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Training Iraq’s army: Inside Darkhorse's MTT

22 Mar 2006 | Cpl. Mark Sixbey

They eat together, live together and fight together every day through the backyards, farmlands and palm groves of the town of Al Jazeera near Al Habaniya, Iraq. The Darkhorse Marines of Military Transition Team 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment advise their Iraqi counterparts from 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division, in the areas of intelligence, communications, fire support, logistics and infantry tactics.The Marine advisors are always close by as the Iraqi soldiers take the fight to the enemy.“One day you wake up and you’re getting rocketed, then you go out on patrol and get ambushed with RPKs, AK-47s and improvised explosive devices,” said Staff Sgt. Carl C. Newman, an advisor for MTT, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.The Iraqi soldiers get on-the-job training in a town with an active insurgency, learning new tactics as they go with plenty of opportunities to put them to use.“Coming to this area, we knew there was a strong insurgency here,” said 1st Lt. Kevin Kimener, an intelligence officer assigned to MTT. “We were all hoping for some action -- we didn’t know it would be everyday, but this is what we live for in the Marine Corps.” The Iraqi officers ultimately call the shots, with their Marine advisors providing input, often under fire during real missions. “We help the officers with the planning, and advise them as we go along,” said 1st Lt. John F. Campbell, an infantry officer assigned to MTT. The use of strong noncommissioned officer leadership and decentralized command are emphasized. One of the challenges faced by all transition teams is taking the old Iraqi Army’s methods and adapting them to meet the new mission – securing their own soil. “It was a very officer-driven military,” said Campbell, 25, from Denton, Md. “We’re pushing the lower-level guys and mid-level officers to make decisions and come up with their own course of action, and start to implement it while they’re waiting for permission.” “Once we can get them to appreciate it, we’re going to see more success,” Kimener said. “They will learn to take it upon themselves and learn some initiative.” MTTs Marines encounter differences between American and Iraqi culture on a daily basis, much of which is overcome by getting to know one another thorough eating, training and patrolling together.“The culture barrier would have been more of a factor if we weren’t embedded with them,” said Newman, 28, from Peoria, Ill. “The interpreters help out a lot. The Iraqi Army soldiers are actually pretty interested in our culture.” “Patience is the key to being an advisor,” Campbell said. “The culture here is much more laid-back time-wise. They like to take their time.”The advisors agree that the Iraqi soldiers have a distinct advantage for conducting counterinsurgency operations here, they speak the language. “One thing they have that is more powerful than us is access to civilians, and that plays a role in being able to develop and gather intel,” Kimener said. “They’re able to speak the language and look and act like everybody else, know the traits and characteristics of the population.”“The strong point is the younger lieutenants, the guys that didn’t spend their careers under the old system,” Campbell said. “They’re very smart, able to teach the soldiers like we do our own.”Kimener is no stranger to training Iraqis. He was augmented to Darkhorse in 2004 to help train the Iraqi Specialized Special Forces in preparation for Operation Al Fajr in Fallujah. He said he welcomed a return to the battalion and subsequent assignment to the MTT.“If you joined the Marine Corps to get out to fight and teach, then this is the prime environment for it,” said the 26-year-old from Cincinnati. “I couldn’t think of anything better than being out here living with the battalion everyday.” “The most interesting thing is helping the people,” said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Wiginton, a 27-year-old hospital corpsman from Shawnee, Okla. “I really get to see my work and know that I’m making a difference.” Newman spent nearly two years serving as a platoon sergeant with Darkhorse’s Company K. He said being an advisor is very different from leading a platoon of Marines.“You’re there to give advice and stand back and watch the Iraqi lieutenant make decisions,” Newman said. He explained that while a platoon sergeant leads his Marines, the advisor’s role is to recommend tactics, techniques and procedures that have worked for the Marine Corps, and explain why they work.“Our job is to train the Iraqis to the point that they don’t need us to be here anymore,” said Maj. Bill McCollough, the team leader for MTT. “They’re always learning to do something better than they did the week before.”McCollough explained the MTT’s mission goes beyond teaching basic infantry tactics to Iraqi soldiers.“It goes much deeper than that,” said the 37-year-old from Brainerd, Minn. “It’s across the board, not just small unit things.” “Our objective here is to create an Iraqi battalion that is self-sustainable tactically, operationally and logistically,” Campbell said. “That means at the battalion level and company level, they can plan operations based on gathered intelligence, execute those operations with coordination inside their battalion, and with the logistics side support themselves and their companies to fulfill their requirements.”By embedding coalition transition teams with the Iraqi Army, America’s incremental departure from this war is a foreseeable goal, McCollough said.“We’ve got our milestones and goals laid out to when we’re finished here, there won’t need to be another team coming in behind us,” McCollough said. “That’s success for us, creating a battalion that can stand on its own, and doesn’t need an advisor team here to help them.” “It all starts right here with a MTT team,” Wiginton said. “American battalions can go out, fight insurgents and win all day long, but when the Iraqi battalions can go out and do it themselves -- that’s when we can go home.”