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Civilians await end of battle to rebuild Iraqi neighborhoods

DOHA, Qatar—When Maj. Jon Regan Walters was growing up, he would watch ships laden with cargo containers slip past his Isle of Palms home into Charleston harbor in South Carolina. Now he's living in one of those containers—a 20-by-8-foot "can" he shares with a roommate at Camp As Sayliyah, the U.S. Army's desert command center on the outskirts of Qatar's capital.

Walters is a planner for the U.S. Army's 360th Civil Affairs Brigade. Unlike his combat comrades, Walters' mission begins when the shooting stops.

The 360th specializes in building schools and hospitals, water systems and roads. Its members follow on the heels of combat troops, perhaps even jumping out of transport planes or helicopters with them, to begin the process of putting devastated towns and villages back together. They say their job isn't so much winning the war as winning the peace.

"What we do is just as important" as combat, says Walters, a 40-year-old veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division. "It affects the lives of not only the civilians who need our help, but the people in the field as well."

Headquartered at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., the unit is dubbed "Thurmond's Brigade" after former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. It is one of 38 civil affairs units in the U.S. military.

All but one of the units are made up of reserve soldiers and Marines who serve alongside active-duty troops. About 60 members of the 360th have been activated for more than a year to rebuild war-torn Afghanistan and prepare for the aftermath of any conflict in Iraq.

The reservists' civilian careers run the gamut: health workers, engineers, schoolteachers, lawyers, agricultural specialists, contractors, economic developers and transportation experts.

There are more than 1,000 U.S., British and Australian military personnel at the remote As Sayliyah, a sprawling 262-acre installation enclosed by a rock berm and razor wire. Thirty-four tan and green warehouses, each slightly larger than a football field, once stored hundreds of M-1 Army tanks and artillery.

But the tanks have moved to desert bases in northern Kuwait, and many of the warehouses now house high-tech communications equipment that will be used by allied commanders to direct operations from portable, air-conditioned Quonset huts erected inside one of the warehouses.

There, flat plasma screens show maps of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East while analysts monitor long rows of laptop computers. The computers, maps and communications equipment would help integrate intelligence from the field and guide the movement of battle.

Other warehouses have been turned into housing. The officers of the 360th live in one lined with two-story rows of the shipping containers that give it the stark look of a prison cellblock. Some of the soldiers call it "the Stalag" after the World War II German prisons built for downed allied fliers. But the officers have it better than enlisted personnel, who live in tents in separate warehouses.

Walters shares his "can" with Maj. Kevin Logan, a police officer in peacetime from Matthews, N.C. Their container has two bunks, a closet-sized locker, a small table and the minor luxury of a DVD player and television.

A graduate of the Citadel military academy in Charleston, Walters has further decorated his half of the billet with a South Carolina flag as a bedspread, a South Carolina flag on the wall, and South Carolina and American flags on the door.

"Can you tell I'm homesick?" he said.

Civil Affairs units have been in Panama during 1989's Operation Just Cause and in Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. They have helped Haitian refugees in Cuba, fed starving people in Somalia and offered assistance to Americans devastated by hurricanes Andrew and Iniki.

The work is intended to win over the "hearts and minds" of the people in a war zone and keep the area safe for U.S. troops in the field.

"The Army isn't necessarily in the humanitarian aid business," Walters said. "But we provide a safe environment and the expertise to do it. If you keep the populace happy, they aren't going to be a problem. We want to fill their needs, and do something that is to our benefit as well. Those two things go hand in hand."

The soldiers and Marines in civil affairs units often view their job as a higher calling. "It's very rewarding," said Logan, Walters' roommate. "You get to see the fruits of your labor."

Like many in the 360th, Walters, a real estate agent, took a pay cut when he was called up more than a year ago. "I'll have to start from scratch (building leads and listings) when I get back," he said.

Whenever possible, civil affairs units use local labor, materials and experts to do the work of rebuilding their towns and countries. They brings jobs and money to the local economy and help ensure that areas are safe for private aid agencies to distribute food, clothing and medical supplies.

"People in Afghanistan and Iraq want the same as we do at home. They want peace and a good life for their families," Walters said. "We're trying to help."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+civil