Daily Archives: April 9, 2009

More on our Unsung Heroes-Military Advisers, Past and Present


Iraqi COP on Syrian Border

While many people know about conventional military campaigns through the plethora of books, articles and electronic media outlets, the subject of advisers is on that is seldom touched upon.  This is true in history, journalism and media. It is not a glamorous subject.  There are few books, articles or movies on the subject.  Part of this is because advisers don’t have all the heavy duty gear that looks good in print or on TV.  They serve with foreigners, and unfortunately, many Americans have no interest in other people, their history or their culture.  So the advisers labor in obscurity.  Living among the soldiers of the nations that they are in they serve in small teams, often far from any support if they get in trouble. Advisers have often stayed after the bulk of American forces leave.

This is not new.  It was the case in Vietnam.  Take the story of Captain, later Colonel John Ripley, adviser to a Vietnamese Marine Battalion, Ripley was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on Easter Sunday 1972.  This was hte day that the North Vietnamese opened their Easter offensive.  Ripley under intense fire blew up major highway bridge over the Dong Ha.  Supported by fires from his Vietnamese Marines he would dangle under the bridge for three hours, rigging 500 pounds of explosives to it.  His actions prevented 20,000 NVA soldiers and over 200 tanks from crossing the river near the DMZ.  His actions are recorded in The Bridge a Dong Ha. Similarly, Captain, later Major General Ray Smith was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions with a small Vietnamese Marine unit on April 1st 1972. These men’s exploits were not uncommon.  Unfortunately the majority of the Vietnam era advisers have been forgotten.  The film Go Tell The Spartans starting Burt Lancaster told the story of a team of advisers at the beginning of the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately the military itself doesn’t always treat these men and women with the respect that they deserve. Adviser tours are often not treated the same as service with “big battalions.”  The duty is not glamorous.  Many times advisers and trainers are chosen from men passed over for higher level command at the Lieutenant Colonel and and Colonel level. In the current wars I have met many of these men.  Devoted, honorable and professional, they serve in places where their decisions and example will impact Iraq and possibly Afghanistan in ways that the big battalions can never will.  Many of these men are in the twilight of their careers and many times volunteer for one last chance to serve in combat.  Others are pulled from the Reserves, and some even pulled out of retirement.  I knew men in each category.  Younger officers and staff non-commissioned officers are often pulled out of traditional assignments for adviser duty.  They often assume greater responsibility, advising and sometimes even directing units far larger then they would in a normal assignment.  They have to be diplomats, trainers, mentors, and advisers to foreign officers senior in rank to them.  In the case of some Iraqi officers, men who have served in several wars commanding troops on the front lines.  To do the job right advisers have to learn the language, culture and traditions of the units that they advise.  It takes maturity, wisdom and tact to do this work.  Junior officers and non-commissioned officers also serve in these capacities at the battalion and company level.   I had the opportunity to serve with many of these men in isolated camps, they are to be admired and congratulated for the tremendous work that they do.

Navy and Air Force personnel often are found advising medical, logistics and civil engineering units.  Likewise they are also found in reconstruction and development teams.  In these places women as well as men advise the indigenous personnel.  They often, especially in Afghanistan share the same dangers of those who advise combat  units. This was the capacity that LT Choe and LTJG Toner were killed.  She was a Medical Service Corps officer.  LTJG Toner was a Civil Engineer Corps Officer.


Meeting with Bedouin Family

Before I went to Iraq in 2005 I knew a Marine Corps Captain who was pulled from our unit to serve as a battalion level adviser in Iraq.  In Iraq this young Marine Officer had a bounty on his head.  A Chechen sniper attempted to take him out.  The bullet hit the lip of Kevlar helmet, just above his left eye. less than an inch lower it would have gone through his forehead.  The Iraqis found and eliminated the sniper. The Captain survived and finished his tour.  He kept the helmet.  A Gunnery Sergeant serving with an Iraqi infantry company was wounded in a convoy action.  He told me his stories and how his return back to the states was.  It was difficult, but he said that he would not have missed the assignment, saying that “his Iraqis” were like brothers to him.

As a chaplain in the largest operational area I was able to see the diversity of our teams, the conditions that they lived and the people that they worked with.  I prepared by reading about the Army Chaplains who served in this role during the Vietnam War.  It was actually just part of a chapter of the Army Chaplain Corps History of the Vietnam War.  However, that chapter taught me something that I figured would have to be true.  I had to be out and about with them. I good friend of mine followed me into Iraq.  He went to a different area with Army advisers in Mosul.

My tour not only allowed me to serve with these men and women but to work with the Iraqis and see things that many Americans never get to see.  One of the more interesting events was getting to speak to the first class of female Iraqi Police Officers in Ramadi.  There were also the foot patrols with the Port of Entry teams at Al Waleed on the Syrian Border.  Our little team met with Iraqi officials and mingled among a crowd of several thousand Iraqis waiting to be processed back into the country.  Since this was the busiest port of entry into the country it was the site of a lot of terrorist activity, weapons and currency smuggling.  In another place we were with a Brigade senior adviser who had to have a Iraqi Colonel who had just taken command of a unit fire his logistics officer who was selling coalition fuel on the black market. It was a very tense exchange.  The accused officer even tried to involve me in the conversation, saying that if people followed God that they would be honest.  Our senior adviser asked him if God would approve of him betraying his country.  The officer was fired.  The senior adviser later told us that this officer had put a price on his head before this confrontation.  All through the meeting my assistant, RP2 Lebron sat menacingly to the side enforcing peace in the the tense moment.  Thankfully the new Iraqi commander, who had taken over from a corrupt General was an old pro and had the job of cleaning house.  Things got better after that.  I was with one team when one of their favorite Iraqi officers was killed while out with his troops.  Our guys were saddened by the loss.

Like I said on my previous post, these are the unsung heroes of the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan.  Their sacrifice and service needs to be vocalized.  This part of the war is now part of my life. The story of these men and women needs to be told.  I will not let them be forgotten.


With Advisers and Iraqi Border Troops

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