Local soldiers safeguard Victory

Dundalk-based company operates and maintains a sprawling - and relatively safe - city of 50,000

September 02, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun foreign reporter

BAGHDAD -- In Maryland, she's a state trooper. In the National Guard nine years, she's also a trained Army medic. But in the center of a war zone, Spc. Marta Koock has become a tour guide.

And it isn't what she expected to be doing in Iraq.

Koock's largely administrative job assignment overseeing morale, welfare and recreation at the largest American base in Iraq illustrates the challenge of her Maryland National Guard's 58th Infantry Brigade Combat Team headquarters company, which arrived here two months ago.

"I'm a field rat," Koock said back at her office after directing a recent weekly group through two of Saddam Hussein's former lakefront palaces, which had been pummeled by American missiles. "I'm not a desk person."

Instead of taking up their traditional infantry duties - sending out patrols to comb through insurgent hot spots, for example - the Maryland brigade operates the sprawling, walled-off Camp Victory as its resident landlord. The officers and enlisted soldiers from the Dundalk-based company manage military life inside a teeming city with 50,000 troops - its most famous resident is Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq - drawn largely from the army's 3rd Infantry and 1st Cavalry divisions.

The brigade's headquarters company is just part of the 1,300 guardsmen drawn from units across Maryland that were activated this spring and are pouring into Iraq this summer. From manning guard postings at a base in Mosul to running security for truck convoys from a base near Qayarrah to training Iraqi soldiers, the missions of Marylanders at war remain diverse.

For the more than 100 soldiers in the Maryland brigade's headquarters company at Camp Victory, the yearlong deployment has brought a number of surprises, including veteran infantrymen who now must manage multimillion-dollar public works projects and oversee the Iraqi day labor force on this 42-square-kilometer base.

Most of them will likely never see life over the wall, where the rest of the capital city lives and American forces battle insurgents.

"We may not be pulling triggers, but we are responsible for those that do," brigade commander Col. Sean Casey said. "This is where the Army needed us right now."

Some have embraced the change, tapping into skills from civilian life to do their new jobs and counting their blessings for the relative safety inside Camp Victory. But others have chafed, saying the largely administrative duties could diminish their interest in staying in the Guard after this deployment.

"I'm torn," Staff Sgt. Jason Woods, 38, of Hagerstown said while waiting for a crew of Iraqi sandbaggers to cross through a base gate. "Part of me really wants to be kicking down doors."

But "I've been doing this for 20 years. I want to make it home alive."

His job, Woods added, has its own rewards, including getting to know one of his workers so well that he received an invitation to the Iraqi's wedding.

The change in assignment is nothing new for the stretched American forces in Iraq, where airmen have been shoehorned into becoming convoy truck drivers, and cavalry units have been assigned to guard military prisons.

"There can be a lot of frustration," said brigade chaplain Lt. Col. Clark D. Carr, 51, of Hagerstown. "It has to do with a sense of job meaning. ... You always have to be on guard for job burnout."

And Koock's job, of course, is more than leading packs of soldiers and contractors on Sunday afternoons through the crumbling ruins of Saddam Hussein's unfinished Victory Over America palace and the once-ornate Baath Party assembly hall.

Koock, from Charles County, principally works at the resort-like Camp Slayer, where Hussein's old palaces line carp-filled lakes. Her other duties include managing some of the 600 lease agreements that establish where military and contractor tenants can erect their housing and offices.

All of the new assignments, she said, have broadened her horizons. "It will expand my resume of what I can do," Koock, 27, said, citing her work to host a popular salsa music night and bring in entertainment acts, including comedian Dave Attell.

Though Camp Victory continues to receive sporadic incoming fire from mortar and rocket attacks, she also knows that, on the other side of the base wall, the risks are much greater. Her parents in Queens, N.Y., Koock said, are grateful for that, no matter how much she might like to join the fight.

"They're worried," she said. "I'm an only child."

Koock has trained to be part of a personal security detail for VIP visits, a skill that she says she hopes might take her back into duties connected to her training in the Guard.

Despite reservations of some in his command, Casey dismissed the idea that the Guard's job running base operations might broadly affect future retention of soldiers.

"In Maryland, the retention rate is higher for those who deploy," he said.

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