TREBIL, Iraq --
It is an ironic coincidence that when Maj. Eric Wolf arrived here in August, his Marine Corps Border Transition Team (BTT) was responsible for providing operational overwatch for the Desert Wolves, an Iraqi border enforcement battalion.
Wolf, a 42-year-old native of Pasadena, Calif. is on his third tour in Iraq. This is his first time commanding a BTT, and his Marines and their Iraqi counterparts are working hand-in-hand to ensure the security of Iraq’s border with Jordan along a 235 km. front.
The biggest challenge they face is preventing insurgents, smugglers and drug-runners from slipping through the porous desert border.
At this phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Wolf’s men are mainly responsible for providing training, mentorship and advice for the Iraqi Security Forces as they gradually assume a greater role in the country’s overall stability.
“Our main challenge is to get the [Desert Wolves] battalion to operate as a viable border force, in spite of being geographically dispersed,” said Wolf. “Our approach is two-pronged. First, we train the trainers. Second, we teach them to function as a battalion.”
Training and supervising the trainers is exactly what Wolf and his Marines did for the Desert Wolves along the Jordanian border Oct. 14-16.
With assistants from the U.S. Border Patrol, Wolf and his Marines set off for the Desert Wolves’ headquarters just outside the Port of Trebil, the main crossing point on a desolate highway that cuts through the country from Jordan to Baghdad.
The first class, taught by Staff Sgt. Marty Vickery, the BTT maintenance chief, focused on teaching the Iraqis how to keep accurate records of all vehicle maintenance, tracking the status on replacement parts and retaining a log of where all vehicles are located and who is responsible for maintaining them.
Vickery, a 30-year-old combat veteran from Birmingham, Ala., explained that one of the biggest hurdles the Desert Wolves face is establishing continuity between the battalion’s personnel, who are on call 24-hours a day.
There is very little, if any turnover, according to Vickery. When a new team comes on, there has not been an accurate system of recording required maintenance or the date that parts were ordered. Furthermore, there is not any standard operating procedure for signing out vehicles or tracking their location.
“If you don’t log out who has a vehicle or where it’s going, it’s easy to lose them out here,” said Vickery, citing the long distances that exists between border forts in the desert. “Logistically, they’re limited on what they can do. They’re in the process of developing a logistics system. Once it is fixed, I believe they’ll do OK.”
Nathem Dawod Ubad, 34, a Desert Wolf who came here from Basra, was extremely optimistic about the future of his team and attributed much of their overall improvement to the two years of training he’s done with the Marines.
Ubad expressed his commitment to implementing the new knowledge and passing it on to the remote border forts to enhance the battalion’s operational mobility and ultimate efficacy in keeping the insurgency out of al-Anbar province.
Master Sgt. Thomas Kean, 39, of Oceanside, Calif., was the lead instructor for the next class, sign cutting and tracking.
This period of instruction involved teaching students to visually locate footprints or tire tracks in the sand and create a visual picture, based on what they found, of how many people were in the area, their gender and what they may have been doing.
Drawing on his 19 years of experience in the Maine Corps, Kean conducted a practical application exercise with the assistance of U.S. Border Patrolmen.
Students analyzed the footprints to determine from the stride if the person being tracked was a man or a woman. They used a simple formula to figure out how many people were there. Kean also showed them the best way to read footprints based on the time of day.
“See here,” Kean told his class, bending down and indicating with a pointer, “the sun is casting a shadow on the grooves of the footprint. If you stand here, you can see them. From another angle, it’s more difficult.”
Kean also showed them how to use a flashlight to read tracks at night.
Amar Alkurashy, a 30-year-old Desert Wolf who recently transferred into the battalion, led his team in analyzing a scenario that Kean and assistants had marked in the sand. He cited using common sense, combined with his recent training, to “tell the story.”
“There was one man,” Alkurashy said though an interpreter. “He set his bag down here. The man came in from Jordan, delivered a heavy bag and he walked out. Here,” Alkurashy indicated a depression in one of the prints, “you can see that the man was walking backwards, trying to look like it was two men, and he did not go back.”
Alkurashy’s team congratulated themselves after they were told that they had “read” the story in the sand correctly.
“They’re using their heads, they’re thinking,” Kean said proudly after watching the Desert Wolves apply what he had taught them. “From what I just saw, I think they can do it. I like how they were working together in groups without us telling them. They’re putting their heads together. This is good to see.”
The youngest Desert Wolf on deck at the battalion headquarters Oct. 14 was Malek Altameemy, 22, a native of al-Kut. Despite being junior in age to many of his comrades, Altameemy already has three years of experience on the border patrol and was eager to take a leadership role in the instruction.
“I do this to protect my country and get rid of terrorists,” said Altameemy with the assistance of an interpreter. “But also, I like to be around more educated people, always learning.”
Shortly after the end of the exercise, the Desert Wolves who had gone through the vehicle-maintenance and sign-cutting classes headed out to the border forts, strung out along a 235 km. stretch of desert, facing Jordan.
The trainees became the trainers, and demonstrated their expertise to the Marines who came out to visit all seven border forts in their area of operations Oct. 16-17.
They were accompanied by Maj. Zaid Mahmood Egihl, the Iraqi battalion’s operations officer, who in the future will be responsible for designing the training schedule for his troops and overseeing all operations.
The adobe-colored forts, which conjure the mental image of a mini-Alamo, have all been rebuilt since 2003. The living conditions at them, however, are extremely spartan.
The Desert Wolves, however, appear in high spirits and make due with the things that are most important to any combat troops: camaraderie, weapons, first aid equipment and continuous training.
Each fort has also marked off a soccer pitch in the desert nearby so that the men can maintain fitness and enjoy a short reprieve from the endless cycle of patrolling, maintenance and training.
On Oct. 16, Altameemy stood over a patch of sand at Border Fort 14, about 60 km. north of where he had gone through the Marines’ class at the battalion headquarters two days earlier.
The Marines refer to this confluence of borderlines as “the corner.” To the north, one can see the Syrian guard posts with the naked eye. Off in the distance to the south, the Jordanian border fort is clearly visible.
It was here, in the mid-morning heat, that Altameemy drew a box in the sand with his pointer, and taught the Desert Wolves stationed at this remote bastion how to “tell a story” in the sand by reading footprints and other markings.
The Marines and their U.S. Border Patrol counterparts stood back and watched in admiration as Altameemy’s students picked up on the methods and procedures nearly as quickly as he did.
“Sign cutting is the most important thing we’ve done so far,” said Altameemy, who reemphasized the importance of maintaining peace and security in his country. “I feel very confident and self-assured from this exercise. These are the benefits of the training.”
Capt. Naem Mansur, 44, commander of Border Fort 14 from al-Nasaryah, supervised the day’s training.
“This is a very good class,” said Mansur. “We’ll make sure that this education is continued in the future, several times a week. This is our duty. When we get a mission, it will be easy to track and catch the smugglers and terrorists. We can do the training and accomplish the mission by ourselves.”
Hamad Yasin Taba, 26, served as the vehicle maintenance instructor. Gleaning from his classroom time with Vickery several days earlier, Taba instructed his peers one-on-one. With his hands and arms covered in engine grease, Taba went through preventative maintenance steps and explained the importance of performing these checks to his pupils.
“I gained great confidence in myself,” said Taba through interpretation. “It makes me happy to see them learning. Before, it was give the key, get in the car and drive. Now we check the lights, the oil, the battery, and the engine before we leave.”
Vickery stood by, silently beaming. “It’s good to know that we’re doing something worthwhile out here,” he said.
At each of the other three border forts which the Marines stopped that day, the story was the same. The men who the Marines and U.S. Border Patrol officers had taught were now themselves the teachers, and the U.S. personnel noted that the Iraqis were good at it.
Alkurashy taught his sign cutting and tracking class at Border Fort 14A, about 60 km. to the north, which the Iraqis refer to as “Ali Maes” in honor of a comrade who lost his life there many years ago.
“I feel wonderful,” said Alkurashy through interpretation. “They take it serious. Our job is to patrol this border, and we have to learn, teach and continue to grow as professional men.”
At Border Fort 15, Amjed Abdelzahara Ibrahim, 28, is the unit handyman with a degree from an electrical college. He is looking forward to finishing his 20-day shift and getting back to Basra, his hometown.
Ibrahim, who has trained with Coalition forces over the past four years, explained that this is refresher course for him. With stalwart conviction, Ibrahim expressed his reasons for serving his country on the border.
“It is two reasons,” said Ibrahim, who hopes to some day rise through the ranks and become an officer. “First, to stop the bad people from entering my country and making trouble. It is important to respect the law. Second, this is to make a good living for my family.”
Master Sgt. Husseing Daoud, 53, struck an avuncular pose as he stood watching his men conduct the classes. Daud served in the Iraqi Army for 34 years before joining the Desert Wolves in 2004.
Daud, father of seven and grandfather of two, expressed the stark contrast between his experiences in the former Iraqi Army and the new ISF.
“There was a saying in the old days,” said Daud through an interpreter. “If you want to be king, you have to be a lieutenant. Right now, it is more like we are brothers.”
When asked what the one main difference is between the former days and now, Daud laughed, patted his belly, and said, “The food is better.”
The Marines made their last stop at Border Fort 16, having covered more than 140 km. for the day. It was late afternoon, and the training had already been completed. At the behest of Wolf, the Desert Wolves demonstrated the application of tourniquets, which Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Thompson had taught them during a basic first aid class Oct. 6.
Thompson, 41, of Charleston, S.C., is the BTT corpsman and a certified respiratory care therapist. With 16 years in the Navy, he stated that teaching is what he enjoys most about his job.
Wolf held out his arm and invited any of the Iraqi troopers to show him how to put on the tourniquet. Under the watchful eyes of Thompson, several Desert Wolves skillfully demonstrated the task, both on Wolf, and on each other.
“They’ve got the basic principles down, which is important,” said Thompson. In the future, we’ll go deeper with CPR and tactical combat casualty care. These guys all want to learn. The big thing I’ve seen out here today is them being able to do this all by themselves.”