Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling and his 1st Armored Division soldiers arrived in Iraq just as the troop surge was taking effect in Baghdad and "the awakening movement" was beginning to push al-Qaida out of Anbar province.
"I told our units that we were arriving at a critical time and that our actions, one way or another, would make history," he told Pentagon reporters via videoconference from Contingency Operating Base Speicher near Tikrit, Iraq.
The situation then was dire. Enemy attacks had hit 1,800 a month, the Iraqis had little trust in their central government, and unemployment was "staggering," Hertling said. "For every two steps forward, we assessed, they were making one step back."
"When we arrived, our task was to decrease violence, partner with the Iraqi security forces as well as local and governmental leaders, and grow the nation's economy," he said. "We saw our roles as allies with the Iraqi people, working with them to change their communities and stop those who sought to destroy them."
Hertling, who redeploys with his soldiers tomorrow to Wurzberg, Germany, pointed to broad indicators of progress across a region the size of Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland and Vermont combined. Violence is down dramatically, Iraqi security forces are gaining in numbers and capability, the local economy is improving and the Iraqi government is making strides, he said.
"I believe the changes in northern Iraq over the last 15 months have been monumental," he said, citing the combination of "heroic and courageous actions" by coalition troops and civilians assigned to provincial reconstruction teams, actions of the Iraqi security forces and patriotic Iraqi leaders and civilians.
"I've watched them make miracle[s] happen," he said.
Hertling conceded that the picture isn't all rosy, and that challenges remain. "There are still enemies that need to be destroyed," he said, noting that "anywhere in this country has the potential of falling back under the control of al-Qaida."
"It's a nefarious, evil group of individuals, and they will continue to attempt to conduct the kinds of attacks that kill innocent civilians, wherever we give them the opportunity," he said.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government "is still very fragile," and needs to "polish the representative process and methods of infrastructure repair," he said.
But despite these challenges, Hertling said, he's witnessed a major transformation during his time in Iraq that shows promise for a new future.
"The most dramatic change is one that only we get to see over here – and that's now a new hope in the eyes of the Iraqi people," he said.
The progress in the region he commanded came at a big cost, Hertling noted, with 104 U.S. soldiers killed and 891 wounded, and big Iraqi losses as well. "At every memorial, we rededicate ourselves to our motto, 'Make these sacrifices matter," he said.
Army Maj. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., Hertling's classmate at the U.S. Military Academy who commands the 25th Infantry Division, will assume responsibility for Multinational Division North during a ceremony tomorrow. The 25th Division headquarters and the division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team are expected to serve in Iraq for a year under the new deployment cycles that took effect while Hertling's soldiers were in Iraq.