Iraqi Army getting first-rate advice
U.S. Army Capt. Samuel Shepherd, military transition team adviser for 3rd Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division, monitors the radio as Iraqi soldiers stand ready during a cordon and search mission in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Embedded transition teams assist with logistics and battlefield enabling effects, such as medical evacuation, close air support and artillery.

CAMP TAJI - Rome wasn't built in a day...and neither was its army. Constructing, supplying and properly training a country's fighting force is hardly an expeditious task. It is a process, and this process can be likened to a marathon - not a sprint.

The same can be said for the Iraqi Army. Over the past three years, it has been rebuilt from the ground up as a modern, effective, fighting force consisting of ten divisions with approximately 131,000 soldiers.

Today, approximately 89 Iraqi Army combat battalions, 30 brigade headquarters and six division headquarters control their own battle space.

Members of the Military Transition Teams at Camp Taji play a key role in this process, as they slowly, but surely, train the Iraqi Army to ultimately assume independence.

The purpose of the MiTTs is to advise, coach, teach and mentor Iraqi Soldiers - to provide the necessary training and guidance to bring their army to a level where it can work independently.

"First of all, we advise. So our job is to help the Iraqis plan and execute combat operations - those units that are already working in combat operations," said U.S. Army Maj. Steven Carroll, a transition team chief from Fort Sill, Okla.

"We're primary trainers, or train-the-trainers, for Iraqi units that have just started. So teacher/adviser is the primary role for the team," he added.

Each 11 to 15-man team brings a mix of combat and support specialties, including operations, intelligence, logistics, communications, engineering and security. Team members work one-on-one with their Iraqi counterparts, showing them the ropes of each specialty and offering advice on streamlining operations.

"Second, we bring the effects - coalition effects - to the Iraqi army that they don't have for themselves," said Carroll.

"Indirect fires, fixed air and helicopter attack aviation support, MEDEVAC helicopters and other non-lethal effects, like information operations assets, for example, that the Iraqi army uses during their combat operations, but can't provide for themselves. We provide that," he said.

In addition to training and advising, the teams often run patrols outside of the compound with Iraqi Soldiers to show presence, facilitate effects and to help the Soldiers gain confidence in running operations.

"We go to checkpoints and provide U.S. presence, because without it, they can't get attack aviation, or air MEDEVAC, or any of the things that we take for granted in our Army," said U.S. Army Capt. John Govan, a logistics adviser from Mobile, Ala.

"Those have to be called in by the U.S., so we'll go out with them sometimes as presence patrols, what we call battlefield circulation, where we move around and check on different checkpoints inside our Iraqi brigade," he added.

The Iraqi commander of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 9th Iraqi Army Division, who asked not to use his name for reasons of force protection, commented on the importance of the American transition teams running patrols with his Soldiers, and what they ultimately learn from the experience.

"They train us how to deal with the insurgents," he said. "They also train us how to deal with the civilians and the checkpoints, and they show us how to surround the areas if we suspect that we have improvised explosive devices or insurgents."

For the transition teams to work effectively, they must establish solid relationships with Iraqi Soldiers. They do this by embedding with the Soldiers - living and working in the same areas on a daily basis.

<b>Cultural Differences</b>

This is not as easy as it sounds, as many of the obstacles faced by the teams lay in the strong cultural differences between the American advisers and Iraqi Soldiers.

"One of the biggest challenges, of course, is the language barrier," said U.S. Army Maj. Marc Walker, a transition team chief from Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Walker then described the differences in work schedules between the Iraqis and Americans.

"The Iraqi soldiers' normal day starts at seven and goes until noon," he said. "Then they have an afternoon break, and then they start back up again right after dinner time, about six o'clock...then work until midnight. So we've had to adjust our schedules around theirs.

"We've had to adjust to their prayer times and all their religious rituals that they do, as well."

Cultural awareness is a theme that resonates within all aspects of the transition teams' work. The team members are in agreement as to the importance of being able to appreciate and respect the Iraqi culture.

"As far as the cultural significance, or the ability to relate to the Iraqis culturally, I think it's very important," said U.S. Army Capt. Eric James, an operations adviser from El Paso, Texas.

"I think if you're culturally insensitive to them, then one, they're not going to respect you. And then, in turn, you're not going to build that strong relationship that you need, personally, to be able to conduct professional business."

"I think you can sum it up with you rarely get a second chance to make a good first impression," said Carroll. "And first impressions are important, in this case. Building a good working relationship - a good rapport - with your counterpart is everything.

"So, if you are culturally unaware, and accidentally insensitive, you may have ruined that chance to make a good first impression."

Still, other challenges are around every corner, and the teams work to fix this.

"It's my job to empower them," James said. "If I accomplish my job, when I leave here, they'll be able to conduct internal operations in their own battle space without having brigade to tell them to do their own operations."

Though it seems difficult, at times, to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, members of the MITTs are definitely seeing a progression toward independence in their Iraqi counterparts.

"Most of us, this is our second year over here, and, so what we have seen are huge steps since 2003 in the reforming of an Iraqi army and a basic Iraqi security force," said Govan.

"But the daily, mundane things that we do, it's tough to see unless you step back and look at where they started from," he said. "We believe that they have grown.

"Our unit, as a logistics battalion, is the equivalent of a forward support battalion inside of a brigade combat team. They don't do a great job with logistics, simply because so much of logistics is farmed out to contract food, water, and maintenance.

"But what we have seen them do is grow as a maneuverable force. They're responsible for their own force protection and their own re-supply, and we have really nothing to do with that except for overseeing it.

"So in the beginning, we helped create it, and now, keeping true to the MiTT model, we've worked ourselves basically out of a job."

An Iraqi civilian interpreter who works with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 9th Iraqi Army Division, who also asked his name not be used, said he has seen a positive difference in his country's army in the short time he's worked with the transition teams, and made comparisons to how the Iraqi army used to be.

"I don't think we had an army," he said, "because you see, everyone wanted to make something for himself. Some money or some respect. Everyone made something for himself. That's why I don't care about the army before 2003.

"After 2003, I feel that we got a new army. I feel that the Iraqi army is a great army that I've never seen before. But at the same time, I see the Iraqi officers and the soldiers don't have the experience. They don't know what the other armies in the world are doing, how they fight, or how they work."

He added that as a result of the guidance the Iraqi soldiers have received from the transition teams, the Iraqi army is changing for the better.

"Actually, I'm honest...I see progress," he said. "I see progress."

"Despite the differences that the Iraqi army has to the way we're doing business, they're actually accomplishing the mission," Carroll said, "at least our unit in their sector, to a standard. It's rarely the American Army's standard, but they're accomplishing the mission."

In spite of the various obstacles and seemingly slow progress involved with building and training a military force, the members of the transition teams see the relevance of the mission and continue to stay the course.

"We're told that the MiTTs are basically the exit strategy from this theater and we all want the same thing, and that's to go home," Govan said. "But I think it's, overall, a good thing. I've seen that they do grow."

Some team members find job satisfaction in seeing how far the Iraqis have come in their training.

"This assignment is very rewarding, and it is very frustrating at the same time," said Walker, "but I believe the rewards outweigh the frustrations that you will have over here.

"And when you look back over the course of the year, you'll look at where they started and where you've ended up, and I'm very pleased with where we're at right now."

Others find fulfillment in the experiences they've gained.

"This is a great opportunity to get out and to get in the fight...and see a different part of the Army," said James.

"To really grow and experience new things," he said. "To learn a lot about how to conduct yourself and run operations in a volatile environment. You can do nothing but grow professionally and personally, I think, by joining a MiTT and getting out here and living with the Iraqis."

And still others find success in the day-to-day gains...making headway in the marathon of military transition.

"There are days, or late nights, when I walk back from the battalion commander's office, where I think we'll never get through to them," said Carroll.

"But the very next day, a triumph," he said, "and we've broken through and things have gotten better overnight.

"I would absolutely recommend it to anybody that wanted to do it. It's a challenging job, but it's definitely the future."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16