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What Does 'Boots On The Ground' Really Mean?


Hundreds of U.S. military advisers will be assisting and training Iraqi forces as part of the battle against ISIS. President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were clear about what they will not do.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.


DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: U.S. ground troops will not be sent into combat in this conflict.


SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: American forces will not have a combat mission on the ground.

BLOCK: But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the line between advising and combat is often a blurry one.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The American mission seemed clear enough at first. U.S. military advisers would simply advise from inside Iraqi military headquarters, at the brigade level and above.

DOUG OLLIVANT: Not a place that's going to lend itself to ground combat.

BOWMAN: Doug Oliphant (ph) is a retired Army officer who saw combat in Iraq.

OLLIVANT: Brigade headquarters are kept well behind lines. They're very well secured. They're often in, you know, cities.

BOWMAN: So advisers inside a building and not on the battlefield - not really combat duty. But then it gets a bit murky. General Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, told the Senate panel he might recommend some advisers head to the front lines. His example, Iraqi troops in the Kurdish-Peshmerga militia try to take back cities from the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State.


JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN MARTIN DEMPSEY: If the Iraqi security forces and the pesh were at some point ready to retake Mosul, a mission that I would find to be extraordinarily complex - it could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising, or accompanying, for that mission.

BOWMAN: So close combat advising. Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire pressed Dempsey on that. Could that include American troops who are JTACs - that stands for joint terminal attack controllers - they're commandos who head out with ground troops and call in airstrikes against any enemy targets.


DEMPSEY: If we get to the point where I think we need the JTAC with the Iraqi security forces, I'll make the recommendation. But I'm not there.

SENATOR KELLY AYOTTE: You do not think we need that at this time?

DEMPSEY: I do not.

BOWMAN: So is a JTAC an advisor or in combat? T.X. Hammes is a retired Marine colonel who served in Somalia and Iraq.

T.X. HAMMES: A JTAC in a normal operation is forward, can see the fight and is calling fire. Obviously, if you can see the fight, the fight can see you. At that point, I think you're engaged.

BOWMAN: JTACs have been on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some have been wounded and killed. And since it's defined as a ground combat job, it's currently closed to women. Hammes said the debate over advisor or combatant is less military than political.

HAMMES: This is an old, old discussion. And it comes up when there are politically sensitive conflicts we're entering in, generally with reluctance by the American people to get involved directly.

BOWMAN: The White House says it's going to war with the Islamic State, but polls show Americans don't want boots on the ground in Iraq again. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.