- 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.

“We’ve been watching what the enemy has been doing, and moving around. We are not just watching — everything we find, every indication we get, we put something together and see what we can do about it,” said the command sergeant major.

But he cautioned that the technology was only as good as the people applying it, and that it can always fail. On one trip, as his Humvee pounded down Iraq’s bomb-strewn roads, Command Sgt. Maj. Mellinger’s sophisticated Global Positioning System just stopped working.

“I think all the advances and understanding of technology have made us more capable, more lethal soldiers,” he said, making a point of stopping at checkpoints and base cafeterias to talk to the troops on the ground.

But “if you rely too heavily on technology, you are one-dimensional. It’s not about the equipment — it’s about the people.”

As the war enters its fifth year, it is not clear who is winning the military and intelligence battle in Iraq.

“In some regards, we are all competing,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Mellinger, who worked directly with U.S. Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus as the theater’s highest-ranking enlisted man.

Asked why the world’s most powerful army’s attempts to take back the country from al Qaeda, Sunni nationalists, Shi’ite militias and criminal gangs had not yet succeeded, Command Sgt. Maj. Mellinger said that the United States and its allies could wipe them out, but the price would be too high to pay.

“We could absolutely crush everyone of them, but would you be happy with what is left?” he said, his stockinged feet propped up on a chair in a modest room on a base north of Baghdad after days of avoiding roadside bombs.

He went over that day’s trip north of the capital, driving from one U.S. base to another. His small convoy of four Humvees avoided a series of roadside bombs, one of which went off shortly after his vehicles passed.

Another U.S. convoy was hit as it was coming from the other direction. The command sergeant major had his vehicles pull guard duty, watch the roads, and jumped out of his Humvee to help out the crippled convoy.

“Like today, there were [Iraqi police] at both places where the [roadside bombs] were. I know that. Do I go back and arrest every policeman on sight? I could, but it would put off 90 percent of the rest of the people,” he said.

Defense analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a survey last month that the U.S. military has “greatly improved its tactical, intelligence and targeting skills.”

But Mr. Cordesman noted that tactical victories in asymmetric warfare, as in Vietnam decades ago, are irrelevant without effective strategies to end the reasons for the conflict and restore security for average citizens.

Command Sgt. Maj. Mellinger, an intense man with little patience for any sign of slackness in his troops, said much depends on how long the U.S. government is willing to maintain the intensity of the current operation. It should continue, he said, “until we see clear, measurable signs of progress.”

After three years of trying to take care of “his” soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines, the former 2nd Battalion Ranger appeared pleased to return to his home and wife, Kim, in Alaska. But back in his Baghdad office in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, where grey, razor-sharp chunks of shrapnel decorated his mantel, he is also wistful about leaving an Iraq still on the brink of collapse.

“I have a hard time understanding the current political wind of a timeline. I have done my part, but part of me will be sad because I did not see this thing through,” he said.

“Nobody leaves here unchanged. You can’t.”

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