By KEVIN SITES
November 17, 2005
But I have no immediate epiphany, no moment of clarity, no linking of disparate information over time that suddenly helps it to all make sense. It all seems, well, normal.
Right down to the roadside-bomb threat.
I am with the 6th Civil Affairs Group from the 2nd Marine Division, and we have stopped at a gas station at the city's entrance. The station is one of the group's rebuilding projects, and Capt. Scott Walton, a reservist originally from Dallas, wants to see its progress. He's got $25,000 "invested" in getting the station back in working order, mostly to reconstruct the ancient pumps.
But while he's talking with the station owner, we hear Iraqi police sirens. The area is cordoned off as he discusses the situation with the Iraqi police commander.
Apparently, someone has dumped what looks like a body wrapped in a tarp about 100 meters north of the station. The commander thinks it could be booby-trapped with some kind of explosive.
"You need to call the JCC (Joint Command Center)," he tells the Iraqi police commander, "and request that they send out an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit to check it out."
Walton doesn't want to wait around to see the outcome. He's got things to do today, and blowing things up is not one of them. He's a Marine, but one tasked with helping to rebuild the city after its destruction last year. We load back into the Humvees and head into Fallujah.
The threat of a roadside bomb seems to reinforce the memories I have of the city, and so do the many shattered facades of buildings neither demolished nor rebuilt an entire year later.
Yet while many signs of the battle's ferocity remain, I also notice something else: the streets are filled with people.
Shops are open, some operating out of buildings with just three walls or partial roofs. Cars and trucks travel the road alongside children coming from school. There is here a sense of normalcy as well.
The Marines cannot provide precise figures on how many people returned to their homes in Fallujah after last year's battle, but some estimates have it as high as two-thirds of the population.
The city also has a very obvious presence of both Iraqi army personnel - manning numerous checkpoints throughout the city - and Marines patrolling on foot. In one neighborhood we see a member of a Marine squad in front of a house, patting down a young man in his early 20s.
After the city was retaken from insurgents last year, the Iraqi government and the U.S. military established an identity-card system that requires anyone who lives or works in Fallujah to carry the new ID card at all times.
"I think most Fallujans saw what happened last year (the battle to retake the city) as a necessary evil," Walton tells me. "The people weren't living their lives the way they wanted to. They're not necessarily living the way they want to now either, but the insurgents have been pushed out and we're identifying and rebuilding key infrastructure. But it's a process that takes time."
The 33-year-old Walton enlisted in the Marines when he was just 17. After two years he wanted to go to officer's school, but the Marines were downsizing at the time, so instead he joined the Army. As an Army civil affairs officer, he helped in the reconstruction of Sarajevo after the Bosnian war and also deployed to Iraq the first time in 2003.
"I was on the treadmill at the gym at home when the fighting in Fallujah began last year, and even though I had already done a year there, I felt like I needed to do more," Walton says.
So, much to the dismay of his wife and his employer, the software company Oracle, Walton re-enlisted in the Reserve last year - this time with the Marines.
He returned to Iraq two months ago - and has wasted no time in doing the work he believes must be done. He says he has sponsored six projects in Fallujah so far, totaling about $100,000.
Much of the rebuilding is being paid for with funds provided by the Commander's Emergency Relief Program (CERP). This is primarily money captured during the war and is allocated by regional U.S. military commanders, primarily for reconstruction.
We stop at another of Walton's projects - the rebuilding of the Fallujah mayor's office, which was heavily damaged during the fighting. Three Egyptian workers are completing some work on the windows, but say the building will be ready by the end of the month.
Like a proud father, he snaps some photos with a small digital camera of the refurbished rooms and the freshly painted exterior.
He says the Marine Corps understands how important the civil affairs component is to eventually ending the conflict in Iraq, and when he submits a project for funding, officials rarely say no.
"I get just about everything I ask for," Walton says. "But, yes, I'd like to have a whole battalion of civil affairs Marines out there backing me up. I wish there were more of us so we could be the main face of the Marine Corps that people see here."
He says it feels good to be able to make this kind of difference, but he has his concerns.
"We want to build Iraq's capacity to take care of its own problems," Walton says. "It's like the mother who holds the bottle for the baby. How long are we going to hold onto the bottle?"
Watching him work his way through town, he seems to be energized by the process, rather than burdened by it. That optimism may be the fresh outlook of a Marine in-country for only two months so far, or from one who truly believes he can help in Fallujah's rebuilding.
"Anyone that's been over here at least once," Walton says, "realizes that the way out is not by shooting a rifle. You have to build your way out. We have to help build institutions. We have to help build communities. It's the only way."
Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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