ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT -
Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Wayne Troxell, the senior enlisted advisor to the U.S. military’s top officer, visited American troops in Syria to ascertain the situation there in the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Troxell went at the request of his boss, Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The sergeant major spoke with reporters traveling with Dunford.
Dunford met with Iraqi leaders and visited American troops in Hammam al-Alia, Iraq -- about 10 miles from Mosul.
“We’ve been trying to get the chairman in to meet with troops in Syria, but we haven’t been able to do it,” Troxell said. “I felt I could be his eyes in the region, and he agreed.”
The sergeant major flew to Kobani in Syria and within minutes of landing was out the gate. “They got me on a ground patrol, and then I got to see the Syrian Democratic Forces in action -- both training and on security,” he said.
The SDF is a multiethnic fighting force taking on ISIS and working with coalition forces to isolate and eventually take the city of Raqqa – ISIS’s so-called capital city.
“Everyone I went, our forces just had absolute confidence in the SDF,” Troxell said.
Special operations and conventional forces are training the SDF, the sergeant major said.
“It’s a real joint force out there,” he added.
U.S. forces providing support in Syria include Marine artillery and Army high-mobility artillery rocket systems, the sergeant major said. “[There’s a] lot of not only training, but partnering and assisting with joint fires,” he said. “The Marines have been there a little over a month and had 1,182 fire missions.”
Troxell said he was impressed with the SDF.
“I walked away with the utmost confidence that the Syrian Democratic Forces can get the job done,” he said.
“ISIS is the common enemy, but it is still a pretty dynamic battlefield and it is a pretty dangerous place out there,” Troxell said.
The American trainers took Troxell to a forward base the SDF uses for training and to project troops to the front lines.
The American troops also use those bases to get the pulse of the people in the area.
“Everywhere I went, people were talking about not only what we were doing with our partnering role, but what the others were doing,” Troxell said.
SDF is ‘Well-Run, Well-Led’
The American trainers told the sergeant major that the SDF is a well-run, well-led military organization. It does not have formal ranks and schools, “but they have small-unit leadership,” Troxell said.
“I saw small unit battle drills going on out there,” he added, “and I saw training where they were practicing entering buildings, as if they were entering and clearing rooms.”
The SDF troops are in their late teens and early ’20s, and, the sergeant major said, they are supremely confident that they can beat ISIS.
“The key leaders were older, but you could tell they have a good [command] climate, that commanders are engaged and they are a disciplined force,” Troxell said. “Talking to some of our special operators, in their opinion, [the SDF] was some of the best partnered forces they have ever been with.”
The SDF are not overconfident, he said. “They know they will have a tough fight in Iraq and they are preparing for it,” the sergeant major said. “Many of them have family in Raqqa and they want to go now, but understand they have to prepare the battlefield in order to have success.”
The partnership between the SDF and the Americans is one of trust, Troxell said.
“Wherever the Americans went they had SDF with them,” he said. “I wasn’t told of any frictions between them. There is unity of command in how they do business, and of course we are advising and assisting and accompanying, and the SDF is doing the fighting, and leaders said they were pleased with the progress.”
The SDF small-unit leaders have learned how to accomplish the mission within commander’s guidance from some of America’s best fighters, the sergeant major said. They take the initiative, there is trust within the unit and there is discipline in these small units, Troxell said.
“They are learning what ‘right’ looks like from our best,” the sergeant major said.
Partnership Provides Results
More U.S. trainers would help, Troxell said.
“The more we can partner … and the more we can get advisors at the tactical level, the more effective they are going to be,” he said. “That’s because you have eyes on up to the last cover-and-conceal position before they go on target.”
Those advisors also are the ones who call for artillery support and airstrikes, the sergeant major said.
“More advisors would absolutely be more help, but the guys on the ground now -- with the force management levels we have now -- are doing a good job getting after it,” he said. “We’ll see as we move forward toward the Raqqa fight if we put more advisors in there, but right now I didn’t see a force today that was starving for advisors.”
Troxell said he is doing what senior enlisted advisors do for their commanders around the United States military. He understands his boss’s intent, direction and needs, and is acting as Dunford’s eyes and ears in places the general has an intense interest in but cannot get to. When the sergeant major returned from Syria, he sat with the general and discussed what he saw.
This is not the first time Troxell has done this. Earlier this year he traveled to Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti to visit with American forces helping build partnerships in that area of the world.
One item he has been struck by is what an advantage having a trained, capable and empowered noncommissioned officer corps is to the U.S. military. When he was on the ground in Syria, he recalled asking what percentage of the advisors were NCOs.
“I was told that 99 percent of the advisors are enlisted leaders,” he said. “That is the greatest advantage we have over any force in the world is what we do to empower enlisted leaders, and allow them to execute disciplined initiative within commander’s intent to accomplish the mission.”