Unready for combat

Boston Globe

When Dustin W. Peters, an Air Force supply technician, arrived in Kuwait in January 2004, all he and his fellow airmen knew was that they would be supporting US troops in Iraq. But when their unit received its assignment, they recalled, they were stunned: They would be protecting supply convoys traveling along Iraq’s violent roadways.

Peters, 25, was killed last summer when his Humvee was struck by a roadside bomb near the town of Bayji, placing him among at least 13 Air Force and Navy members to die in Iraq while on assignments that were different from what they signed up for — and with far less training than military personnel who usually performed those missions, according to a Globe analysis of Pentagon statistics.

At least 3,000 Navy and Air Force personnel such as Peters — trained mainly in noncombat specialties such as mechanics and construction — are serving on the front lines of the Iraqi insurgency. The Iraq war is the first military engagement in which such large numbers of air and naval personnel are serving in combat roles on the ground, facing imminent threat of attack.

Most of them have received only crash courses in basic combat, in some cases after they’ve arrived in the Middle East and then been stationed near the front lines because of shortages of troops in the Army and Marine Corps. Though technically defined as support units, their jobs — guarding convoys and oil facilities, or defusing bombs under fire — bear little resemblance to traditional ”noncombat” duty in the safety of a base.

”Airmen are driving trucks in Iraq because the Army didn’t have enough of them,” Brigadier General S. Taco Gilbert, the Air Force’s deputy director for strategic planning, said in a recent interview. ”They’re manning .50-caliber machine guns.”

Some of the service members contend that they have not been provided with sufficient skills to protect themselves in combat situations.

Peters and his Air Force comrades were given five days of weapons training in Kuwait before taking up their posts guarding convoys in Iraq, according to three members of his unit, two of whom received the training with Peters. Normally, infantry receive a minimum of eight weeks of training in combat skills, with most receiving months more of special preparation to survive under dangerous conditions.

Late last year, after Peters’s unit and dozens of other Air Force units had been sent from their home bases to Iraq, the Air Force increased combat training for those working on convoys to three weeks spent mostly at a base in Kuwait, officials said.

The Navy, too, set up a new command in October to enhance combat training for sailors who will be assigned to perform unfamiliar jobs in Iraq, but officials acknowledged that none of the sailors currently on duty have learned the full regimen of skills.

”We are definitely playing a part that is not a normal Navy role,” said Lieutenant Lesley Smith, a Navy spokeswoman. ”We have sailors who were assigned to ships [who are instead] guarding oil platforms in the Gulf. These are definitely different roles. We call them dirt sailors.”

Smith provided a description of the training that the Navy believes any sailor performing an unusual mission in Iraq or Afghanistan should receive, including how to coordinate within a small team in battle situations; how to operate high-tech weapons; how to spot roadside bombs; and how to operate so-called crew-served weapons, the large, powerful guns that are designed to protect an entire unit from enemy forces.

The Navy’s Maritime Force Protection Command said in a statement that such training is ”essential” and ”strengthens and builds the skill sets that these units need to conduct their jobs safely.” But the statement also acknowledged that only some of the training is currently available.

The delay in implementing the full program, according to Navy officials, is because of difficulty obtaining the use of appropriate facilities. Because the training is unfamiliar to most naval officers, much of the instruction will have to take place at Army or Marine Corps bases, which are already occupied training regular troops for Iraq duty, Navy officials said.

Currently, more than 2,500 Air Force personnel are involved in convoy operations in Iraq, transporting troops and supplies between cities. Convoy duty has proven to be one of the deadliest assignments of the counterinsurgency, as roadside bombs and ambushes have killed hundreds of troops. Meanwhile, about 400 of the Navy’s bomb specialists, who are trained in port security and are not accustomed to working in a hostile environment, are checking out bombs in Iraq or Afghanistan, in many cases in the midst of combat.

Comrades and family members of those who died wonder whether extra training and greater familiarity with their roles would have spared their lives. Air Force and Navy commanders stopped short of saying these support troops are dying for lack of training, but acknowledged that training must be expanded. But the pace of expansion, which began more than a year after the start of the war, has not been quick enough to satisfy family members who lost loved ones in Iraq.

Petty Officer Ronald A. Ginther, 37, was a Navy reservist called to active duty in early 2004. He was deployed to Ramadi, a hotbed of insurgent activity in western Iraq, where he joined a construction battalion assigned to help rebuild the city. Ginther received three weeks of weapons training in Mississippi, according to relatives. He died on May 2, 2004, when his unit came under insurgent attack.

”He told us he would not have anybody shooting at him,” his mother, Darleen Ginther, said in an interview from her home in Port Charlotte, Fla. ”The fear was there, but not as somebody who is going out with the infantry. Every time we talked to him we heard mortar rounds in the background. He had three weeks training. Before, he was on a ship, not on land. What kind of training did he have for that? No training whatsoever as far as I am concerned.”

Air Force and Navy personnel are being plugged into a wider range of assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan than in any previous US military involvement. And the military itself acknowledges that their roles are different from those for which they signed up.

For example, the Navy’s bomb technicians ”are finding their operations are no longer routine explosive disposal operations,” involving sea mines, according to the statement by the Maritime Force Protection Command. The units are routinely called on to dispose of stockpiles of weapons used by Iraqi insurgents in the midst of what the command acknowledges are ”hostile” environments.

Other sailors have found themselves guarding oil wells. Two sailors from the USS Firebolt –Petty Officers Michael J. Pernaselli, 27, and Christopher E. Watts, 28 — were killed last April when an explosives-laden boat crashed into an oil platform they were defending. Coast Guard Petty Officer Nathan B. Bruckenthal, 24, operating with the Navy, was also killed in the attack, becoming the first Coast Guard member to die in combat since the Vietnam War.

Casualty lists do not reveal the extent of their prewar training, but naval officials confirmed that no seamen received combat training that approached that of the Army infantry who would normally guard the oil platforms.

Some military specialists acknowledge that the short duration of combat training for airmen and sailors puts them at a disadvantage on the battlefield.

”In terms of doctrine, equipment, training, and force structure, they are playing catch-up across the board,” said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and specialist on counterinsurgency. ”The fact that we are seeing people put into different roles than they have been accustomed to or trained for is a product of institutional lapses.”

For example, more in-depth instruction on how to spot booby traps and better discern signs of a possible ambush would increase some service members’ chances of survival, Krepinevich said.

Jack Spencer, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank, gives the armed forces high marks for beginning to address the need for more training in nontraditional missions, but acknowledges there is more work to do. ”It is important everyone be adequately trained to carry out what they are asked to do,” he said. ”We should put them in a position to succeed.”

The Air Force and Navy maintain that their personnel now in Iraq are better prepared than those who died last year. For example, Air Force logistics specialists who will serve in similar positions to Dustin Peters now get a three-week weapons course, two more than Peters, before convoy duty, according to Lieutenant Colonel Kurt A. Searfoss of the 99th Logistics Readiness Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

But the changes instituted last fall came too late for those in Peters’s unit, which ended its seven-month deployment in August. They recall both the trauma of being assigned such dangerous duty and the brief preparation they received.

”We were excited about the deployment, but were trying to find out what the parameters would be,” Air Force Master Sergeant Luis Acuria, 39, recalled in an interview at his base in Nevada.

”It was a last-minute thing,” he said of their orders to provide convoy security, which came after they arrived in Kuwait. ”It was a request from the Army.”

Along with Peters, Acuria and the rest of his unit were given a five-day course in how to fire automatic weapons, grenade launchers, and .50-caliber machine guns out the windows of trucks and Humvees while traveling at high speeds.

Air Force Staff Sergeant Lee Moses, a 37-year-old supply technician who survived the attack last July 10 that killed Peters and their Iraqi driver, said he had virtually no weapons training before arriving in Kuwait. He said the five-day crash course he received in Kuwait was ”what we lived on.”

”It was good training but it was definitely pretty short,” said Moses, awarded a Purple Heart for injuries sustained that day. Once put to work guarding convoys, ”we were on pins and needles.”

More than two years into the Iraq war, an average of one American service member is killed every day. Most of them are from the Army or Marine Corps. But so far, at least 31 Air Force and 37 Navy personnel have died since the invasion of Iraq and hundreds of others have been wounded, according to Pentagon figures.

Ronald Ginther’s brother Don said in an interview that ”it still amazes me” that ”they sent Ron away for a couple weeks of training.”

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