Friday, August 21, 2009


By Tom Hewitt/UAF Journalism

Last week, Sgt. Melvin Lamb of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade walked into his classroom with an unenviable task: He had to teach a group of Iraqi Army soldiers, many of whom had never picked up a wrench, how to maintain and repair their vehicles. It wasn’t the responsibility that was onerous, it was the time frame.

He had to do it in 14 days.

“Trying to teach them everything in two weeks – yeah, that’s a crash course,” Lamb said, standing in the oversized container unit that serves as his mechanic’s school. “Some of them do have experience, but the bulk of what I get are drivers.”

With such a short time to teach the Iraqis, the American instructors have to focus on the high points – the vehicles’ major systems and sources of the most common problems. Although Lamb wishes he could teach a longer class, he knows it’s not realistic. “It would be better if they could embed with us for a year,” he said, “But their government can’t afford it.”

In fact, the Iraqi government has difficulty letting its soldiers attend the class at all, even in its two-week form. For the men who enroll, the class is treated like leave, and though there is air conditioning in the classroom, it’s hardly a vacation. Lamb and his fellow instructors teach HMMV maintenance, and though the Iraqi Army soldiers are eager, they often have a lot to learn.

“The main focus is trying to get them to use manuals,” Lamb said, adding that the Americans had their hands full translating the English-language HMMV manuals, already difficult for many U.S. soldiers to understand, into Arabic.

Despite their reluctance to crack books for answers, the Iraqi soldiers showed initiative in other areas. “They’re very intuitive,” Lamb said. “When something goes wrong, they’ll look all over for obvious problems.”

Without at least some instruction, however, the Iraqis’ eagerness can go to waste. “The first day of class, something was wrong with the HMMV, and it wouldn’t start,” Lamb said. “It took them two hours to figure out that it was in drive.”

Outside the classroom, Lamb’s Iraqi Army pupils sat at a picnic table, chatting and wearing refitted U.S. Army uniforms from previous conflicts. Kosovo, Somalia, Desert Storm, and even Vietnam were represented.

The HMMV maintenance class was valuable, they said, and they had learned a great deal. They expressed some frustration with having to use the manuals, but said they trusted Lamb and took him at his word that doing things by the book was worth their while. They had been working on the vehicles all morning, but as the heat of the day approached, they were taking a break before going inside for the four-hour classroom portion of the day’s lesson.

The short time frame made the class seem more like triage than a full-fledged maintenance program, but Lamb remained optimistic. “99 percent of the guys that go through this class are greatly improved by the end.”

As the Iraqi Army soldiers filed into the classroom to resume their studies, Lamb made light of his task. “This is actually a lot less intricate than regular car repair,” he said. “You know how you’ve got about 50 or 60 sensors in your car at home? Well, these HMMVs have four.”

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