For eight months, Air Force Major Eric Egland toured all over Iraq with combat units, hitting hair-raising spots such as Ramadi and Fallujah. The Pentagon counterterrorism advisor listened to what hundreds of troops had to say about their mission and found a common theme: They were not getting the right support to help fight a morphing, terrorist insurgency.
After his 2005 tour, Egland said, "I was surprised at how localized the war really is-it made me realize the war is not going to be run out of the palaces of Baghdad."
But that, he says, is precisely what has happened: Pentagon decision makers still use top-heavy Cold War patterns in Iraq, rather than listening to units about what they need to win over locals and beat insurgents. The result, he says, has been a series of seemingly small mistakes that have built to major losses in the war.
Egland, 37, promised the troops he met that he would take their complaints to higher-ups. He went through the "Baghdad chain," he said, but "nobody was willing to change the top-down mindset." Other officials liked the ideas, but things moved too slowly for Egland's liking. Time was draining away, and the insurgency was pressing on.
So in 2006, Egland wrote an essay called "Six Steps to Victory," which outlined ways to win, such as giving battalion commanders more authority to decide what equipment they need. He took four months off and burned $50,000 to expand the steps into a self-published book, The Troops Need You, America! A publishing house offered to print it, but that would have taken a year-too long to wait, Egland said. In 2003, enemy attacks numbered 100 to 200 month, he said, but now that figure is over 1,000 a month.
Since then, Egland has appeared on news network shows and been recognized by President George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of multinational forces in Iraq.
"You clearly have a good understanding of the complex, evolving nature of the situation here in Iraq," Petraeus told Egland after reading his book, adding, "Well done!" in a handwritten note. But whether Egland's recommendations are being widely incorporated into the new strategy for Iraq remains to be seen. So Egland, though he is still a full-time counterterrorism advisor, pulls all-nighters at his Sacramento home to get Americans involved in a World War II-style national effort.
Egland does that mainly through his nonprofit group, Troops Need You. It works differently than most volunteer programs to help soldiers. Care packages stack high in warehouses to meet soldiers' personal needs, Egland says, but he wants Americans also to send things that specifically help their mission. The troops "had enough resources for themselves, but they didn't have carrots-things to win over the locals," he told WORLD.
One example: Last month Troops Need You sent $5,000 in basic medical supplies to the 1st "Black Lions" Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, in southern Baghdad's Rashid District. Insurgent attacks meant locals in the neighborhood of Furat were suffering shrapnel wounds from exploding mortar, and with the hospital out of commission, many turned to the battalion for help. Having the supplies prompted one frustrated local doctor to begin practicing medicine again, and is bolstering the authority of neighborhood councils that deliver them.
"Providing medical supplies is helping, but it is helping Iraqis help Iraqis," battalion executive officer Maj. Erik Overby told WORLD. Troops Need You has also supplied thousands of dollars worth of soccer equipment and water purification systems to other units. They are the sort of projects that help build local trust, even leading to more tips on counterinsurgent activities for troops.
But while Americans can help in such small projects, Egland also wants the Pentagon to pay more attention to what troops say. To illustrate, he gives two examples of how military bureaucracy scuttled good ideas.
Two years ago, a unit based in East Baghdad was facing a fearsome concentration of apparently Iranian roadside weapons-EFPs, or Explosively Formed Projectiles, which have molten copper that shoots out and penetrates armored vehicles, ricochets, and kills soldiers inside. "The only thing that limits casualties in these attacks is the number of troops inside the vehicle," Egland said.
The tank company commander looked at enemy patterns and devised a plan to attack the insurgents, which required more troops and an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to monitor things.
When the unit asked for the help, their commanding brigade refused. More troops were unavailable, and the UAV was bookmarked for a more important mission.
The next day, following a long patrol which ended after midnight in roasting 120-degree heat inside a tank, the lieutenant got a summons from his superiors: Why had his soldiers removed their body armor during the patrol? Once safe, the troops did so for some brief relief from the heat, the lieutenant explained. But how did the brigade know about them removing the armor at all, he asked?
"The UAV operators told the watch officer. The watch officer told the brigade deputy commander," was the answer. In other words, the brigade used the same UAV they had denied the tank company to help kill insurgents to spy on its troops instead.
Such petty turf wars are frustrating troops-and Egland. "'You don't tell us what you need, we tell you what you will do,'" he said. "That's the mindset." Now the deadly Iranian weapons, once mostly concentrated in one area, have spread all over Iraq.
Another case of inertia involved denying powerful green hand-held lasers to troops manning checkpoints. They can shine the lasers at the windshield of an oncoming car, stopping its driver, and can thus avoid firing on innocent civilians who mistakenly run the checkpoint. One high-profile tragedy could have been prevented, Egland says, two years ago when a car carrying an Italian journalist on its way to Baghdad's airport did not stop, and troops opened fire, killing the driver.
Though several units began requesting the lasers, Egland wrote, the army took six months to deliberate and then declined because the lasers were not "eye-safe"-that is, they could cause damage if aimed for long periods directly at the eye. "The safety officials debated as if the alternative to the laser pointer, a slug from an M-16 rifle or .50 caliber machine gun fired into a car approaching a checkpoint too quickly, could not cause damage."
Ideally, Egland wants intelligence and ideas filtering up from combat troops, not trickling down. That is opposite to how the military works now, but he hopes to make some inroads-and says Petraeus understands the need to change.
For now, Egland will stick to volunteering for Troops Need You. That's hard to do juggling work and family responsibilities-he is a father of two sons, a 21-month-old and a 5-month-old-but he is used to slim possibilities.
Three years ago, on a mission in Afghanistan, he bought a blue sapphire engagement ring for his future fiancée-when he did not even have a girlfriend. Weeks later, he met his wife Ania through a Christian dating site in California. Five days later he proposed.
Now Egland does not mind volunteering with no pay for Troops Need You. He is tens of thousands of dollars in debt at the moment-his book has sold about 2,000 copies-but he has a purpose. "It's all right, man," he said. "We need to win in Iraq. I want to be able to look back and say, 'I did everything I could to win.'"