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Lt. Col. Steven Vass, 41, of Wallingford, Conn., who leads one group of 44 Security Police Transition Team soldiers who will deploy to the Gulf this week, says goodbye to his family on Tuesday at Hohenfels, Germany.
Lt. Col. Steven Vass, 41, of Wallingford, Conn., who leads one group of 44 Security Police Transition Team soldiers who will deploy to the Gulf this week, says goodbye to his family on Tuesday at Hohenfels, Germany. (Seth Robson / S&S)

HOHENFELS, Germany — Roughly 90 soldiers who are part of the Army’s Special Police Transition team, known as SPiT, are leaving for Iraq this week to train Iraqi Special Police on how to battle insurgents.

The eight teams of soldiers gathered here Tuesday for a send-off ceremony, marking the start of their yearlong mission.

Lt. Col. Tom Rayburn, a Baghdad-based trainer with the Iraqi Assistance Group who traveled to Germany for the ceremony, said the SPiT program — which the Iraqi Assistance Group oversees — started a year ago and has 38 teams in Iraq.

Iraqi Special Police are the elite component of Iraq’s 80,000-strong police force. They include commando units — similar to U.S. police Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, teams — as well as public-order brigades that control traffic and are a step above beat cops. The Iraqi Special Police also have mechanized units who can use armored vehicles and 57 mm machine guns to show force and quell riots.

Rayburn said the SPiT teams were a big part of Multi-National Forces Iraq Commander Gen. George Casey’s “year of the police,” a recent call for a heavy emphasis on training Iraqi police to combat the insurgency.

The SPiT program was one of many to train Iraqi and Afghan forces including regular police, military, logistics and transport personnel and garrison organizations, Rayburn said. All of the training programs are to be handed over to the 1st Infantry Division later this year, he said.

The commander of the Europe-based SPiT teams, Lt. Col. Douglas Bagdasarian, 40, of New Britain, Conn., said his soldiers would provide Iraqi Special Police with the tools to ensure the safety and security of Iraqis.

“Primarily we are going to be there to coach and mentor the Iraqi leadership,” he said.

Bagdasarian’s wife, Tammy — the SPiT team’s Family Readiness Group leader — said it was a big challenge to link spouses of SPiT team soldiers who are drawn from all over Europe. However, the Internet was helping her stay in touch with spouses from Vilseck, Hohenfels, Heidelberg and Italy, she said.

One of the SPiT team members, Sgt. 1st Class Mark McDowell, said he expected to work with Iraqis who had already received a lot of training.

“They are good at what they do. We are just going there to make them better,” said the 42-year-old Albuquerque, N.M., native, who will be on his first Iraq tour.

Joint Multinational Readiness Center Operations Group Commander Col. Tom Vandal told the soldiers they would spend 10 days training in Kuwait, followed by another 10 days training at Taji, Iraq, before linking up with the Iraqi Special Police.

As a platoon sergeant with the center’s 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment at Hohenfels, McDowell said he has often played the role of an insurgent during training exercises. He said he would pass on what he had learned about insurgent tactics to the Iraqis.

“I know some of the tricks, but you are always learning,” he said.

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