In July 2007, Waxhaw Town Planner Bryan Lightfoot, a U.S. Army reservist, went to Iraq where served 10-months in the Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.
Lightfoot, a sergeant, was assigned to the 401st Civil Affairs Battalion, Bravo Company, which helped improve public infrastructure by working with “concerned local citizens” groups. The groups are part of a movement that in the last year has helped reduce violence in Iraq and allowed its government to build credibility with the Iraqi people. Lightfoot says that's key to counterinsurgency warfare.
“You hear the quote ‘winning the hearts and minds,' that's exactly our mission,” he said of his unit's overarching goal.
Lightfoot, 39, had served in the Marine Corps in the 1991 Gulf War. The Palatka, Fla., native received a hero's welcome when he returned home in June.
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He served as honorary grand marshal in the western Union County town's annual Independence Day parade.
Lightfoot took some time last week to talk to the Observer about his Iraq experience.
Q. What was your job?
I was on Civil Affairs Team Alpha, a four-man team attached to a main infantry. We're expected to fit in tactically and to do all their patrols.… We try to serve as liaisons (to locals). That includes dealing with their immediate needs – water, sewer, electricity and humanitarian needs. We would basically go in with infantry and find, capture or destroy the enemy. Then we'd shift gears and interact with people we impact and compensate them for damage to property or person.
Q. What were some of the tasks you carried out to fulfill your mission?
Setting up concerned local citizens projects, that's the main part of what we did. But we also provided security. We would be out on the line, at the same time we're out on patrol, taking pictures, taking notes and meeting with local officials. We would conduct assessments. We could see first-hand the needs that the locals may have in terms of essential services – your water, sewer, schools. … Once we do assessments of the area, we let infantry commander know what was going on. They would try to facilitate meeting with Iraqi government people so that we could get the services going in that area. The services were provided by the Iraqi government themselves.
Q. Did the danger affect how you handled civil projects?
We were in Diyala Province, and that has been consistently the worst province since we've been there in terms of per-capita deaths. Our job was tough. We were working in the area where Al Qaida in Iraq was headquartered. We were operating in an area where there was no American presence for years. You have IEDS (roadside bombs) going off, booby -trapped houses. We had to search every single house. That would slow down our assessing. … As we're underway on these missions, the infantry guys have their objectives. In some cases, our civil-affairs missions were on the backburner.
Q. Did you see combat?
Most of it was rocket attacks and IED attacks. We did lose six soldiers and one interpreter in one of those.
Q. One of your achievements involved restoring drinkable water to the area. Tell me a little about that.
There were several (treatment plants) in the area.… We went in and did assessments. None of us are engineers, but I'm familiar with them because of my work (in city planning). I had enough information to make an assessment and go to the local council and get the filters and pumps up and running. Power was a major issue there. We had to basically rig everything to run off batteries. What the villagers were doing was taking their water from the canal systems. We felt the first step was getting them drinking water. … It was something we could fix and get immediate results in terms of bringing back credibility to the government. That would bring back huge results in getting intelligence.
Q. Were there similarities between your mission in Iraq and your job in Waxhaw?
I don't necessarily know. It's such a different environment. I know that's cliché, but you see these people, the families, they're witnessing this environment (in Iraq). You come back here, and you have people complaining about development and not having trees. It gives me a better perspective on the human condition. It's not pleasant there, but there are good people there. They want to change their communities. Their goals are the same. They want to have communities that they're happy to live in.
Q. What was the most difficult part of your tour?
Most difficult was the destruction. The damage, not just to us, but to everybody over there. To see the fear in the eyes of the people, the threat every day of just being hit, it wears on you.
Q. What was the best part of your tour?
The experience overall was a good experience. It was harrowing at times.…I made a lot of good friends. I learned about our policy in Iraq and how people view it. I was not in favor politically, personally, with going into Iraq, but I felt the need to go in and serve. I'm glad I did it. My family sacrificed a lot, and I applaud them for that.