By Robert Saxon
ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. – Soldiers from First Army units located across the United States began preparations in January to deploy to Afghanistan as a part of new specialized teams that will begin this spring to train and assist Afghan National Security Forces.
More than 140 senior officers and noncommissioned officers will train and deploy as 14 teams in three deployment rotations through September, to support the Army’s new Security Force Assistance Team, or SFAT, mission in Afghanistan. These soldiers were selected from First Army training support brigades.
The teams will assist Afghan National Army and police units as they conduct security operations, said Col. William J. Schafer, First Army deputy chief of staff for Operations.
“Their primary role is to mentor Afghan units and help them achieve levels of proficiency so they can lead and conduct independent security operations,” Schafer explained.
First Army’s multi-component teams will deploy with active-component brigade combat team SFATs from the 4th Infantry Division, 101st Airborne Division, and the 1st Armored Division. All the teams will deploy for nine months to assist Afghan National Army and police units improve their logistics, intelligence, maintenance, administration and training capabilities.
MISSION TO DEPLOY
Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek, First Army’s commander, believes the trainers are well suited for this type of training and mentoring mission.
“Our contribution to the SFAT mission is part of our core competency at First Army – given that this type of mission is what we routinely conduct as reserve-component trainers year round,” Bednarek said. “First Army’s primary role remains designing and conducting collective training and exercises to train soldiers, staffs and command teams. Our trainer/mentors provide support to reserve-component forces in achieving and sustaining readiness. These skills will be a natural extension to this evolving requirement in Afghanistan,” he added.
Lt. Col. Carlos Schroder, an Afghan Uniformed Police team leader from the First Army’s 5th Armored Brigade at Fort Hood, Texas, said he agrees wholeheartedly with that assessment. He is currently at the Joint Readiness Training Center, known as JRTC, at Fort Polk, La., preparing to deploy as part of the SFAT mission.
“We as trainer/mentors have training readiness oversight for reserve-component units that are deploying overseas,” Schroder said. “So it fits right in with what we are going to be doing when we go to Afghanistan. We are going to train and assist and enable the Afghan police to provide the security they need to be able to take care of their country.”
Col. Steven M. Merkel, First Army chief of staff and former 205th Infantry Brigade commander, said, “This mission demonstrates First Army’s capacity to train, assist and deploy reserve-component troops in support of combatant commander requirements in Afghanistan, but also showcases First Army’s ability to respond and fulfill those critical combat missions when called upon by our senior Army leaders.”
Lt. Col. Rex McCullough, a team leader from the 177th Armored Brigade at Camp Shelby, Miss., who is currently at JRTC preparing to deploy, said he believes that the SFAT mission for First Army soldiers is going to benefit the Army and the reserve component forces.
“This deployment will give us the chance to communicate back to First Army what tactics, techniques and procedures are actually happening on the ground,” McCullough said.
He notes that deploying team members will become subject-matter experts on the new mission and their experience will help First Army provide more realistic and relevant training for those reserve brigades that will deploy to Afghanistan in the future.
“It will help us develop a training model that makes sense so reserve-component units will get the necessary training for them to succeed,” McCullough said.
SFAT training concludes with a month-long deployment to the JRTC where soldiers spend time training in the classroom on adviser subjects and then move to the field to train collective tasks. Nine of the 14 First Army teams deployed to JRTC at the beginning of February, where they spent a week in classes focused on cultural awareness, language skills, mission case studies and the role of the adviser.
“At the JRTC we have focused on the adviser training such as going into Afghan culture, how to advise them and how to develop relationships with them,” said McCullough. “We learned about the things to look for in Afghanistan and how we go in and identify problems so we can help the Afghans learn to help themselves as they improve and sustain operations.”
First Army team members have also spent time conducting situational training exercises and live-fire exercises designed to build teamwork and cohesion within each of the teams. The culminating training event involves SFAT teams working through event-driven scenarios with Afghan role players as part of their final preparations prior to their deployment.
McCullough admits that some of the training challenges they have experienced involve building a team from soldiers that may or may not have a previous working relationship.
“Our team members are not all from one organization, so we’ve had to develop those relationships, develop the standard operating procedures and develop those things that, operating as a 12-man team, will help us understand each other and work together,” McCullough said. “The challenge is really in developing the relationships.”
McCullough noted that having the opportunity to get out into the field at JRTC has helped them accomplish the team building aspect of the SFAT mission.
Overall, the training for the SFAT mission gets high marks from First Army team leaders.
“The training here has been outstanding,” said Lt. Col. Lawrence Aiello, an Operational Control Center team leader from the 191st Infantry Brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. “All of the cultural and host-nation simulations with Afghan role players helps us deal with the language difference and that aspect is difficult to replicate back at home station. So that, in and of itself, is a tremendous part of the training … it has been phenomenal here at JRTC.”
While Aiello is excited about the training for the new mission, he is also very upbeat about the opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan. “I think it’s going to be a great mission. This is the way to succeed in Afghanistan in the future — U.S. units partnered with Afghan units at key coordination and operations centers where the planning, synchronization and execution all happen at the decisive point. I am glad to be a part of it and I look forward to going downrange.”