R.I. veterans frustrated by Islamic State’s expansion, successes in Iraq

Original Article
MARK REYNOLDS, JOURNAL STAFF WRITER, mreynold@providencejournal.com

In early 2007, a terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq took credit for shooting down a helicopter in the Iraqi town where David Rothermel was serving with the Marines.

All seven Marines aboard the twin-rotor transport were killed by the shoulder-fired missile. Rothermel, a Warwick native, was part of a mission to recover the dead and track down the insurgents.

The scene at the crash site that day, where U.S. military personnel found the helicopter’s black box and gathered the Marines’ remains, is one of the memories that the 27-year-old shares when he reflects on sacrifices made on Iraqi battlefields now under the control of the so-called Islamic State.

Thousands of Rhode Islanders, including more than 4,000 members of the Rhode Island National Guard, made contributions in Iraq over an eight-year period. Twelve Rhode Islanders gave their lives to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Rothermel, who served in Fallujah, Ramadi and the surrounding regions, counts himself among the ranks of Iraq veterans who are frustrated by the battlefield successes of the Islamic State over the past 11 months.

The terrorist group has expanded greatly since it took credit for shooting down a Sea King helicopter near Fallujah in February 2007. It has brutally killed thousands of people and enslaved children on its way to proclaiming a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Kathy Borchers/The Providence Journal David Rothermel sits with his puppy, Booker, at the stone marking the grave of his grandfather, a Korean War veteran, at the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter on Tuesday.

“It is disappointing,” says Rothermel, who carefully chooses words like “frustrated” and “wasted” as he reacts to the latest events.

The former lance corporal says the current situation makes him fear that sacrifices in Iraq are to no avail. Through his work at Operation Stand Down, Rothermel has contact with many Iraq veterans and he says that they are still coming to terms with the changes on the ground.

“It’s not long,in-depth conversations,” says Rothermel, “but it’s like, ‘Look at this.’”

Nicholis Frisone, 37, of Johnston, ended an eight-year stint with the Army in August and he continues to serve in the Rhode Island National Guard, which lost four soldiers in combat during the Iraq war.

Frisone says he served a 10-month tour in the city of Kirkuk and surrounding region. U.S. forces in the area had periodic contact with the enemy in 2009 and 2010 as they worked with Iraqi government troops to provide security and combat insurgents, he says. They dodged improvised explosive devices and tried to find weapons caches.

Parts of the province of Kirkuk are now under Islamic State control.

Frisone says the entire international community, including Russia and China, must join together to deploy a force that can defeat the Islamic State.

Andrew Dickerman/The Providence Journal Iraq veteran Nicholis Frisone outside the VA Hospital in Providence on Nov. 10.

“Did we pull out too early?” he asks. “Who knows. But at the same time, the Iraqi army quit. They gave up.”

It was an emotional process to see this take place, says Frisone, who remembers feeling “depressed” for a couple of days.

Maj. Michael Manning commanded a unit with the 173rd Long Range Surveillance Detachment during an 11-month tour in 2005.

The deployment included service in Samarra as well as Baiji, a town taken by Islamic State militants in June.

Parts of the town, including an oil refinery, remained under Islamic State control on Thursday as Iraqi government troops fought back, according to a wire report.

The Iraqis were fighting in areas where Manning and his unit fought previously. A group of 36 soldiers, including about 20 Rhode Islanders, labored, and sacrificed, to keep supply routes open and safe from insurgents.

Manning’s teams sometimes would stealthily set up hiding places where soldiers would watch key areas of terrain for insurgent activity and respond when they saw insurgents carrying weapons or setting up improvised explosive devices. In other situations, the teams would set up along a key section of road or a valued piece of terrain, openly denying the enemy an ability to operate.

Such surveillance missions were at least 20 hours and they could last as long as 72 hours, Manning says.

Temperatures during the day could exceed 120 degrees. And the best hiding places could also be the nastiest. Muddy areas were often chosen. One team, near Samarra, hid in an abandoned chicken coop on one occasion. On another, the soldiers hid in the trash at a landfill.

“It takes a unique human being to do this type of work,” Manning says as he reflects on the sacrifices of soldiers who followed his orders.

Two soldiers from the 173rd received Purple Hearts after suffering injuries from improvised explosive devices.

Manning continues to serve as an officer in the Rhode Island National Guard, which means his ability to comment on recent events in Iraq, including in Baiji, is limited.

But he emphasizes that Rhode Islanders have given much to the Iraq mission.

“There’s been a lot of sacrifice across the board,” he says. “As a soldier, you go where you are told to go and you fight where you are told to fight.”

American soldiers are expected to do the best job they can underwhatever conditions they encounter, he says.

“At the end of the day, you believe you are making a difference, that the sacrifice of the men and women on your left and right matters. My experience has been that it does matter and that it has made a difference.”

Manning can recall particular circumstances in which the presence of American forces made a difference in the individual lives of Iraqis.

He says his soldiers’ respectful treatment of Iraqis they met, and even their respect for whom they were fighting, was distinctive. This quality makes American forces different from other forces that don’t operate the same way, he says.

“It’s about making decisions day in and day out that you know are right,” Manning says. “And we did that.”

“As a soldier who raises his right hand to defend the Constitution of the United States of America, you have to believe in your heart that what I’m doing makes a difference. I absolutely believe that it has.”

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