News: Remotest Marine unit stays tight knit, trains border police
Story by Cpl. Geoffrey Ingersoll
By Cpl. G.P. Ingersoll
I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward)
BORDER FORT NINE, Iraq – They are alone, but they are not afraid.
They are the Marines of Border Transition Team 4222, and they're mission is train, mentor and advise the Iraqi border police battalion that is split into nine border forts scattered across approximately 140 kilometers of the Syrian border.
The team's home for seven months: Border Fort Nine, the most remote Marine outpost in Anbar.
"For us, alone and unafraid, we live in the Iraqis' backyard, just us, the closest help is an hour away ... if something happened to you out here, broken leg, or we're attacked, you're going to be out here for a while," said Gunnery Sgt. Rob T. Mantilla, operations chief.
Despite being outnumbered and living someplace between nowhere and forgotten, Mantilla is confident with his unit's capability for self-defense, self sustainment and survival.
"You are alone," said Mantilla, 36, of Jersey City, N.J., "it's not like you're working at a [forward operating base] out here ... we rely on each other."
Everything a basic unit needs to operate is organic within the team. A seasoned mechanic manages vehicle problems, grunts advise Iraqis on tactics, a communications Marine maintains connectivity. Logistics and intelligence officers provide the eyes and ears for accountability and future operations.
"We're self-sustaining, all maintenance is done here, we conduct our own logistical runs," said Capt. Will D. Whaley, operations officer.
The team also developed their own battle plan for the training and advising of Iraqi forces. Devised early on in their deployment by an American border patrol agent, the Marines here teach Iraqis with a block-based system.
"We organized classes into nine phases, 16 different blocks, starting from ethics and values, to how to run border operations," said Whaley, 32, of Phoenix, Ariz.
From the ground up, block by block, Marines here intend to build Iraqis from the basic to the complex aspects of border patrol operations. The BTT 4222 is the first border transition team to use this block training method, and its success can already be seen.
"It's easier for them to understand and regurgitate," said Mantilla. "If you get too technical and try to throw too much at them, they won't get it. We're training them on the basics of what they need to do as border agents, on how to defend the border and search and seize properly."
"Properly" is the key word. The team emphasizes to Iraqis that they are a police force, expected to arrest and gather evidence for use in the Iraqi judicial system.
"Rather than (roughing smugglers up) and reselling their stuff ... we're training them to just arrest these people and take the information, that way when they get sent higher to courts, they can actually jail this person," said Mantilla.
Marines also perform regular logistics inspections and evaluations. Accountability is especially important when the nearest support is more than hundred kilometers away.
"One of the other main things we do is train them to be more accountable, to go into their armories and check serial numbers, and have 'x' amount of weapons," Mantilla said.
Marines also taught Iraqis to hold their logistical counterparts accountable. If the gasoline tanker left the headquarters with 10,000 gallons of fuel, but showed up at the border forts with only 2,000, someone needs to be held accountable.
That's where reporting factors in.
"The first thing is the reporting up to higher, and then following up with our higher headquarters to make sure what they were sending up was actually getting there," said Whaley. "We call that 'follow-on' actions, it's basic reporting ... so if they don't get what they're looking for in a few days, they call up there and ask them."
Goals here are not reached solely by a business-only mentality. Marines here meet Iraqis first on a social level.
"We want to have their trust, and that's really what it comes down to," Mantilla said. "If they trust us, they'll believe what we're saying, and they'll do what we're saying; trust and respect, if you don't have trust and respect in that working relationship, you can't make that happen."
Marines here have a close relationship with their Iraqi counterparts. Social meetings over chai and hookas occur regularly. Marines lose soccer games weekly. Friendly jokes are always appreciated.
And doors are always open.
"We allow them to come in (to the fort). We've borrowed movies and stuff, sat down and ate with them. I share my stuff with them, and they do the same with us.
They're really great people, they really are, a little trust goes a long way," Mantilla said.
If the relationship here is tight among Iraqis and Americans, the relationship among the Marines is tight to the point of suffocation.
After all, it's not like they can get away from each other.
"We share the same kitchen, the same TV, the same computers. We coexist in same space. We're definitely a family, that's for sure," said Mantilla.
Marines here said personality clashes do occur on occasion. Sometimes they develop into outright arguments.
"But then, when you're both in the same Humvee, right when you're headed outside the wire, you turn to the guy and say, 'Hey, about that thing this morning, we're good, right?' And we'll squash it right there," said Mantilla.
Getting along is essential when every member of the team is needed for day-to-day operations.
"Everyone doing their own part creates a balance in the team, so if one person doesn't do his job, everyone else wouldn't be able to do theirs," Whaley said.
He's not just talking about communications Marines working on radios and mechanics working on trucks. Maintaining the fort requires every individual, regardless of rank, to pitch in on menial everyday tasks.
"Each one of these individuals has several other collateral duties, which if they don't accomplish by their own effort, the whole team will fail," Whaley said.
The nature of their mission coupled with their geographic limitations forged a bond between these Marines. Mantilla sums their relationship up in one word.
"Codependency. It actually builds pretty strong relationships," Mantilla said.
Whaley echoed Mantilla's synopsis of the Marines.
"This is a tight group of guys, although we have our differences at times, everyone focuses on their jobs, and they're definitely good at it," Whaley said.
The Marines consider themselves already to be a success. Having already helped Iraqis reach a basic level of independence, the Marines are well on their way to their final goal.
"I think if we went home today, with what we've accomplished in the last two months, I could consider ourselves a success," Whaley said.
The BTT's goal is to help create a fully-operational, self-sustaining Iraqi border police battalion. Whaley said that the block-training system they designed will take a little more than a year to complete. Border Transition Team 4222 is scheduled to redeploy back to the states sometime next spring, leaving the rest up to the next transition team.
In the meantime they will continue patrolling the border, training, mentoring and advising. They will continue cracking jokes amid hooka smoke and playing soccer to no avail, until that last patrol out and that long flight home.
"I hope when I leave here, they can say, 'I respect those guys,'" said Mantilla. "You hope that when we leave, that they're going to be okay ... I may not have a dry eye, I'm going to miss these people."