(MILITARY TIMES) EL PASO, Texas — Armed with silver-colored hammers, the soldiers walked up and down the lines of cars waiting to pass through the Paso Del Norte port of entry into the U.S. As the soldiers walked, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents by their sides, they checked for suspicious-looking vehicles, rapping on tires and gas tanks and inspecting license plates for anything that might be out of place.
“People must have thought the [National] Guard was sending more people to the border,” Maj. Brian Smith said with a smile.
But the soldiers were not part of any Guard buildup. Instead, they are active-duty soldiers with 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, of Fort Benning, Ga., preparing to assume a new mission when they deploy to Iraq in October for what some soldiers see as the last chapter of the U.S. mission there.
Once in country, the combat brigade will take on an “advise-and-assist” role — a new concept geared toward honing the ability of Iraqi security forces to operate completely on their own by the time the U.S. begins to draw down its troops in late 2011.
To prepare for their upcoming tour, 20 soldiers who will serve in the brigade’s stability transition teams and work with Iraqi border and port-of-entry forces spent Sept. 28 to Oct. 2 with Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol agents learning the daily challenges of border security. The 3rd BCT soldiers learned how to run ports of entry, patrol the border, spot fake documents and search suspicious vehicles.
The 3rd ID’s 3rd BCT is one of six advise-and-assist brigades being trained for Iraq. Each unit’s formation includes three dozen additional field-grade officers specially trained in Iraqi culture, language and history. With the support of a brigade behind them, they will teach senior Iraqi army leaders and police chiefs to master daunting disciplines such as logistics, threat analysis, criminal investigation and border security.
“The whole idea of the advise-and-assist brigades is we are working ourselves out of a job,” said Maj. Rob Boone, stability transition team member and operations officer charged with coordinating the unit’s advise-and-assist training program. “What that means is we have enabled the Iraqi army, police and border guards … to do it on their own … and no longer need our assistance, which obviously means we can leave.”
Iraq’s porous borders are critical to the country’s economic development. “We need them to function on their own … so they can trade, get their goods in and out [of the country]. Until we control the borders, it’s not going to happen,” said Armando Rodriguez, a CBP officer assigned to the Anti Terrorism Contraband Enforcement Team.
“This has probably been the most important training we’ve received,” said Maj. Dale Smith, another member of the stability transition team. “We’ve never worked border operations before, so working with the experts is a real treat. Hopefully now we know what ‘right’ looks like.”
An average training session costs the Army about $5,000, said Joanne Thale-Lembo, a supervisory chief and instructor at the agency’s Field Operations Academy in Glynco, Ga. The training always takes place in El Paso because of Customs and Border Protection’s vast resources here. Among them is Rodriguez, who has deployed twice to Iraq, in 2006 and 2008, to augment Army border and port of entry teams there.
“What we’re doing is introducing [the soldiers] to what we’ve been doing for the past years,” Rodriguez said. “We’re going to provide them with everything we can [so] these guys will have the capability to say, ‘We know how it’s done.’”
Customs and Border Protection agents have been providing this training, called Border Transition Training, to soldiers for about three years, Thale-Lembo said.
More than 2,000 soldiers have undergone the training with about 300 this summer alone, said Thale-Lembo, who coordinates and plans each five-day training program. So far, the Army is the only service that has sought this training, and units that want the training pay for costs associated with housing and feeding their soldiers and supplies, Thale-Lembo said.
During the training for the 3rd BCT team, the soldiers visited the local seized-vehicle lot, where cars and trucks used in attempts to smuggle drugs or money into El Paso from Juarez, Mexico, are held.
The soldiers watched in amazement as the CBP agents tore apart seat cushions and engine blocks to show them popular hiding spots for illicit items. One vehicle the soldiers examined was seized in an attempt to smuggle about $80,000 in cash hidden under its floor boards.
The soldiers then took their turn, under the CBP agents’ watchful eyes, to try to find secret hiding places in some of the most recently seized vehicles.
“It hurts me to tear apart such a nice-looking vehicle,” said Col. Paul English, a team leader on the stability transition team, as he pored over the engine of a seized sport-utility vehicle. “I like putting things together, not tearing them apart.”
The SUV was seized after agents found bundles of cash hidden in the engine compartment.
“I’ve done some work on vehicle searches, and I know how many nooks and crannies there are in a vehicle,” said English, a military police officer. “[But] it was intriguing that the guys were taking a six-cylinder vehicle and putting two additional cylinders on it.”
The weeklong training with the CBP was surprising, English said.
“For me, it has opened my eyes to what right looks like,” he said. “I was very impressed with what I saw. I think we’re all looking forward to the opportunity to be a part of sort of the final chapter for the military mission in Iraq.”
For Boone, the new mission is radically different from when he was last deployed to Iraq as part of the initial invasion in 2003.
“I was in OIF I; I turned the lights on, and I might be turning the lights off,” he said. “I’m pretty excited to see how things have progressed.
“My only worry is we get over there and [the Iraqis] are not going to need us. Then you’ve got to say ‘OK. In what way can I entice him?’ He says he doesn’t need me. Is it because he has a lot of pride because of the culture?” Boone said. “I have to use a technique that allows him to save face; you influence him, but he thinks it’s his idea.”