By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Nov. 12, 2015) -- Service members with the Iraqi Security Forces were glad to see the U.S. Army back in Iraq, said Soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division, who recently returned from an advise, train and assist mission there.
About 1,300 Soldiers with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, left the United States for Iraq in January of this year, and redeployed in October, following the short-notice nine-month deployment there in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
The Soldiers, part of Task Force Panther, provided advise and assist teams, trained Iraqi Security Forces, secured multiple critical facilities, and provided logistical support to further Iraq's efforts to degrade and defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. There will be other American teams that go in to perform the same advise and assist mission - including the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division who is there now - but the 3/82 was the first.
"I know the Iraqis were extremely grateful to see the U.S. troopers come back, in a new role and a new capacity," said Lt. Col. Bryan Babich, commander of 1st Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Babich had been in Iraq before. He served there from 2005 to 2006 as a battery commander.
"It was a very different mission in a very different time," he said. "I was in charge of a convoy security company and we'd move logistical convoys from one forward operating base to another. It was very tactical and very different."
This time in Iraq, he said, he was tasked to the advise and assist team assigned to the Ministry of Peshmerga in Erbil, where he worked with Kurds, and also with coalition partners regarding how they trained and resourced the Peshmerga, ensuring, for instance, that as training occurred, a common standard was applied.
"That's critical, because if you don't have that common standard, then it's hard for the unit you are training to work in a collective way," Babich said.
A big part of this deployment for the 3/82 was being the first on the ground to do the kind of work they were tasked with doing. They weren't replacing a team already there.
"A big part was understanding how they were organized, what their priorities were, and then finding areas where we felt we could best help," Babich said of working with the Peshmerga. "We found those focuses, but it took time. And a lot of what goes on with the first units to go in and establish a mission is to just create that identity, and find the areas to make a difference, and set the conditions for the follow-on team that replaced us in September."
While in Iraq, he said, the 3/82 wasn't doing the mission it had done during Operation Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn - even though it was able to rekindle relationships built earlier.
"These were small advise and assist teams - but it resonates that this is a commitment. And that we are part of that commitment, and we are there to help," he said. "There are relationships we built in the first eight years we were there, that we were able to capitalize on in this most recent tour. We knew them before and we were able to rebuild and continue on in those relationships."
One such relationship was with Peshmerga Brig Gen. Hazhar Ismail, who Babich worked alongside at the Ministry of Peshmerga in Erbil. Babich said he saw in the general hope for the future in Iraq.
"He's a younger general officer within the Peshmerga, a graduate of the U.S. Army War College and very well spoken," Babich said. "It was a critical relationship for us because we could talk with a common language and what it did for me is it really resonated in the value that is bringing in foreigners into our schools and establishing relationships there, and then on how you can capitalize on that in a deployed environment. The training and the plans that we developed together were about creating something that would last, and creating something that would serve as a capable force that could ... be there for the long haul. I saw in Gen. Hazhar a hope and optimism, professionalism as a military officer, and quite possibly a glimpse ... of a better future."
In Iraq, Capt. Bryan Terry served as commander of Bravo Company, 255th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Initially, Terry said, Bravo Company was going to provide security forces at Erbil. But that mission was cancelled, so the unit spent about eight weeks in Kuwait before moving into Iraq.
Once in country, they moved to Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, to train brigades that were tasked with doing counter attack missions.
"The Iraqi units show up to us having a basic understanding of how to do soldier tasks, with a little bit of an understanding of how to do fire maneuver at a small-unit level," Terry said. "We put them through a six-week and three-week program of instruction. Six-week instruction is really just a lot of basic buddy team movements, teaching them marksmanship, making sure they understand how to actually fire and maneuver as a small team, and then move all the way up to squad live-fires. After that they go into a three-week, short period of instruction, and that is more collective tasks, moving up closer to a platoon to a company live-fire, with them fighting as a larger element."
In Iraq for seven months, Bravo Company rotated duties with other companies. They also did work in building partner capacity and in providing security forces.
Terry said that the Iraqis were easily able to pick up what B Company taught them.
"They were excited to see us show up and train them," Terry said. "We were definitely their first choice to have somebody come in and help them. They have a lot of trust in us from our past relationships."
Terry said his team began every day of training by demonstrating how his Soldiers did a particular task - they did a demonstration.
"After that we'd then put them through the lanes with collective tasks to execute a little bit of training for that day," he said.
Terry said he saw in the Iraqis he trained a definite will to do the mission. There weren't any slackers, he said.
"Typically we think, based on their recent defeats over the last year, that they don't really have a large will to fight," Terry said. "But they do have a will to fight. They are very prideful of their country - that is part of the reason they are fighting as Iraqi armed forces. They don't have to be there ... they are there mainly because of their sense of pride in their country."
One example of that, he said, is when the Iraqi brigade commander he was partnered with would rotate through training locations to meet with the soldiers.
"The younger soldiers would get frustrated they weren't in the fight and they had to continue to train ... he'd go out there and talk to his men and motivate them," Terry said. "During one motivational speech, he pulled an Iraqi flag out of his pocket that he always carried with him - they immediately got excited. He talked about how soon, when the training was complete, they would go fight the enemy forces for the government of Iraq. And there was celebration following that."
TIME AND SPACE
During the 3/82's nine months in Iraq, Lt. Col. Patrick Sullivan, commander of the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion, said he personally advised the Baghdad Operations Command commander.
"It gave me some pretty unique access and insight into the highest levels of Iraqi national political and military decision-making," he said. "I was able to provide reflections there and back to the coalition leadership."
Sullivan said entering Iraq for the first time since 2011, it was a challenge to get the mission started - to get a foothold into what was expected of them and to what they needed to accomplish.
"There was a lot we didn't know going into this mission," he said. "We had to define our own expectations and have them confirmed or denied once we got on site. One of the concerns we had was how our Iraqi partners were going to perceive us, having left at the end of Operation New Dawn, and what themes are they carrying, good or bad, that will inform our initial relationship. I was pleased to learn, and experience, that we were welcomed back with open arms."
Sullivan said that as their mission solidified in Iraq, he saw that the Iraqis developed greater willingness to train with the Americans. He said he thinks what the 3/82 has done, and what follow-on units will do in the same mission, will help provide the Iraqis the space they need to defeat ISIS.
"What we did creates time and space for Iraqis to achieve solutions to what is fundamentally a political problem in the theater and provided time and space for our own policy makers to define what our level of engagement and what our overarching goals are going to be, with regional partners, with coalition partners and with Iraqis," he said.