FORWARD OPERATING BASE DUKE, Iraq -- Reconnaissance Platoon, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), isn’t hiding in the bushes reporting back intelligence.
In fact, they've only done limited reconnaissance since they’ve been here.
Rather, they’re riding out in the open, and looking for the Iraqis. Not for a fight, however, but to help them rebuild and renew An Najaf, Iraq. It’s something many units inside the MEU are learning to do now that fighting in the city ceased Aug. 28.
“There are a lot of requirements out in town for extraordinary jobs-- jobs that we don't train for but are asked to do by the command and the locals," said Capt. Stephen A. Kintzley, platoon commander, Recon Platoon. “It's a good thing because I've got a platoon of creative thinkers who come up with ways to accomplish any mission. It's a challenge, it keeps us busy, and it's rewarding to see the outcome of our work.”
During the battle, Recon served as a provisional rifle platoon attached to the different infantry companies of the MEU as an extra asset to help in the three-week fight. They fought in the holy Shia cemetery, conducted raids and dismounted attacks, and fought building to building in the Old City district of Najaf. The closest job they did to doing reconnaissance was when the MEU first arrived in the city at the end of July. For a few days, they set up observation posts to monitor the Muqtada Militia's movement of illegal weapons into the city and conducted route recons.
“We’d go out and confirm routes. We did daily patrols just to get out and learn the routes,” said Cpl. Josh S. Jarvis, reconnaissance Marine, Recon Platoon. “That was the closest thing we did to recon at the time.”
Now, they’re out pumping local civilians for information on what needs to be rebuilt. They’re assessing for everything from work on playgrounds and school supplies for children to how much medical supplies local hospitals need.
“We’re checking the condition of schools and different healthcare centers,” Kintzley said. “And we’re also driving around trying to check the overall reception of U.S. troops.”
With the MEU’s help pouring in, the Marines think, by and large, the locals are always happy to see them.
They visited one medical clinic that was in a small town outside Najaf. It was in dire need of basic medical supplies. In addition to just reporting it up the chain to be helped eventually, the platoon’s corpsman took it upon himself to give the doctor some of his extra medical supplies.
“I just gave him some extra antibiotics, IVs, IV supplies, ointments, creams and over the counter stuff for colds. I remember the guy was real happy, he said ‘God bless you,’” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Doug Debrauwere, corpsman, Recon Platoon.
Even amid the kindness, the Marines keep an ever-watchful eye for trouble.
“We’re always keeping our eyes open,” Jarvis said. “There’s always one or two who give you dirty looks even around all the happy ones.”
"We have to continue to be a hard target along with being the hand-shakers and kid-players," said Gunnery Sgt. Brian R. Yarolem, platoon sergeant, Recon Platoon.
The shift from fighting to helping has provided the full gamut of perspective in Operation Iraqi Freedom II for the Recon Marines.
“After being here these guys have seen the full spectrum of the battlefield,” said Yarolem. “They’ve done everything from taking lives to helping with compassion.”
Since the platoon is stacked with plenty of senior Marines, the ever-altering battlefield might not faze them as much as it might others.
“We have a platoon full of (non-commissioned officers) that are mature enough to handle this kind of mission,” Kintzley said.
The switch from recon to civil affairs work still left them with hurdles they had to master on the fly.
“We learned how to do it everyday while out there,” Jarvis said. “We were blind when we first started.”
The challenges are welcomed by Jarvis, and he tries to learn from them daily.
“I try to make the best of it out there,” he said. “Even if it’s to just learn a new (Arabic) word a day.”
According to Yarolem, some of the challenges they face daily include having no standardized form or way to figure out what is damaged as well as dealing with people who expect something to be done every time they go out.
"These were some of the hardest things we had to do along with going straight from offensive operations right to civil affairs," Yarolem explained.
Recon Marines also have a distinct advantage when it comes to identifying civil affairs projects that many other Marines may not have.
"Some of the things that make us uniquely qualified for this mission are our observation techniques," said Yarolem. "We're trained to pick up on a lot of details and that helps us when it comes to figuring out what needs to be done."
The Marines are starting to feel good about helping the Iraqis.
“Even if it’s just stopping by to see what work needs to be done, you can see it’s huge for them,” Jarvis said.
The recognition doesn’t go unnoticed.
“The Marines feel it’s rewarding to see their hard work is paying off,” Kintzley said.