• Media guardsman witnesses Iraq conflict firsthand

Maj. Arnold Strong doesn't have to think twice when he's asked how many Oregon National Guard soldiers have died in Iraq.

It's nine, a number he knows well because he's met with their families and, as the Guard's public affairs officer, answered numerous media questions about them: who they were, what they were like and how they died.

He's used to saying how nine is a lot for Oregon's population. The state's casualties are similar to those of Illinois, which has had 10 Guard soldiers die fighting in Iraq, and New York, with 15, according to the Department of Defense.

But the death rate is more to Strong than a mere fact, because he's traveled to Iraq to observe the troops actually do their job. Strong, a former PR executive for high-tech companies, was in Iraq from September to December on observation duty for the Guard and will return later this month.

'It's a dangerous place, no doubt about it,' said the Salem-based Strong. The former Army officer, 37, assumed his current job in September 2002.

He expects Oregon's casualty numbers to grow as violence continues in advance of the Jan. 30 Iraqi elections. The Oregon Guard has 1,326 soldiers in Iraq, with another 264 mobilized and getting ready to go. Most are based in and around Baghdad, the center of insurgent and terrorist attacks, which Strong said account for Oregon's high number of casualties thus far.

But he knows firsthand that those attacks haven't stopped Oregon soldiers from helping secure and rebuild the country.

'They know what they're doing is important,' he said. 'They are focused on their missions and taking care of each other.'

On Nov. 30, Strong accompanied Oregon Guard soldiers when they worked with approximately 300 Iraqi police officers to sweep about 20 blocks of buildings for weapons. The operation was led by Capt. Wyatt Welch, a Portland finance officer who volunteered for service in Iraq with the Oregon Guard.

Strong said Welch, a former Army air assault instructor, has become a seasoned military leader during his tour of duty.

The soldiers under Welch's command that day cordoned off the blocks in a Baghdad suburb while the Iraqi police searched each building, Strong said. They ended up seizing more than 50 weapons, including machine guns and sniper rifles, and arresting a suspected insurgent leader.

'They were really pleased with the capture. We had heard he might be in the area, but no one thought we'd actually catch him,' said Strong, who asked that the suspect's name not be released.

A week or so later, Strong accompanied a patrol to a soccer field in another Baghdad suburb. The patrol had been told that suspected insurgents had buried unexploded U.S. ordnance in a soccer field.

The insurgents apparently 'hoped the ordnance would go off and kill some children and we would be blamed for it,' Strong said.

The soldiers ushered children and sheep out of the area before starting the hazardous search. After a short time, they found two unexploded shells buried nose down in a pile of dirt next to the field. The soldiers gingerly removed them and detonated them a safe distance away.

'We saved lives that day Ñ lives of children,' Strong said.

On the trip back to the base, the patrol discovered an improvised explosive device buried along the road they were traveling.

'There are so many bombs along this road we call it 'IED Alley,' ' he said.

A bomb removal truck dug it up as the soldiers sat in their vehicles more than 100 yards down the road. Shrapnel rained down on them when the bomb was exploded.

'It was so powerful, I hate to think what would have happened if it had gone off while we were driving by,' he said.

Strong thinks that one of the most important projects they participated in during that time was not even a military operation. That was when Oregon Guard commanders helped organize and pay local Iraqis to rebuild the Abu Nawas Park, which runs for approximately one-half mile along the Tigris River in downtown Baghdad.

The park, named after a renowned ninth-century poet, used to be a popular gathering spot for Baghdad families. But former dictator Saddam Hussein had turned the park into a killing field, Strong said, allowing it to deteriorate while his regime executed political opponents there.

'Instead of bringing in bulldozers, we paid more than 20 Iraqis to work on it with shovels and other hand tools,' Strong said. 'That way they not only earned money to support their families, but they became invested in the restoration project. From now on they can point to it and say, 'I helped rebuild that.' '

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