The commander who’s leading over six-hundred Iowa National Guard soldiers on missions through western Iraq says they’ve seen a dramatic turn-around in their area of the country.
Lieutenant Colonel Ben Corell of Strawberry Point (photo at right) is commander of the First Battalion, 133rd Infantry which includes soldiers from Guard units in Waterloo, Dubuque, Oelwein, Iowa Falls and Charles City.
For over 15 months, the soldiers have been providing security for convoys operating in the al-Anbar province, where the anti-American insurgency has been based. "We’ve traversed the mean streets of western Iraq on over 500 missions. We’ve logged over four million mission miles and we’ve delivered well over one-third of the fuel needed to sustain coalition force operations in Iraq," Corell says. "Along the way, we’ve taken many enemy combatants off the field in Anbar."
The Iowa National Guard soldiers have "killed or captured" over 60 insurgents. "The greatest turning point is when the Iraqi people themselves said: ‘We’re not going to live this way any more. What can we do to help?’" Corell says. "They have turned that tide."
This past winter, a military report had suggested the al-Anbar province might be a "lost cause" but Corell says the turn-around has been dramatic. "I can tell you some things — atmospherics wise — that I’ve seen," Corell told reporters today during a telephone conference call. "Number one: al Qaeda was present in al-Anbar. Foreign fighters were present in al-Anbar. Some of our longest days, some of our toughest days, were dealing with the remnants and the focused effort of those groups against coalition forces. About four or five months ago, the local tribesmen decided that they’d had enough of that."
According to Corell, those tribesmen have been aided by thousands more Iraqi police and army soldiers. "Somewhere along the lines of an increase of about 14,000 Iraqi police and a similar of Iraqi army that have worked together with coalition forces…and are now starting to do independent operations on this own," Corell says. "…They’re really making a difference."
Corell and his own soldiers thought they’d be leaving in April, but their tour was extended. Corell says the news of the extension of his unit’s tour of duty in Iraq was "mishandled" as their families and the news media learned about it before the soldiers themselves did, but there weren’t a lot of "long faces" according to Corell.
"It was difficult for about a week until we got the blow that we received absorbed…I think we accepted it and we moved out. We knew that there was no option other than to continue to do what we’ve been doing. It’s not like you can submit your pink slip or turn in your resignation. There is no choice, especially when what you’re doing is very dangerous every day," Corell says. "Morale quickly turned around. I’ve got some great soldiers."
The soldiers should be leaving Iraq in late July or early August. "Today, I see some smiles," Corell says.
Corell’s unit was featured on the Memorial Day edition of "60 Minutes."