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Portrait Of Commitment / Despite Dangers, Reservists Vow To Finish Work In Iraq

By Arnold Abrams. STAFF WRITER

September 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Newsday. All rights reserved. 

After seeing abject poverty and abysmal living conditions in the Iraqi countryside, Sgt. George Avalos vowed to think twice before complaining about everyday American problems like traffic jams and mortgage costs.

"I've seen enough hunger, broken houses and war damage in this country to make me appreciate everything home has to offer," he said. "There are people here that would do anything to face the problems we have back home."

Sgt. Angela Green, on the other hand, can't help focusing on two factors she will always associate with Iraq: unbearable heat and countless flies. "This country is now off my list of vacation spots," she said.

Sgt. Jim Mylott will face unending heartache caused by the death of Sgt. Jaror Puello-Coronado, who saved Mylott's life an instant before losing his own in a traffic accident in Iraq.

"I think about him every day," Mylott said of his close friend. "I will think of him every time I look at my own son. I will see him in the eyes of every child my wife and I have."

But, despite losing three comrades - one in an ambush and two in auto accidents - and having their lives upended, these Army reservists, along with more than 100 other Long Islanders in the Uniondale-based 310th Military Police Battalion, insist they don't regret being sent to Iraq.

Nor do they believe the U.S.-led coalition should leave until Iraq's infrastructure is largely rebuilt and life in that long-suffering country regains some semblance of normalcy.

The views of these soldiers, who constitute a small but significant part of the approximately 140,000-member American force sent there, were obtained through e-mail interviews over the course of several weeks.

Those interviews provided a portrait of the reservists' lives as they aid a U.S.-led effort to revive an oppressed, war-torn society. A common theme among them involved the gratification these troops gained from their task, which involves rebuilding and restructuring Iraq's judicial and prison systems.

"The more I travel through Iraq and speak with the people and learn of the atrocities that have occurred," said Lt. Col. Vincent Montera, commander of the battalion, "the more I understand why I am here."

Montera, 57, a Bellmore resident and grandfather of five, added: "Our efforts are certainly worth continuing. I have committed not to declare 'mission accomplished' until I am convinced all prisons in the south can be turned over to the Iraqis."

Montera's MP unit, about 700 strong, includes several contingents added in Iraq. Most of its members have been stationed since late May in Diwaniya, a city in southern Iraq about 110 miles south of Baghdad.

Daily existence for these reservists, who range in age from early 20s to mid-50s, is difficult and dangerous. They have been physically tormented by Iraq's unrelenting summer heat and psychologically stressed by the possibility of being shot or blown up while driving down a street, shopping in a store or even going to the latrine.

Although the atmosphere of Diwaniya and southern Iraq in general is more placid than that of larger cities in the north, where anti-American sentiment is concentrated, the danger of being killed by a lone gunman or planted explosive remains real.

"You have to be ready for anything," said Montera, whose vehicle has taken fire twice. "We all wear heavy body armor with plates when on the road or anytime off post. Even when going to the latrine, every soldier has his weapon with him."

The reservists stoically accept such risks, but their morale was sapped by the Pentagon's recent decision to extend the tours of approximately 20,000 National Guard and Army reservists.

"The news alone has weakened what was already low morale," said Avalos, 30, a Hicksville resident and budding architect who works as a mechanic in the unit's motor pool.

"For the time being, it remains just a rumor as far as our unit is concerned. But if the rumor becomes a reality, morale will hit rock bottom."

The unit's commander has a slightly more positive view.

"No one is happy about this," Montera said. "But we will do what we are asked to do."

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's politically dominated judicial and prison systems were run largely by whim, lacked administrative oversight and often produced mass death. The mission of these reservists - many of whom are police officers in civilian life - involves oversight of criminal courts and confinement facilities in southern Iraq.

Their job includes rebuilding four major prisons crumbling from age and decades of neglect, creating an administrative system to keep track of prisoners, and training hundreds of carefully screened Iraqi correction officers to handle inmates humanely.

What the reservists found at Al Hillah prison, which housed more than 2,000 prisoners when Hussein held power, illustrated the problem.

"The smell of death was still fresh, and there were clear signs of human torturing with iron hooks hanging from the ceiling in many cells," said Capt. John Kaires, 37, a St. James resident who is the unit's operations officer. "Looking around the prison and talking to former guards, you just knew horrible acts of torture took place on a daily basis."

Aided by Marines and Navy Seabees, the reservists renovated Al Hillah and the other prisons. They also established training academies for new Iraqi correction officers, teaching them everything from searches and tower guard operations to prison transfers and human rights.

The high-level personal relations that help produce such results were illustrated last month at the opening ceremony of a corrections academy near Al Hillah. After addressing local dignitaries, Montera asked the newly appointed prison warden, Raade Jaber Kelaf, to join him on the podium.

The American officer presented the Iraqi official with a set of silver oak leaves identical to the one adorning his own uniform. The gesture apparently meant much to Kelaf, a Baghdad University graduate whose specialty is prison administration.

"I told him that my rank was his new rank and that we were equal," Montera recalled. "With much emotion, he stated to me (through an interpreter) that he was so honored, he would cherish this insignia and pass it down to his son - who will pass it to his son."

Most members of the unit, however, have limited personal contact with Iraqis. Their well-guarded quarters, which they occupied until last week on the Diwaniya University campus, were decent by Iraqi standards but lacking in basic necessities like reliable electricity, air conditioning and plumbing.

Showers were nonexistent at first, forcing the reservists to wash with bottled water while standing outdoors in plywood stalls built by Army engineers. Portable showering facilities were provided by mid-summer, but there still is no running water and port-o-potties serve as latrines.

"The facilities," Green wryly noted, "leave a great deal to be desired."

A New York City police officer who lives in Elmont, Green, 35, has had a hard time with Iraq's temperature, which regularly runs well over 110 degrees Farenheit in summer. "It's definitely not something I've experienced before," she said.

Neither is the death of three men, which Montera described as "emotionally devastating."

The first fatality occurred March 15, a week before the unit was sent overseas, when Sgt. Dwayne Hawkins, a 38-year-old Amityville resident, was killed in a car crash near Jones Beach while on a weekend pass from Fort Dix, N.J.

The second death came in June, when Spc. Richard Orengo, 32, with a Puerto Rico MP unit attached to Montera's command, was gunned down in an ambush outside the city of Najaf.

The third man lost was Puello-Coronado, 36, a Pennsylvania resident who was helping to man a checkpoint on July 13. An otherwise uneventful day turned tragic when an Iraqi truck collided with a taxi cab and careened into the Americans' parked Humvee.

Puello-Coronado, standing outside the Humvee, tried to push Mylott, sitting in the rear, out of the vehicle. He saved Mylott's life, but was crushed to death.

"I still have trouble sleeping and flashbacks," said Mylott, 34, who suffered a concussion and five broken ribs in the accident.

Mylott, a Bohemia resident, was reluctant to reveal what he wrote to his late friend's widow, whom he intends to visit when he returns from Iraq.

"What do you say in a case like this?" he asked. "But I do want her to know exactly what happened, that he wasn't alone and, most importantly, that I will never forget what he did."

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