Georgian soldiers willing pupils as U.S. troops take time to teach
KRTSANISI, Georgia — The sun shone brightly last week as the young Georgian soldiers fired five-round bursts from their PKM assault rifles at targets in the hills.
The hills, which separate southern Georgia from Armenia and Azerbaijan, are part of the training grounds for the latest round of recruits in the U.S. European Command’s Georgia Train and Equip Program.
Nearly every Georgian soldier missed the targets, but Marine Staff Sgt. Rainer Jakob wasn’t surprised. The weapons aren’t that accurate, he said, and the men weren’t marksmen. Yet.
“This should come in time. They just aren’t experienced,” said Jakob, one of about 40 Marines here to run GTEP.
Since its inception last fall, GTEP has outfitted more than 2,000 troops with weapons, uniforms, radios and other basic equipment, and trained them in light infantry tactics. About 600 Georgians are midway through this current training cycle and should graduate by mid-December.
Special Forces soldiers trained the first battalion, which completed the program last December. Since then, instruction has been done by Marines. About 30 troops from the Army, Air Force and Navy are also in Georgia to support GTEP.
The Department of Defense has budgeted $64 million for the program through May 2004. And it has been everything EUCOM hoped it would be, task force spokesman Marine Lt. Justin Colvin said.
The troops are aggressive, smart and good learners, he said. None of the weapons or other equipment given to the Georgians has disappeared, he added, an important achievement in a country with a strong organized crime syndicate.
Military service is compulsory for all males in Georgia, which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1992, but the GTEP soldiers are special. They were recruited separately, although some of them had been in the Georgian military and even the former Soviet Union army.
Conscripts, like those guarding the training grounds, earn about $5 a month, Colvin said. But the GTEP soldiers make the equivalent of $200 a month, roughly the salary of a skilled professional in Georgia.
They are also expected to stay in the military for a minimum of three years.
EUCOM started GTEP as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and the U.S. global war on terrorism. The first graduation class was a battalion-sized element that could be used against suspected terrorist cells.
Part of Georgia is adjacent to a deep gorge in mountainous territory that is suspected of being a hiding and training area for terrorist factions active in nearby Chechnya.
The program has encountered some problems. Some of the equipment the Georgians are getting from the Americans is new, such as cutting-edge radios, but other equipment includes Soviet-style weapons, which are coming from countries likesuch as Romania and Poland that are downsizing their militaries.
Much of the equipment used on the ranges is old, and jams are not uncommon. Last week, as about 160 troops spent the day sighting-in their weapons, about one in 20 of the assault rifles jammed.
There are also some shortages. For example there are not enough combat boots to go around. A handful of soldiers are waiting for the heavy-duty shoes expected to arrive this week.
“Americans wear sizes 10, 11 and 12. ... We just don’t have as many size 8 feet, as the Georgians do,” Colvin said. So more size 8 boots had to be ordered.
But that has not stopped the recruits from progressing.
“These guys are extremely dedicated. They want to be here, and it shows,” said Marine Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Rabert, the gunner for the task force running the training.
The trainers start the recruits from scratch and eventually teach them how to become proficient in a variety of infantry weapons, how to work as a unit and how to conduct patrols.
They also learn about first aid, communications and how to use noncommissioned officers, something the Soviet-style military did not do.
Tuesday, the day of the live fire, was a special one for Georgian recruits.
“They’ve told me they’ve been waiting for this day their entire lives,” said Marine Capt. Matt Ryan, a GTEP team leader, as the Georgians began to fire their PKM rifles for the first time.
The first day, spent sighting-in their rifles, was tedious. The trainers spent nearly 90 minutes as the first group of recruits tried to get their weapons to fire accurately.
The young soldiers were tentative, and instead of firing the needed five-round burst at the targets, they fired single-shots.
Most failed to press the butt of their rifles tightly against their shoulders. As a result the bullets weren’t in a tight grouping as the Marines urged, but rather scattered across the target if they struck at all.
The instructors were also frustrated as several of the tools they needed to adjust the sights kept breaking.
“They are not the most accurate weapons,” said Jakobs. “But these guys will get better.”
One Georgian soldier who hoped to get better was Bitsadze Malkhazi, 21, of nearby Tbilisi. Malkhazi had been a draftee but decided to join the military full time after failing to find a civilian job.
Malkhazi said there is a respect that goes with the training.
“We will become professional soldiers. We will make our country proud,” said Malkhazi, who is urging friends to join the military.
U.S. military officials are excited about Malkhazi’s enthusiasm, but there is a part of the eagerness that has them nervous, too.
Marine Staff Sgt. Michael C. Dowdle is growing frustrated. He is working on a simulation drill with about 60 Georgians on the proper way to fire the RPG-7. The soldiers, in three-man teams, have 12 seconds to run 25 yards, mock-load the rocket, protect their position and fire.
One team stumbles. The next has one soldier in the 45-degree flash zone of the rocket-propelled grenade, and he would have become a casualty if this were real. Dowdle has the other two team members carry the “casualty” back to the starting line on their backs.
“What is wrong with you?” Dowdle barks. “You need to think.”
After about 20 minutes of practice, the teams get better, faster and are making fewer mistakes.
“Good, good, good,” Dowdle says.
The next day would begin nearly a week of live-fire exercises.
“These guys are good. They learn quickly, and they work hard,” said Dowdle. “They’re going to be good soldiers.”