Special to American Forces Press Service
April 21, 2009 - Clearing rubble at the northern end of the Baghdad International Airport runway, soldiers of the 277th Engineer Company leveled the ground to expand the safety distance zone. But in addition to working on the project, the soldiers also imparted their skills and knowledge as heavy-equipment operators to their 6th Iraqi Army engineer counterparts.
"Our job is to incorporate the [Iraqi army] into the engineer efforts here so they can get a better idea of how to operate and maintain a general construction work site," said Army 2nd Lt. Stuart Redus of the 277th Engineer Company, an Army Reserve unit based in San Antonio, and attached to the 46th Engineer Battalion, 225th Engineer Brigade. "We are here to familiarize the Iraqis with the equipment and build their organizational skills so they can do all the construction efforts themselves."
For the soldiers of the 277th, the partnership toward building a better Iraq starts with preventive maintenance checks and services of the giant bulldozers, excavators and front-end loaders.
"We've noticed their skills as operators are not too bad, but they need to improve on their techniques for taking care of the equipment," Redus, the project manager, said. "Every day, we go through [procedures] together to show them which fluids go where, to see if there are any leaks and what needs fixing."
With a lesson on preventive maintenance behind them, the process of grading, digging and engineering began. The 277th engineers dug up challenges linked to good verbal and physical communication.
"We've had briefings with the interpreter so he can translate all our signals," assistant project manager Army Staff Sgt. Ismael Gaona said. But on this day, some of the hand signals had an effect opposite their intended meaning. "I'm trying to tell him to back up, and he's going forward," Gaona said.
Using an interpreter, they came up with a solution and implemented an old standby of the U.S. Army: train the trainer. As one Iraqi soldier learned the proper guiding technique, then that soldier trained the others.
Training on this project started recently, and the U.S. soldiers said it will take time and practice for the Iraqis to become proficient.
"We want them to learn safety and capabilities so they'll be more comfortable at the controls," Gaona said. "We're teaching them how to let the machines do the work for them."
The engineers said they're confident the Iraqi soldiers will gain more skills and develop into capable heavy-machine operators. They also are training them on how to be solid, consistent contributors on the job.
The 277th soldiers are trying to instill a work ethic where the Iraqi engineers can see constant examples of dedication to a goal. "We are teaching them punctuality, and we are incorporating discipline, time lines and project management," Redus said. "There is a lunch schedule to be followed as well."
So far, the soldiers said, they generally are impressed by the attitudes of the Iraqi engineers.
"They have been ready to go at 8 in the morning every day," Army Spc. Moises Briseno, a heavy equipment operator, said. "They are showing initiative throughout the day and acknowledging what we are advising them. They are already doing skills they weren't doing before."
The U.S. soldiers try to pick up on a few Arabic phrases to help them communicate better, and have embraced training the Iraqi army engineers in all facets of their field of expertise. "It's an honor," Army Pfc. Eric Salinas, a heavy equipment operator, said. "Not many soldiers get the opportunity to teach the Iraqis how to operate equipment. "They listen well, and with more practice, they'll be up to speed."
(Army Spc. Howard Alperin serves in the Multinational Division Baghdad public affairs office.)