Trial by fire
A Henderson firefighter is helping win hearts and minds in Iraq through a successful training program
Thu, Aug 6, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: John Goodman / Zuma Press
The heart of Baghdad is far from what most people living in the United States would consider normal. Traffic in the city’s International Zone—considered its most secure part—weaves through a warren of 10-foot-tall, razor wire-crowned concrete blast walls. Here and there, passersby encounter a crumbling planter or sidewalk that was once part of a rich, cosmopolitan downtown, but from within the labyrinth of gray barriers, all that can be seen are things tall enough to clear the walls—most often Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party government buildings, replete with “million-dollar holes” (as soldiers call them) from American cruise missiles—and the occasional high-rise apartment block. Nestled between the heavily fortified walls of the British embassy compound and a series of more dilapidated buildings is an unassuming cluster of structures centered around a windowless, smoke-stained tower—Baghdad’s fire training academy. Considering the fact that explosions from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) can still be heard on a fairly regular basis, important work is being done there.
Last month, as U.S. troops were pulled out of Iraqi cities, images of cheering, flag-waving Iraqis flashed on television news shows and YouTube videos, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hailed the withdrawal as the end of an occupation and a great victory for Iraq. For most American soldiers stationed there, the withdrawal meant a less-active lifestyle, so to speak, as they retreated to bases outside the cities. The basic mission of the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion—a reserve unit based in Encino, California—has changed very little, however, and its members have continued venturing into Iraq’s war-torn cities to help with the reconstruction process. “We’re the only green-suiters still allowed to play in the urban jungle,” said Sgt. Maj. Garren Fulmer, who, along with other soldiers from the 425th, has been training Iraqi firefighters in Baghdad’s International Zone.
As a reservist, Fulmer had to temporarily leave behind his wife, daughter and job as a firefighter with the Henderson Fire Department—where he is a 16-year veteran—but based upon the program that he helped create, his skills seem to have been well-utilized. His program is one of the more successful ones undertaken by civil-affairs soldiers, attracting motivated candidates from all over the country and eventually graduating more than 300 Iraqi firefighters—most of whom returned to their home stations to pass on the knowledge and skills they had learned to colleagues who were not able to attend.
Soldiers from the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion have been in Iraq just over a year, but are on their way home. For some of them, home is Las Vegas, for most of the others it is in California and other Western states, and for a handful it is the East Coast. When they’re not deployed overseas, these soldiers travel from their home turf once a month to train at the unit’s California headquarters. Like Fulmer, most of the unit’s soldiers used their civilian skills as part of the army’s reconstruction program in Iraq, which included efforts to rebuild schools, bolster Iraqi humanitarian aid programs and even help with the nationwide provincial elections that seemed to go off without many problems at the beginning of this year. All of these are designed to fit into the civil-affairs mission to enable Iraq to become self-sufficient without coalition support or another Saddam-style authoritarian regime. Despite the program’s eventual success, it started off slowly, with accountability issues and a painstaking trial-and-error process that made the going seem tedious at first.
Firefighters in any country have a tough job to perform, but in Iraq, the normal strain of putting out fires and performing basic medical aid is compounded by the harsh realities faced by a nation riddled with sectarian violence. But by all accounts, the level of violence has decreased markedly over the past couple of years. Particularly, said Lt. Col.Quincy Handy, the 425th’s commander, since the controversial troop surge pushed by the Bush administration. Even so, reminders of the remaining problems abound. At the Baghdad fire academy, the large aluminum-clad building where the fire engines are kept is peppered with shrapnel holes—the result of a rocket that hit right next to it a few years back. Most of the vehicles used to train firefighters in the finer points of vehicle extrication have been burned again and again during training exercises, but what the constant fire damage can’t hide are the scars of past turbulence. Sitting quietly behind the classroom building is a row of rusted cars, their plastic and cloth accoutrements having long since been burned away. One bears shrapnel holes from an IED blast, and a pair of shoes are melted to the floor—one still stuck to the gas pedal. “It’s still a battle out there,” said Handy.
Currently, Iraq’s Civil Defense ministry employs nearly 16,000 firefighters, and although a good number of them worked as firefighters throughout the economic sanctions of the ’90s, as well as during and after the U.S.-led coalition invasion, many more lack the benefit of a formal training course, relying instead upon their wits and the wisdom of their seniors. Creating a program to deal with the training deficiency faced by the country’s emergency services was no small task and required a lot of teamwork, but taking what they knew from years of fire education back home, Fulmer and his associates from the U.S. military were able to work with several experienced Iraqi firefighters to create a two-month basic fireman’s course. “Sergeant [Michael] Kuca and I—with the help of two U.S. Army Tech Escort Unit soldiers out of Fort Lewis, Washington—created, authored, built, translated and taught [a program that included] Emergency Medical Technician—Basic, a fire mechanic’s course, Iraqi urban search and rescue, [a] program manager’s course, incident command and HAZMAT awareness,” said Fulmer.
While civil affairs—with its mantra of winning the hearts and minds of the ambient population of any given country—is the war-fighting ideal that the army is going for in Iraq, it is not without its problems. Almost all civil-affairs units are composed of reservists, and the idea is to have American civilians working with Iraqi civilian leaders and institutions. That’s why doctors, lawyers, police officers, firefighters, computer technicians and the like are so easy to find in units such as the 425th. Unfortunately, said Fulmer, their skill sets aren’t always utilized, and many soldiers from his unit found themselves doing office work for big infantry units. “[The regular] army is good at what it does—fighting. The reserves is still suffering from a Cold War organization even though the Pentagon gets it and is doing the right things to restructure units,” he said, adding that he and Sgt. Kuca—a Forest Service firefighter from Alaska—have been engaged in the type of work that civil-affairs soldiers are supposed to be doing.
Kuca has been Fulmer’s right-hand man while training Iraqi firefighters over the past eight months, and the two worked closely with a few other soldiers from the 425th and other units, some American airmen who were coordinating with the Iraqi Air Force to train its firefighters, Lt. Col. Ra’ed Badr—the director of the fire academy—and Capt. Mohammed al Khafajee of the Iraqi Civil Defense fire service. “All the Iraqi firemen I dealt with were inspiring,” said Fulmer. “Many were firemen during the 1990s embargoes, and remained firemen in 2003 during the invasion—going without pay until almost 2006 in some cases—and are still firemen today.”
As they prepare to return home, the hope amongst Fulmer and his compatriots is that they have made a lasting difference during their time in Iraq. “We have put the Iraqi fire service on the map as an organization that needs attention,” he said, pointing out that the Army will replace neither he nor Kuca when they leave. “Captain Mohammed will be my replacement, and that’s good. The future is to have Iraqis leading and advising.” By 2010, the U.S. military will be all but gone from Iraq, and only time will tell if the gains so painstakingly achieved by the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion and other units like it will stand up. One thing that is certain is that from the Cold War-era approach of fighting big battles with huge armies, emphasis has gradually shifted to the civil-affairs method that Fulmer and others have been trying to put in place.
Now that their job in Iraq is drawing to a close, the 425th’s soldiers have become more focused on what lies ahead. Aside from a mid-tour visit home—usually 18 days—that the military provides, these soldiers haven’t seen home or loved ones in more than a year. The frequency of excitement-tinged Facebook messages between Fulmer and his wife has increased over the last few weeks, and his daughter misses him, too. Along with his teammates, he’s passed along so much to the Iraqi firefighters he worked with, and perhaps now he will share what he learned from them when he returns to work at the Henderson Fire Department.
Ben Preston, a reporter from the Santa Barbara Independent, spent five weeks in Iraq embedded with the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion. To read more, visit: independent.com/blogs/inside-iraq-santa-barbara-warzone.