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Wednesday, April 16

Special Forces team turns to delivering supplies in Iraq

By Rob Curtis | Military Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Rolling through Baghdad in Humvees bristling with .50-caliber machine guns, the commandos look mean and ready for combat. Today, however, their war wagon is not weighed down as usual by extra ammunition but by dozens of boxes of medical supplies headed for a city clinic.

``We've got everything here from surgical equipment down to sick-call medication for these folks,'' said Staff Sgt. Greg Melancon, 36, of Lafayette, La., one of two medical sergeants on the Special Forces team of Green Berets. ``There is enough here to keep the clinic running for a month.''

The commandos are shifting gears along with coalition forces, as the mission in Iraq transitions from battlefield operations to establishing law and order, humanitarian assistance and rebuilding the country.

This team is getting to know its assigned sector of Baghdad, an area that includes 500,000 to 700,000 people. Theirs is a dual mission now, rooting out the bad guys and helping out the citizens of this capital city.

So far, the team members have identified the one medical facility in their sector, the Al-Amal Medical Center. Soon after they arrived Wednesday at the white stucco facility on a busy side street in the city's southern end, they began unloading the heavy boxes of supplies. Clinic workers came out to help them.

``This is the only clinic in our area,'' said Sgt. 1st Class David Lance, 33, of Petersburg, Tenn. also a medical specialist. ``The supplies have all run out ... and they don't have anything coming in right now. So we're trying to help where we can.''

Governments and private organizations worldwide are shipping in thousands of tons of supplies to help care for Iraqis. Getting the goods to them right now, while supply chains are still being formed, can take a little maneuvering. This Special Forces team worked with civil affairs troops, specialists in forging community links, to get the medical supplies here.

``We're Special Forces, that's what we do,'' Lance said. ``The stuff's in country. You just have to find it and get it to the right person.''

``... While we have this area of the city, we can go anywhere and talk to anybody we want if it's necessary,'' Lance said. We went in (and talked to some contacts) and it was the typical, `Hey, I know a guy that has some supplies' and you go and do some back scratching.''

Leo, a team member who did not want to be further identified, spoke with the hospital staff to make sure that the supplies would be properly safeguarded against theft. The workers told Leo they thought the supplies were safe, but the workers and neighbors warned that there is a school around the corner occupied by Fedayeen Saddam, one of the former Iraqi regime's brutal paramilitary forces. That tip alerted the commandos that their job may be a little more complicated than thought.

``It's a perfect example, a whole lot of avenues open up from a little mission,'' Melancon said. ``One day we're dropping off medical supplies, the next we're taking out bad guys.''

Lance said working with the community requires troops to gain trust, which sometimes brings valuable intelligence information.

``I guess the most selfish or pessimistic way of looking at it is that you're buying their trust or whatever, but that's not the way most guys see it,'' he said. ``They're just doing the right thing and that comes with it.''

The medical sergeants explain that little aid packages like the one dropped off at the clinic not only keep the neighborhood clinics open, they are a way to forge links with the locals.

``It gives you that little foothold into the community that says these guys aren't here to hurt you,'' Melancon said.

While the overall mission is to produce security in their sector, the Special Forces troops have to balance the needs of the community with the goals of the larger military plan. It is a complex relationship that can wear a team out.

``We are in the middle, trying to meet both sides' needs, the U.S. Army and the community,'' Melancon said.

The commandos say they could be working with the locals for months, and emotional bonds will form with members of the community. But, they are careful to point out, they are ready to cut ties and walk away when their mission is over - as difficult as that may be.

``Like in Kosovo, we made a lot of friends,'' Melancon said, ``and then had to say my time is up. Here, another (team) will come to relieve us out of this sector, and hopefully they're going to do as good a job as we've been doing.''

Lance said the Special Forces play an important role in restoring freedom to Iraq.

``Our whole spectrum of unconventional warfare isn't just fighting wars,'' Lance said. ``It's preventing them from happening and cleaning up after them. So by coming here, living with these people, demonstrating what freedom is about, what America is about, and by gaining their trust, we prevent this country from becoming a dictatorship again.''