Patriot Profiles: Predicting the unpredictable stops terror on the move
“Every military, whether it’s us or the terrorists, tries to be unpredictable,” said Maj. BJ Grass, a Marine Corps Intelligence officer, recently returned from the Anbar region in Iraq.
As part of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force — Crisis Response — Central Command, Grass served with Task Force al-Asad, helping to develop and integrate strike packages and assist in the planning of Iraqi ground operations in the region.
Predicting the movement of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as they battle for control over the land and its people, is a tenacious task laced with peril. The militants have caused more than a million Iraqis to flee their homes. Families are torn apart, cities lie in ruins, and priceless culture is destroyed in a land once freed by American fighters who gave their all.
Grass and Task Force al-Asad serve under Operation Inherent Resolve. According to U.S. military officials, that name is intended to reflect the unwavering resolve and deep commitment of the U.S. and partner nations to eliminate the terrorist group ISIL and the threat it poses to Iraq, the region and the wider international community. The threat of ISIL is anything but secret.
As senior intelligence officer with the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force, Grass advises the commander on all things intelligence-related, everything from “collections to processing and disseminations, and analysis of information and trying to turn that into an accurate picture of what the enemy is doing, or what the geo-political situation may be across the Central Command (CENTCOM) area.”
In late 2014, U.S. troops started training Iraqi security forces at al-Asad Air Base, despite regular harassment fire from Islamic State militants. Grass took on more of a schoolhouse role; it was back to teaching, coaching, and mentoring he did previously in 2006-2007.
In 2006, the U.S. troops and Iraqi Army partnership began by training 1st and 7th Iraqi Divisions in western Anbar province. Grass was an intelligence adviser on an 11-man team, each of whom brought a wide scope of military skills to the table, including operations, intelligence, communications, administration, logistics and basic infantry.
“The Iraqi 7th Division is who’s out there right now (2015) in Anbar. It’s one of the units that have held their ground, and they still maintain battlespace in western Iraq,” said Grass. For those who trained the Iraqi 7th, “We’d like to think that some of (their success) is because of the blood, sweat, and tears that we provided during training in 2006 through 2010.”
Growing up just outside of Milwaukee, Wis., Grass made his mother sew “camos” for his Cabbage Patch doll. This fell right in with GI Joe in uniform, fighting imaginary enemies. Grass said his mom would predict he was going to be in the military.
“It’s always been something that interested me. You’re giving back to your country …and that’s what made me join.”
Preparations to join the battlefront, to unravel the designs of evil, can start at a very young age.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, Grass started his military career as a logistics officer at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. After his adviser tour in Iraq, 2006-2007, he did a tour in D.C. at the Defense Intelligence Agency as intel officer for 1st Battalion 5th Marines. He then spent a year at the Drug Enforcement Administration, followed with a year at the National Counterterrorism Center. Command and Staff College preceded his coming out to 5th Marine Regiment and the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force.
There, Grass manages a host of intelligence collectors and analysts who focus on both Inherent Resolve and being poised to conduct crisis response anywhere across CENTCOM’s area of responsibility. “It’s 20 countries spread from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, all the way east to Pakistan and to the other ‘Stans’ up north.
“When we look at ‘striking the enemy,’ we talk about the ‘Find, Fix, and Finish’ mantra. My job is to find the enemy — ‘Where is he at?’ Our fire team, the operations guys, work the ‘fixing and finishing’ piece.”
Grass said technology makes the “finding” piece both “easy and hard,” through various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms and websites.
“The sheer amount of information that’s out there right now both helps and hurts us in this line of work,” he said. “We sift through and understand as best we can.” And we civilians think keeping up with our emails is challenging.
To Grass, the hardest part of the strike cycle is the targeting cycle.
“We strive to know and understand the enemy — his long- and near-term goals. I develop different courses of action that I think he’s going to execute. From there, we plan collection operations to get information that says what he is doing. Finding that enemy is tough because he’s hiding amongst the population — he wears the same clothes. Until you can differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys with 100 percent certainty, we’re letting that guy go, until we come back in a day when we are 100 percent certain that is the enemy.
“We, as Marines, know that which we’re doing makes a difference. As an officer, I want to be the best leader to Marines assigned to my charge. I recognize they are husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of our counterparts across the globe. The fact people have entrusted their lives to me is tremendously motivating. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously and drives me to get up in the morning and do what I do.”
He characterizes his young Marines as “a great batch.”
“Too frequently, all we hear about is the bad stuff youth are doing today. These 20- to 25-year-old non-commissioned officers are able to step up and assume so much responsibility. The challenges that are thrown to me or the challenges I throw at the Marines that you think are undoable — these guys and gals can accomplish — and routinely accomplish — generally better than you ever imagined it would happen. The teamwork ‘piece’ is an experience I’ll take with me.
“As the Intel guy, I like to think (intelligence) helps a ton to determine the battle.”
Grass knows to his core the better he can anticipate and understand the enemy, the more helpful he is to his commander in determining the outcomes. “We’ve got such an amazing force; we’re able to have success, even if I fail.”
Success happens when the enemy is least expecting it. You can count on Maj. BJ Grass and today’s Marines to be fiercely ready for that.