Getting Them Ready

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- It's one of the primary goals of the U.S. Air Force in Iraq: building and training the fledging Iraqi Air Force until it can stand on its own feet and protect the country - and because fire protection is a universal need, Goodfellow is right in the thick of it.

Master Sgt. Matthew Simmons, a fire instructor for the fire officer course at the Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Academy, returned recently from a six-month deployment to Camp Taji, Iraq, where the Air Force has been busy building a technical training complex from the ground up.

"When we got first got there, we had no students and a nasty old building," the Bolton, Conn., native said. "There were literally just two people there before we showed up, and they'd put together a lesson plan and ordered supplies," he added.

In September 2007, the new team (Sergeant Simmons and Master Sgt. Phil Fourroux, a military firefighter from Altus Air Force Base, Okla.) moved to a newly renovated building as part of the 370th Air Expeditionary Training Squadron and began to train their first 10 students.

"We put together six complete blocks to mirror the training at Goodfellow," Sergeant Simmons said. "Then the Iraqi Air Force said they needed to cut the training down to 30 training days, so we started the first class as fast as we could." The gear hadn't even arrived yet; it showed up half way through the first class.

"Basically, we picked the areas most needed for fire protection and focused on those," Sergeant Simmons said. The duo built training pits for aircraft, vehicle and building fires at the base. "We wanted to give the Iraqi Air Force the best well-rounded fire protection training we could," he added.

Though the Iraqi Air Force already had firefighters, they were never given standardized training, Sergeant Simmons said. The culture's priorities were elsewhere. Now, he added, they have a good foundation for training.

A second class of 10 more students was a week from graduating when Sergeant Simmons left the desert, with more to follow, the firefighter said.

Like all deployments, the time away from home was difficult, but Sergeant Simmons said his "firedawg family" helped him stay motivated.

"The fire school and the 312th Training Squadron care packages and e-mail while I was over there," Sergeant Simmons said. "It was like a big family; everyone pitched in." Sergeant Simmons especially wanted to thank Greg Ranard, who, in true wingman fashion, took care of Sergeant Simmons' apartment, truck and bills while he was gone - so he purchased an American Flag and had it taken up during an Iraqi helicopter mission.

In the end, Sergeant Simmons said the deployment was well worth the work.

"It's been very rewarding," Sergeant Simmons said. "I feel confident that the first class worked well together," he added. "These were 10 students who really wanted to learn."

Fire Protection instructors are the people the Air Force needs to teach these classes, Sergeant Simmons said, but the long term goals are for Iraqi Air Force instructors to teach the newest Iraqi Airmen.

"That's really the goal for the entire Iraqi Air Force," Sergeant Simmons said. "We're trying to get them ready to be their own air force again."