CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq — Before Army 1st Lt. Bianca Philson's first deployment to Iraq earlier this year, she trained as a battle captain, learning how to keep commanders informed of progress during fierce fights against insurgents.
Philson's extensive drills included simulated urban gun battles, intelligence gathering and jamming signals to prevent the detonation of roadside bombs. Now that she's been in Iraq for five months, how much of that training is put into practice?
"None," said Philson, 24, of Huntsville, Ala. "I don't do any of that stuff."
Instead, Philson and about 4,000 other soldiers with the 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division are relegated to their sprawling base on the outskirts of the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah or to dreary outposts where they train Iraqi forces. The brigade, primed for combat, is now the prototype for the U.S. military's "advise and assist" mission, an experiment in which Americans step back from the fight and empower Iraqis to take charge of their own forces and reconstruction efforts. One other advise and assist brigade is in Iraq now, with five more expected to arrive by spring.
The change of mission has been jarring for many young soldiers who'd hoped to gain combat experience in Iraq. Now, they listen longingly to the war stories of soldiers who saw the worst of Iraq, and make comparisons with their own more mundane duties.
Philson, for example, passed out bags of chicken to Iraqi women during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan as part of the military's closer coordination with civilian State Department reconstruction teams and the Iraqi government.
"We were disappointed because we didn't understand it fully," Philson said of the abrupt change of mission. "For most of the soldiers and officers, especially the ones who were here before, it was a big change, but we've adapted really well. I think it's cool to see how you're actually affecting the people of Iraq."
Relationship-building is a cornerstone of the new advise and assist focus. Veterans now back in country in an advisory role are forced to view Iraqis through a different lens. It's a tough shift for soldiers who lost dozens of friends in attacks or spent earlier deployments prodding reluctant and ill-equipped Iraqi forces into stepping up to protect the country.
The U.S.-Iraqi security pact that took effect June 30 means Iraqis are in charge of major military operations, with U.S. forces pulling back to their bases unless invited or escorted into town by their Iraqi counterparts. While all the American soldiers interviewed by McClatchy said they see a marked improvement in Iraqi forces' readiness, they were also exasperated by language barriers, different standards of professionalism and the monotony of watching a war from the sidelines.
"I think it's much more frustrating this time," said Capt. John Hammett of Folsom, La., who lived with the 300 Iraqis he trained at the provincial police headquarters in Nasiriyah. "Last time I was here, we'd plan an operation and go do it. Now that I'm a planner, I spend three-quarters of my time planning things that never happen."
Maj. Sean Kuester, 35, of Charlotte, N.C., is an operations officer who witnessed sectarian warfare and anti-U.S. uprisings during a previous deployment that took him to Baghdad and the Shiite holy city of Karbala. He's embraced the advise and assist focus and expressed none of the "mission envy" that some other soldiers described as the public's focus shifts from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Based in the relatively stable deep south of Iraq, an almost exclusively Shiite region with strong tribal affiliations, Kuester wins the trust of the Iraqis he trains by telling them his story. He's become an ambassador for North Carolina, proudly describing his family's four generations in Charlotte and weaving in anecdotes about his German wife and their two daughters. The Iraqis "reciprocate every single time," he said, opening up about their own tribal history.
"A lot of units fall into the trap of relationship-building for their entire time here. We're past that now," said Kuester, whose office is decorated with a large North Carolina state flag. "We're in the relationship maintenance phase now, strengthening partnerships. It allows us to look a guy in the eye and say, 'You could've done that better.'"
Command Sgt. Maj. Phillip Pandy, 43, of Miami, the 4th brigade's senior enlisted soldier, said it's up to military leaders to convince young soldiers that the mission now is just as vital as the shoot-'em-up early days of the war. Pandy speaks from experience — he's on his third deployment, and the pain showed on his face as he recalled how his old brigade lost 52 soldiers. The replacement brigade lost 35.
"The young guys here now missed most of that for the past six years. Quite often you sit back and tell them about friends and comrades you lost and you see them going from excitement to, 'Whoa, that's a real story,'" Pandy said. "There's an impact on them."
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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq