Editor's note: Freelance reporter James Foley is embedded with the Indiana National Guard's 76th Infantry Brigade in Iraq that deployed from Fort Stewart, Ga., in March. His stories and pictures include the brigade's 230 members from the Fort Wayne area.
The Bayji refinery produces more oil than any other facility in Iraq. A handful of Indiana soldiers from Higher Headquarters Company of the 1st battalion/327th Infantry Regiment live under the flaming tower that burns off excess gas. They help police an operation that yields millions of dollars in liquid currency 24 hours a day.
And there are plenty of people besides the Iraqi government who would like to take their cut from a venture that serves eight provinces and ships heavy fuel to three other nations. “If Iraq could stop all corruption, within five years this could be a wealthy nation,” said Sgt. Brian Taylor, 27, of Greenwood, who works on planning operations to protect the refinery and cut down on corruption.
But even though they are in Iraq, they still find time to talk about Indiana.
The three Hoosiers who patrol Iraqi's largest oil refinery - Specialist Kenneth Lee, 23, of Indianapolis, Sgt. David Mendenhall, 23, of Mishawaka, and Sgt. Preston Hale, 26, of Angola, know where each is coming from - literally.
All three were stationed in Haweja, Iraq, in 2005 and 2006, when the isolated Sunni town was known as the Wild West. There were no local security checkpoints. Getting hit by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and direct fire was a daily occurrence.
“I wanted a fight,” said Lee, who joined for the challenge. “What better than to join the infantry in a time of war?” Lee added his mother wasn't too happy when he joined, who signed up when he was 20 years old.
Mendenhall signed up when he was still in his last year of high school. Two months later he was in basic training. “I really never knew anything else. It became natural, you adapt,” he said of enjoying basic when others were thinking of running away.
All three are married and struggled to keep in touch with families during the first deployment. There were often communication “blackouts” when phones and internet would cut out until their unit could notify next of kin. All three lost friends to IED attacks.
Mendenhall has three children, including twins, who were all a year old when he deployed the first time. “That was the hardest thing, I was so used to being around them,” Mendenhall said. He was afraid his children would forget him, but the family made it through. For this deployment, his wife and three kids stay some of the time with Mendenhall's mom in Fort Wayne.
Hale got married two months before he deployed for his second tour. “We hung out so much we decided to get married,” Hale said. “I told her if she doesn't hear from me for a week, something's wrong, but I usually talk to her once a day.”
Lee married another soldier he met at Fort Campbell. They deployed together the first time, and got married after the deployment.
Soldiers have set up a system of cameras that can zoom in on the bribes changing hands at the refinery. If they catch it on camera, they try to nab the suspects and hand them and the bribe money to the Iraqi Army. But the problem is much deeper than a tanker offering a bribe to get inside. “When you go after the mafia (who deal in illicit oil contracts), there's no smoking gun. Our job is to find the link to insurgent acts,” Taylor said.
To do that, they have to talk to the locals. One of the unique things is the relationship these Hoosiers have built with Iraqis over the course of their deployment.
“Last deployment you knew like two names,” Lee said. “Now it's like they call out your name and you know theirs.”
Mendenhall agreed. “All of us have Iraqi friends here,” he said. The guys at the nearby checkpoints shout his name and ask for him if he's not there. Some of the little kids have given the soldiers Arabic nicknames.
The Iraqis are easier to get to know than Americans, Lee said. They're straightforward and open. You know what they want. It helps that Lee and Mendenhall use the Arabic they've learned whenever they meet locals. Mendenhall usually ends meetings with a shoulder embrace.
These down-home boys would all chose to go back and live in Indiana if they could, but they have learned to care what happens to Iraqis when they go out among the people.
Lee and Hale plan on getting out of the military when their current contract ends. “I'd like to finish school and do something different,” Lee said. He said he never planned to make a career out of the military. Mendenhall has already signed up for the Army college program and plans on completing his degree while staying active duty. “I'm strongly considering staying in for 20 years,” until retirement he said.
But staying in most likely means coming back to Iraq. “I don't see us leaving anytime soon. The Iraqis are improving tenfold, but if we left now it would probably go to hell,” Mendenhall said. “I think everyone should do one tour. When I came in I had an attitude. When you go through basic and see stuff over here, you appreciate more.”
Over the course of a 15-month deployment, Hale and Mendenhall still regularly check their hometown papers online, and Lee gets actual copies in the mail from his mom. “I can guarantee you, Indiana soldiers check their hometown news,” Mendenhall said. In Indiana, Hale said, “I can go places like a minor-league hockey game. I didn't know anyone around me, but it felt like a community.”