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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, March 24, 2005

Isle soldiers' risky job: Live with, train Iraqis

 •  Troops unscathed despite attacks

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

The insurgent's firebomb was aimed at an Iraqi army soldier being trained by his counterparts in the Hawai'i National Guard and Reserve.

Master Sgt. T. Lanky Morrill has made friends with civilians like this woman who, along with her children, was burned by a firebomb.

Photo courtesy Maj. Steve C. Lai

Instead, it found his wife and two daughters, who were badly burned in their home. Forgin Mohammed suffered first- and second-degree burns to her face, upper torso and legs.

Her 2-month-old daughter, Susan, was burned on her face, and another daughter, 2-year-old Maria, has bad leg burns and stopped breathing last week, but was resuscitated.

It is that challenge — training a battalion of Iraqi security force soldiers while insurgents increasingly try to kill them — that is a key mission for Hawai'i Guard and Reserve soldiers over the next year, and will help determine when all U.S. forces get to come home.

About 40 soldiers from the 29th Brigade Combat Team and other units will live with, work alongside and, it is hoped, prepare the Iraqi army's 210th Battalion — one of about 90 fielded in Iraq — to take over security in their own country.

Maj. Steve C. Lai of Mililani, logistics officer for Task Force Konohiki, shares a light moment with his Iraqi counterpart, a captain named Salah.

Photo courtesy Maj. Steve C. Lai

"The 40 of us, I'm told, are (extremely important) for our entire 3,700-soldier unit being over here, and that what we do, if it doesn't work, we fail," said Master Sgt. T. Lanky Morrill, 53, of He'eia Kea, the noncommissioned officer in charge of Task Force Konohiki.

Training and equipping about 271,000 Iraqi security forces by July of 2006 has become the paramount U.S. goal, and embedding U.S. troops with Iraqi units has been shown to build trust, better bonds and improved proficiency.

Even as the number of U.S. troops being killed in Iraq has dropped recently, attacks on civilians and Iraqi soldiers are dramatically on the rise in an attempt to dissuade Iraqis from working with the occupation force.

Recently, the executive officer of one of Task Force Konohiki's neighboring Iraqi battalions was killed.

The 29th Brigade recently began its yearlong mission in the Balad and Baghdad areas of Iraq, taking over for the 81st Brigade Combat Team out of Washington state. The Hawai'i task force soldiers are still getting acquainted with their Iraqi counterparts.

Forging bonds

A group of Hawai'i National Guard and Reserve soldiers known as the Konohiki Task Force will be living and training with Iraqi soldiers.

The task force, which takes its name from the Hawaiian word for the headman of an ahupua'a, consists of 10 soldiers from brigade Headquarters and Headquarters Company; one from the 29th Support Battalion; nine from the Reserve's 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment; 11 soldiers from the 81st Brigade out of Washington state; and seven Iraqi translators.

"It's going to bring us closer. I'm going to be living with my counterpart," said Maj. Steve Lai, 43, of Mililani, the task force logistics officer. "He's going to be teaching me, and I'll be teaching him the American military way of logistical control. I expect to be learning his Iraqi army way of life, too, and between us, we'll have a synthesis of something that comes in the middle."

Hawai'i soldiers have been tasked with a variety of security missions at Logistical Support Area Anaconda in Balad and at Camp Victory South and in the heavily fortified "Green Zone" of Baghdad.

But the Konohiki soldiers will be moving in the next several months to an Iraqi army base called Mautani about 10 miles south of Balad.

The base for several hundred Iraqi soldiers is an old fuel depot with some above-ground bunkers. The Hawai'i soldiers will be living in trailers that will be trucked in pieces like mobile homes.

Soldiers with the Iraq's 210th Battalion are assigned to the Hawai'i brigade. The 128th Brigade Combat Team operating nearby also is training an Iraqi unit.

Approximately 100 soldiers of the 81st Brigade, a National Guard unit that lost nine soldiers over the past year in Iraq, signed up to stay on another year with the Hawai'i brigade, and that group is contributing 11 soldiers to the task force, Morrill said.

Since the firebombing, the task force offered medical care for Forgin Mohammed and her two children in the intensive-care unit of the Combat Support Hospital at LSA Anaconda — something she initially refused.

Her main concern, Lai said, was being labeled a U.S. collaborator in the Sunni Arab area of Iraq that has put up some of the greatest resistance to coalition efforts.

But she has come to trust task force soldiers such as 1st Lt. Todd Ketterer, who has repeatedly made visits to the hospital.

"It was unfortunate that we had to develop a relationship with the wife of one of our soldiers through this incident," said Lai, who has two children and is a range planner at Schofield Barracks in civilian life. "But all of us would gladly develop stronger relationships with any of the soldiers or their families. Not only do we leave an impression on them; they leave an impression on us."

The soldier who was targeted, meanwhile, still is committed to being part of the Iraqi army.

"I think he's got a very strong sense of duty and responsibility," Lai said.

Morrill, a city Department of Parks and Recreation maintenance administrator, said interaction with the Iraqi battalion takes place three, four, sometimes five days a week.

Relationships are just starting to develop, and the Iraqi battalion commander is getting to know Maj. Rob Harris, the Konohiki commander, and Lai is getting to know his counterpart.

"You know how you go to a party and at first everyone's kind of standoffish? There's not a lot of mingling and talking?" Morrill said. "That's where we were probably the first two weeks. We have now gotten to the point where we are starting to establish relationships, and soldiers on both sides are kind of identifying people that they can relate to."

There is a language barrier, but Morrill found that a lot of the Iraqis started learning English in fifth grade. Many were soldiers during Saddam Hussein's reign.

Lai said it's amazing how westernized many of the Iraqi people are, and how attuned they are to U.S. customs and even slang.

Every Iraqi soldier has an AK-47 rifle and ammunition, and they understand some military formations. They still have a way to go in terms of proficiency.

"If you were to take military capability on a scale of 1 to 12, first grade to 12th grade, I would guess these guys right now are about fifth or sixth grade," Morrill said.

U.S. forces were equipping and training Iraqi security forces a year ago, but with limited success. Corruption, lack of discipline, and a questionable willingness to fight have been problems before.

On Feb. 21, an Iraqi army brigade was put in charge of its own section of Baghdad.

"Is the Iraqi security force now ready to take on the insurgency without the presence, help, mentoring, assistance of the multi-national forces? And the answer is no, they are not ready to do that," Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander in Iraq, said at a March 1 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"They are better now than they were a month ago, and they'll be better next month. So they are making good progress."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.