By Staff Sgt. Sierra A. MelendezJanuary 25, 2018
Fort Polk, La. - Soldiers and leaders from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade completed their first rotation as a brigade at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, Jan. 26.
The month-long exercise was the culminating training event for the newly-formed 1st SFAB prior to their deployment to Afghanistan in spring of 2018.
A peculiar set of skills
Stood up in August, the pioneer unit is the first of its kind. Created with the intention to alleviate the enduring advise and assist mission load on brigade combat teams, the 1st SFAB was specially designed and built to enable combatant commanders to accomplish theater security objectives by training, advising, assisting, accompanying and enabling allied and partnered indigenous security forces.
The 1st SFAB's rotation was unique in that the scenario was tailored to create a realistic environment more conducive to their distinctive mission. The scenario differed greatly from the typical decisive action training exercises performed by BCTs.
The brigade began their training with the Security Force Assistance Academy which focused on essential learning objectives such as Afghan culture; language training; and negotiations and consequence management.
At the conclusion of the academy, three distinct training efforts were held simultaneously - they evaluated the 1st SFAB's ability to seamlessly operate alongside role players acting as members of the Afghan National Army at different echelons.
One lane revolved around mission command - exercising the 1st SFAB's ability to work with the Afghan National Army Corps, while assessing the brigade and battalion staffs' ability to exercise mission command over their subordinate units.
Concurrently, the brigade conducted a command post exercise, while combat advisor teams maneuvered through a two-day, seven event training schedule. A portion of the CATs also executed a live-fire exercise in which they were partnered with an Afghan force.
Not their first rodeo
Col. Scott Jackson, the commander of the 1st SFAB, is no stranger to the advise and assist world. Having spent nearly 15 months living with the governor of the Divala Province in Iraq during his second deployment, Jackson believes that type of experience is the reason why he - alongside many other key leaders throughout the unit - were selected for these historic positions.
Jackson said the scenarios and lifelike sets during the rotation are reminiscent of the days he spent advising high-profile indigenous leaders.
"I spent those 15 months doing just this," said Jackson. "Spending every single day with the guy, anywhere from 12 to 14 hours a day - talking through issues, coaching him through his problem sets, integrating with his military - you learn a certain skill set."
1st SFAB leaders have completed key development time in their careers in order to qualify for the positions they currently hold in the SFAB.
"I would venture to say that all of our senior leaders can tell you a similar story with similar advisory backgrounds," said Jackson. "So what does that mean for this formation then? It means that you now have a group of officers and noncommissioned officers that have the right personal attributes, character and personalities that can do this job effectively."
Both Jackson and his senior enlisted advisor, Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher D. Gunn, believe this is the reason why the rotation proved to be so successful.
"The only way we have been able to pull this off is because of the Soldiers that we have in this unit," said Gunn. "If we didn't have the leaders that we have with the experience that they have, or these Soldiers who volunteered to do this and were specially selected, this rotation would have flopped."
A historic precedent
Both Jackson and Gunn are honored to be a part of a unit filled with firsts - including being part of a trailblazing rotation at one of the United States' premier military training centers.
"Anytime you can stand up a brand new organization, especially one that is built the way this one is," said Jackson. "To say you're breaking ground is phenomenal."
This rotation - along with the standard operating procedures and tactics formulated by the SFAB - is groundbreaking on many fronts, according to Jackson.
"I tell the guys and gals in this formation all of the time," said Jackson. "You should be honored. It's great to be in an SFAB, it's even better to be in the first SFAB. Everything we do has to be repeatable in order to build a foundation for the rest of the SFABs to follow."
Maj. Brennan M. Speakes, operations officer for the 1st SFAB, believes the complex training scenario created runs parallel to the potential circumstances the brigade could face during their upcoming deployment.
"The JRTC operations group has done a fantastic job in making a challenging scenario and I have every confidence in the world that this brigade is ready and prepared to take this training and lessons learned and apply them to the real-world deployment we're on track to complete," said Speakes. "Any time you have to relocate all of your manpower and assets to another location, set it all up and then go out and execute - it's a significant muscle movement."
Gunn commended the JRTC planning team on the scenario created and has full confidence that it has better prepared his formation for their deployment.
"The scenarios were built to put them in situations where they were uncomfortable and caused them to think in ways they may not have thought up until that point," said Gunn. "In turn, that forced them to continue to build on that cohesiveness. I've seen here a CAT commander can turn to his lowest enlisted member and ask him or her on their expertise, and then take that information and apply it in order to better assist their Afghan counterpart."
Speakes praised the 1st SFAB on their relentless staunchness and impeccable ability to quickly make sound decisions, in addition to providing the simulated ANA with guidance and enabling them to operate autonomously.
"It's interesting to see partnered operations that are really happening at all levels," said Speakes. "Our CAT leaders have been total rock stars and have performed phenomenally. They thought outside of the box and came up with innovative ways to solve complex problems. We have really gotten the most out of this training event."
'Shohna Ba Shohna'
Jackson concurred with Speakes' thoughts on how the scenarios echoed his personal advise and assist experience and the mission the brigade will mostly likely face in Afghanistan. In terms of cultural differences, the training forced the Soldiers of the 1st SFAB to remain cognizant of the sensitive nature of the differences - and similarities - of the Afghan culture and people.
"There is a need to stay attune to culture," said Jackson. "Understanding culture, travel and social dynamics are paramount. That's why the cultural training that we go through is essential. It's not 'business as usual' for the United States Army. This mission is unique."
Jackson believes the unrivaled training the 1st SFAB has received during their rotation at JRTC and at home station training - coupled with the advanced equipment issued to them - will instill confidence in their Afghan partners.
"The theme I have been beating the entire time at JRTC has been 'we all know how to plan an operation'," said Jackson. "But we have to know how to plan an operation from an Afghan perspective. What systems they have, how they receive orders. We have to understand their processes."
Gunn said he is most excited for his Soldiers to make a lasting impact on the Afghan people.
"There's a plan there," said Gunn. "And the SFAB plays a large part in that plan. We're going to be part of an organization that's headed to Afghanistan and I truly believe with all of my heart we're going to make a difference. I'm ready to take this initiative that the Chief of the Army created and put it into action."