Iraq Commander Shares Sentiments on Troops

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Col. David Sutherland, due to leave Iraq after a 14-month tour of duty, speaks in highly emotional terms about the soldiers he has led, and those who died. Sutherland was commander of the 3rd Brigade combat team in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As lawmakers in Washington, D.C. prepared to leave town for the Christmas holidays, President Bush yesterday appealed to Congress to provide additional funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wants lawmakers to approve a nearly $200 billion request.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Let us tell our men and women in uniform that we will give them what they need to succeed in their missions, without strings and without delay.

MONTAGNE: Congressional leaders plan to stall the president's request until next year. Mr. Bush warned that such an action could create an accounting nightmare and interfere with the military's ability to do its job.

Some soldiers who have been doing their job on the ground in Iraq for the past 14 months will be headed home soon. The 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division is finally going back to Texas. More than a hundred of the unit's soldiers have been killed during the deployment in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay sat down with the brigade commander, Colonel David Sutherland, as he prepared to leave Iraq this week.

JAMIE TARABAY: On the day David Sutherland relinquished command of Diyala, he officiated at a memorial for a member of his personal security team who was killed by a sniper in September. During his brief speech, Sutherland had to pause and take a deep breath. After an arduous tour as commander in one of Iraq's deadliest regions, where many of his soldiers have been killed or wounded, Sutherland still struggles to hold back tears.

Colonel DAVID SUTHERLAND (U.S. Army): I have cried more here than I have in my entire life. I am emotionally attached now, forever, to Diyala. I am emotionally attached through the sacrifices of my soldiers.

TARABAY: This was Sutherland's first tour in Iraq. He remembers the start of his mission in Diyala as overwhelming.

Col. SUTHERLAND: I can remember stumbling through the first week. And that's what it was, trying to drink from a fire hose, all the information that I was gathering, all the assessments I was gaining.

TARABAY: At the time, Diyala was in the throes of sectarian fighting, and the militants of al-Qaida in Iraq were seeking to avenge the death months earlier of their leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Sutherland's troops were tasked with moving out of their forward operating bases, or FOBS, to camp in palm groves and abandoned schools in the Diyala River Valley.

Col. SUTHERLAND: I have forces that have spent no more than 30 days on the FOB in the past 10 months. They are in - out securing the population. We cannot commute to work.

TARABAY: It was a brutal fight, and Sutherland found himself balancing trips out to the battlefield with trips to a U.S. military hospital to visit wounded soldiers. The number of casualties has been a sore subject with Sutherland.

Col. SUTHERLAND: I don't like my soldiers being used as a data point. The fact is, is that the achievements of my soldiers and those that sacrificed so much are the true data points.

TARABAY: Sutherland's attachment to his soldiers is legendary. As he prepares to leave Iraq, he remains afraid for those he commanded who are now attached to other battalions and still have to finish their deployments.

Col. SUTHERLAND: My soldiers, I love every one of them. My family went from four to 4,004 when I took command, and I had no idea how wonderful they all were and are, and how much they care, and they do it because they do care.

TARABAY: Those he leaves behind will eventually depart in several months' time.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, in Diyala Province, Iraq.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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