Before numerous members of the media on Friday, Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo laid out his plans and priorities for the 3rd Infantry Division before his deployment to Iraq.
The news conference was the commanding general’s last before he departs for a year in Iraq.
“Soldiers know how to live. Soldiers know how to live because life is precious,” he said. “And so this morning, sitting at the kitchen table doing a crossword puzzle with my daughter, who came home from college to be with my other children to say goodbye to me this weekend, doing a crossword puzzle, a New York Times crossword puzzle with my daughter at the kitchen table, I cherished that moment.”
He said it’s a sentiment he knows many other soldiers around him share.
Continuing to emphasize the importance of family, Cucolo said he’s made communication — a constant flow of information and interaction among soldiers and their loved ones — a priority as he prepares himself and his troops for a long flight overseas.
“Absolutely at the top of my priority list of the things to do is to answer any final questions and say one more time how proud and happy I am to serve in coastal Georgia and that I do not take the unbelieveable support we get from the local community for granted,” he said.
The general spoke once more about the major changes about to affect everyone in the Fort Stewart community when the soldiers leave for what Cucolo hopes is their final Iraqi mission.
“Between now and Christmas, between now and the holiday season, we’re going to have 14,000 soliders leave this area ... ,” he said. “We could not do this without the support we have outside the gates, and we could not do this without the support of the most amazing and resilient human beings I’ve ever seen. And those are Army families, spouses, moms and dads, and children.”
A change in strategy
Cucolo addressed the 3rd ID’s objectives as it heads into Iraq. He’s telling his soldiers to preapre for a different kind of mission.
“It could not be more different than the first mission into Iraq, the invasion,” he said, referring to the “advise and assist” role U.S. armed forces are stepping into, as oppossed to a more direct stance.
“Now it’s us going to the Iraqi security forces and saying ‘What is it you want us to do? And let me see how I can help you do it,’” he said.
The general said a major part of his job now is making sure all of his soldiers, even those who have been to Iraq before, understand the change in direction. In the past few days and months, Cucolo said he’s spent a lot of time telling soldiers just that.
“For my young, hardened Iraqi veterans who are used to a different way of doing things I said to them, ‘I want you to think about your hometown. If there was foreign army in your hometown, wouldn’t you want your police to tell them what to do? Wouldn’t you want your army to be able to dictate what they were doing?’ That’s where we are. It’s their country,” he said.
The big event
While Cucolo stressed that the United States will be taking a more supportive role this time around, soldiers will still face tough challenges.
“The key event on our watch is the national parliamentary election in January,” he said. “Huge, huge implications for Iraq, and I believe tensions will be high leading up that election.”
In the 2005 elections, Cucolo said U.S. troops were heavily involved in logistics and security, but they are now giving Iraqi forces the lead. After the elections, he said, the seating of the government will be the next big challenge and then, hopefully, they’ll begin a drawdown.
“I see the footprint in Iraq going from about — these are very rough numbers — from about 140,000 down to when we are returning next year to about 50,000-55,000,” he said. “April through August will be a rough target of when we’ll begin a significant drawdown.”
Although troops may start pulling out of Iraq soon, Cucolo told soldiers and their families not to prepare for anything less than a yearlong deployment.
“You’re going to hear about a large drawdown. Your brain has to say 12 months. Your family has to think 12 months, 12 months, 12 months. That’s the length of this deployment,” he said. “If it’s anything less, we’ll tell you when we’re sure.”
Using baseball as analogy, Cucolo said he’s gearing up his troops to emulate the mentality of closing pitchers as they prepare to consolidate bases and inventory and pack up equipment.
“I tell my soldiers, you are the closers for northern Iraq,” Cucolo said.