America's "Lawrence of Arabia" in Ramadi
by Chad M. Pillai
December 6, 2010 marked the 4th anniversary of the loss of America's "Lawrence of Arabia" in Ramadi. On that day, U.S. Army Captain Travis Patriquin along with Marine Corps Major Megan McClung and Army Specialist Vincent Pomante III were killed in Ar Ramadi by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). The tragedy marked the end of Travis's remarkable career and tireless efforts to win the "Battle of Ramadi" in 2006. Travis was a unique and unconventional thinker whom I had the pleasure of working with, we worked together as Brigade Operations Planners and in Iraq as Civil-Military Operations Officers. He arrived at the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division (Ready First Combat Team) with an extremely valuable skill set needed for a successful counterinsurgency campaign -- fluent in the local languages and cultures. Travis's experience as an enlisted intelligence analysis with the Special Forces serving in South America and subsequent language and cultural immersion training in Jordan created an officer fluent in Spanish, Arabic, and Pashtu. Immediately after 9-11 and the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, Travis deployed to Afghanistan and served during Operation Anaconda and the U.S. push to remove the Taliban from power.
In early 2005, Travis arrived in Germany to serve with the 1st Brigade. Upon notification of our deployment to Iraq, Travis volunteered his time to train officers selected for civil-military operations in language and cultural immersion classes. In the months leading up to our deployment, many of us were trained to read some basic Arabic, but more importantly, develop a greater appreciation for Muslim and Arabic culture to plan and prepare for future operations.
From January to June 2006, I served with Travis in Tal Afar, Iraq, after the transfer of responsibility from the 3rd ACR. During that period of time Travis and I worked to rebuild the shattered city and gain the support of the local populace. Working with Travis I was able to develop a clearer picture of the tribal dynamics of Tal Afar with its mixed population of Sunni and Shia Turkmen and develop a road map for political and economic development which eventually led to reintegration of neighborhoods (Major Neil Smith's campaign in Sa'ad, for example), the expansion of the Iraq Police, development of a small business center, illiteracy programs, and the successful (symbolic) development and passing of the Tal Afar district operating budget by the governing council and Mayor Najim. Travis's greatest impact came when the Brigade was ordered to Ar Ramadi.
When Patriquin arrived in Ramadi he studied what happened to the Abu Mahal in western Anbar Province. He instinctively knew that if a tribe challenged Al Qaeda it should be the primary goal of the U.S. to defend and strengthen that new ally. Al Qaeda's ruthless intimidation campaign in Ramadi led to one of the deepest personal friendship and tactical alliance between the Ready First Combat Team commanded by COL Sean McFarland and Sheikh Sittar Abu Risha. Travis clearly understood that Al Qaeda's murder of a local sheikh and the dishonor displayed to the family by not returning the body to the family was the pivotal point in which the local Sunni insurgency could be redirected away from attacking U.S. forces and toward Al Qaeda's corrupt and alien interpretation of Islam. From this relationship, the Anbar Awakening took a life of its own which would eventually spread throughout Iraq. The basic principles was simplistically demonstrated in Travis's famous "How to Win in Al Anbar" stick-man PowerPoint presentation.
Task Force 2-37 (the remaining element of the Ready First) redeployed from Tal Afar in October 2006 to Ar Ramadi. My immediate priority was to discuss with Travis his thoughts and ideas about Ramadi and how to incorporate the successful lessons learned in Tal Afar. Within a matter of weeks Travis introduced me to all the critical sheikhs in my Task Force area of operations to include Sheikh Sittar and his family. These introductions and key insights into the power players in the region allowed the Brigade and Task Force to accelerate the Anbar Awakening to include the local Iraqi Police, create Local Security Battalions (forerunner of the "Sons of Iraq"), and create a localized political and economic confederation of tribes through the creation of the Jazeera Council. It was the Jazeera Council that provided the incentives for tribes to join the local alliance to defeat Al Qaeda. From November 2006 through February 2007 all the tribal areas in the sector north of the city had switched from pro-Al Qaeda to pro-Jazeera council members. It was through learning from Travis about the tribes and my introduction to Sheikh Sittar and his brother that made that possible.
Sadly, on the 6th of December 2006, a day that important development work was being done with the chief of the Jazeera Council, I heard the news of Travis's death. The image remains with me to this day as of the smoke plume from the IED that had just detonated. At that moment I not only lost three friends (Travis, MAJ McClung, and SPC Pomante) but also my mentor and comedic partner in our struggle to reclaim Ramadi from Al Qaeda.
The death of Travis and six others (3 more Marines and Soldiers died that day in Ramadi) was not only an unfortunate loss for our unit but also a loss for our nation. His loss not only impacted our unit, it also touched Sheikh Sittar who named a new Iraqi Police Station after Travis in Ramadi. One can only speculate what his career would have been after Ramadi and how he could possibly helped in our fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I once joked with Travis that he need to get the encyclopedia inside his head committed to paper. Sadly, he never did, though he did publish an article for Military Review. Thankfully, author William Doyle will soon publish "A Soldier's Dream: Captain Travis Patriquin and the Awakening of Iraq" in the summer of 2011.
On December 6, 2010, America lost its young "Lawrence of Arabia" in Ramadi, hopefully he will never be forgotten and will be studied as an important part of counterinsurgency history, theory, and practice.
Major Chad M. Pillai, FA 59 currently serves as a strategic planner for HQDA G-3/5/7 War Plans Division. He served as the Civil-Military Operations Officer for Task Force 2-37, 1st Brigade/1st Armored Division (Ready First Combat Team) from 2005-2007 alongside Captain Travis Patriquin. Major Pillai earned a Masters Degree in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Major Pillai published "Adult Education in Afghanistan" July-August 2009 Military Review and "Tal Afar and Ar Ramadi: Grass Roots Reconstruction"
March-April 2009 Military Review.