The commander who’s leading six-hundred-40 Iowa National Guard soldiers on a mission in Iraq says they’re a “solid team” and the soldiers are “doing very well.” Lieutenant Colonel Ben Corell of Strawberry Point is commander of the First Battalion, one-33rd Infantry which includes soldiers from Guard units in Waterloo, Dubuque, Oelwein, Iowa Falls and Charles City.

“We’ve been focused on improving the living conditions, improving the ability of our soldiers to have access to communications devices to make contact back home,” Corell says. “In the information age that a lot of these young soldiers have grown up in the use of snail mail really is a lost art for these young soldiers and the ability to pick up the phone or get on a computer to send e-mail is pretty important to them and we’ve made some good progress along those lines.”

The base of operations for the First Battalion, one-33rd Infantry is at an air base in western Iraq, about 150 miles from Baghdad. Corell’s soldiers, who’s been in Iraq since April, provide security and escorts to convoys shipping supplies like food, fuel and water throughout the western part of Iraq. “We are very busy, I’ll put it that way,” the commander says. Corell says he and his soldiers “know the enemy’s out there and see his work on a daily basis.”

The vehicles the soldiers use in their missions have top-of-the-line “level one” armor which Corell says means is armor that was installed when the vehicle was manufactured. “The challenge for us is that on occasion we have to get outside the vehicles. Once we get outside the vehicles, then we increase our risk. The off-set to that is we don’t get out of the vehicles unless we absolutely need to and when we do get out of the vehicles we check the conditions prior to getting out of the vehicle,” Corell says.

“I-E-D’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) are the biggest threat that we face out here. We were trained on IED recognition and I’ll tell you that we find many more than actually detonate on us.”

Corell describes the armor that individual soldiers wear whenever they leave the base.) “Several years ago…when the Secretary of Defense was over here (in Iraq) a soldier stood up and there were some complaints about what we had done to protect our soldiers,” Corell says. “We have the latest and greatest body armor.”

It includes kevlar helmets, eye protection, hearing protection as well as fire-retardant gloves. “The enemy does have a say in the activity that goes on. It is a dangerous place,” Corell says. “But I’m confident that soldiers are trained, soldiers are well-equipment, the soldiers are motivated to go out and do the job that we ask them to do every day.”

Corell, who’s been the battalion’s commander since February of 2003, says he’s proud of the attitude of his soldiers. “What I preached to these soldiers from day one was we needed to have an infantry organization that is very lethal when it has to be but can show compassion when it has the opportunity to and the soldiers know the difference between the two,” Corell says. “This is a tough environment. This is a very tough task that we’re being asked to do and that is to fight a counter-insurgency with an enemy that is difficult to see, who blends into the local population. You’ve got to be very disciplined to be successful in this and from what I can see within my foxhole, we are being successful.”

One soldier in the unit from Iowa Falls who was injured by an “improvised explosive device” is back in the states right now undergoing physical therapy. Corell spoke with Iowa reporters this (Thursday) morning by telephone from Iraq.