Providing aid to a war zone



One of the distinct memories Sgt. George Bonner brought back from his tour of Iraq was how proud the local police officers looked there when the U.S. Army supplied them with new uniforms.

"They really loved the jackets," Bonner recalled during a recent interview, after his return from overseas. Bonner, an Army Reservist assigned to the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade, was among those soldiers charged with helping to establish a police force in an effort to provide the war-torn chaotic Iraq with some sense of civil order. This meant training local police candidates in issues largely taken for granted back in the United States, such as human rights and police accountability.

Bonner was part of a larger effort to instill in these officers a sense of public service - the idea of working for the people rather than working against them, as was the policy under Saddam Hussein.

Although his unit also supplied the officers with new handguns, holsters, belts, radios, and batons, Bonner remembered how their faces glowed when they finally put on their uniform and looked like police.

"It was amazing," he said. "They really took pride."

Bonner had helped design the jackets.

Although Bonner's unit was also involved in conflict, he said much of their duties in Iraq had involved restoring the infrastructure that would allow the country to regain civil order. Establishing a police academy was high on the list of priorities. Prior to the training, local police usually did little, if anything, in responding to a crime except to merely write a report.

Along with establishing a civilian police force, members of his brigade helped establish a fire department, made the local hospital function, and supplied local clinics with things like gauze pads and disinfectants.

Bonner worked with a team of soldiers that provided medical, school, and humanitarian supplies to local towns in the Basra Province in South East Iraq. His team also coordinated work on the antique Iraqi electrical and water supply systems in the area.

Civil Affairs soldiers serve as liaisons between the U.S. military and the host nation's authorities, interim government officials, international governmental authorities, and non-governmental aid organizations. They serve a critical role in helping to restore order in a conflict zone, often coordinating humanitarian assistance and initiating military civic action projects, such as assessing the current conditions of an infrastructure and rehabilitating these if necessary.

Bonner said that the Brigade played an active role in rebuilding Bosnia after the war there. Their insignia is the Liberty Bell, and their slogan is "Sustain the Peace."

Always wanted to join the service

After a more than a year in Iraq, Bonner came home with a new appreciation for America.

There was no need to look over his shoulder while walking the streets. No thoughts of where the enemy might come at him next.

With all that said, Bonner said he had no regrets about going to Iraq - even though he hadn't planned to go to war when he had joined the United States Army in 1999.

Bonner was born and raised in Bayonne. He graduated from Horace Mann elementary school and Marist High School, and attended Rutgers University before enlisting.

Although he had always toyed with the idea of military service, he took no military training in college. He majored instead in History and Social Studies, with a minor in English. They were not the kind of subjects he thought the military might need.

He was wrong.

After a consultation with the army's equivalent of a job counselor, Bonner was assigned to the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade His background seemed perfect.

Unlike many of those who served in Iraq, Bonner was not inspired into service by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks - although he admits the attacks changed his perception of the world and increased his determination to defend his country.

Fear of missing his opportunity to serve motivated Bonner to enlist. He was 29 years old at the time. He feared he might regret the lost opportunity if he waited and passed the 34-year age cutoff.

Serving in places like Philadelphia, Fort Dix and the later Fort Bragg, N.C., Bonner had already returned to civilian life when the attacks occurred.

"I just got back to training and went to work," he said. "Then it happened."

Prior to this, he had gone for periods of time for training. He knew that he would be going into active duty. "I realized there was a potential to go into action," he said.

His unit was mobilized in March 2003 and assigned to Iraq and Kuwait, often in support of the First Marine Division, and the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. In Iraq, Bonner worked closely with military people from Britain and Spain.

Something straight out of the Bible

Bonner left Kuwait for Iraq in April 2003. Bonner's unit was transferred to Ramadi, in the southwest Sunni Triangle, midway through his deployment. There, he worked with a team of soldiers who acted as advisors to the Iraqi police in the Anbar Province.

He had been briefed through studies on the country, but nothing could completely prepare him for the poverty he encountered. People not part of the elite under Saddam did not live well. Even prior to the war, electrical systems were inadequate, and areas that saw no combat at all were in dire need of rehabilitation.

It is a hot, dry world where temperatures reached 130 degrees in July and August.

"It looked liked something right out of the Bible," he said, recalling the sight of sheep and camels, mud huts and desolation.

The landscape was strewn with World War I and World War II weapons that had been destroyed during the initial hours of the latest war.

In the wake of the war, massive looting took place, as people stripped public resources of everything that was valuable - even the wire from power towers, risking electrocution. Hotels were stripped, and even a cement factory.

Many of the civilian Iraqis were hostile, and the American military had to be on guard most of the time. He said there was a power grab underway, with leaders of different tribes or religious groups seeking to get what they could.

Bonner's unit operated under these troubling conditions, struggling to provide the area with humanitarian assistance. But the need was staggering.

"My unit did what it could to help," he said.

Often, soldiers found themselves assigned to tasks that were not part of their original assignment. If a person knew about construction as a civilian, he was suddenly thrust into overseeing construction. One soldier had worked for the New York Transit system in his civilian life and found himself overseeing some of the rail restoration.

Winning honors

For his service in Iraq, Bonner was awarded two Army Commendation Medals, one for the humanitarian aid he provided, the other for his training efforts and actions he took when his unit was attacked.

Attacks on his unit happened with uncomfortable frequency, forcing him to call up his combat training. In one incident, the enemy attacked using AK 47 Russian-made machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and Bonner helped repel the attack by operating the machine gun.

"The army says [that] you train as you fight and fight as you train," Bonner mused. "While I was there to help the people, when we are attacked, I call up what I was trained to do."

In a country where every household is allowed to have machine guns, there was danger - especially because so many people were angry.

Bonner, however, was also credited with developing and installing improvised armor to his unit's vehicle that prevented injuries during three separate attacks. He was also deeply involved in maintaining the defense of his base.

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