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U.S. News
Psychological Operations unit tells Iraqis U.S. is their friend

Leaflets, loudspeakers are tools of the trade

Friday, April 11, 2003

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As part of his duties in post-war Bosnia, Army Reserve Cpl. Michael Rega Jr. did anti-drug programs for children and had his own radio show, according to his mother, Cheryl Rega, of Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County.

This image of an affectionate buss from an Iraqi man in downtown Baghdad put Army Reserve Cpl. Michael Rega Jr. on newspaper front pages around the country. (Jerome Delay, Associated Press)

Now Rega is in Baghdad, with the 303rd Psychological Operations Company (Tactical) waging the information war and trying to convince the Iraqis that the American presence in their country is a good thing.

Yesterday, an Associated Press photo of Rega being kissed on the cheek by an Iraqi man appeared on television Web sites and in newspapers across the country, indicating he's on track with his mission.

"I thought it was a symbol of hope and unification," said his aunt, JoAnne DiCristofaro of Uniontown, when she saw the photo.

At about 5:30 a.m. yesterday, Rega called his parents from Baghdad on a satellite phone loaned to him by a French journalist. Rega wanted to tell his parents, Cheryl and Mike, that he had watched Iraqis topple the statue of Saddam Hussein. He wondered whether they had seen him on television.

"I said, 'We didn't see you there, Mike, but you are everywhere else," his mother said, referring to the photo that appeared on the Fox News Channel and MSNBC Web sites. She later learned that the photo appeared in newspapers around the country, including Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas and Pittsburgh.

"Are you sure it's me?" asked her son, shocked at his sudden, unrealized fame.

He is deployed with the 303rd, which is based in the Charles E. Kelly Reserve Center in Oakdale. The company is not part of the Army Reserve Unit's 99th Regional Support Command, said Master Sgt. Steve Opet, a public information officer for the 99th.

"They don't belong to us even though they are in our reserve center," Opet said.

The 303rd company is part of a mission to influence Iraqi public opinion. The company is run out of the Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations in Fort Bragg, N.C., said Ben Abel, a public information officer at Fort Bragg.

Since October, a massive public information campaign has been under way in Iraq. American and British planes have dropped 36 million leaflets in Iraq. They have distributed scores of solar-powered and hand-crank short wave radios with instructions for tuning in to Arabic-language broadcasts that urge cooperation with coalition troops. Trucks with loudspeakers have been used to spread the message that America is in Iraq to liberate, not to occupy the nation.

The campaign is directed by teams of specialists in Fort Bragg with advanced degrees in Middle Eastern history and culture produce scripts, posters and radio programs.

Abel could not provide the number of reservists who were called up in the 303rd. He said the unit reports to the 11th Psychological Operations Battalion (Tactical) in Maryland, which reports to a unit in Cleveland and ultimately to the headquarters in Fort Bragg.

Abel said reservists in psychological operations typically do communications with the local folks. In the beginning, they distribute millions of leaflets and do loudspeaker broadcasts. They also spend a lot of time talking with people.

"Our guys are very specialized," said Abel. He said that if they don't speak the language, the company provides translators who do.

Lt. Col. Rudy Burwell, a spokesman for the Army, said the major psychological companies are reserve units, but there also is one active duty unit in Fort Bragg.

Rega, 22, a 1999 graduate of Mount Pleasant High School, joined the Army Reserve in 2000, after completing one year of college, saying he wanted to see a little bit of the world. He was deployed to Bosnia from September 2001 to March 2001.

In December, he learned that he would be deployed to the Middle East in January. He arrived in Kuwait on March 4, his mother said.

Even though Rega's company unit is usually not in combat, his mother said he has seen a lot of action because his company has been traveling with a Marine unit. She said he was in the battle of Diwaniya and had some close calls.

"For this war, they dropped 2 million leaflets a day," said Cheryl Rega. "I would imagine he did some broadcasting on a loud speaker from his Humvee."

In Bosnia, he played a different kind of role as a peacekeeper.

"He did a lot of work with kids," his mother said.

Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.

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