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Iraqi soldiers join search for missing U.S. service member

15 Apr 2006 | Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin

Iraqi soldiers joined dozens of U.S. troops in the search for a sailor who has been missing since last week due to a vehicle rollover accident near the Marines’ base here April 2.

More than 25 Iraqi soldiers from the Al Asad-based 2nd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division, joined dozens of U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers in daily search operations to recover several missing U.S. service members from the accident.

The accident occurred when a seven-ton truck, part of a Marine combat logistics resupply in Al Anbar Province, rolled over during a flash-flood, according to a Marine Corps press release.

The accident took place along a “wadi” – a gully which usually remains at low levels unless rain waters fill the gully – near the Marines’ base here.

So far, two of the three missing U.S. service members’ bodies have been recovered. A U.S. sailor – Petty Officer 3rd Class Marcques J. Nettles of Beaverton, Ore. – is still missing.

Iraqi soldiers spent three days combing miles of shoreline on foot in search of the two missing people. All together, seven U.S. service members are confirmed dead as a result of the accident, which is currently under investigation.

Their efforts seemed welcomed by U.S. troops who had already about a week searching the accident site when the Iraqi military arrived to help.

“There are still people missing …so the more eyes the better,” said Lance Cpl. Anthony Rasmussen, a 20-year-old radio operator from Big Bear Lake, Calif., who spent several days providing mounted security in a Humvee for the various search parties. “I’d want all these people looking for me, if it was me missing.”

Clad in body armor and Kevlar helmets and armed with AK-47 assault rifles, the Iraqis patrolled several kilometers east of the accident site, where some on-scene personnel suspect the flash flood may have carried the bodies of the missing U.S. service members.

After three days of searching, the Iraqi soldiers were able to find indiscriminant clothing and equipment – gloves, a watch, a pair of safety goggles – all found thousands of meters from the sight of the accident, evidence of the flash flood’s torrential strength that night.

“We feel so sad because their families are waiting on them; sad because we haven’t found them yet,” said Pvt. “Ahmed,” following the first day of two hour-long foot patrols in 90-degree temperatures and over rough terrain. 

“I was so glad because I thought we were going to find them, but we didn’t,” said Ahmed, who was on the patrol when a U.S. military-style glove was found along the wadi’s shoreline by an Iraqi soldier.

The search effort was the first large-scale, joint operation between Iraqi soldiers from 2nd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division and multiple U.S. military units, said Capt. “Raseed,” the Iraqis’ on-scene commander.

“This is our strongest mission, more than any other,” said Raseed.

The operation was especially important to the Iraqi soldiers since many of them have families of their own, he said.

Furthermore, 2nd Brigade has lost five of soldiers in the past six months, so the Iraqi soldiers sympathize with the families of those lost, said Raseed.

“This is a very humanitarian mission,” said Raseed. “Even before this mission, we work as one team, one family.”

The Iraqis’ efforts came nearly a week into the search, which has continued for more than 10 days now.

While the Iraqi soldiers searched along one side of the Wadi, Marines and U.S. soldiers from Al Asad used everything from heavy equipment tractors to shovels and even digging by hand to carefully search through tons of water and sediment in hopes of finding the missing Marine.

They even used metal detectors in hopes of finding Nettles and lost equipment.

One Marine engineer on scene said he received nearly 200 hits on his metal detector, the majority of which proved to be nothing more than false readings – rebar, concertina wire, soda cans and other metal objects buried in the wadi’s sediment.

“It’s frustrating,” said Cpl. Scott Shoptaw, a 20-year-old combat engineer from Cabot, Ark., who has spent days now searching the wadi’s waist-high waters. “You want to find them more than anything.”

With each passing day of the search, the waters became shallower, making search efforts easier, according to several Marine combat engineers on site.

While the Iraqi soldiers found several items along the wadi’s shores, U.S. troops discovered several items as well,  to include U.S. military body armor, night vision goggles and several rifles.

“It’s good to find pieces to guide you towards, hopefully, something larger in this illogical nightmare,” said Shoptaw, taking a break from wading through the wadi’s brown waters.

By the end of the second day of their search efforts, the Iraqi soldiers had similar results – they’d found just a handful of items presumed to belong to the accident victims.

“We have frustration, but we think we will get them,” said Sgt. “Salah,” a 40-year-old Iraqi soldier who added that the search efforts were even more important than combating insurgents in Rutbah, which he participated in last year.

Despite seemingly endless foot patrols through rugged terrain, swarms of mosquitoes nipping at their exposed skin, and sweltering heat, the Iraqi soldiers’ priority was finding the missing Marine and sailor, said Salah.

“We don’t care if we have to stay longer; I’m used to the weather,” said Salah, who wanted to stay beyond the scheduled three days to continue the search. “Everybody wants to find them to help their families.”

“Maybe they have kids,” interrupts another soldier, one of several who gathered around Salah as he spoke. “We know because we have families and we know how they would feel if this happened to us.”

Raseed said that his soldiers worked tirelessly to search the area for the missing service members. Some even volunteered to strip off their boots and search the waters, instead of along the wadi’s shores, he said.

“They are searching the river by themselves,” said Raseed, who added that he is proud of his soldiers’ initiative to search the waters.  “Already some of the soldiers have volunteered to go into the water to look for the Marines. They are all heroes to me.”

A handful of Marines from Regimental Combat Team 7 assisted the Iraqis with their three-day search. The Marines are part of 2nd Brigade’s partnered Military Transition Team - groups of Coalition service members assigned to track and guide each Iraqi military unit’s progression towards independent operations.

Transition team members for 2nd Brigade have evaluated and mentored the unit’s 300 or so soldiers for more than three months now.

“Three months ago, they would not have been able to conduct sustained operations like this,” said Maj. Jonathan P. Dunne, operations officer for 2nd Brigade’s transition team. “When we got here (to Iraq), their focus was very limited.”

In the past three months, the Marines say the Iraqi soldiers have made steady progress, learning everything from basic marksmanship to administrative processes and the tactical decision-making skills they’ll need to operate on their own, which Coalition officials say will happen by year’s end.

The brigade’s ability to coordinate and conduct the search efforts was another step in that progression, as it was the first true test of the Iraqis’ ability to plan, coordinate and conduct a sustained operation away from their camp at Al Asad.

Now, the Iraqi soldiers are beginning to understand how to conduct the basic fundamentals required for a military unit to sustain itself, said Dunne, a Flossmoor, Ill., native.

During the recovery operation, the Iraqi soldiers provided their own security, coordinate logistical support, and establish a base of operations from which to coordinate the search efforts.

The Iraqi soldiers coordinated their efforts with adjacent Marine and U.S. Army units searching the area, which required advanced, detailed planning – a stark improvement from three months ago, said Dunne.

“They understand the importance of finding (them),” added Staff Sgt. Jasper K. Key, the transition team’s communications chief. Key was one of the Marines assisting the Iraqis with search efforts.

Though the soldiers still have more progress to make before they can relieve Coalition Forces here by year’s end, the Marines say that the Iraqi soldiers “are getting better” and beginning to understand the in’s and out’s of soldiering.

“Many initially said they joined for the money, but after talking to them, they say they’re in it for a better Iraq,” said Key, who spent three days assisting the Iraqi soldiers with search operations. “They want a better Iraq.”

Key knows all too well the importance of finding missing servicemembers’ remains. In 2000, the 33-year-old was part of a joint task force which recovered the remains of two U.S. pilots in Vietnam. At one of the pilot’s funerals, the family was quite appreciative of their efforts, said Key, an Oxford, Miss., native.

“It’s a big relief for families once their sons or daughters are returned,” said Key, who led several of the foot patrols with Iraqi soldiers to search for Nettles. “It does mean a lot.”

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Krishnna J. Reyes, the transition team’s medical corpsman, also accompanied the Iraqi soldiers during their search efforts. The 16-year Navy veteran, who said he’s met the missing sailor – a fellow Navy corpsman – agrees with Key’s sentiments.

“If I was one of those family members of one of the missing, I’d look at it like this: everyone out there (searching) is making an impact,” said Reyes, resting in the back of a humvee following a two-hour foot patrol along the wadi. “I wouldn’t care if he was American or Iraqi, purple or green.”

Editor’s Note: The names of the Iraqi soldiers featured in this article have been changed to protect their identities.