GHARTAN, Iraq -- The Marine Corps has a lengthy history of fighting counter-insurgency, through training, advising and fighting alongside indigenous forces. This history spans from Lt. Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, Sr., and Maj. Gen. Merritt “Red Mike” Edson in Haiti, Nicaragua and Santo Domingo to the Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam, where a Marine rifle squad would live and fight with a Vietnamese militia in their village.
That organizational legacy carries on today with Iraqi Military Transition Teams (MTT), small teams like the one attached to 1st Brigade, 3rd Battalion, 1st Iraqi Army Division. These Marines, who all originate from 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, embed with an Iraqi Army battalion to help make the unit self-sustainable and capable of independent combat operations in conducting their own counter-insurgency, or COIN, mission.
“A lot of people don’t understand what the MTT team is,” said Cpl. Jasen S. Ortiz, 21, from South Plainfield, N.J. “We are not Marines here to fight the war; we’re not here to blow things up and kill people. We are here to start training another army, start building another government, that can start controlling their own population. We have nothing to do with how the missions come out, we are just here to advise them, teach them, and supervise them in their mission.”
The patrol base is a shared location. The Marines have their house, aptly named the O.K. Corral, and the Iraqis have their own buildings. Living in such close proximity to the soldiers they advise also gives the Marines a more in-depth knowledge of what their true capabilities are. They interact with their host battalion every day, sharing meals, passing advice and answering questions.
“I interact with them two or three times a day,” said Lance Cpl. Eric R. Steele, 21, from Elkin, N.C. “It’s my job as the junior advisor to ask them if they have any problems, pay issues, personal problems, injuries, or just to have small talk with them.”
Since the team arrived in early January, they have noticed several positive changes in the fighting capabilities of the Iraq soldiers. However, there are still obstacles to overcome.
“Overall they’re pretty good soldiers. They know what to do. They know the right thing to do; sometimes it’s just a question of if they’re going to do it or not,” said Gunnery Sgt. Fernando L. Llanos, 33, from Queens, N.Y. “That’s why it’s important for the advisors to be pretty disciplined and experienced themselves.”
Discipline is one thing Llanos knows very well. He served as an instructor at The Basic School, where all Marine Corps second lieutenants learn how to be basic rifle platoon commanders. His experience in training Marine Corps lieutenants has proved valuable in training the Iraqi soldiers.
“When I was at TBS teaching lieutenants it was probably 10 times easier than being an advisor for an Iraqi combat battalion,” said Llanos, who is an advisor for Company 2. “The biggest barrier you have is the communication, because sometimes it’s hard to explain what you want from them.”
Training Iraqi soldiers is a rewarding experience for the Marines of the team. They get to witness firsthand the progress made towards a safer Iraq. They also know they played a large part in making that progress.
“If I had a chance to do something like this again I would in a second,” said Steele, who is the other advisor for Company 2. “I find it fulfilling as a Marine, especially an infantry Marine, to teach a military from a foreign country. It makes you feel like so much higher of a Marine, because you’re passing on a Marine Corps legacy. You’re teaching it to these guys and they pick it up so quick it’s just unbelievable. I love working with these guys.”