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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 29, 2005

Smile power overcomes Ramadi children's fears

By Tad Tsuneyoshi

Aloha again. Much has happened in the city of Ar Ramadi since I last wrote.

U.S. troops in Ramadi have operated checkpoints to seek out rebels.

Tad Tsuneyoshi

Since we first came to the city, contact has been a daily occurrence. The people were afraid of us. We have spent countless hours meeting and talking to the people in our sector. We have passed out pencils, counter-propaganda, stuffed animals, soccer balls and candy in hopes of gaining information.

The people always talked about the damage coalition forces had inflicted while in contact with the enemy. Without the presence of police, we became the law, seeking out the criminals and terrorists with minimal help from a public that feared and scorned us. With this daunting challenge and the seeming lack of gratitude from the people, our soldiers questioned their involvement as we continued to push out and kept suffering casualties.

The faces and smiles of the children gave purpose for most of us. When we first came into their homes, we saw kids holding their hands up like their father and mother as if they were criminals. Kids would shy away from us and hide behind their parents, who looked at us with distrust.

It is amazing what a smile and an extended hand can do. Within seconds, you could see the calming effect when you release your weapon to shake their hands and smile. As if this war never happened, the kids became instant friends, talking to us in Arabic as if we knew what they were talking about, with a look of hope.

Since the elections, kids have been going to school on a regular basis. Their laughter fills the air while they play, as we pull guard duty on our towers. People are able to go to work. People's attitudes change when they are able to work and support their families instead of cowering in their homes.

Mililani boy

Tad Tsuneyoshi First Lt. Tad Tsuneyoshi, 23, was born in Hawai'i, and his family lives in Mililani. He is a rifle platoon leader with the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Air Assault) stationed at Ramadi, Iraq. This is his most recent dispatch to Advertiser readers.
Most of the bullet holes have been covered up and the city has a different look and feel. It feels awkward, however, as we all grew up in combat here in the city. It is a good awkward. Now the people talk to us about how their area is free of terrorists and criminals. And for the first time, I believe them.

One of the strangest occurrences happened on a night mission about a month ago when we rolled out of our gates on the way to a raid target. Our lead vehicle became stuck in a volleyball net. There were people out playing soccer and volleyball in the streets.

People were gathered and talking story around their houses. A couple of months ago, people gathering during darkness were considered to be possible enemy.

We went out a couple days later to remind the people that there was an Iraqi-imposed curfew still in place. However, at house after house, we were told they were out because they felt safe. They were out doing normal things because we had taken the bad guys off of the street. And we were thanked for our efforts.

We remind them that this will be short-lived unless we continue to work with each other. Hopefully this glimpse of what real freedom is will keep the terrorists and criminals away — the freedom to live without fear.

Recently, our platoon took our commander to the Government Center to meet with the new Ramadi Iraqi Police Chief.

Fortunately, we had no hostile encounters and returned with news that the Ramadi police would begin working again. That news was received with some skepticism due to our earlier experience with an improvised explosive device in a suicide vehicle disguised as a police car that wounded half of our platoon.

During the heaviest fighting in Ramadi, the Iraqi police hid behind the walls of their compounds in fear for their lives and those of their families if they cooperated with coalition forces.

However, we realize that we cannot take on the enemy alone, and the Iraqi people's offer to help is a welcome sign of change and hope.

During the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Ramadi was one of the few cities where power was transferred peacefully over to coalition forces. This was attributed to the power and influence that the sheiks exercised in Al Anbar Province and in Ramadi.

Slowly, the influence of the sheiks faded as the coalition forces took over, and violence began. The meetings committed the sheiks to work with coalition forces who would turn some power over to them. A curfew ordered by the governor was adjusted to no vehicle traffic from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and allowed pedestrian movement. Our checkpoints that control movement in and out of the city are going to be re-opened to allow free flow of traffic.

Coalition forces have vowed to help continue infrastructure improvements, more recently with the installation of new power transformers. In return, the sheiks will cooperate in finding and capturing terrorists and help maintain security to allow for the city to grow.

Although the city seems better, we are constantly reminded every day that the terrorists still hide among the people on the streets of Ramadi. They conduct mortar/rocket attacks periodically, sporadically fire at us while on mission, and conceal IEDs to ambush patrols.

As part of their terror tactics, the enemy has become desperately indiscriminate in its attacks on coalition forces, Iraqi forces, and the Iraqi people. On May 7, the terrorists ordered a two-day, "no vehicle or pedestrian traffic" curfew in the city that was obeyed. The threat was to kill anyone who went to work or school.

Al Jazeera and Al Shakira both reported that Ramadi was staging a "voluntary sit-in protest" against coalition checkpoints and their presence. When we approached the people, they replied in embarrassment that they had succumbed to these threats.

The enemy's presence was also marked by more violence this week when one of our vehicles was engaged by a rocket propelled grenade, the first direct-fire engagement in weeks. The enemy faded into countless roads and alleyways despite quick reaction and movement on the firing position.

Our Marine brethren who share the mission of protecting the city also face daily enemy action. Despite the enemy efforts, we continue to push out of the wire and seek out those who intend to harm us and the people of Ramadi, trying to stop the progress of the new Iraqi government.

We still do not forget the ultimate sacrifice given by our brothers who served: Pfc. Jason Sparks, Spc. Michael Smith, Pfc. Jesus Fonseca, Pfc. George Geer, and Staff Sgt. Vitagliano. Our best goes out to 1st Lt. Wes Fine, who was wounded in action during a mortar attack.