Near the Iraqi border
A group of bleary-eyed soldiers has gathered at 3:45 Thursday morning in the truck bay of the firehouse they call home. They've come together for the most serious of purposes--to send soldiers to battle. Most of the American soldiers gathered here sport a "high-and-tight," military jargon for a crew cut. The exception is Lieutenant Colonel Dan Hammack, a Special Forces officer commanding this ad hoc unit of Free Iraqi Forces and the Americans who've spent the last two months training them. His normally well-coiffed hair is tousled, shooting out in several different directions.
The bedhead doesn't seem to distract those standing at attention before him--three members of the Free Iraqi Forces, Iraqi-Americans who've volunteered to help coalition forces liberate their people, and "Doc" Snyder, the U.S. Army reservist and university professor tasked with taking the three to hostile territory. Hammack's speech, all nine words, is directed primarily at the Iraqis: "Listen to Doc. Be safe. See you in Baghdad."
He snaps his hand to his forehead, and the four men return the salute. One of the Iraqis is late, raising his hand as the others lower theirs. No matter--there are handshakes and hugs all around.
Hammack is a man of few words, in a relatively formal setting like this one. When he was first introduced to the Iraqis he now calls his men in mid-January, I'm told, the normally boisterous group fell silent. Their classroom, at an air base in rural Hungary, was a shuttered section of a warehouse bigger than a football field. The temperature outside was 9 degrees Fahrenheit, and large heating vents noisily pumped in air to keep the troops warm. The military trainers strained to be heard over the din. But when Hammack entered the room the noise disappeared. "You could hear his feet hitting the floorboards," says Curtis Mancini, another trainer.
"They didn't know what to make of the colonel," Mancini continues. "He gets up there and there's silence. He takes out his wallet, and a picture of his family because he knows how important family is to the Arabs. And he tells them that he expects to go back to his family when he's done. He tells them he expects them to go back to their families, too."
He ended by telling them he was proud to serve with them, and by asking the group if they were ready for battle. They responded in unison, "Hoo-ah!"
The entire speech lasted four minutes. Its impact, though, endures. Hammack and his cadre of supporting officers helped transform this group of Iraqi-American volunteers, many of whom came with no military experience, into a significant asset in the current war. To be sure, the Iraqis brought a detailed knowledge of their native land, specific information about the enemy, and an unparalleled desire to rid the world of Saddam Hussein. But creating unit cohesion, establishing common goals, and instilling firm discipline is done only through strong leadership.
"There's a phrase in the military, SWAG--it stands for silly, wild-ass guess, and it's the way some people work," says Capt. Michael Maguire. "Hammack says, 'F-- it, this is my mission, and I'm going to accomplish it.' He walks into a room and people can feel the confidence level rise, and people will help you do anything if you have their confidence."
Hammack is short and well built, with sharp, well-drawn features. His uniform is decorated with what his troops call "scare badges"--Army Ranger, Airborne, Special Forces, Pathfinder, Halo Wings, Combat Infantryman's Badge. Married with three children, Hammack is now in the Army reserves. He owns a heavy construction contracting company in Edison, Georgia. It is currently being run by his father and the company's second in command. Hammack's southern drawl is prominent. Hungary is Hung-gary, Saddam is Sad-damn. He speaks in crisp, short sentences.
I ask him about leadership, then about training the Free Iraqi Forces. "A commander has to be solid in his resolve, decisive in his thinking. Steady. I'm not pretentious. There's nothing fake about me. I'm never acting."
He continues. "Some men look for causes, some causes find the men. This cause has found the men. We all come here by fate, even you. There's a lot of stress in a combat environment. Men need a leader, but they need someone who cares about them. Not only a leader, but also a friend. That's the basis of trust."
There are limits to the friendship. Each night here in the desert, Ltc. Hammack and Sfc. Mancini carve out a small circle in the sand. They stand inside, smoke cigars, plan their mission, and consider life's big questions. No one is allowed inside the circle unless invited, and, naturally, what is said in the circle stays in the circle.
On Wednesday, I was invited into the circle for the first time (and maybe not the last, since I recently returned to our camp with a box of 25 "Romeo y Julietas" from Havana). As we talked, several soldiers formed a ring around us, standing just outside "the circle." When one of them inched his toes across the line in the sand, he was greeted with a swift reprimand. "Get the f-- out," Hammack barked. It was a good-natured scolding, delivered with a laugh, but no one questioned his seriousness. When a second soldier toed the line, Hammack shot back with a warning glare. The line was not breached again.
Hammack's group, known around here as Task Force Hammack, has placed most of the Free Iraqi Forces with units now well inside Iraq, including the 1st Marine Expeditionary Forces and the 101st Airborne. They are near the front lines. Hammack is characteristically blunt when I ask him about the risks to those newly minted soldiers.
"Some of them will die. I think to myself, Did I do everything I could to train them well? It keeps me up at night. But you can't dwell on it. March forward."
So Hammack sends them deeper into Iraq with a few words, a salute, and a handshake. One man on hand Thursday morning to bid his colleagues farewell is Hakim Kawy, a leader of the Free Iraqi Forces. He waits patiently to head further north, confident in the training he has received and grateful for Hammack.
"When we say goodbye to those guys, I watch his eyes, not listen to his words," he says of Hammack. "I can see that he has the courage, but he also cares, like a father. I see his face and I almost . . . I get emotional and I have to drop my head."
As the group breaks up, Hammack turns to Mike, a beefy Iraqi from Windsor, Canada, who is going forward with this group.
"You're going to what we like to call Indian country," Hammack says. "Be ready."
"We are ready, sir."