Untrained Soldier Killed in Iraq?

Editor and Publisher is touting as “EXCLUSIVE” a Greg Mitchell report that a soldier killed in what may be a blue-on-blue incident in Iraq “did not get full training.” The story is getting many bites.

  • Will Bunch passes the story along as an example of how the Bush administration doesn’t care about the troops.
  • John Aravosis: “Bush has destroyed the military, and is now sending virtual kids, unprepared, into battle. He has the nerve to talk about supporting the troops. His idea of support is killing our troops in order to assuage his own ego. Anyone and everyone who continues to support this war is complicit in this kid’s death.”
  • Nitpicker: “I hope they’re pleased with themselves.”
  • SpinDentist: “If You Surge Wouldn’t it be nice if they did so with trained troops? “

Two small problems with this story: It is not exclusive and the soldier was fully trained.

On February 9, the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News reported: “At least 143 soldiers joined Fort Stewart’s 1st Brigade too late to participate in a final combat exercise before their units deployed to Iraq. Last week, one of those soldiers – Pvt. Matthew T. Zeimer, 18 – was the first from the brigade to be killed when he was hit by enemy fire in Ramadi, the stronghold of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency.

“Zeimer arrived at Fort Stewart on Dec. 18 after basic training and deployed to Iraq just a few weeks later. He missed the brigade’s intensive four-week mission rehearsal in October when more than 1,300 trainers and Iraqi role-players came to the post as part of the most realistic training program the Army offers for Iraq operations.

“The fact some of the brigade’s 4,000 soldiers missed that training raises questions about how well the Army is preparing troops for war in the face of accelerated and repeat deployments.”

Two days before that, the same newspaper reported that “some Iraq veterans in the 1st Brigade have expressed concerns about their younger counterparts missing the mission rehearsal. ‘The training was good but some guys came in after that. They’re basically going straight from basic training into Iraq,’ said Staff Sgt. Jason Massey last month, before saying goodbye to his family for a third combat tour.”

So, this E&P “EXCLUSIVE” is actually a two-month-old story from a local newspaper. More importantly, the idea that soldiers customarily get a month-long “rehearsal” before deployments and that failure to do so means they’re “untrained” displays a woeful understanding of the military.

Soldiers rotate in and out of units on a constant basis. New soldiers join the program already in progress and their leaders get them up to speed as soon as possible. Young Zeimer had “a few weeks” with his unit at Fort Stewart before deploying to Iraq, which is more than many get.

Units tend to be manned below their authorized strength, for a variety of reasons. When they get deployment orders, it is usual for them to quickly get new soldiers and equipment to get them up to warfighting form. During Desert Storm, several new junior enlisted soldiers and NCOs joined our unit while we were staging in Saudi Arabia, some a few days before the ground war got underway. In Vietnam, Korea, and World War II, green recruits constantly joined units in the midst of combat. That’s how the Army works.

Very little public information is available on Private Zeimer’s death, so we have no way of knowing whether additional training would have helped. Most of the time, though, blue-on-blue incidents are just the fog of war. Training, even the most realistic, is still “just training.” Once the shooting starts for real, young men’s adrenaline gets pumping, they get jumpy, and they make mistakes. Constant training, especially unit training, cuts down those mistakes. It doesn’t eliminate them.

UPDATE: Greyhawk points to a February 8 Army Times report by Michelle Tan which seems to indicate that additional training would not have saved Zeimer.

Spook86 provides a very detailed analysis as well.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    No James, the lede is simply not very well-placed in the story. The actual piece of news (at least the one most likely to be picked on by lefties) is not simply the lack of training, but also the fact that the Army had strong suspicions (per their own reports) over a month ago that Zeimer died in a friendly-fire incident, but kept quiet about it and, just as in the Tillman case, told his family what may have been a deliberate, face-saving lie.

    Also, while you’re correct that some soldiers always get put in at the last minute & don’t get the fullest training for a deployment, the fact the Zeimer died just _hours_ after hitting the ground certainly bespeaks a failure in some part of the system…

  2. Friendly fire is a reality of warfare, but one that the public finds terribly hard to accept. This is particularly true of a public whose litigiousness illustrates a belief that there is always someone to blame when bad things happen. And I have little doubt that, if the Army was promptly reporting even the suspicion that a death was a result of friendly fire, there would be accusations from some of the usual suspects that the Army was trying to play down the number of soldiers actually killed by the enemy.

    I’m not sure why the timing of Zeimer’s death, within hours of going into battle, bespeaks any failure of the system. It’s not like the enemy gives our troops a one-day grace period before trying to kill them. It is a historical reality, and an unsurprising one, that troops experiencing battle for the first time — however well-trained — make more goofs in the first encounter than later on.

    So I generally agree with James’ article.

    However, I must disagree on this:

    In Vietnam, Korea, and World War II, green recruits constantly joined units in the midst of combat. That’s how the Army works.

    Yes, that’s how the Army has historically worked. But it was an atrocious system in the Second World War and it remains atrocious today. Green troops — however well-trained — should never go directly into the line as replacements; they should always have the opportunity to train with veterans from their formation before seeing combat, for the sake of unit cohesion, if nothing else. The Germans understood this lesson in WWII and it contributed greatly to their fighting strength. I refer you to Martin Creveld’s study, Fighting Strength, for a more complete discussion.

    A few U.S. units sought better ways to absorb replacements, and they generally reaped the same benefits as the Germans. In particular, the airborne and the Marines, because of the episodic nature of most of their fighting, were able to absorb replacements before going into combat, and this contributed significantly to their esprit de corps. Granted, these were also largely volunteer units. But the Marines began accepting draftees before the Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns, and the draftees who were integrated into their units before combat did reasonably well. Those who were fed directly into the line at Okinawa did miserably, as is well-documented in Eugene Sledge’s memoirs, With The Old Breed.

    In addition, one or two regular infantry divisions in Northwest Europe (48th, possibly? I’m at the office and don’t have my references handy) adopted a policy of having some of their veterans join green replacements a few miles behind the front lines and engage in as much small unit training as circumstances allowed. Those involved thought this was tremendously beneficial, and the division chalked up a superior combat record.

    If the U.S. Army, as a whole, has still not learned this lesson, then that’s very depressing.

  3. legion says:

    It actually looks like the Army _had_ learned this lesson, but Bush’s insistance on having a ‘surge party’ overrode that wisdom.

    As for the timing of Ziemer’s death, if he’d just been killed on his first patrol, that would have been explainable by tragically bad luck. But the fact that it was a friendly-fire incident makes me suspect that a larger breakdown in unit training & discipline may be to blame…

  4. Greyhawk says:

    Another small problem with the narrative: the 3ID’s 1st Brigade wasn’t part of “the surge”.

  5. James Joyner says:

    the Army had strong suspicions (per their own reports) over a month ago that Zeimer died in a friendly-fire incident, but kept quiet about it and, just as in the Tillman case, told his family what may have been a deliberate, face-saving lie.

    My understanding of the story is that the Army told the family what they thought was true, something caused a red flag to be raised, they investigated, and then told the family that they think it might have been friendly fire. That doesn’t strike me as scandalous.

    And I think the Army actually put the story out, not E&P.

  6. John Gillnitz says:

    It doesn’t sound like the problem was lack of training. The whole wall they were standing on blew up. The noobs didn’t do anything wrong. If it was FF someone else made the mistake.

  7. Evil Progressive says:

    You could at least show compassion for an 18-year-old kid who was killed. And for his family. That he may have been killed by friendly fire does not make him any less dead.

    Tthe fact remains that the kid was fresh out of basic training and did not receive the extra weeks of training which are intended to replicate the urban warfare conditions in Iraq.

    Had he not been killed almost immediately after his arrival in Iraq, he would have been at a disadvantage with better trained troops as well as a danger to them because of his lack of training.

    Perhaps if he had received the proper training, he would not have been in a position to be killed by friendly fire, because he would have known better.

  8. anne says:

    It amazes me that you could be so obtuse. I am a 22 year veteran of the army. NEVER have I heard of sending someone into combat directly from basic training.(not WWII, not Korea, not Vietnam) The next step is to go to AIT Advanced Individual Training where you learn the basics of your job. When he got to Ft. Stewart he had 2 weeks, do you know what the unit was doing? It wasn’t training. They were getting ready to go overseas. He barely had time to get all his equipment, get his paperwork, will, insurance etc. done. If he was killed and how tragic his first day in country by one of the men in his unit, in all likelihood that person was at least as poorly trained. This is a debacle. This administration is breaking the military. The next war will be fought by Blackwater, Halliburton and conscripts from third world countries.
    Don’t give me the typical conservative response “they volunteered.” They didn’t volunteer to be untrained and unequipped. This makes me sick. I grieve for his parents.

  9. James Joyner says:

    The next step is to go to AIT Advanced Individual Training where you learn the basics of your job

    I’m sure Zeimer completed AIT before being assigned to a unit. If he was an infantryman, it would have been done at Benning.

    And the article made it clear that the unit did a month-long “rehearsal” training. It’s not as if he was sent to a unit of raw recruits. He has fire time leader, squad leader, platoon sergeant, and platoon leader over him as well as the other soldiers in the unit. Several of them were likely Iraq War vets.

  10. John Ryan says:

    The Republicans have never really supported the troops, they have supported Halliburton more then our own foot soldiers

  11. Darlene says:

    I think all of our military should have the proper training but I don’t think it would have made a difference in this case. I’m truly sorry for this family’s loss.
    My son now in Iraq, graduated in June06 and went six months later to Bagdad, with no special training.
    My husband left for Afganistan last month with 3 months of training prior to leaving and has been in for 17 years.
    I would hope everyone should be trained and equipped before heading into a hot zone.