By Army Sgt. Whitney Houston
Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 29, 2009 - Soldiers from varied backgrounds and specialties are helping to ensure the continued success of the Iraqi army as mentors and members of a military transition team. "Our main job ... is to professionalize the Iraqi army," Army Lt. Col. Thomas Seagrist, commander of the 9th Iraqi Army Division military transition team, said. "We have officers and noncommissioned officers from a wide variety of military occupational specialties. I have a logistics officer, an intelligence officer, an aviator, [explosive ordnance disposal], intelligence analysts, ... and the list goes on.
"These [servicemembers] are the leaders of their respective elements, and the advisory role is to help their Iraqi counterparts see that there's more than one way to skin a cat and open their eyes to other options," he explained.
For team members to make progress, the first step is to establish a rapport with their Iraqi counterparts, "which is easier said than done," Seagrist said.
"You have to build a relationship with them by sipping chai [tea] with them and having normal conversations with them -- even if the conversations have nothing to do with the job," he said. "They have to trust you, and you have to trust them, and that's definitely not an easy thing to do. You are not their friend -- although friendships do occur -- but there's also a working relationship that has to exist."
The team continually is faced with deeply ingrained cultural obstacles that require patience and perseverance to overcome.
"Many officers serving in today's Iraqi army also served under [Saddam Hussein's] regime, which is a totally different mindset. They grew up and prospered under a dictator who called all the shots," Seagrist said.
"They served with pride for their army and their country" he continued, "and in an army in a new democratic society, we are trying to help them serve the people and a constitution rather than serving a man."
To overcome the lingering cultural elements of a dictator's army, Seagrist and his team have suggested and reiterated the importance of strengthening the Iraqi army noncommissioned officer corps to distribute authority and provide a much-needed "backbone" for the army.
"One of the big things that myself and other members of my team are doing is not only trying to get an NCO academy going, but legitimizing the NCO corps," Army Master Sgt. Ian Hutchinson, the senior enlisted leader of the team, said. "In the Iraqi army, a lot of the soldiers don't wear their rank. They don't feel like it means anything, because they're not afforded the authority that an American NCO has.
"We're trying to show them they can do more than just bring the boss chai -- that they can take initiative and make things happen, and make NCOs in the Iraqi army just as proud as NCOs in the American Army," he said.
(Army Sgt. Whitney Houston serves in the Multinational Division Baghdad public affairs office.)