- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2007

TIKRIT, Iraq

Confronting what he calls the most difficult challenge the modern U.S. Army has ever faced, a top frontline combatant said every American military service is being transformed by the war in Iraq.

“This is harder than anything we have ever done. We’ve got nothing to compare with this,” Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger told The Washington Times during a three-day trip to northern Iraq. He was the most senior command sergeant serving in Iraq before finishing his assignment in May.

Before the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, American military technology, tactics and procedures were geared more to conventional fights, one of tank battles and artillery barrages, he said.

Now, U.S. soldiers must not only fight shadowy insurgencies and militias, they also have to do peacekeeping missions, conduct disaster-relief operations and distribute humanitarian aid — and do it all at the same time.

“In Afghanistan and Iraq, we are fighting an armed enemy, at the same time trying to build a civilian government, build infrastructure — and the soldiers have to be able to switch from one to the other simultaneously and then switch back,” he said.

“It is very difficult to do, and it takes a great deal of leadership to do that,” said the 37-year Army veteran, who walked with patrols of U.S. soldiers through heat-baked streets and dark alleys on a one-day stopover in Bayji.

As a result, he said, the military has been transformed from a very rigid structure “to almost a modular plug-and-play” force that is constantly evolving to pre-empt enemy tactics and react to changing circumstances on the ground.

That has led to multi-tasking by the U.S. troops, shrugging off typical labels and job descriptions.

“We’ve got airmen doing convoy-escort missions [and] they guard bases. We’ve got airmen doing police-transition training — so they have to learn new skills,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Mellinger, who constantly crisscrossed Iraq in his souped-up Humvee.

At New Jersey’s Fort Dix, for example, some 5,000 members of the Air Force are preparing for ground warfare, according to a recent National Public Radio report. Altogether, some 30,000 airmen and sailors have been retrained.

The command sergeant major said there had also been an enormous push to train the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines about fighting in different cultures. “There is an unbelievable learning curve that goes on in our training centers right now,” he said.

Since 2004, the highly decorated soldier has overseen part of the fast-paced transformation. He checked out every promising technological development for better vehicles, better communications and better protection, and struggled to get U.S. manufacturers to apply the breakthroughs more quickly.

Conditions on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan have driven technological advances and given birth to a more lethal and more agile force. The revamped U.S. military is capable of redeploying combat power more quickly and is able to pull together operational intelligence much more rapidly.

It also has an improved ability to operate in the dark. U.S. troops now have lighter body armor designed to stop fragmentation and helmets that have evolved from steel buckets with plastic liners to an advanced combat headgear with better visibility and a suspension system to reduce brain trauma.

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