Twenty years ago, a regular Army man like Sgt. Maj. Stan Richards could identify a reserve unit when he saw one, from telltale differences that reflected their part-time status with only a weekend a month and two weeks per year in training.
But since 9/11 and the war in Iraq led to deployment of Army Reserve and National Guard units to the Middle East, with "train-up" time before and constant practice training in the field, you can't tell the difference anymore, said Richards, one of three soldiers who spoke by phone to the Mirror on Friday from Iraq.
In fact, if there's a difference now, it tilts in favor of the reservists. They're the ones who can go out of their job classifications and sometimes get things done faster and just as well using civilian skills they honed in their regular jobs at home.
Interview with soldiers in Iraq
"Firefighters, police, electricians, plumbers," said Lt. Col. Anthony Bohn, commander of the 13th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, which includes the Altoona-based 298th Maintenance Company, one of six companies in the battalion. "There are a lot of skilled craftsmen."
By contrast, in a regular Army unit, everyone specializes.
"If it's a transportation unit, they're all truck drivers," Bohn said. "It becomes very one-dimensional."
Not only do their regular Army colleagues treat them as equals, they've come to recognize the reservists "bring a little more to the table," said Capt. Jim Grassmyer of Altoona, commander of the 298th, which has been in Iraq for seven months.
The 298th left Altoona on May 12 for pre-deployment training in Texas before leaving for Iraq.
Grassmyer said his soldiers regularly think outside the norm to solve problems.
Mechanics have gone to the wood shop to build products like desks, bookshelves and command boards or to the machine shop to fabricate parts to avoid ordering "through the system" and having to wait for them to arrive, Grassmyer said.
The battalion command thinks so highly of the 298th that it took the unusual step of placing a regular Army ordinance platoon under its command, Bohn said.
"That speaks volumes for the skill set of the company," he said.
During the last couple years in Iraq, services and security have improved, according to Bohn, whose battalion is stationed in northern Iraq.
Following the first Gulf War, the nation "stood still," doing virtually no infrastructure work as money reportedly went into palaces, he said.
Then came 9/11, the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the dark period of 2005 and 2006.
Services came to a complete halt, he said.
In recent times, however, workers have repaired roads, cleaned up piles of trash and repaired sewage and electrical systems, he said.
The "security situation" has also improved dramatically, Bohn said.
The country is "taking control of its destiny," he said.
Battalion soldiers are helping them do it, he said.
The battalion administers contracts with Iraqi companies that supply laborers to repair shipping containers, and the soldiers teach, supervise and work alongside those laborers, who earn certificates they can use elsewhere to show they've mastered welding and other skills.
The bestowing of the certificates generates a "huge outpouring" of support and attention from the labor supply companies and the Iraqi government, reflecting the big step up in earning power the skills and the certificates represent for the workers - 20 to 30 times what they could earn in their old agrarian occupations, Bohn said.
And the education is free.
Armed with those certificates, they can get married - marriage is expensive in Iraqi culture - and attain the equivalent of the house with a white picket fence, Bohn said.
There's a lot of construction going on in villages, reflecting that success, he said.
They want "everything that we want," Bohn said, including protection and education for their families and a way to make a good living.
"There's no difference in the human dynamic," he said.
The time spent earning the certificates has generated friendships between workers and soldiers, as reflected in gifts exchanged in the certificate ceremonies, Bohn said.
Some of those friendships will outlast the soldiers' tours of duty, he predicted.
In keeping with the adage that if you teach someone to fish, you feed him for the rest of his life, authorities are planning programs to "train the trainers," so the Iraqis can sustain the effort on their own.
The Iraqis don't always do the work "perfectly our way," Bohn said, but that's fine because it's better "if they do it their way."
"All we are is enablers and facilitators," he said.
Nor do the Iraqis resent the help as paternalistic, he said.
"They completely welcome it," he said. "With open arms."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.