks and his staff gave us a briefing on the progress being made in the nine provinces for which they are responsible for providing security. The discussion focused on economic development initiatives and the role of the military, State Department and others in supporting the Iraqi government. The scope is impressive, as is the professionalism of the Command Staff. Clearly they are doing many great things that may not make the media, but will help the Iraqi people. Much progress is being made.

1:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 9, Basra, Iraq

Had lunch with several K-State graduates at the mess hall. They were an impressive group. Alumni included Lt. Col Jessie Robinson (who attended K-State through our Leavenworth program), Capt. Adam Cowan, Warrant Officer Scott Webster, Capt. Joe Strawn and 1st Lt. Andrew Thomas. The Division Commander, Master Sergeant Jim Champagne, showed up wearing a hat emblazoned with a Powercat and has a K-State decorated office to rival many on campus. He claims to be the most fervent Wildcat fan in Iraq and it's hard to argue.

10 a.m., Tuesday, Nov. 9, Basrah University, Basra, Iraq

We received a warm welcome from Dr. Saleh E. Najim, the chancellor of Basrah University. Our delegation included Gen. Dragon, members of the provincial reconstruction team and representatives from the U.S. State Department.

Iraqi tea was served at the welcome reception; it’s a local staple, very sweet and strong. Dr. Najim and Dr. Schulz discussed differences between the universities and explored ways to work together. Both are trained engineers and share an affinity for technology.

Petroleum engineering is big topic of discussion, as is the need for additional faculty. Another challenge is helping students get sufficient English speaking skills to go abroad for graduate study. The British model was held up as an example that is easier to work with than the U.S. program.

The chancellor discussed ways K-State could assist with reviving the country’s date production. The number of date palms has been dramatically reduced in recent years due to a variety of factors. Iraq has a well-deserved reputation for producing the best dates in the world.

Water salinity is an issue and Dr. Najim requested assistance from K-State in solving this issue. Vegetable production also needs a boost, with reduced acreage available due to economic conditions and increased soil salinity. Over the past two years, the number of tomato farmers has dropped from 5,000 to 1,000. The loss of jobs has been significant, which affects the economic recovery in the area. Seed availability also is an issue, as are subsidized imports from Iran.

Another concern is the re-establishment of the salt marshes, which are an essential ecosystem in this part of the country. Wildlife populations have also been decimated in recent years. Since Babylonian times, water buffalo served as a source of protein for the region, but are now sparse. Basrah University officials are very interested in developing formal agreements with K-State to work in very specific areas.

The students were gregarious and friendly. All were nicely dressed, with the young women wearing colorful scarves and long skirts. White shirts were favored among the men and many wore ties. As is common in Arabic culture, young men often held hands. While Iraqi students reportedly use cell phones as much or more than Americans, we did not see a single student using them on campus. Nor did we see a single pair of flip-flops.

6:40 a.m., Tuesday, Nov. 9, Basra, Iraq (local time)

Breakfast in the mess hall, not unlike the dining centers on campus. Two major differences: the two-foot thick hardened ceiling and the fact that the diners are all carrying loaded weapons. Just as college students sling backpacks under their chairs, the soldiers place M-4 rifles on the floor alongside the tables. The amount of diversity is impressive—there are many women and minority officers. Clearly the Army has an enviable model for advancing one’s career based on merit.

Watching the soldiers on the heavily fortified base gives an intense feeling of pride. It’s one thing to see an armed guard at a base in Kansas, but is a totally different experience seeing soldiers who are carrying weapons in anticipation of lethal action. Nearly everyone here is armed (except the K-Staters) and private citizens openly carry guns.

Met Warrant Officer Lamb, whose wife works for K-State, and Shane Yost, a soldier from the Coldwater, Kan., area. Good to see Kansans on the far side of the world.

Our heavily armed convoy included a mobile command vehicle, in which President Schulz rode with Gen. Randy Dragon. The vehicle has secure satellite, Internet, video and phone communications, and replicates what is available on the base. During the trip to the university, Gen. Dragon participated in a briefing being held at headquarters. Very impressive technology.

The vehicles in the convoy reflect changes made as a result of wartime tactics, including the use of improvised explosive devices. Sensors are used to identify and block electronic signals often used as trigger devices. Each vehicle also has a boom on the front that is used to sweep the path. It was unusual to hear the phrase “dead dog cleared” over the headphones.

3:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 8, Kuwait City

Body ArmorLanded in Kuwait and were met by Fort Riley-based personnel who are stationed here. Traveled by van to the passenger terminal of the Air Mobility Command, where we were issued body armor and helmets. Two Blackhawk helicopters were sent to transport us to Basra, Iraq.

 

9:41 a.m. Central Standard Time, Sunday, Nov. 7

DFW (Dallas-Forth Worth) Airport

The USO at DFW is one of the nicest in the world. Leather recliners, sleeping quarters, computer access and games are provided for traveling soldiers and retired military.

Display cases near the entrance to the main concourse are filled with hundreds of military coins. A long-standing military tradition holds that the coins are presented on visits. President Schulz had a coin struck to commemorate the trip, honoring the relationship between the Big Red One and K-State. Schulz is the first university president to have a military coin struck.

Fittingly, the first coin was presented to the DFW USO, where countless military personnel have rested on their way to and from various engagements.