CAMP HABBANIYAH, Iraq -- The majority of professional armed forces worldwide receive some form of standardized training in the operation and handling of the weapons they will use in combat. The fledgling Iraqi military and police forces didn’t receive this type of training until May 10, when instructors like Sgt. Michael Magallanez created the Iraqi Small Arms Weapons Instructor Course (ISAWIC) at the newly formed 2nd Marine Division Training Center (DTC) here.
The 13-day course is the primary focus of the DTC and teaches Iraqi soldiers and American service members the fundamentals of marksmanship and the AK-series weapons, AK-47, RPK and PKM, in a setting designed to “train the trainers.”
“The mission was originally to train the Iraqis the basics of weapons handling and marksmanship in a manner that they would be able to go back and teach their fellow soldiers,” said 27-year-old Magallanez. “But we soon realized that we needed to train Americans to create more schools. The more instructors we have out there the more Iraqi soldiers we can get trained.”
“Unfortunately we haven’t been able to open more schools but we did create small teams that instruct Iraqi units on weapons handling and marksmanship.”
The ISAWIC chief instructor’s average class size is 28 to 35 Iraqi soldiers, supported by up to two other instructors and a translator at any given time. The soldiers receive classroom instruction, practical application of techniques learned and live-fire range experience.
In an effort to complete their mission - to provide American and Iraqi Forces with instruction in all infantry weapons and tactics in order to create and sustain an Armed Coalition Fighting Force capable of defeating the insurgency and defending Iraq’s border - Magallanez begins with the basics.
The first day of training starts with a brief introduction to the course, followed by the four weapons safety rules: treat every weapon as if it is loaded; don’t point your weapon at anything you don’t intend to shoot; keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you intend to fire; and keep the weapon on safe until you intend to fire.
The students are then taught the basic parts of a bullet. This is followed by what Magallanez considers one of the most challenging portions of the day’s instruction; basic marksmanship.
“Just like the Marine Corps, the Iraqi soldiers come from different scopes of life,” said the 1997 Holmes High School graduate. “Some of them haven’t had marksmanship training at all; some have had years of training. What we have found is that it is harder for those that had training to break away from those concepts than for those with no experience to learn the techniques we are teaching them.”
These techniques consist of proper breathing, trigger control and aiming, also known as sight alignment, sight picture.
At this point in the day, the students receive a two-hour break for lunch and prayer, returning refreshed and ready to train.
The second half of the day begins with the classroom portion of firing positions. There are four basic firing positions the students learn: prone, sitting, kneeling and standing.
Prone is the proper position to fire the weapon while lying on the ground, while the other three positions correspond with their names. Each has a couple of variations for the comfort of the shooter.
To assist in ensuring the students learn and understand the positions, the day is ended with a practical application session where they practice getting into each position and find which variation is most comfortable. At this time, the students are paired up and one assumes each position while the other provides guidance, thus building confidence in their ability to instruct others.
With the basics of weapons handling under their belt and a good night’s rest, the students move into learning about their military’s weapon systems over the rest of the course, beginning with the AK-47 on the second day.
This weapons training consists of instruction in the cycle of operation, weapons’ conditions, disassembly, assembly, ranges, rates of fire and capabilities. This knowledge enables the students to understand their weapon and know how to best employ it.
Following their two-hour lunch and prayer time, the students are taught weapons handling practices - what they learned in the morning - and conduct teach-backs. Teach-backs are where the students re-teach what they have learned in the earlier class. This allows the instructors the opportunity to evaluate what the students have learned and ensure they know how to pass on the training.
To help prepare them to for these teach back sessions, the students receive a class in professional military instruction. It teaches how to present material in a professional, concise and organized manner that is easy to understand and assimilate.
The third day of their training begins with learning to zero the AK-47. Zeroing a weapon consists of adjusting the weapon’s sites until each round fired impacts where the weapon is sited.
During this portion of the course, the Marines teach the students how adjustments to the front and rear site affects the movement of the round on the target and allows them to practice making these adjustments. This allows the students to move the impact of the round right and left and up and down until they are hitting black and their weapons are zeroed.
After lunch and prayer, the students receive classroom instruction in range operations and engagement techniques, a portion vital to having a safe evolution on the range the next day. This period of instruction is designed to teach the students the courses of fire they will be participating in on the range and the safety procedures and directions to follow. This portion consists of weapons safety, the number of rounds that will be fired at each stage of fire and the positions that these rounds will be fired. It also specifies when the weapons will be loaded and the commands that will be given to initiate each portion of the range.
The day ends with another series of teach backs to ensure the students fully grasp the procedures of zeroing the weapons and understand all of the stages of fire and safety procedures for the following days’ live fire range.
Days 4 and 5 are the initial live fire ranges for the course consisting of long and short range fire with the AK-47. The long range portion consists of zeroing their weapons then firing from each of the four shooting positing from 50 and 100 meters. The short range portion is similar to the Enhanced Marksmanship Program that all 2nd Marine Division service members must master prior to deploying here. It consists of short range target engagement from 5 to 36 meters away.
“We teach them everything but the tactics during this course because it is mainly focused on the weapons handling,” said Magallanez, who was an MTU instructor for Marines while stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, NC prior to deploying to Iraq in February.
The next weapon system they are instructed in, the RPK light machine gun, marks the beginning of the instruction of fully automatic weapons; Day 6.
Day 6 is similar to Days 2 and 3 with the instruction being focused on the cycle of operation, weapons, conditions, disassembly, assembly, ranges, rates of fire, capabilities, zeroing and range operations and engagement techniques. As with the AK-47, this period of instruction enables the students to get familiar with the RPK and build confidence in safely handling it.
It isn’t all smooth sailing during this portion of the course according to Magallanez. There are still portions that the students have a hard time grasping since they are now firing fully automatic instead of single shots.
“It is hard to teach them what a six to eight round burst is. The weapon is designed to fire six to eight rounds not two to three at a time.”
Friday, Day 7, marks a break in the training. Fridays are the Muslim equivalent of Sundays in the Christian faith and are observed as a religious day for the students.
The second half of the course is kicked off with the students coming back from a day of rest to the live fire range for the RPK, which is the first time that many of the students have fired the weapon and is the first time for all of them to fire it with the skills they learned over the last week.
Following the excitement of learning to properly fire the RPK on the range, the students are once more in the class room for Day 7; the PKM medium machine gun. Though the concepts taught during the classroom portions of the course are similar to those taught for both the AK-47 and RPK, the PKM becomes a challenge on a different level.
The PKM is more of a crew served weapon with a mounted bipod and requires two personnel to operate it accurately. To do this, the students assume a position similar to that used by Marines operating the M240G medium machine gun where there is a gunner operating the weapon system and the assistant gunner who lays half on top of the gunner to help stabilize the weapon and gives corrections to keep the gunner on target.
Many of the Iraqi soldiers must overcome their fears of appearance to properly operate this weapon system.
“The hardest part of teaching this portion of the class is teaching the soldiers to work together,” Magallanez said. “When you teach Marines they get right up tight into the position to communicate better and stabilize the weapon but these guys are worried about what others are going to think if they get to close to each other. You will see them keeping their distance.”
The next day’s range is similar to that of the RPK where they fire at targets from 50 to 100 meters away and zero their weapon systems. Both of these weapons are only fired from the prone position.
The last day of the live fire range: Day 11 goes back to the short range course of fire with the AK-47. This time though it is a competition between the students to see who can score the highest during this course of fire.
“After they fire, we score each target and the student with the highest score will receive a prize,” Magallanez explained. “They don’t know they will receive anything and it is a surprise at the end of the course.”
After this portion of fire and their two-hour lunch and prayer break, the students are interviewed by the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the course, Staff Sgt. Dallas W. Miller.
“The interviews are basically an end of course critique similar to what Marines would get at the end of a course,” Miller said. “Instead of giving them a sheet to fill out that may or may not translate across correctly though, I interview them asking them four basic question; what changes would they make in the classroom portion, what changes would they make to the range portion, how do they feel about the safety procedures on the range and how was the translation of the material covered.
“They always say that the translation is good. We get all sorts of answers though to the other questions.”
The next day continues with the student interviews and consists of weapons maintenance to ensure they know how to maintain their weapon to keep it working properly.
The final day of the course is one of excitement and festivities for the students as they prepare for their graduation, which goes just prior to lunch and is attended by VIP’s from their units.
“We graduated our ninth ISAWIC Nov. 24 and had a full house,” Miller said, “to include the 7th Iraqi Division commanding general and his principle Marine advisor. We also had representatives from the 1st Iraqi Division and Habbaniyah’s Base Defense Unit.”
According to Magallanez, one of the biggest challenges of the course in general is overcoming language and cultural barriers.
“There are times that you can see that what you are trying to teach just isn’t coming across correctly whether it is because of a lack of understanding or that the instructions don’t translate across accurately,” he said. “When this happens, I keep trying different things until I can see that they understand the class.
“This isn’t always easy though because when you ask them they will all say they understand. In their culture their image is important and they don’t want to say that they don’t know or understand something. They will tell you they do even if they don’t. This is why I tell them that when they go back to their units they will have students that are prideful and will be ashamed to admit that they don’t know or understand, that they will still have to teach the basics.”
Though there are challenges to overcome in “teaching the teachers,” the Iraqis are showing improvements in each class.
“When we first started these classes, only about 50 percent of the students really tried to understand what we were teaching,” he said. “Now about 80 percent actively works to understand and you don’t have to push so hard to get them to participate.
“This is because when we see a student doesn’t understand we try to find another way to teach it until they do. They see that we care that they understand and it encourages them to work harder.”
As each class comes to a close, the experience and confidence is evident in each student, according to Magallanez.
“By the end of the class, the students are showing much more confidence in their ability to operate the weapons and teach it back to the other students,” he explained. “At first, students are scared to get up in front of the class to teach. But as the class goes on their confidence grows.”
These soldiers that the MTU graduates from the DTC are now ready to go out and utilize the training they received and pass on their knowledge to their fellow soldiers. It will be their responsibility to instruct their brethren and help build a military force capable of protecting their country.