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Minnesota National Guard
Capt. Tadd Vanyo's letter to National Guard families

Editors note:The following letter was written by Capt Tadd Vanyo, one of more than 2,600 Minnesota National Guard members who were mobilized in September 2005

They trained for six months at Camp Shelby, Miss, before traveling to Iraq a year ago The Guard members were originally scheduled to return to the United States this month, but are now slated to return later this summer

In the letter, Vanyo, who is commander of the Moorhead-based Headquarters and Company of the 2-136 Combined Arms Battalion, reflects on the last year in Iraq

It was provided to The Forum by Krista Colemer, leader of Moorhead's Family Readiness Group, a support organization for military families

Families and Friends:

Given that our one year anniversary in country is upon us, I decided that it would be a good time to provide the 1st (and hopefully last) annual synopsis of the region of Iraq that we call home and how this part of the country has changed over the last 365 days

Throughout the last year, our Battalion has successfully conducted full scale counter-insurgency operations We have done it all, from implementing several Civil Affairs projects, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, to conducting full-scale medical exercises, to capturing or killing dozens of insurgents, including mid-level Al Qaeda terrorists

As outlined in previous updates, our Soldiers have worked countless hours to disrupt the Al Qaeda activities, with numerous accomplishments, as indicated by our ability to significantly reduce the IED threat in our assigned area We have secured the safety of these once deadly convoy routes, to the tune of 0 Coalition Force deaths in over 6 months and just a handful of IED strikes in the last 3 months

In conducting our operations, we have established a significant level of security and have paved the path for the Iraqi Security Forces to eventually take the lead in achieving a protracted victory

The aggravation of what is now un-affectionately dubbed "The Extension" has not halted us in taking the fight to the enemy, as we have recently completed several missions with the Iraqi Army and one mission with the Iraqi Police (IP) Looking back at where we started and where we are today, the physical ground is very much the same, but the dynamics of what has occurred on that ground has dramatically shifted, in many cases, for the better

Shortly after our arrival in Kuwait, we flew north to our destinations in Iraq Many of us were stunned at what awaited us, given the frustrations that the Coalition Forces (CF) on the ground were experiencing in combating continuous, and often brazen, insurgent attacks

The attacks were perpetuated by elements of Al Qaeda, with the approval and, in some cases, the assistance of the indigenous populace

I remember the indignity I felt when it was revealed to us that a major 4-lane route was off-limits to Coalition Force travel, as it had been all but ceded to the enemy

The only traffic authorized on the route were the Abrams Tanks conducting their daily "Thunder Runs", where there was a better than 50/50 chance of being hit by an IED

In addition to the IEDs, enemy snipers had taken their toll on the CF Soldiers and Marines, who were brave enough to pop their heads out of the hatch of their vehicle In a similarly frustrating development, an enemy mortar team was attacking us at will, from just a few thousand meters away

In one instance, his element unleashed 11-13 rounds of indirect fire and quickly melted back into the civilian populace

We had all but become prisoners of our own Forward Operating Bases, as the general sentiment at the time was that we just needed to mark time and hope that the Iraqi Police (IP) and Iraqi Army (IA) would be able to take charge

Toward the end of the summer of 2006, some political assessments estimated that the Al Anbar province was a total loss, as Al Qaeda had successfully entrenched itself in the local populace and that the Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces were incapable of affecting positive change Fortunately, those estimates turned out to be overstated and overly fatalistic

Since that time, CF Soldiers and Marines in our area integrated their operations with the available IP and IA forces, developing and implementing a systematic clear, hold, and build strategy, opening dozens of operation bases along key routes and within the heart of insurgent strongholds

This process was aided with the killing of Zarqawi and the destruction of hundreds of Al Qaeda elements

Month by month, the Iraqi Army (IA) has secured more and more territory around our operating base Many of us were concerned with the thought of placing a significant portion of the area surrounding us into the hands of the IA, anticipating increased insurgent operations in the wake of a potential IA failure Our fears turned out to be unfounded, as the IA checkpoints and operations, coupled with an increased IP presence, have significantly weakened insurgent activity

The net affect of these events has forced the remaining Al Qaeda elements in our area to resort to extreme measures, as it has felt its stranglehold on the local populace steadily slip

To regain its grip, the foreign fighters continue to execute an intense murder and intimidation campaign against the Native Iraqi population The most horrific acts included capturing and publicly beheading children of those not genuflecting at the altar of radical Sharia law

Most recently, a significant suicide bomb, within a few thousand meters of our base, killed nearly 50 and wounded another hundred civilians, many of which were women and children

The staggering casualties temporarily grabbed world headlines, as another mere act of violence in a worn torn country

The story that was not told was the fact that the suicide bomber aimed his deadly cargo at a group of children leaving school, as well as a crowd of civilians leaving a mosque that recently preached anti-Al Qaeda messages The monsters that perpetuated the bombing immediately issued a statement on Iraqi television, claiming a victory over the corroborators

A few days later, I talked with the mayor and police chief of the affected area, offering our condolences for their losses

I informed both individuals that medics from our Company treated dozens of the victims, from infants to the elderly

In addition, our Soldiers were literally the first in line to provide donations of blood to Iraqi civilians we never have, and probably never will, know

The line of Soldiers and Marines offering their assistance literally extended the length of the entire hall of the surgical aid station

Both the mayor and the police chief offered their sincere gratitude for the help of Coalition Forces and in particular for the help provided by the Soldiers in our organization Choking back his own tears, the mayor related a gut-wrenching story of an American Soldier holding a small child, wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket

The mayor said that the tears were streaking down the Soldier's face as he fruitlessly tried to comfort the child

The relationships we developed with these key individuals, following the devastation of the suicide bomber, continue to this day, as we recently completed our first operation with the Iraqi Police

The mission was a comprehensive success as the police force delivered necessary supplies to the local populace and toys to the children of the village, in addition to identifying and detaining several Anti-Iraqi Forces, as well as uncovering and destroying a potential Vehicle Borne IED

Despite the fact that this was the first police patrol in the village in years, the police were able to realize immediate success, as they were able to speak directly to the populace in their native tongue and connect with them at a cultural level that we simply will never be able to attain

What pleasantly surprised us most of all was the top notch leadership displayed by the police chief and his lieutenants In addition, the discipline and technical skill displayed by their officers quickly dispelled the negative, preconceived stereotypes that even I had obtained through continuous harmful rumors

Few events in our daily operations have created more optimism in a long term solution for this part of Iraq, then seeing the professional execution of the entire IP operation, with the police force taking the lead throughout

I can not speak for all IPs in all areas, but the men we worked with were well-trained and well led If the rest of the ISF operates at anywhere near the capacity that I witnessed, hope exists in an area once thought to be a "total loss"

With the increased brutality by Al Qaeda forces against the civilian populace, many of those that once fought against us for nationalistic pride, have re-focused their sites in opposition to the foreign elements, for pure survival sake

These one time foes are by no means celebrating our presence However, they have come to understand that the true enemy of Iraq's progress comes not from us, but at the hands of the foreign "destroyers" whose radical ideology, and barbaric enforcement of that ideology, has left a wake of resentment that may create the long term conditions necessary for the utilization of the IA & IP as the primary security forces in our area of operations (as outlined in attached story)

Over the next few months we will be making every attempt to take advantage of the new found momentum and accelerate the infrastructure improvements, and increase the IP and IA presence, with the Iraqi Security Forces eventually leading the way This goal will require a considerable effort, but as with all other challenges, we have proven ourselves more than capable and we will do so again

The sacrifice of the elements on the ground and beyond that, the sacrifice of the families back home should never be forgotten

I ask everyone to please take a moment to remember SGT Riewer of Able Company, who was recently killed in an IED blast, while supporting a mission in Fallujah His family bears the burden of SGT Riewer's bravery and ultimate sacrifice and they are in our eternal thoughts and prayers

Many thanks to all the families and friends for their continued support: May God Bless You All

CPT Tadd Vanyo

HHC 2-136th


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