With the POB elements safely ensconced between our armored vehicles we began the movement to the election sites. The movement was as short as it was uneventful, a testament to the professionalism of the anti-IED sweep by the Buffalo and its security detachment. As we approached the first polling site our convoy started to transform with an almost organic grace. In a matter of seconds our reed thin column started to form a dense knot of force, growing and swelling like an enormous, hollow fruit. Just as the boundaries of this vicious wall of armor started to fill the dusty field the POB pulled into the middle of the swollen circlet. As they pulled into the epicenter of our armored cocoon the chrysalis cracked and the formation folded into its next form. The outer rings of vehicles peeled away, splintering into their overwatch positions. What they left behind was a single wall of armored vehicles with the vulnerable POB serving as the kernel seed. As soon as the last overwatch vehicle shuttled away our heavy doors swung open and troops pounded out, fanning out to secure the staging area. Once all the overwatch positions were in place and the staging area was secure elements of the POB linked up with our Soldiers and started clearing the election site. The radio hummed with clipped traffic as troops cleared through the classrooms and called up their reports, and in a handful of minutes the site had been secured.
With the sites secure our Soldiers started to stream into the enormous school and start the laborious process of turning a school into a fortified security position. I spent a few minutes watching our NCOs position heavy weapons and set up the communication relays, and then I moved back to the powerful HEMMT wrecker. Although the wrecker wasn’t a combat vehicle it was key to our long term survival, because it was the only vehicle capable of moving the concrete barriers into blocking positions. I spent the next several hours leading the wrecker to our outer security positions to set up the concrete revetments. As we approached each site the crew would dismount, affix the wrecker’s powerful crane to the concrete k-rail and deftly move it into position. Although each concrete k-rail weighed several tons the practiced crews moved them like they were oversize children’s toys, easily slinging them into blocking positions. By late morning the wrecker crew had finished setting the barriers into place, and from that moment on the area was no longer a school. It was a fortress.
With the outer perimeter in place I released the wrecker back to the FOB to assist other units and moved back to the school to check on our inner perimeter. Our Soldiers had used their time wisely, by time I returned to the school the battle positions were hardened and the first guard rotation was scanning their perimeters. I walked to each position to double check their work, and finding no fault I called over my terp and headed a few classrooms over to where the POB were staged. Although showing up at the appointed hit time was a good indicator I was still uncertain about the tactical proficiency of the POB forces, and as I was walking over to their position I asked my terp, Black Sheep, for his take on our compatriots.
Black Sheep is far and away the best terp in our Battalion, his tenure as an interpreter for combat units stretches back to the early days of OIF I. More then a few terps flatly refused to work with our company because of the dangerous area we patrol, and several others have quit after surviving an IED strike. But not Black Sheep. Black Sheep has been through so many IEDs that even he has lost count, and yet he still happily jumps into my vehicle every time I head into sector. After spending year after year working with American forces Black Sheep has gained an almost intuitive sense for what questions I am going to ask, and as soon as the question left my lips he was ready with an answer. Black Sheep stopped in his tracks, turned to face me and said “most of this POB force just graduated basic training, but they are very excited to be here”. With that in mind we walked over to the Lieutenant in charge of the POB forces and started integrating our security positions.
After exchanging pleasantries the POB officer gave me a run down of his personnel and equipment and how he had initially arrayed his forces. After he had given me the information I paused for a moment, waiting for the Iraqi LT to start his litany of supply requests. The silence seemed to yawn out, and as it started to become awkward I turned to Black Sheep and asked why he wasn’t demanding equipment. Black Sheep turned to me and said “I don’t know sir, let me ask”. After a brief exchange Black Sheep turned to me and said “The LT has several shortages, but before he asks he wants to ensure his security positions are in the right location”. I’m not sure what answer I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that one. I silently chastised myself for being so jaded, and started towards the areas I wanted the Iraqis to occupy. As we walked to the first set of positions I felt utterly bewildered, and for the first time I started to question some of my preconceptions about their tactical utility. Once we were overlooking the area I wanted them to overwatch I explained my intent and asked the LT to show me where he planned to arrange his forces. Once Black Sheep finished translating the LT looked around for a few seconds and then pointed out two positions. The first location was tactically perfect, a commanding position with perfect views over the main avenues of approach. The second was tactically sound, but slightly off my assessment of the best location. His choices weren’t perfect, but they showed that he had a firm working knowledge of defensive positions. I spent a few minutes coaching him on some of the nuances of defensive arrays, and why his forces in the second position would best be moved to another location. The LT listened attentively and concurred with my assessment, and as we walked to the next position he barked out orders to his soldiers. We walked from point to point, with the LT pointing out positions and asking for my assessment. Most of his choices were well made, and when he made mistakes I quietly pointed out where he might want to set up instead. Each time I offered a suggestion he readily agreed, and by time we moved to the second site he was choosing strong tactical positions.
Once the Iraqis were busy setting in their own positions I headed to the pink walled classroom that was serving as my makeshift CP and started to settle in. The headquarters element had done an impressive job, and I spent the next hour getting updates on events in the battalion sector.
By time I was briefed up on the latest intel the dust started to dance across the tile floors in tune with the heavy throb of approaching tanks. That could mean only one thing… dinner had arrived. I headed over to one of the security positions and sure enough the tanks rolled in escorting a LMTV loaded with mermites (the insulated containers holding hot meals). By time I clambered down the steps the 1LT Mo and 1SG Nascar had started unloading the mermites and arranging the chow line. Setting in defensive positions is hard labor, and in seconds our troops started appearing to assist with downloading the vehicles. I chatted with the XO and 1SG a few minutes and by time we wrapped up company business the chow line was up and running. The XO and 1SG finished going over a few key items and then jumped back into the LMTV and prepared to head back to the FOB with the M1 escort.
Meanwhile SGT Bard and SPC Spartan were happily ladling out steaming scoops of rice and chicken onto long line of plastic plates. The troops held out their plates like Buddhist monks seeking alms, until the plastic dishes looked like the steep sided slopes of a steaming volcano. After everyone was served I grabbed a plate and served myself. The food was nothing spectacular, but it was hot and pleasantly satisfying. Once we finished we started serving the Iraqi soldiers. They seemed to have taken their cues from our Soldiers, and they happily piled their plates high with food. The thoughtful DFAC crew had sent a mermite full of red jello, and watching the Iraqis poke and prod the wobbling scarlet cubes had me laughing outright. Finally one of the Iraqis grabbed one of the cubes and popped it in his mouth. As he chewed on the jello his grimace melted into a wide smile, and he quickly asked for more. From then on every POB soldier giddily asked for large portions of jello to accompany their meal. By time everyone was served there was still plenty of chicken and rice… but the jello had disappeared.