"If we don't finish this, it will follow us home," Command Sgt. Major Neil Ciotola says about the mission in Iraq. As the senior enlisted leader for the Multi-National Corps - Iraq, he oversees more than 158,000 service members and serves as the principal enlisted advisor to the commanding general, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno. Ciotola gave his assessment of the situation in Iraq as well as candid observations on the troop surge, Congress' vote to establish a withdrawal timeline and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's recent comments on the war.
With 31 years in the U.S. Army, Ciotola is on his third deployment. He called from Baghdad and spoke recently with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan.
Tell us about your role as the Command Sgt. Major? My responsibility is to keep discipline in the corps, provide advice on all enlisted matters for soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. I provide perspective to the commander of troops on the ground. Most of the time I'm out of headquarters rather than in. I returned from Kirkuk where I was conducting ground operations along with them. I provide assessments on the way ahead, and I physically represent the commander on the street. You can't have general officers running around so I do that for him.
What did you see in Kirkuk? In Kirkuk one brigade combat team of approximately 5,000 multi-service personnel has a profound effect on one of the larger geographic zones in the theatre. Kirkuk stands in stark contrast to things here in Baghdad. Things in the North are quite beautiful. There are huge portions of cultivated land. It's not a dangerous place. Though one of the FOBs had mortar fire, in that part of Iraq the streets are clean; a lot of essential services are being performed. Iraqi police forces are by every measure very professional. They embrace American counterparts and don't wait on them to get out into operations.
How is troop morale in Iraq? Morale depends on the nature of the operation that day. If you have good intelligence and go out and capture a bad guy, you accomplish something; you feel good about yourself. If you're sitting inside an observation post for a four-, six- or eight-hour shift in body armor in 120- to 135-degree temperatures, it's not that good.
When soldiers are executing non-kinetic operations, like helping build a school, supplying medical services for a community, they feel great about doing stuff. When you turn on pumps that turn on fresh water where there never was any before, those especially are uplifting. When you work with Iraqi Army counterparts and they exhibit a greater sense of self-confidence; that's very gratifying, and it sustains you for another day.
How has the troop surge affected the situation in Baghdad? For the general populace, it's safer. I won't say there aren't murders every day. I get the report from military police and operations center that murders are down. Whenever we see Americans here, people sense it's OK to come outside. In some places, we let soldiers take off their body armor for a little while. Based on what I see every day, the numbers prove that we've achieved a modicum of success. But I won't say it's time to strike up the band.
In Kirkuk, issues center around the Kurds. You don't have all the issues associated with the melting pot we call Baghdad. As you move into Al Anbar, you have violence which is prevalent. I'm not trying to paint a rosy picture. Fortunately, they're buying into what the Marines have done out there; the Americans are trying to do some good. People think there's more murder, oppression, deaths if they side with AQ [al-Qaida] or AQI [al-Qaida in Iraq]. There's a lot of power-brokering going on.
With so many combat troops on the ground in Baghdad, we represent a target-rich environment for the bad guys because we're everywhere. But part of the payoff for having us on the ground all the time is I can go into various neighborhoods, and when you see paratroopers and infantryman on the ground in force, you see shops open, people going about with a "life is OK" type of atmosphere.
What's been the reaction to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's comment, "this war is lost?" I saw that reported and for the second time in many days I felt compelled to pull out my sidearm. I won't mention any names, but I'm downright disappointed; it's debilitating when I see what's going on back there. It would appear they only get a small piece of it. What we see is in stark contrast to what they see back home. I won't say this won't cost us more if we commit ourselves. I would just ask the elected constituency to keep in mind there's a time to be partisan, but there's a time you just need to shut up and keep committed.
I wonder if the same folks that are supposed to represent us today had been alive during the American Revolution, if they would have exhibited sufficient amounts of character to see that through. It's frustrating. I talk to privates, buck sergeants; we experience one thing, then see something else on TV.
A senior officer told me, "Don't watch TV, you won't get an ounce of truth out of it. It's all bad news."
How do you feel about the congressional legislation mandating a timeline for withdrawal? I was with a young private driving me around in Kirkuk who asked, "If we leave now, why did we commit ourselves if we don't have the commitment to see it through?" What did I tell the family of sergeant so-and-so who was killed here a couple days ago? We're playing to party policy. That's not just me, it's the young people. These men and women are phenomenal; they are self-effacing to a fault. It's called DUTY, a four-letter word. If they were that opposed, if this was a hopeless cause, why do 99.7 percent come back from leave?
There's a perspective back home that the sky is falling. Now, don't get me wrong, in Diyala, the infantry and cavalry, they all have one heck of a fight on their hands, but they're not quitting. We just had nine killed in Diyala, but they'll say, "Don't you dare think about pulling us off the line." These are men that have been out there fighting. They're the testimonial that people should be paying attention to. Every day that goes by that we do what we do, we give this country a chance.
Anything else you wish to share? One thing strikes me as profound: We're in our 5th year in this war in Iraq. Every time I go out, I get shot at; I'm not going to tell you otherwise. I don't worry for me; I worry for the youngsters. Even while our travels take us everywhere - Basrah, Mosul, the Syrian border, all the way out to the Iranian border, Ramadi, Kirkuk, Tikrit - everywhere you go, there are kids that wave. What makes them wave? We can't be evil.
I'd like to add one more comment. I believe if we don't finish this, it will follow us home.