CONTINGENCY OPERATING LOCATION Q-WEST, Iraq - Members of a Mississippi Army National Guard unit marked their sixth month of entry control point operations and no security breaches for Contingency Operating Location Q-West, Jan. 10.
Soldiers with A Company, 2nd Battalion, 198th Combined Arms, 155th Brigade Combat Team, a mechanized infantry unit out of Hernando, Miss., took little notice of the occasion, though they approach their duties with pride.
"As far as protecting the force, I feel this is the most important job on post," said Pfc. Quintavis B. Byrd, a gate sentinel from Tutwiler, Miss. "I'm not knocking any other job, but we stop threats here from getting on post. I'm proud of doing this."
Sgt. Russell R. Rippy, an assistant sergeant of the guard on his fourth deployment, agreed.
"All missions are equally important, no matter what," said Rippy, a Nashville, Tenn., native, "but operating the entry control point is extremely important. If anything goes down, the Soldiers here are the first line of defense."
There are numerous duty positions for the ECP operation, said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Hughes, sergeant of the guard and native of Batesville, Miss. These include gatekeepers, tower gunners, surveillance system monitors, radio telephone operators, badging specialists, and sergeants and assistant sergeants of the guard.
Hughes said the gatekeepers monitor the flow of civilian and military traffic and validate civilian badges, overwatched by the tower gunners and surveillance system monitors. The badging specialists validate the paperwork of civilians and issue temporary visitor passes or badges for Iraqi workers who enter the base. The RTO maintains regular communications with the base defense operations center and informs higher command of any issues. All of this is supervised by the sergeants and assistant sergeants of the guard, Hughes said.
Hughes said that cross training and rotating duties is a standard operating procedure at the ECP.
"We rotate duty positions so everyone gets time in every position, even as SOG or ASOG," said Hughes. "This keeps us fresh, versatile, and confident. No matter what the rank, when a Soldier is in a leadership position, he has to make decisions and everyone has to follow those decisions. That also helps to build future leaders."
Rotating duties and practicing battle drills keep everyone focused, said Spc. Jonathan A. Mercer, a native of Independence, Miss.
"This is a fairly safe job, but we keep in back of our heads that anything could happen," said Mercer. "We practice battle drills to stay ready and rotate jobs every day. That way, have no choice but to stay on our toes."
Hughes said that nearly every member of the ECP operation volunteered for the duty, and their morale is high.
One of the biggest reasons for the high number of volunteers is that ECP operations have a predictable battle rhythm, said Sgt. Schedrick O. Johnson, a sergeant of the guard.
"During my last deployment, I did convoy escort missions, and I never had a set schedule," said Johnson, a native of Magnolia, Miss. "The ECP mission is more predictable. It's more laid back and less stressful."
Spc. Ryan E. Ohlendorf, a gate sentinel from Horn Lake, Miss., said that he preferred the ECP mission for the same reason.
"We have a set schedule, and I like that," said Ohlendorf. "Our families get used to it, so they know when they'll hear from us. That's a big reason a lot of guys volunteered for this job."
Spc. Calvin L. Davis, a machine gunner from Red Banks, Miss., said much the same thing.
"I volunteered for this duty because I wanted set work hours to make it easier to communicate back home," said Davis.
These volunteers are diligent workers and have performed very well, but the key is relevant and rigorous training, said Hughes.
"Those of us who deployed in 2005 with the brigade faced IEDs, rockets and fire fights," Hughes said. "This time, the biggest fight we have is with complacency, keeping Soldiers sharp and focused. We go to the weapons range as much as possible. Otherwise, we practice our 26 battle drills to improve our response times, especially for medical evacuations."
Staff Sgt. Robert L. Howze, another sergeant of the guard, agreed that complacency was a challenge, but his biggest challenge was preparing Soldiers on their first deployment how to do the mission.
"I worked hard to train my new guys to do this mission," said Howze, from Hattiesburg, Miss. "They had to learn the rules of engagement, the ECP battle drills, but they caught on quick. We continue to practice our battle drills, but they have performed well. I have a lot of confidence in my Soldiers. They stay focused and don't complain."
One incident the battle drills prepared the ECP personnel to handle was when an Iraqi army vehicle rolled over, said Rippy.
"Through diligent practice, everyone on the gate that day knew their tasks," said Rippy. "They knew where they needed to be and what they needed to do. There was a lot of panic among the Iraqis, but my Soldiers were calm as they dealt with the situation - securing the scene, providing immediate first aid, reporting to higher command and coordinating the medical response team."
Howze said that this is good duty for Soldiers deploying for the first time.
"Working at the ECP gives them a general idea of what's going on in Iraq," said Howze. "The younger Soldiers get to know the people and the culture. They interact everyday with local nationals, probably more than most Soldiers in the battalion. My Soldiers get to know the people by name, get to know about their lives."
Meeting local Iraqis is one reason Spc. Thomas L. Hill, a badging specialist from Southaven, Miss., prefers to work at the ECP.
"I like working with the local Iraqis very much," said Hill. "I meet hundreds who come in and off the base every day. We talk, and I learn about their lives. I know a lot more about this country because I know so many Iraqis personally. No matter where I go on the base, I run into Iraqis I know from working here."
Ohlendorf said that becoming familiar with Iraqis who frequent the ECP helped with recognizing anything out of the ordinary.
"We get so we recognize everyone, and we know their moods, if they are relaxed or anxious," said Ohlendorf. "It's easy to spot unfamiliar people and vehicles, or familiar vehicles that have something out of the ordinary. We always watch the faces, whether we know them or not, to look for signs of nervousness. If we see anything suspicious, we halt the vehicle far back from the gate."
Staff Sgt. Kevin L. Brown, a SOG from Hernando, Miss., said that passing through the ECP is a tedious process that can cause delays and test the patience of commuters.
"We get to know the regulars by name, but we still check them thoroughly," said Brown. "It's our responsibility to monitor all traffic that goes back and forth through the gate. We see many of the same trucks every day and the big challenge is making sure the driver has authorization for everything transported on that vehicle. Hundreds of vehicles pass through each week, all different, so we have to stay alert."
The Iraqi workers don't complain about the process, said Brown.
"The locals who come often, they never give us any problems," said Brown. "They understand that we're doing a necessary job. It's people who don't know the process who get impatient with us, which does them no good. We rarely have problems with the locals."
Rippy said that the only time Iraqis get frustrated is if they are unfamiliar with the process.
"The Iraqis don't give us any trouble," said Rippy. "The biggest trouble makers we have are U.S. forces who think our job is unimportant and only an obstacle."
Some U.S. Soldiers find the process a nuisance, and they sometimes lash out in anger, said Hughes.
"We have had Soldiers get irritated with us, even cursing us because they think we've never been outside the wire," said Hughes. "The guys running combat patrols are the worst, especially when they are coming back from missions. I get that. They're wanting to de-blouse, to take their armor off and hit the rack - and we're standing between them and that, so they sometimes take their frustration out on us."
Another tedious but essential ECP procedure is that crews and passengers must clear all weapons and disarm possibly harmful electronic systems, a requirement that sometimes causes frustration with Soldiers who fail to meet the standard, said Ohlendorf.
"We ensure that everyone who comes on to post is not a threat, whether that's a local civilian or one of our own Soldiers," said Ohlendorf. "For instance, every military vehicle that enters the gate must first clear all weapons at the clearing barrels, and we watch from the tower to ensure that they do this properly. We've had to turn convoys around and send them back through to the barrels because they didn't clear their weapons. They don't like it, but we won't let them through with unsafe weapons. That's our job."
The best way to deal with frustrated people is to be courteous, said Mercer.
"We show respect for everyone coming in or going out the gate," he said. "That helps maintain good relations with the Iraqis, and it even helps with our own Soldiers. We even hold up signs for Soldiers going out on missions, messages like, 'Stay Safe.'"