Friday, March 21, 2008

A Canadian Lt.-Col. in Iraq

I'm rather amazed he was allowed to give the interview:
When Lieutenant-Colonel Darryl Mills walks through the halls of Saddam Hussein's former palace on the outskirts of Baghdad, people tend to stare at his left shoulder. The red-and-white Canadian flag he wears is a rare sight for Iraqis and U.S. soldiers alike.

He doesn't mind the odd looks. He says he's both proud of his country and of being one of the few Canadians taking part in what the U.S. Army calls Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I feel like the pretty girl at the dance party," Col. Mills said of the stares, adding that he's chosen to wear a larger-than-standard flag to make sure everyone knows he's Canadian. "From a soldier's perspective, I wouldn't call it razzing. It's, 'Oh, I thought Canada didn't support the war.' "

Canada refused to join in when the United States, Britain and a collection of allies invaded Iraq in 2003. That Col. Mills and four other Canadian officers are serving in Baghdad under an exchange between the U.S. and Canadian militaries is little known, and little publicized by either government.

The Department of National Defence website makes no mention of Col. Mills and the other officers being deployed to Iraq.

"This is part of a worldwide system of officer exchanges with many countries, none of which are pro-actively publicized due to their routine nature," said Jay Paxton, the press secretary to Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

While a U.S. officer has taken his place with Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, Col. Mills has been seconded to the U.S. Third Infantry Division. Now on his second tour in Iraq, he's the deputy chief of staff for the unit responsible for the flashpoint cities of Karbala and Najaf, as well as much of south-central Iraq. His 15-month deployment ends in June...

Though his posting is primarily a desk job - he spends much of his time co-ordinating operations from the relative safety of Victory Base, one of Mr. Hussein's former palaces that has been converted into a U.S. military hub - Col. Mills experienced how dangerous Iraq can be in January of 2006, when the Humvee in which he was travelling was hit by a roadside bomb. Luckily, no one was injured...

Col. Mills has also served on the other major front of what Mr. Bush calls the "war on terror," the PPCLI being the first group of Canadian soldiers to deploy to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2002. Like the U.S. President, he sees the two conflict zones as part of a single struggle.

"You can't look at them as separate, distinct fronts. What happens in one place will clearly affect what happens in the other place," he said, noting that Afghanistan's Taliban seem to borrow tactics that have proven effective for Iraqi insurgents. "It's all about global stability."

Col. Mills prefers to stay away from the politics of him serving in Iraq, portraying himself as just a soldier doing what his army asked him to do. His job, he says, is first and foremost to learn from the U.S. military and to take those lessons back with him to the PPCLI. Perhaps, he suggests, they'll serve the Canadian military well if he's deployed again to Afghanistan.

But he's a believer in the U.S. effort in Iraq, and an optimist about the country's future. He knows that puts him at odds with what many Canadians think about the five-year-old war.

"I try and stay away from the political position our country took," he says, choosing his words slowly and carefully. "But I have a different perspective, having been here. ... I've seen three years of the good that's been done, helping the Iraqis."
Remember this from 2003?
Opposition questions Canadians' role in Iraq
Lt.-Gen. Mike Jeffery told the House of Commons defence committee Tuesday that some exchange officers may be among the 120,000 American additional troops being deployed to Iraq. There are currently 31 Canadian military officers serving with U.S. forces in Iraq...


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