TAL AFAR, Iraq (Army News Service, Jan. 24, 2007) - The morning is chilly as Sgt. Alexis Medina briefs his squad on its mission.
Medina and his Soldiers, from the Florida National Guard's Company D, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, are one of several squads that make up the police transition team working in Tal Afar. Their mission is to see that the Iraqi police are properly trained so they can operate on their own.
As they prepare to go to a meeting with local Iraqi police leaders, Medina updates his squad on route conditions and recent enemy activity.
Once he's done, the Soldiers don their protective armor and climb into their vehicles. It's a short drive to the police station, but recent suicide bomb attacks give reason for extra caution and vigilance as they roll out.
This particular mission is nothing new to these Soldiers, though.
"We go out a minimum of five days a week to IP stations," Medina said. "We train them up on essential tasks that they need to become effective Iraqi security forces throughout the sector."
Their destination is what they, appropriately, call "the Castle." It's an impressive stone structure complete with walls and ramparts that sits on a hill overlooking Tal Afar. It was built by British forces during their colonial occupation of Iraq a century ago. Inside is a compound for Iraqi army, Iraqi police and coalition forces.
Working with the PTT are civilian police assistant teams, which comprise civilians with backgrounds in law enforcement, to help the Iraqis learn the skills they need to provide security for their communities.
The PTT's job is one of oversight, to allow the Iraqi police to do their job while providing professional training and support, Medina said.
That doesn't mean these troops don't see plenty of action. While they're waiting for their meeting to start, a bout of explosions are heard outside the compound. Insurgents have fired a barrage of mortars into the neighborhood near the Castle.
Medina and his squad are quick to react as they jump back in their vehicles to go help the Iraqis search the area the mortars came from.
Though there are some cultural challenges, and progress is sometimes slow, the police forces of Tal Afar have been doing comparatively well, Medina said.
The police stations are regularly graded on their progress in force protection, equipment maintenance, and command and control as well as other areas, Medina said. Once they have achieved certain criteria, they are deemed able to operate autonomously. In Tal Afar, several of their stations are close to autonomy, Medina said.
In addition to training, the PTT also provides some logistical support to the Iraqis, even though they are now mostly responsible for their own supply management.
Their training and level of confidence is apparent when, after Medina and his squad have returned from reacting to the mortar attack, Iraqi police bring in a sack full of explosives and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher that they had seized from insurgent gunmen that morning.
A few days after meeting with the local police leaders, Medina and his squad were preparing to take supplies to coalition soldiers manning the Castle when they receive a call that Iraqi police were engaged with insurgent fighters and were running short on ammo.
Before rolling out, the squad grabs several crates of ammunition to help re-supply the embattled Iraqi police. Sporadic firefights have been ongoing for several days in the city, so Medina emphasizes that everyone in the convoy must remain alert and cautious.
Sudden mission changes like this, which can turn a relatively routine mission into something much more dangerous, are common for the Soldiers, but they drive on regardless.
After they finish their supply mission, the squad drives to a nearby police station, where civilian trainers with them conduct an impromptu class with the police officers there.
Speaking through an interpreter, the trainers instruct the Iraqis on proper care and handling of their weapons, while Medina meets with their leaders to discuss issues they have that need to be addressed.
After the class, the squad heads back to base. Clouds have rolled in to cover the sky and a rapidly setting sun casts the world in the gray light of twilight. The chill of winter seeps into the heavily armored Humvees and the city is eerily quiet. It's clear that everyone is eager to get back to base and get some rest. They haven't encountered any hostile gunfire - this time.
"It's been a long week," Medina said, without going into further detail.
Despite the hazards, long hours and unexpected mission changes, Medina finds merit in his work.
"The most rewarding part of the mission is knowing we're doing something that is going to permanently affect the country," Medina said. "It's something that's going to go down in history, something that helps millions of people. It's not for me, it's for them."