The coalition military presence has made a difference in Iraq, but conditions could deteriorate when those forces leave, a U.S. Air Force master sergeant with family ties to Brownwood said.
“All in all, I think we’re doing a lot of good,” Master Sgt. Tony Fleming told members of the Brownwood Rotary Club Wednesday. “But when we pull out, it may all go corrupt. At least that’s my opinion. There are so many insurgents and Iranians there, it’s hard to work in a political office without being corrupt.”
Fleming, a 13-year veteran of the Air Force now based at Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, is the son-in-law of Mary Irving, Rotary club president and curator of the Martin and Frances Lehnis Railroad Museum. He and Irving’s daughter Kathy were married on Jan. 4, six days before he left for training for his nine-month mission in Iraq. Their blended family has three children.
He returned home last week.
“They’re really just now having a honeymoon,” Irving said.
Fleming, who was stationed at Balad Air Base working with U.S. Army forces to secure the installation, narrated a video of security-cleared images that he had made for his family. He said he led a 17-member quick reaction force in four vehicles that responded with Army counterparts to mortar and rocket attacks around the base, which were almost a daily occurrence. Each unit also was assigned a female member, so teams could talk to female Iraqis according to cultural norms.
Fleming said even honest public officials find it difficult to avoid corruption, because insurgents kidnap and threaten family members – even with coalition forces present. That led him to conclude the situation could worsen when troops withdraw completely.
His team was also involved with counter-insurgery operations which involved providing school clothes and supplies, food (usually military MREs) and treats to children. Often, the children would provide leads to locations of arms caches or explosives known as improvised explosive devices.
“The more acts of kindness we showed, the more willing they were to talk to us and tell us things,” Fleming said.
“That child had some good information on an IED,” Fleming told the club as one scene was shown. “It was right where he said it would be. We may be alive because of him.”
Fleming said the troops are careful about protecting the children who provide such information.
“They crowd around us in such numbers, there’s no way insurgents can know who told us something,” Fleming said.
“The best part of Iraq I thought was the kids. The kids love us. The adults don’t always. The kids are very friendly. The swarm us every time we go out. It’s a free meal for them.”
Fleming said their parents are very strict, carrying sticks around to swat the children to keep them in line.
He described the training he received before beginning his mission as thorough.
“The Air Force really puts you through lots of training,” Fleming said. “They want you to be ready for anything.”
Part of that training involves a multimillion dollar video simulator that duplicates a Humvee driving on an Iraqi road engaging hostile situations.
“It’s similar to an Xbox 360 (video game), but on a huge wraparound screen,” he said.
The insurgents know that coalition forces respond to the site of attack launches, so they set up ambushes along the way, Fleming said.
Training also involves learning how to escape from a Humvee while underwater, because the heavy vehicles can crush the roadway, tipping them over into water.
Fleming said Iraq has large areas of green vegetation, contrary to the impression many Americans have of the country, but the desert areas do create problems.
“There is sand and more sand, dirt and sand storms,” Fleming said. Many of the attacks and the smuggling of arms happens during those periods of low visibility.
The majority of homes are built of cinder blocks or mud with straw, but satellite television sets and cell telephones are common.
“There’s not a lot of conveniences, but they put a lot of effort into making bombs,” Fleming said.
He also encouraged people to continue to support organizations that send items for service men and women to use while overseas.
“There are a lot of groups and organizations here that are sending packages over there,” Fleming said. “Any time you can support the troops, it really helps out. The conditions are not the best, so getting those packages really makes a difference.”