BUILDING a strong and effective noncommissioned officer corps that lives up to the title of "backbone" takes time. Iraq lost experienced NCOs through attrition during the Iraq-Iran War and years of sanctions, as well as the invasion in 2003 and subsequent dissolution of the old Iraqi army.
Lieutenant Gen. Riyadh Jalal Tawfig, Iraqi Ground Forces Command deputy commander, compared the Iraqi NCOs to the foundation that the old army was built on, and he said it is one that has taken time to rebuild.
"When we started reorganizing the Iraqi army we didn't have the old army enlisted joining. It was rare to have a former enlisted soldier rejoin. This created a challenge to develop NCOs," Riyadh said.
It's a challenge that the U.S. Army faced in the past as well and one that Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Vincent Meyers experienced in his 33 years of service. His knowledge in training U.S., Ukrainian and Ethiopian soldiers was leveraged to aid in further developing the Camp Taji NCO Academy.
"What I tell people is that the Iraqi army today is a lot like the American army from 1970s. The American Army had to rebuild the NCO corps after 10 years of conflict in Vietnam where a large number of NCOs were either killed in action or got out," Meyers said. "It's the same here; you can't take hundreds of people and try to say 'mass produce NCOs.' It's not going to happen."
U.S and coalition forces have trained Iraqi forces throughout Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn to help prepare them to take over the security of their nation. NCOs were not left behind in this training, but it wasn't until November 2008 that a pilot program began to establish a formalized NCO education system. The program was finalized in October 2010, providing a standard to train NCOs through the partnered efforts of U.S. Forces-Iraq, NATO Training Mission-Iraq and the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.
"Even though there were many obstacles, we started with the basic steps and there has been definite improvement and it continues today," Riyadh said, comparing the training that U.S. forces provided to the Iraqi army throughout OIF to planting a seed.
"As they trained Iraqi soldiers, they trained trainers that will continue to train the Iraqi forces," Riyadh continued. "Just like the U.S. forces that continue to train when they return home, the Iraqi army is going to continue training."
The successful transition of training Iraqi soldiers rests in NCOs not only knowing the skills, but being confident in teaching them.
"What we want is to get the Iraqi noncommissioned officer instructors to be able to teach their own soldiers. That way they get prestige," Meyers said. "It's great to have an American sergeant teach them, but where is the enduring part of that?"
The Camp Taji NCO Academy is one such training facility where some Iraqi soldiers arrive with little knowledge, but leave the academy better prepared to lead and train. The facility creates an enduring environment where the academy grows NCOs at all levels. The long-term intent is that as new Iraqi NCOs come through the ranks they will go through each level, much like the U.S. Army NCO education system.
The academy hosts three senior-leader courses a year, two junior-leader courses and multiple weapons training and unit trainer courses. The junior and senior leader courses focus on building the skills they will need to train soldiers, such as leadership, map reading, marksmanship and weapons maintenance, training, tactics and counterinsurgency.
Each student works from a laptop and are connected to each other through a local network that allows them to share information and course material. The classes also focus on basic computer skills.
"Soldiers coming from units that have never conducted this type of training are able to learn it here and gain leadership skills by leading others in the tasks, so they can become better NCOs," said Iraqi Lt. Col. Abbas Fadel, academy executive officer.
The hallways and classrooms walls reflect the purpose of the academy with posters designed to continue the Iraqi NCO's learning even when they aren't sitting in class. The goal is that even on break or walking through the halls the students are able to learn.
Learning never stops, but it doesn't just revolve around the soldier skills the Iraqi noncommissioned officers develop at the academy. The ultimate goal is to develop leaders, who are confident and able to teach soldiers when they return to their units.
To create that confidence, the classes focus on 80 percent hands-on training where the students perform tasks and learn from each other. Twenty percent of the training is given by the instructors to ensure the students understand the lesson then the task, condition and standard is given to the students, then they have to execute. The instructors guide the students and provide them with a grade following the exercise.
When the students first arrive, they are unsure what to expect as they begin to learn and teach each other, Meyers said. As the course goes on, their confidence increases with their abilities to successfully complete the classes.
"When they get up there and get it right, and someone -- not an American instructor, an Iraqi instructor -- says, 'Hey you did a good job,' you begin to see a real transformation at about the 30-day mark."
"Some of the students have never read a map or used a computer, so they are very motivated and become more focused as they go through the courses," Abbas said.
The academy started with 20 seats, but has increased its capacity to 50 students per class. At the end of each course, the students are given a CD to bring back to their unit with all of the training material, giving them tools to train soldiers with.
"Now more than ever the Iraqi Army needs good NCOs attending the courses that will go back to their units and teach and mentor soldiers," said Iraqi Sgt. 1st Class Ali, an instructor at the academy since 2005.
One of the ways used to instill confidence in the instructors was to develop a cadre of Iraqi NCOs to be experts and then share that expertise with the students. To reach that goal, Meyers subscribed to the example set by Baron von Stueben more than 200 years ago. Steuben is credited with being one of the fathers of the Continental Army, and teaching them the essentials of military drills, tactics, and disciplines. He wrote the Revolutionary War Drill Manual, known as "The Blue Book," which served as the standard United States drill manual until the War of 1812.
"He didn't take a thousand guys," Meyers said. "He asked for the hundred best guys and trained them and built up their confidence, so they could train everyone else. That's what we did."
Meyers said it was important to find something that was important to the Iraqi military and for the Iraqi army it was marksmanship. The U.S. trainers took 10 instructors from the academy, dubbed them the "Iraqi Rifles" and drilled them with the goal of making them experts on the M-16 Rifle and the AK-47 assault rifle. The Iraqi army fields both rifles within its units, so it was crucial for the cadre to be confident with both weapons. Each time the students were on the range, a different NCO would be in charge to help them understand that when they were in charge, they were responsible for the training and the range.
"The range and marksmanship were the tools we used to build their confidence as noncommissioned officers," Meyers said. "We weren't so much worried about them being able to shoot as we were in allowing them to get out there and be leaders."
During a tour of the facility, the range was hot and Iraqi Sgt. Mustafa was the range NCOIC. The first step was for the Iraqi soldiers to zero their weapons then qualify on the 100-meter range using paper targets. When they finished firing, the soldiers were eager to move down range and see how they had done. Several senior leaders from the academy, senior U.S. NCOs and Command Sgt. Maj. Earl L. Rice, command sergeant major to the deputy commanding general for operations, U.S. Forces-Iraq, were also observing the training. When the last shot rang out, Mustafa ensured that everyone had cleared their rifles before allowing anyone to move and examine the targets.
"He had no problem stopping all these senior people because he was taught that when you are in charge, you are responsible," Meyers said. "He was responsible for that range that day."
Another Iraqi soldier had a weapons malfunction and had to fire an unzeroed weapon, knowing that he would probably be off target. His goal wasn't to hit targets, but to evaluate his shot group and adjust the rifle based on his previous zero. After firing, he immediately went back to his rifle and made his adjustments.
"That is the type of stuff that gives instant credibility to Iraqi sergeants, when you have a noncommissioned officer that is confident and knows exactly what he is doing," Meyers said. "When you know something it builds confidence. When you have confidence, you can be a leader."
The other side to building the cadre of instructors was to have the U.S. Soldiers be hands off once the instructors were trained and ready to lead to create an enduring Iraqi-led training program.
"We have built an enduring process and that should be with everything we are doing," Meyers said. "I think we have gotten to a point they can build their own NCO corps. There is not much more we can do other than showing their leadership how our NCO courses are set up, so they can help them determine the assets they need to set up courses."
Demonstrating what the NCO academy can do for the professionalism of the Iraqi army is something that Rice highlighted to Iraqi division command sergeants major and the Iraqi Ground Forces Command after his first visit to the academy.
"After Command Sgt. Maj. Rice's visit, he asked the IGFC command to visit and tour the facility," Abbas said. "The word really got out after their visit and the IGFC and the Iraqi Army has a better view on how the NCO academy changes soldiers into leaders. They see that their NCOs are more confident and how much they learn at the academy."
The accomplishments of the academy led them to receive more resources and equipment following each class, aiding them in training better NCOs.
"The graduates, people who are educated, benefit from the knowledge that they learn and then can apply it to their unit," Abbas said. "The view of the NCO academy is changing and all of the Iraqi army will benefit from the training."