NEW CASTLE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE --
When a mission set changes, Airmen with the Air National Guard adapt and adjust. Such was the case when Staff Sgt. Alfred Akeroyd of the 166th Civil Engineering Squadron’s firefighting section was tasked to Baghdad, Iraq after the U.S. began to pull forces from Syria, his original objective. His deployment lasted from November, 2019 to April, 2020 and his new mission was to train Iraqi aviation firefighters.
“They told me I would be an air advisor. I had no idea what an air advisor was, and it was the first I’d heard of it,” joked Staff Sgt. Akeroyd.
At first, Akeroyd feared that he wouldn’t be up to the task. But when he was greeted by a cadre of other air advisors – including men from NATO units in Italy, France and the U.K. – upon his arrival in Baghdad, he realized he would be working with an immensely talented group of Airmen who quickly made him feel right at home.
After a period of on-the-job training in customs and courtesies from the Iraqis, Staff Sgt. Akeroyd got to work.
“I knew nothing about what to do, what not to do, what to say, what not to say. So, it was ‘go ahead and learn along the way.’ But, you know, my fellow Arab officers really helped me out with that,” described Akeroyd.
Earning each other’s respect was one thing that had to be established right away. The Iraqi firefighters wanted to test Staff Sgt. Akeroyd, to see if he “knew his stuff.” And Akeroyd needed to see if the Iraqis had been properly trained at all.
“You have to remember the way that they run their operations isn't exactly how we run our operations. They don't have any safety precautions. I mean, these guys are jumping into the back of a pickup truck to head out to the fire,” said Akeroyd.
That’s when the staff sergeant earned the Iraqis respect by getting down and dirty. He showed them the correct way to use their equipment, and later challenged them to a contest to see who would be the fastest to don and ditch their gear. And any time he asked his Iraqi counterparts to do something, he did it with them, including fire ground techniques, offensive and defensive firefighting operations.
“They were very eager to learn and looked forward to our time together. They even let me stay for lunch and made me feel right at home,” said Akeroyd.
As far as firefighting equipment, the Iraqis had two P-19 firetrucks and an assortment of personal protective gear and support vehicles. However, their personal gear was in poor condition with plenty of rips and tears. Akeroyd had to explain that defective gear could easily lead to injury or death while fighting a fire.
At this point, he asked the Iraqis to perform a complete inventory of their equipment to see what was serviceable and what was not. Firefighter operations must include equipment inventory and inspections to assure safety. To his surprise, while performing the inventory the Iraqis led Staff Sgt. Akeroyd to an upstairs room that was filled with brand new gear.
“You’d think that they’d be wearing their new gear rather than the tattered old stuff,” bemoaned Akeroyd.
The Iraqis explained how difficult it was to appropriate new gear so they pushed the old gear well beyond its lifespan. Akeroyd thought nothing of lending them some of his own gear – gloves and other items, which they deeply appreciated.
Every morning, Staff Sgt. Akeroyd would meet with the other air advisors at their base office before heading over to the Iraqi side. Most days he would be at their fire department, spending time learning their language and attempting to determine the extent of their firefighting knowledge and skills.
To make it interesting and to keep the Iraqis enthused, Staff Sgt. Akeroyd created a turnout gear challenge to see how fast they could don all their gear. He had an extra multipurpose tool that he offered as a prize for the winner.
“They had a great time doing it, so I challenged their fastest guy and he beat me. I didn’t mention that he totally cheated. He’d already fastened some of the buttons and zippers before we got started. I let it go because they were having so much fun while learning in the process,” disclosed Akeroyd.
A particularly amusing incident happened during one of their gear turnout drills. After donning their gear, the Iraqi firefighters waited for Staff Sgt. Akeroyd to inspect them.
“A lot of them had their masked on wrong, and one guy forgot to pull his pants up. So I asked him, ‘Are you sure you’re done?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ We all got a big laugh over it and even took a picture.”
Throughout Staff Sgt. Akeroyd’s deployment, the American airbase was the target of occasional volleys of indirect fire (IDF) from rebel extremists. The hit and run attacks increased substantially in December and January, which put a damper on training. On January 3rd right outside Baghdad Airport, a U.S. drone strike killed Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian major general who was thought to be behind the attacks,
“I actually heard the whole thing – it was right down the street. So, that kind of kicked off a lot of stuff. That's when they started accurately targeting things. And once they did that, we weren't allowed to go out and do our mission,” explained Akeroyd.
The air advisors attempted to restart the training process, but as tensions in the area rose, firefighter training was suspended.
A short while later, the Americans started to break down the base. Staff Sgt. Akeroyd laments that he never had a chance to say goodbye to his Iraqi cohorts.
“It was great to utilize so much of my talent and be able to give that back. Overall, it was just a great experience, but sometimes a little scary.”
When called upon for a dangerous mission, the firefighters of the 166th Civil Engineer Squadron face it head on with no hesitations. With a new mission set, Staff Sgt. Alfred Akeroyd, alongside his NATO counterparts, provided valuable training to Iraqi aviation firefighters that will not only save lives, but solidified the bonds that exist between firefighters everywhere.