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Local soldiers safeguard Victory

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- In Maryland, she's a state trooper. In the National Guard nine years, she's also a trained Army medic. But in the center of a war zone, Spc. Marta Koock has become a tour guide.

And it isn't what she expected to be doing in Iraq.

Koock's largely administrative job assignment overseeing morale, welfare and recreation at the largest American base in Iraq illustrates the challenge of her Maryland National Guard's 58th Infantry Brigade Combat Team headquarters company, which arrived here two months ago.

"I'm a field rat," Koock said back at her office after directing a recent weekly group through two of Saddam Hussein's former lakefront palaces, which had been pummeled by American missiles. "I'm not a desk person."

Instead of taking up their traditional infantry duties - sending out patrols to comb through insurgent hot spots, for example - the Maryland brigade operates the sprawling, walled-off Camp Victory as its resident landlord. The officers and enlisted soldiers from the Dundalk-based company manage military life inside a teeming city with 50,000 troops - its most famous resident is Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq - drawn largely from the army's 3rd Infantry and 1st Cavalry divisions.

The brigade's headquarters company is just part of the 1,300 guardsmen drawn from units across Maryland that were activated this spring and are pouring into Iraq this summer. From manning guard postings at a base in Mosul to running security for truck convoys from a base near Qayarrah to training Iraqi soldiers, the missions of Marylanders at war remain diverse.

For the more than 100 soldiers in the Maryland brigade's headquarters company at Camp Victory, the yearlong deployment has brought a number of surprises, including veteran infantrymen who now must manage multimillion-dollar public works projects and oversee the Iraqi day labor force on this 42-square-kilometer base.

Most of them will likely never see life over the wall, where the rest of the capital city lives and American forces battle insurgents.

"We may not be pulling triggers, but we are responsible for those that do," brigade commander Col. Sean Casey said. "This is where the Army needed us right now."

Some have embraced the change, tapping into skills from civilian life to do their new jobs and counting their blessings for the relative safety inside Camp Victory. But others have chafed, saying the largely administrative duties could diminish their interest in staying in the Guard after this deployment.

"I'm torn," Staff Sgt. Jason Woods, 38, of Hagerstown said while waiting for a crew of Iraqi sandbaggers to cross through a base gate. "Part of me really wants to be kicking down doors."

But "I've been doing this for 20 years. I want to make it home alive."

His job, Woods added, has its own rewards, including getting to know one of his workers so well that he received an invitation to the Iraqi's wedding.

The change in assignment is nothing new for the stretched American forces in Iraq, where airmen have been shoehorned into becoming convoy truck drivers, and cavalry units have been assigned to guard military prisons.

"There can be a lot of frustration," said brigade chaplain Lt. Col. Clark D. Carr, 51, of Hagerstown. "It has to do with a sense of job meaning. ... You always have to be on guard for job burnout."

And Koock's job, of course, is more than leading packs of soldiers and contractors on Sunday afternoons through the crumbling ruins of Saddam Hussein's unfinished Victory Over America palace and the once-ornate Baath Party assembly hall.

Koock, from Charles County, principally works at the resort-like Camp Slayer, where Hussein's old palaces line carp-filled lakes. Her other duties include managing some of the 600 lease agreements that establish where military and contractor tenants can erect their housing and offices.

All of the new assignments, she said, have broadened her horizons. "It will expand my resume of what I can do," Koock, 27, said, citing her work to host a popular salsa music night and bring in entertainment acts, including comedian Dave Attell.

Though Camp Victory continues to receive sporadic incoming fire from mortar and rocket attacks, she also knows that, on the other side of the base wall, the risks are much greater. Her parents in Queens, N.Y., Koock said, are grateful for that, no matter how much she might like to join the fight.

"They're worried," she said. "I'm an only child."

Koock has trained to be part of a personal security detail for VIP visits, a skill that she says she hopes might take her back into duties connected to her training in the Guard.

Despite reservations of some in his command, Casey dismissed the idea that the Guard's job running base operations might broadly affect future retention of soldiers.

"In Maryland, the retention rate is higher for those who deploy," he said.

The scope of operations at Camp Victory can be staggering for such a small unit, so the Maryland company is permitted to "tax" tenant commands and use their soldiers to help complete tasks.

Aided by hundreds of contractors, the base has 8,700 buildings in various stages of repair. It generates its own power, bottles its own water and pours its own concrete barrier walls, which line many roads and divide trailer parks to minimize the impact of any incoming attack.

The reach of the brigade is so broad that five "mayors" from Casey's command are needed to manage the individual parts of Victory, supplemented by five "sheriffs" - top enlisted officers who patrol the smaller camps for rule-breakers.

"We manage everything that no one wants to," Master Sgt. Steve Allen, the sheriff of Camp Liberty West, said on a recent daily drive through the sector. "We are the Excedrin for the base. You have a headache, and we're the cure."

Working as a trauma nurse in Baltimore, he said, prepared him well for the constant uncertainty of life at Victory. His tasks run from the mundane - tsk-tsking soldiers for not wearing a reflector belt outside over their workout clothes - to the critical, including responding to a mortar attack.

Part of the challenge is to maintain the institutional knowledge about how to run operations at Victory, even as its leaders change every year.

"We haven't been here for four years. We've been here for one year, four times. And that's the challenge," he said.

Interviewed while smoking a Cuban cigar atop the base's Antenna Hill with a sweeping view of the city below, Col. Charles Whittington said his brigade's combat training as infantrymen has brought respect from the war-weary troops who return to Victory.

"I need to be able to connect with that solider coming in from outside the wire. He has a maneuver mindset," said Whittington, the brigade's deputy commander, who, as a civilian, is a Chicago-based national sales. "When he comes back in, he's talking to a maneuver mayor."

The base has two distinct personalities: industrial and palatial. Camp Slayer is its most scenic, with generals' villas ringing the man-made lakes. Hussein built an oddly surreal fun park called Flintstone Village for his grandchildren, complete with its own waterfall.

Now with the concrete slipping away and the water shut off, soldiers have filled the faux rock formations with graffiti.

The only image of the executed Iraqi leader sits above a small blue-tiled but empty fountain in the shape of the Baath Party symbol. The Americans say they believe the site used to be adjacent to a school.

Routinely scorched by temperatures exceeding 120 degrees this summer, the entire camp is filled with drained pools. Only the Australians have theirs up and running. American commanders are divided, Casey said, on whether to restore and reopen those under their control.

"We're not sure that a bunch of people lounging by the side of the pool is the right symbol, when we have troops out there under very difficult conditions," he said.

Instead, the commander said, soldiers really want more Internet access.

Plans are in the works to make the service, as well as cable television, available to individual housing units across the base, he said.

Moving soldiers from canvas tents and into portable trailers - another top priority - should be complete by November for all but the most transient troops at Victory, according to Casey.

To pass the time at Victory, soldiers often improvise under harsh, dusty conditions. They play flag football and softball on cleared, rock-strewn fields without a blade of grass.

State-of-the-art gyms remain popular refuges, especially after a new exterior foam insulation cooled the interiors by 10 degrees, according to Maj. Richard Ortt, the head of the public works directorate.

Security takes precedence over almost every other concern, brigade members said. All of the dining facilities have an additional cantilevered roof made of Kevlar to protect diners from mortar and rocket attacks. Buildings that house more than 50 people will receive similar protections. Along many roads and throughout many housing areas, there are four sizes of concrete barriers, some more than 10 feet high.

Sensitivity to Iraqi concerns, Casey said, is paramount. All of the mosques have been closed and secured to ensure that they are not degraded in any way by the American presence here.

In deciding how to complete new projects at Victory, Ortt said attention is paid to restore buildings that could be used later by Iraqis. The new power plant will be leased, he said, and a new trailer housing community is temporary.

What is less clear, he said, is what Camp Victory will look like in the future.

"Our job is to provide a sanctuary for soldiers," said Ortt, 37, of White Hall. "We could pull out at any time, but we need to take care of our soldiers here today."

For Lt. Col. Young Lee, a 37-year-old from White Marsh and the mayor at Camp Slayer, the most basic soldier's needs must rise to the top of his priority list.

"One night, we had 45 Marines show up at the gate that we didn't expect," he said. "They had been out for three days, and they had some problems. They were sleeping in their trucks.

"We didn't ask what happened and just found them beds," he said. "They were just so thankful for air-conditioning."

Sun reporter Matthew Dolan and photographer Elizabeth Malby are in Iraq with deployed troops of the Maryland National Guard.

To hear Maryland National Guard members jamming at Camp Victory, go to

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