Soldier returns with tales of Iraq

Col. Charles Yriarte

Part 1 of Two Parts

In late April, another local soldier returned home from Iraq.

Colonel Charles Yriarte of Canyon City is the commander of the 82nd ROC (Rear Operations Center), based out of Lake Oswego. The 82nd sets up and runs the tactical operations center for 1st Corp, based out of Fort Lewis, Wash., controlling all the training management, security, movement and sustainment in the core rear area of operations.

"We have a pretty big job, a big area," Yriarte said. He has been in the Oregon Army National Guard for 33 years. Prior to that, Yriarte worked for the U.S. Forest Service.

In June 2003, the 82nd ROC operated the installation command cell at LSA-Anaconda Balad airbase in Iraq, and Yriarte was the base commander. LSA-Anaconda is located about 68 kilometers (about 42.5 miles) north of Baghdad, and is on the site of an existing Iraqi Air Force airfield. Yriarte's responsibilities included rebuilding the base, setting up security and force protection, overseeing contracts with Iraqi locals and prioritizing the necessary work. The reconstruction and operation of the base was done jointly with the U.S. Air Force.

"We were there 11 months and one week," Yriarte said. He was stationed in Japan with 19 other members of the 82nd ROC when the call came to go to Iraq. They spent 72 days in preparation at Fort Lewis, then headed to Kuwait in April 2003, and went from there to LSA-Anaconda on June 8, 2003.

"We were basically in the middle of the Sunni Triangle, and that was the general support for Saddam Hussein. We were right next to the Tigris River. Most of that's farm ground; you'd see lots of shepherds, lots people work in the fields."

The Iraqi Air Force base, where LSA-Anaconda was stationed, was previously a training academy. It had been looted and stripped after being bombed in the first Gulf War in 1991. The Iraqis moved all the jets into the surrounding fields and scattered the ammunition around, to make it harder to find.

A village called Al-Bakr was located next to the airbase; former Iraqi Air Force pilots and their families populated it.

"On the base there was no fence left, the perimeter was gone, the entry control points were completely looted, all the windows were broke down, the frames tore out, the wire tore out, all the utilities tore out, all that was left were shells." Yriarte said. "We rebuilt it."

As part of the cleanup operations at LSA-Anaconda, 82nd ROC had to recover airplanes moved away from the airfield by the Iraqi Air Force. They moved the planes back inside the base because the locals were stripping the aluminum sheathing and wiring to sell.

"The problem was, they would get inside and pull the ejection seat. And blast themselves up, kill themselves," according to Yriarte. "So we were pulling a lot of stuff in for their own safety. We had two or three die because of that."

The planes were still fully fueled and armed. They even found some buried in old cemeteries, covered them with dirt to hide them. The jets were mostly MiG-23s, plU.S. a few MiG-29s.

82nd ROC set up operations to rebuild the base.

"When we got there, we had an Iraqi contractor set up a concrete plant on the base," Yriarte said.

Original plans called for an Iraqi asphalt plant, but the local company could not keep up with the demands, so a military asphalt plant was installed instead.

"We had mostly local contractors bringing in rock, and then we ordered all air conditioners, wiring, all that came from Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey," Yriarte said.

They found 19 bomb craters in the one runway they were trying to repair. Facility Engineer Team 21 out of Fort Devens was responsible for rebuilding the air base. They "just took them out and dug them down and filled them back up, packed them in, and we've got C-5s and C-17s, and we got Strat Air Hub right there, and they're landing and bringing in supplies and troops, and so it was quite a successful undertaking," he said.

Their area of responsibility was only the base, said Yriarte, "although we did expand outside that base because we worked with a lot of the local villagers, the sheiks and immans and the civil military operations, and worked ... to repair their schools, their hospitals, trying to help them set up an interim government."

The military hired 2,000 locals to work on the base, and trained another 1,000 Iraqi Civil Defense Corp, and also trained security forces for the local villages.

"We worked hand-in-hand with the local police stations; when we'd find a local Iraqi who broke the law, we'd take them in and turn them over to the local policed for their adjudication," he added.

LSA-Anaconda soon became a small city.

"When we left there were almost 18,000 (people on the base). And we figure it will probably peak out at about 22,000," Yriarte explained. "The base was 18 miles round the perimeter. And we had two runways, 11,000 feet long, and about 49 percent of the usable land was encompassed within the airport itself. So we crowd a lot of people into a pretty small place. In October we had our first C-17 land, and now we've had C-5s and C-17s, so that's a great success story. Lighting on the runways, full tower operations, wiring, it was a big job."

Upon arrival, 82nd ROC found burned-out latrines scattered across the base. Yriarte estimates they burned about 7,500 gallons of feces each day to clean it up.

"The pilots would come in and say, 'We know we were coming into LSA-Anaconda because of this brown haze that was over the top of it,' he said. "But, when we left there, we had four dining facilities operational, a PX, an indoor theatre, an outdoor theatre, an indoor pool We were just about to complete the outdoor pool, which was a full Olympic-sized pool. We planted grass in the stadiums, and we had 138 buildings out of 198 on power, and then we had the trailer houses coming in to house people, to get them out of tents."

Gathering intelligence on guerrillas working in the area was not easy at first. "We relied a lot on our technology. Once we got in there and started establishing good relationships we got a lot of good intelligence from the Iraqi people. And they would come up and say, 'This is the last time I'll be here, here's a small gift, and I won't be back. It's too dangerous, and there's terrible things that's going to happen to me,' Yriarte said. "Well, sure enough, in three or four days the mortars would start hitting."

Continued outreach to the villages resulted in people telling the military where the mortar caches were located.

"It was amazing how good our intelligence was, you could almost ... tell when it was coming. It may not happen when they say it will, but something's going to happen in this timeframe, or they'll try to do something," said Yriarte.

LSA-Anaconda was also equipped with modern technology, including satellite imagery, UAV, and cameras with a range of three to four miles, in addition to aircraft surveillance. "I think our intelligence in that local area was good. From all spectrums," he said.

Attacks were made against the base, but, according to Yriarte, there were no fatalities. "Most of our fires were from mortars and rockets. When we were there, it was mostly 60 mm mortars and 82 mm mortars. And then we took that battle space away from them, and in the last three months, they were getting the rockets and shooting them from farther out. But (there was) only one vehicle-borne explosive device; they couldn't get it in the gate."

According to the Web site www.globalsecurity.org, the first attacks against LSA-Anaconda came on July 3, 2003. Eighteen American soldiers were wounded, and there were 11 Iraqi fatalities. In one attack near Balad, U.S. soldiers were ambushed three times over a span of eight hours by about 50 enemies lying in wait in trenches and behind earthen berms on both sides of the highway. The guerrillas were armed primarily with AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.

"We didn't have a lot of the IEDs (improvised explosive device) and the vehicle-borne explosive devices. We had mostly small arms and mortars and rockets," Yriarte said. "They were starting to use IEDs fairly quickly, and then they became fairly complex. There were some they would set off, and they would be within a couple hundred meters ... . Then they started cell phones to set it off, they would put it in animal carcasses along the road. They'd put high explosives; they put concrete blocks along part of the highway; they were doing guard rails, tires, so they got ingenious on how to do this. We knew that was coming, so we started up our humvees and doing lots of different things to counter that and save soldiers lives. Of course, you can't save them all, but you do the best you can."

Mostly truck convoys brought in supplies, although some were moved by railroad. However, rail transportation was more vulnerable to sabotage. Convoys came from Kuwait, traveling nearly 400 miles.

"We had over 2,000 trucks a day, coming in and out. And there's a lot of times (the local drivers would) refuse to drive, (due to the) effectiveness of the guerrilla operation. So you just had to keep working them, protecting them. We had the gravel truck drivers just quit driving. They wouldn't deliver any more rock, because they said they were getting shot at," said Yriarte.

Once he started talking to the drivers, Yriarte found they quit driving because they weren't making as much money due to the devaluation of the local currency, called the dinar. "So they just quit hauling. A lot of it has to do with economics, too. ... We were bringing in 8,000 cubic yards a day, and we still needed more rock."

Once the airbase runways were repaired, more supplies came in via airplanes.

"(We had a) great working relationship with the Air Force when they came in. We learned a lot from them and they learned a lot from us," Yriarte said. "Joint operations went very well there. They were very happy that we were working so (well) with them. And it saves a lot of trucks on the road. For every C-17 coming in, we're saving about five trucks on the road. So, that's a big deal."

Col. Yriarte spoke fondly of the relationships he developed with people while stationed in Iraq.

"It makes you very proud to work with all these people. My interpreter was a former intelligence officer for the Republican Guard, and worked on the intelligence side, but he never failed me, very loyal; and then the security chief and the imman of the military village were very close. I built a trust with them, and they didn't want me to go. They knew I would do what I said. I'm sure I'll hear from them and I'll try to keep in contact with them.

"We're doing some great things," said Yriarte. "It's a hard, hostile environment, and it's not easy to lose soldiers. I never lost any in my detachment: I thank God for that. Soldiers are our most treasured resource. But I can tell you those soldiers over there are very loyal and dedicated and professional and they're doing a great job. They're doing the right thing for America."

Yriarte stated proudly, "I'll tell you what: There's a lot of Iraqi soldiers we've trained in the military, and the Iraqi civil defense corp, and they're dying right with us. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they're getting killed and getting wounded right along with us. So there's a segment of their country that wants a better country. And they're will to sacrifice their lives for it, too. There's a lot pride there, and there's a lot of good things going on there that you never hear. And there's lots of friendships there that you'll never hear of. They deserved a better life, they really do. They deserve it."

Additional maps, photos and information on U.S. operations in Iraq, including LSA-Anaconda, can be found at www.globalsecurity.org.

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