Military

Maxwell trainers develop Iraqi air force officers

by Ashley M. Wright
Air University Public Affairs


12/26/2007 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. (AFPN) -- Four Officer Training School instructors returned here recently after spending the past several months in Iraq building the country's air force officer training program from the ground up.

Maj. Scott Bergren and Capt. Michael Powell worked at Taji Air Base, Iraq, to establish a stand-alone officer training program modeled after Air University's OTS, and Capt. John Blackman carved an air force course into the curriculum at the Iraq military academy in Rustamiyah, Iraq. 

American Airmen are currently working to establish an "accession pipeline" in Iraq to help that country establish a credible air force, said Lt. Col. Kim Hawthorne, who returned to Maxwell Air Force Base Dec. 19 after serving as commander of the 370th Expeditionary Training Squadron at Taji AB.

"At Taji, there was nothing," Major Bergren said, the OTS director of operations for the 24th Training Squadron. "We were going to be doing this from scratch."

During their 193 days at Taji AB, coalition forces ran half the base, and Iraqi forces ran the other side.

"It was in that war-torn infrastructure that we attempted to build this officer training program," the major said.

Major Bergren and Captain Powell realized that an adequate teaching facility would not be available for months. After finalizing the contract to refurbish the main buildings for future classes, the officers searched for a location for the first incoming class. When the group of 13 Iraqi officer trainees arrived to the facility in April, the students found a small warehouse and converted it into a schoolhouse nicknamed the "Alamo."

"(The building) was three rooms that were used as offices and a lavatory," Captain Powell said, the OTS student squadron commander for basic officer training. "There was no (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system at all. The electrical infrastructure was not enough to support what we needed for video projectors. Getting these rooms cleaned up and habitable was an awful lot of work."

Despite the conditions, Major Bergren and Captain Powell pulled together resources to create a training facility for a fledgling Iraqi air force with only 1,000 members at the time.

"We went over there with curriculum developed by the Air Force Officer Accession and Training Schools," Major Bergren said. "I think we added our own flavor to make it more appropriate to the audience we were teaching."

Several traditions and tools from OTS found their way into the six-month course, including maintaining dorm room standards and a leadership reaction course. Military training instructors from Lackland AFB, Texas, deployed with the OTS team and drilled the Iraqi students in Arabic.

"We insisted on the same things that we do here," Major Bergren said. Dorm room standards, demerits and memorization of operating instructions and standard training practices are all practices that instructors use at Maxwell AFB and now in Iraq "to instill discipline and attention to detail."

But during their time as students, the Iraqis lived in dorm rooms with no power or water. Temperatures at night only dropped to about 85 degrees in the dorms, the major said. "Mosquitoes ate them up all night long. In most instances, they slept on top of the roofs of the dormitory to escape the poor conditions inside."

This did not deter the officers from holding their students to a standard comparable to the U.S. Air Force, and witnessing the Iraqi students meet those standards despite the conditions and cultural barriers was "awe inspiring," both officers said.

"I think the students we graduated are the greatest success story out of all this," Major Bergren said.

Meanwhile, at the Iraq military academy in Rustamiyah, Captain Blackman, the OTS deputy chief of standardization and evaluation, said he was also amazed at the level of commitment his students exhibited.

"We got real familiar with what a rocket sounds like," he said. "We had a little bit more of a challenge due to enemy activity, meaning rockets, mortars, snipers, kidnappings, you name it."

Terrorists kidnapped and held one of his students for ransom during his six-month deployment. Upon the student's release, the Iraqi returned to the academy.

"To still be that committed to the direction that country is going, creating this air force (and) to put yourself and your family at this risk to get this education and training, it motivated me to make sure I did right by these guys," Captain Blackman said

The academy at Rustamiyah possesses a rich history. It opened in 1924 and rejected admission to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. NATO currently oversees the academy designed to produce officers for the Iraqi army.

"Our job was to integrate an Air Force course into that academy," Captain Blackman said.

His students, unlike those at Taji AB, had not attended college and possessed no training in English. The academy models itself after the British Royal Military Academy and divides students into three levels based on time in attendance. Originally, students nearing the end of the year-long program took the course.

From the start, the course replicated another OTS tradition.

"We held a blue-line ceremony, very similar to what we do here," the captain said. "It's a symbolic event where they look down at the blue line and step across it, symbolizing their entrance into the long blue line of Air Force heritage and tradition."

In mid-July, Captain Blackman and his team graduated their first Iraqi air force class.

Since beginning classes in mid-April, 39 second lieutenants have graduated from the Iraqi air force academy at Taji AB.



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