The Iraqi army’s role is critical in addressing violence and stabilizing Iraq. U.S. Army Capt. Eric James serves as the operations adviser for a military transition team (MiTT) embedded with an Iraqi tank battalion.
Based out of Fort Bliss, Texas, he and his wife have four children and one on the way.
James was deployed to Iraq in August and is stationed at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. He recently shared some insights on training the Iraqi army with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan.
Can you tell us about your assignment? As the battalion operations adviser, I assist my counterpart by providing professionalism, expertise and planning assistance to the Iraqi battalion operations staff. I bring coalition effects such as medical evacuation, close air support and artillery to our battalion. Personally, I bring an aggressiveness and a work ethic that hopefully my Iraqi counterpart would want to emulate long after I’m gone. I am an air defense officer stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, where I work with the Patriot missile system.
I have been in the Army for seven years and I volunteered for the MiTT assignment because I wanted to be a part of something new and innovative. I believe in the adviser concept and feel it is our best way to empower the Iraqi army to rid their country of insurgents.
What are your areas of responsibility? I work with the Iraqi battalion operations officer. I rarely engage any other Iraqi officer about operations because a lot of the missions we plan and execute must be kept close hold until the last possible moment for operational security purposes. There is always the possibility that an Iraqi soldier can be working with the insurgents. I spend a lot of time coordinating between my counterpart and coalition forces for current and future operations. I ensure the coalition effects are available for Iraqi missions.
Do you or other U.S. team members get involved with Iraqi exercises and missions outside of the advisory role? As an adviser, I’m very involved in missions conducted with the Iraqi army. I always want to be on the ground as the operation unfolds. One, to be able to evaluate the execution phase of an operation, and two, I think the Iraqi officers like to see U.S. officers fight alongside them. It goes a long way in establishing credibility with them.
Third, as a soldier, I like being in the fight. I don’t know if other advisers follow this philosophy, but it’s the way I operate.
Can the government stabilize and be effective? I think the coalition forces are doing the best we can against a tough enemy. The government must stabilize themselves and put the needs of Iraq first and their individual needs second.
Have you seen any progress? Progress is slow. Some days they conduct operations and everything goes well. Then the very next day, we can go check on Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint they man and you find soldiers sleeping and out of uniform. So it is a challenge to get them to be consistent. Some advisers tell their Iraqi counterparts and soldiers to do things because the Americans do it that way. Our team tries to explain why they might want to do things a certain way vs. another way.
What are the main challenges? I would say the main challenge for me is to keep the Iraqi leaders in our battalion focused and motivated so they can in turn motivate their troops to fight the enemy. The Iraqis have to become more offensive in this fight, and a big part of doing that is developing the mind-set.
How would you evaluate the Iraqi unit’s capabilities regarding operations?
When I evaluate the Iraqis’ operational ability, I never compare them to U.S. forces. There are too many differences in our military and culture. My Iraqi battalion can perform independent operations, meaning without coalition involvement. I try to get them to consider more than one course of action when planning for operations. Also they have a difficult time forecasting future missions and what equipment and personnel will be available for those missions. They seem to always get the mission accomplished; it just does not run as smoothly as some might hope.
How are you treated by the local Iraqis? The only thing I can say is there are good citizens and bad citizens, just like the U.S.
How’s the team’s morale? It’s OK. For the most part, morale on the team is fine. We have days that are worse than others just like in any other job. You find people you’re close to on the team and you keep each other going. There are certain things we do to get our minds off the war at least for a short time, such as watch football games or lift weights.
Have you seen combat? Yes, I have seen combat. A vehicle I was riding in was hit by an IED [improvised explosive device] and was blown into a canal that ran parallel to the road we were on. The vehicle landed upside down in the canal. I suffered cuts and injured my left shoulder. Thank God, everyone was OK that day. Another incident occurred when we were conducting a mounted patrol with the Iraqis. We found ourselves in the middle of a firefight for about 90 minutes. I have been extremely lucky since I’ve been over here.
MyLinh Shattan can be reached at email@example.com.