Returning soldier brings positive Iraq report
Staff Sergeant (SSG) Richard Monaco experienced a poignant return home to Martha's Vineyard on July 9, after completing eight months in Iraq on his third tour. Recovered from shoulder and back injuries he sustained in April when riding in a truck that was ambushed, he walked off the ferry at 9:15 pm in Vineyard Haven with his wife Muriel and 14-year-old daughter Felicia.
Dressed in his camouflage uniform, SSG Monaco grinned as he took in the sight of fire engines with lights flashing and sirens wailing and the jubilant crowd of cheering family members, friends, co-workers, and veterans. Many ferry passengers waiting to board also joined them in what has become a traditional Island welcome home for returning soldiers.
"I can't say enough about the Island, and this is my second homecoming," the sergeant said. "I appreciate it more than anyone can imagine, seeing all the fire trucks and the people from the American Legion and from all over town. It was just overwhelming support for me, and I loved it."
Signs of change
In an interview with The Times a few days after he got settled at home in Oak Bluffs, SSG Monaco, age 45, reflected on the many changes he saw in Iraq since his first deployment.
In 1991 during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, he served seven and a half months with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 4th Infantry Division, based out of Fort Hood, Texas. "It was scary work - we were clearing minefields so our personnel and equipment could get across the desert from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait," he said. Fortunately, his team suffered only equipment casualties. "That seemed like a whole different war," the sergeant noted, with the Iraqis using old Soviet-designed T-72 tanks and lacking strength in armor.
In 2005 he was called up for a year-long deployment with a Massachusetts-based reserve unit in the 220th Transportation Company stationed at Balad Air Base and Al Asad Air Base. They conducted numerous fuel transport and convoy security missions, as well as hauling over 8,000 tons of bulk materials.
Photo courtesy of SSG Monaco
He returned home in September 2006. After starting a new job with Tisbury's Department of Public Works in January 2007, he was deployed again only nine months later to serve with the 448th Civil Affairs (CA) Battalion based out of Fort Lewis, Wash. They were sent to Forward Operating Base Falcon to work in Ramadi and Baghdad.
CA units are responsible for working with the Iraqi people to help them get their country up and running again. SSG Monaco said he found the work very rewarding.
"The American people don't hear a lot about the good things - they hear a lot about the casualties and the death and the destruction," SSG Monaco said. "I'm not going to lie to you - there is still some of that around, sure. But with the civil affairs teams we have on the ground, the emphasis is on the Iraqi people rebuilding and functioning on their own now."
SSG Monaco and his CA team attended weekly council meetings with sheikhs who were in charge of the villages, using one vehicle to cover 10,000 square kilometers a week. Within a 50-kilometer area, there might be several villages comprised of different tribes, and each had their own sheikhs, varying in number from 4 in a village to 120 in Ramadi.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
"There would be a big table and we'd all sit around and discuss where we could help and what needed to be fixed, and we'd ask them what they needed - and that was usually a healthy list," SSG Monaco said.
He also arranged for micro-grants for Iraqis who wanted to start up their own businesses. The funds are authorized by Congress for the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP), according to a Jan. 22 Time magazine website article.
In addition to small business start-ups, CERP funds cover projects such as water and electricity infrastructure improvements and neighborhood patrol and checkpoint contracts.
"We've made a difference there," SSG Monaco said. "We opened up the marketplaces so the Iraqis have started working and making income of their own."
Sergeant Monaco said his team managed $2.3 million in projects in Ramadi and $1.7 million in Baghdad, with everything done through a supervised process of bids, contracts, and work schedules. "The only way we can monitor the money is to monitor the projects, which is a lot of work," he noted.
Electricity was available for only an hour or two a day in many villages. "We're setting up generators, powered by diesel fuel, and are getting a power grid set up, so that now they have electricity about seven hours a day and can run several houses off one generator," the sergeant said.
Generators are set up and then turned over to the Iraqis to maintain and keep secure through micro-grants, as well.
SSG Monaco's team also was involved in building schools, with a goal to build 100 over the next five years. He said he especially enjoyed making school drops at villages. Some had 200 to 300 children.
"People from the United States and Staples and stores like that would send school supplies, and we as a team would go to different areas and make school supply drops of pens, pencils, backpacks, clothing, and shoes - and they really loved that part," he said. He also asked his Iraqi interpreter to translate letters he received from American school children into Arabic to give to Iraqi children, which sparked correspondence between them.
"I got to see both sides of the war, basically - I saw the destruction that unfortunately had to be, but I also was on the best side of it, which was the rebuilding side," SSG Monaco said. "To get the Iraqi people back into some sort of normalcy was very rewarding, for me anyway, because I worked with a lot of schoolteachers, kids, and construction workers, and they saw that we weren't the bad guys that we were made out to be."
Conditions and dangers
The soldiers lived in plywood huts built by the U.S. Navy in Ramadi, and in bombed-out buildings in Bagdad, which did have electricity and air-conditioning. Chow hall food was shipped in from the U.S. and Britain.
Although it got cold enough to snow in the winter, by the time Sergeant Monaco left Iraq in June, daytime temperatures ranged from 90 to 135 degrees. Keeping hydrated was always a critical issue, especially when wearing his protective vest, which contained both Kevlar and ballistic steel plates and weighed about 87 pounds.
Although Ramadi has been relatively quiet since the Coalition Forces took over the area, SSG Monaco said Baghdad remains less stable. Soldiers took precautions such as not wearing identification or rank, changing routines every day, and not carrying cell phones, which can set off explosive devices.
In Baghdad, SSG Monaco and the CA team were provided escorts from the 122nd mortar division because of the danger of insurgent attacks. Although he had completed 173 missions safely since last October, he and his team were part of a 21-person mission that was ambushed in Baghdad on April 30, 2008.
While inspecting a soccer field for possible rehabilitation, the group encountered small arms fire and left the area, traveling in three Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs). As they drove down a narrow street in Baghdad, the lead vehicle took a wrong turn. There was nowhere for the driver of SSG Monaco's MRAP to turn, so he took the lead. After the convoy made a stop to investigate a man by the side of the road in shackles, the soldiers noticed the road was ominously quiet as they moved on.
"We all knew, being soldiers, that it's not usually a good sign when there's no kids around or dogs or cats," the sergeant recalled, but there was no alternate route. As they traveled about 300 meters down the road, an explosive fragmentation projectile (EFP) tore into the side of the MRAP he was in, killing the driver, Spc. Ronald Tucker, and the Tactical Commander, Capt. Andrew Pearson.
The impact was so strong that it damaged the vehicle behind them. Shrapnel struck SSG Monaco's arm and he was knocked unconscious for a few minutes. He came to and was able to help the other soldiers escape from the burning vehicle, which now had ammunition going off inside.
SSG Monaco was medically evacuated to a secure area and from there to Saudi Arabia where he was treated for muscle and nerve damage. At his request, he was sent back to the front lines on May 28 so that he could return home with his unit. He left Iraq on June 26 for Fort Bragg, where he spent 10 days in demobilization before flying to Providence where his wife and daughter met him.
"I want to say that my tour was 100 percent successful, but it wasn't, because I didn't come home with everybody," Sergeant Monaco said. "So that's going to be something to live with for the rest of my life. Did we change anything? Yes. We changed the way a lot of the Iraqis think about the United States and the Coalition Forces."
After 27 years in the U.S. Army Reserves, he said, "I wouldn't give it up for the world - I've been all over the world and seen a lot of cultures which some people will never be able to see." However, with his commitment up on December 22, he plans to put in his retirement papers and try civilian life.
SSG Monaco commends his wife for working a full-time job at Martha's Vineyard Hospital, and taking care of their daughter, their house, and their many animals during his deployments. He said he also is grateful for the show of support he received from Dukes County Veteran's Agent Jo Ann Murphy and the Island community with letters and care packages.