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Advisors keep Iraqi Army on track

14 Mar 2006 | Lance Cpl. Christopher J. Zahn

The small teams of military advisors working hand-in-hand with Iraqi soldiers are learning nothing is as they expected in the Iraqi Army.  It’s better.

Soldiers assigned as the Military Transition Team liaisons partnered with 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5 figured they had their work cut out for them when they deployed here.  They’ve learned that Iraqi soldiers are eager, daring and ready for the challenge of taking on the insurgency in Iraq.

Even from the outset, the U.S. soldiers had to rethink their plan.  They thought they’d be teaching the absolute basics and brought over soldiers well versed in building basically trained soldiers.

“My guys are all drill sergeants who thought they would be coming over to train Iraqis,” said Army Lt. Col. Frank. M. Sajer, the MiTT leader for 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division. “Our job is to advise the Iraqis, not fight for them. We carry weapons for our own personal protection, but that’s it.”

Sajer, a 43-year-old from Camp Hill, Pa., explained Iraqis do their own planning for the operations, conduct their own briefings and are ultimately responsible for all aspects of the work. The advisors live up to their name – they advise and gently nudge the Iraqi soldiers in the right direction.

Army Staff Sgt. Donald J. Luther, a 39-year-old from Williamsburg, Va., said he was astounded when he first saw the Iraqi soldiers in action, when their bravado takes over and their fear evaporates.

“You would have to be here to understand how much it means just to drive along behind them in a humvee,” Luther said. “They get beer muscles, a stroke of courage. They think that as long we are out there nothing can happen to them, that an up-armored humvee is invincible.”

When the team arrived in country they had only a slight idea of what would be expected of them.  They soon learned Iraqi soldiers were exceeding expectations.

“When we first got here we were holding these guys’ hands,” said Luther. “As time progressed we realized that these guys were better than a lot of people gave them credit for. We gave them a lot more freedom.  Now we’re more like referees.”

The trust and respect that developed between the two groups of soldiers is a result of shared experiences.

“There was a car coming down the street accelerating towards me,” Luther explained.  “I began to go through my escalation of force procedures and pointed my weapon at the vehicle.  Apparently there was a teenager behind me whose parents were driving the vehicle and he was going to hit me in the helmet with a rock. 

“I was so absorbed with the car that I never noticed it until I turned around and saw that one of the Iraqi soldiers had the kid in a headlock and had stopped him from hitting me. I felt like if they didn’t care they would have just let the kid hit me in the head.”

The morale of the Iraqis is high, Luther added.  They work hard because they know that they are the ones determining their nation’s future.

“A lot of these guys are getting a second chance at life,” he added. “Under Saddam they were tortured, locked up in jail.  Now they can actually amount to something.”