Like commanders in Iraq before him, Army Col. Marc Ferraro spoke optimistically of the new job ahead - building up the country's security forces, erecting schools and electrical lines, encouraging ties between Sunnis and Shiites.
But already the war zone's harsh realities have hit home for the leader of the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, a 4,100-member force of the Pennsylvania National Guard that arrived in January and officially took over a 900-square-mile area northwest of Baghdad on Tuesday.
In a telephone conference call with Pennsylvania reporters yesterday, Ferraro reported that in addition to having lost a soldier killed in combat, the brigade had had two men badly wounded in recent days.
He said that although his rural sector was "much more stable" than it was only a year ago, the casualties were a harsh reminder that "there is still a war going on here. . . . There are still people out there trying to kill coalition forces, Iraqi forces, and just local people."
Spec. Keith Maul of Portage, Pa., not far from Johnstown, lost his right arm and right leg in an insurgent attack, Ferraro said. Maul was driving in a column that was hit by RKG-3 antitank grenades, first used by the old Soviet army.
Maul was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, Ferraro said. A cousin of Maul's said he was married but had no children.
Sgt. Matthew Gibbons of Altoona, Pa., lost sight in one eye, Ferraro said. Gibbons was standing in the open hatch of a Stryker vehicle when it was attacked by another RKG-3. The explosion shattered the protective glass around the hatch. Ferraro said Gibbons also had shrapnel injuries to an arm and hand.
Gibbons was flown from Iraq yesterday to a U.S. military hospital in Germany. His family could not be contacted.
The Pennsylvania Guard reported Monday that Staff Sgt. Mark Baum, 32, of Quakertown, a father of three young children who worked as a Bucks County prison guard, had been killed in an attack Saturday. He was the 33d Pennsylvania Guard member to die in Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11.
Mary Miller, his mother-in-law, said yesterday that Baum's remains had arrived at the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base. She said the family had not yet been able to make funeral arrangements.
The 56th Stryker Brigade, headquartered in Northeast Philadelphia, formally took over its sector of Baghdad Province from a Hawaii brigade in a ceremony on Tuesday.
Ferraro said he was the last man in the outfit - nicknamed the Independence Brigade - to assume his command. Each of his battalions had been taking over certain areas, one by one, for the previous two weeks.
The troops, who constitute the largest Pennsylvania Guard contingent to go overseas since World War II, will stay in Iraq until about September.
The brigade's area of responsibility is rural and agricultural, Ferraro said, adding: "We call it the hinterlands."
Most of the troops are living with Iraqi security forces in scattered sites. Only the headquarters units are on a strictly U.S. military base - at Camp Taji, he said.
"Everything we do as a U.S. force, we are required to do in conjunction with the Iraqi army or the Iraqi police," he said.
He said his mission was, in part, to assist Iraqis in getting increased electrical power to some areas - from perhaps six hours a day to eight. He said he would also be working to help keep water pumps running to feed irrigation canals.
But a big part of the job remains putting down the insurgency where his troops find it, he said.
Ferraro said he was confident that, with its updated Strykers - armored, eight-wheel troop carriers - the brigade had the best equipment in the Army to protect troops from attacks and insert them quickly in a fight.
"We are relentless in pursuing the enemy," he said. "We will chase them down, and we will find them."