PINEY FLATS — A veteran of three tours of service in Iraq, 23-year-old Army Sgt. Allister Hawkins came home to Piney Flats last week following a 15-month stint that included some of the most intense fighting and some of the largest gains by Iraqi security forces he has witnessed.
A member of Company 571 based in Fort Lewis, Wash., Hawkins and his military police unit served through last winter’s escalation in violence that had coalition leaders expressing concern about the possible outbreak on an all-out civil war. And they witnessed the surge in U.S. troops that came in response to the violence.
They were there when Gen. David Patraeus’ led an effective shift of the troops’ base of operations from the large military complexes near Baghdad to the urban neighborhoods where insurgents were operating.
And, perhaps most satisfying, by the time Hawkins left Iraq in January, he had seen the Iraqi police recruits he helped train willingly place themselves in harm’s way for the safety of their communities.
But the gains were not without costs. Hawkins most treasured possessions now include four Killed In Action bracelets that bear the name, rank and date of death of friends who perished in the fighting. Another is the citation and Army Commendation Medal with Valor he received for his actions on a day last June when one of those friends was killed on a highway near Baqubah.
“From the position I was at, just the small area I was in, I could see the good (accomplished) and also the very, very bad that can happen very, very quickly,” he said.
Hawkins’ position was a first of its kind, a U.S.-led academy for Iraqi police recruits located away from the Iraqi stations that are often the target of terrorists.
“IP (Iraqi police) stations are very dangerous places and not conducive to training. Our company dealt with every IP station in that area,” he said.
“It was basic police training, weapons training, safety training, how to document things, some ethics training ... in English and Arabic with interpreters.
“We lived with them, night and day, for 15 days. It was kind of complicated telling them to do something in English, having the interpreters tell them what to do, and then getting them to do it,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins said the training wasn’t all work.
“We tried to foster good relationships with them and we would give them fun things to do, too, athletics and shooting competitions with us. But it was serious because there are no second chances once they get to their jobs.
“Some of them were concerned citizens from the neighborhoods who are trusted more by the people than those from the outside,” he said.
Hawkins said the country’s religious divisions are evident.
“It’s territorial. Most sections are either Shiite or Sunni. Buhraz was almost 50-50 Shiite and Sunni,” he said. “I don’t know which of them gave us the most trouble, but it was interesting to see people who were probably enemies in the outside world working together.
“At first they isolate themselves and don’t talk to each other. We forced them together because that is how they will have to work.
“We trained them to operate checkpoints. They practiced shooting. They pulled guards. They searched vehicles. They practiced searching us, compliant and non-compliant trainers, hundreds and hundreds of times.”
Already in place when last year’s surge brought some 30,000 new troops into Iraq, Hawkins said suddenly having twice as many people in the same small areas created minor difficulties he had not anticipated, like finding a place to park. But the end result was a reduction in the number of troops being killed. And by the time he left Baqubah, the area that saw some of the heaviest fighting following the surge had not had a significant problem in several months.
“It went from something happening every day to being able to drive down the streets,” he said. “Buhraz was very bad when we got there, and over time it became one of the best places you could be. It went from 7 p.m. curfews and no businesses at all to new businesses opening and people staying up to 2 and 3 a.m. ”
Comparing the past 15 months to his first two tours in Iraq, Hawkins said, “I saw vast improvement from 2003 in a lot of places.”
“The areas I dealt with are lower level, but there were more working relationships. We were not just sitting somewhere going out every day; we were in with the people every day. We would be at the IP stations two or three weeks, patrolling with them, teaching them things. Because, eventually, they have to take over their country.
“And they’re making progress because, bottom line, Iraqis are fed up with terrorists.”