Partnership prepares force
May 3, 2010
CHIEVRES, Belgium - One year and six months later, two Army colonels shook hands: Their edgy, $1 million-plus joint training venture in the fall of 2008 on ChiAfA..vres Air Base is paying off.
The two leaders - USAG Benelux Commander Col. James Drago and 650th Military Intelligence Group/Allied Command Counterintelligence Commander Col. Scott St. Cyr - stood against the backdrop of a conference room's whiteboard, lit up by camera flash.
By the time they relaxed their handshake, five multinational exercises at the Alliance Home Station Training Area have allowed area units to meet training requirements ranging from NATO support to mandatory Army qualifications.
"We have a very high op-tempo, and we could not handle those deployments without the great support of the Benelux and the garrison folks here at ChiAfA..vres," St. Cyr told Drago as he presented him a certificate of appreciation. "It is a great day to be assigned to a unit that is operating in the Benelux area of responsibility.
"This award is presented on behalf of our men and women and their families and we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts," he continued. "You're our true partners."
To Drago, who accepted the award on behalf of the Benelux, the award signals his command is doing something right, he said.
"We know that our reason for existing is the men and women who deploy," Drago said. "When I took command almost three years ago, one of my first priorities was to develop our relationships with all the stakeholders in our footprint. For you to recognize the garrison for this partnership means a lot to me."
The partnership between their commands is symbiotic - as envisioned by the two commanders prior to inception of the training facility in the fall of 2008.
"My intent was to generate a scenario that was true to life," St. Cyr said in September 2008 at the time of the training area's inception. "I wanted to bring the streets of Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo to Belgium, so that my Soldiers and future Soldiers who use this site are as prepared as possible to face the unknown."
Flash forward to present time, members of 650th MI Group/ACCI prepare for regular deployment to Afghanistan in support of NATO's International Security Assistance Force, while Soldiers from USAG Benelux and tenant organizations complete Soldier skills training.
More Soldiers participating means more battlefield noise. More battlefield noise means more realistic training conditions for everyone involved.
"I am certifying my men and women for deployment to Afghanistan while our partner units use this opportunity to meet their own training requirements," said St. Cyr at the most recent Mission Rehearsal Exercise March 10-12. "It creates a more realistic battlefield scenario. Our goal is to send forward the best trained men and women possible to support ISAF."
Previously, Soldiers had to travel to Germany for similar training, or settle for classroom training.
"At any given time, one-third of our unit is deployed," said Sgt. Maj. Gordon Walker, 650th MIG/ACCI. "That means one-third of our unit is training to deploy, and one-third is returning from deployment. Those of us returning share the knowledge we gained downrange with those Soldiers preparing to deploy.
"It's one constant cycle, and the fact we can train on ChiAfA..vres increases our efficiency," he continued. "It's every Army leaders' mission to ensure their Soldiers have the most realistic training possible. Because of this training area and the quality of the NCO's guiding the training, we are sending forward our best each deployment cycle."
Walker returned from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan in October 2009. He's spent the last four years assigned to 650th MIG/ACCI, a party to the initial discussions about the training site.
"The guys downrange notice the benefit of the training," he said. "While you can't train for every emergency, what the ChiAfA..vres Training Area offers us is a chance to put our people - many with no prior deployments - into battlefield conditions. We deploy Soldiers and civilians, with vastly different experiences, but they're all going to the same combat zone. When they arrive to the combat zone, they're able to draw from lessons learned in our training as a reference point.
"We couldn't do this level of training without the support of USAG Benelux and tenant units. With the other Soldiers training, we don't have to pull from our troops to simulate, for example, military police checkpoints. The USAG Benelux MPs are there doing that."
While the training area gives deploying Soldiers an opportunity to train in battle conditions, Walker said, it is still a work in progress subject to funding. Each of the five exercises since the inception of Alliance Home Station has progressed in complexity. Training is based on establishing traffic control point exercises, mounted and dismounted patrols, hostage recovery and reacting to improvised explosive devices and ambushes.
The critical piece that's missing is the ability for expanded IED training, said Lt. Col. Patrick Tynan, 650th MIG/ACCI deputy commander. Tynan, who's been in his current position for just under two years, had been deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 with his former unit.
"It's a different Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010," he said. "Now the threat of IEDs is constantly with you when you leave the wire. It's the one common thing everyone will have to deal with downrange. It's the low-cost/ high impact weapon of choice used by the adversary. We just don't have the proper training facility for that here. It's an aspect of the training area we are actively trying to improve."
When Walker described his experience with IEDs downrange, he used the exact date in his sentence: August 15, 2009. A suicide bomber drove 550 pounds of explosives into the main gate of ISAF Headquarters, miraculously without any serious casualties. The resulting blast shook the entire compound.
"IEDs affect the entire force, even people who never leave the installation while deployed, for example laundry workers. Everyone travels from the airport to the base at least twice, when they arrive and when they leave," said Walker. "An IED lane on the training area would allow us to train for this."
The training area remains the premier deployment preparation site in the Benelux region, Tynan said. The exercises provide added benefit to NATO, he said, by incorporating agents from Allied nations, many of whom don't have anything close to this support system in their home nation.
"The biggest thing I've enjoyed about this training area is the support from USAG Benelux and our sister units," he said. "The management of the training area is beyond our capability as a unit. But we all work together to accomplish our individual missions and it enhances everyone's skills.
"We rely on each other," he said, confirming the plan leadership set a year-and-a-half earlier is in motion.
Both Drago and St. Cyr are scheduled to relinquish command in June. Under their leadership, the training area has evolved from a vacant lot to a patch of land with global impact.
One year and six months later, the quality of Allied counterintelligence support to NATO in Afghanistan is tied to their handshake.