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Progress comes slowly
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After five years — and counting — is the war in Iraq just not that important any longer?

Even the august New York Times ran a story in the last two weeks detailing the curtailing of coverage, by print and electronic media, of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

To hear Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch tell the story, there’s a lot that isn’t being revealed to the American public and the world in general about what the soldiers are doing in Iraq.

Lynch, who will command the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield for about another week before moving on to become III Corps commander at Fort Hood, Texas, is well versed in dealing with the press. Aside from his most recent 15 months and change in Iraq commanding Task Force Marne, he was previously director of strategic effects for Multinational Forces-Iraq. OK, that’s another very Army-ese or government-ish term for a job that covers a lot of ground, but he was the face and voice of the coalition headquarters in Iraq when dealing with the press a couple of years back.

The numbers Lynch shared with the press last week in his final briefing were staggering:
• 89 percent decrease in all forms of attacks per month
• 79 percent decrease in IED attacks per month.
• 95 percent decrease in civilian casualties
• 91 percent decrease in Multinational Division-Center casualties
• 79 percent decrease in Iraqi Security Force casualties

That’s the evidence they use to show how much the surge is working to limit the violence in Iraq. And as some of the U.S. units leave areas of Iraq, either to reinforce more troubled areas in the country or to go home, they are not being replaced by Americans. Their positions are being assumed by Iraqis.

For this deployment, instead of having the troops stationed at large bases, commanders put them in smaller outposts among the Iraqi community.

“Seventy-five percent of my people lived with the people of Iraq,” Lynch said.

But it’s more than a military operation — bringing stability and hope to the country is also economic and political. It means getting schools open, businesses open, people employed and even such things that Americans take for granted as water, sewer and garbage services up and running.

“They want to be able to send their kids to school, they want to have a job, they want to be able to go to the market,” he said.

In Mada’in Qada, sort of an oversized county in Iraq, water flow increased by 300 percent.

“Water is a stabilizing influence in the Middle East,” Lynch said.

Lynch also became known as the “fish farming general” during his most recent deployment to Iraq.

“In our area, there were 3,000 fish farms,” he said.

What they’re growing isn’t largemouth bass or catfish. It’s carp, a fish Americans generally don’t eat. But it’s the delicacy of Iraqi fish. It meant getting the fingerlings, getting them stocked, getting the right feed for them and getting them to market for the Iraqi fish farmers.

The economic efforts also entailed importing 90,000 chicken eggs from The Netherlands to help bolster the chicken growing industry in Iraq.

“I know more about chicken farming now than I ever did,” Lynch said.

The success of the 3rd ID, on and off the battlefield, has heartened Lynch, who likely will be bound for another tour of duty there in another 15 months as a corps commander. Admittedly, the process, particularly politically among the disparate Iraqi factions, will be slow. But Lynch sees signs that the effort is working.

“The progress is undeniable,” he said. “The Iraqi people are educated, are dedicated, are passionate, are focused people who truly want to improve the lives of themselves and their children,” he said.

Even Lynch’s outlook philosophically changed during his 15 months with the 3rd Infantry Division.

“Candidly, it was a series of moments centered around our soldiers. I was in the company of heroes every day. And my definition of hero changed,” he said.

As commander of Task Force Marne, Lynch attended 152 memorial services, one for each soldier in his command who was killed.

“Some youngster, probably the best friend, stands up and in open forum eulogizes his buddy. And everybody in that chapel or wherever we’re at is crying, including the division commander. But at the end of that service, that soldier put his body armor back on and went out and did the mission again. There was not one time — not one time — where one soldier said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

The units Lynch commanded directly with the 3rd ID may very well answer to his higher headquarters again as those brigades are scheduled to spend a year and change at home before another year in Iraq.

“(The soldiers) know what they’re doing is important. I miss Sarah terribly,” he said of his wife of 25 years. “I miss my motorcycle and I miss my dog. And I miss my kids.”

How much longer will it take in Iraq, especially to keep such a large presence of American forces there? It’s all conditions based, Lynch said, but the conditions are improving, albeit slowly.

“My biggest frustration I had was not being able to tell the American public what we’re doing,” he said. “The American public deserves to know. They want to know about the progress we’ve made. We have made so much progress at such a cost.

“We have now reached the point where we are on the verge of mission success. If we walk away prematurely, it can revert right back the way it was.”

The hard reality of the matter is, the general is right about that.