FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Efforts among Soldiers from nearly every brigade in 10th Mountain Division (LI) led to an intensely tough and realistic nine-day training exercise, April 15-24, known as Mountain Peak. The exercise's primary purpose was to prepare 3rd Brigade Combat Team for its upcoming mission rehearsal exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.

For the brigade's commander, collaboration among units and installation organizations truly made the Mountain Peak exercise the best it could be.

"I would easily say that it was probably four or five thousand personnel," said Col. Sam E. Whitehurst, 3rd Brigade Combat Team commander. "It was really a team effort, across the post, across the division."

Mountain Peak served as the division's opportunity to certify the brigade before it heads to JRTC as part of the Army's validation process for units preparing for combat. The brigade's composition during the exercise was radically different from that of a conventional infantry brigade combat team, in that it reorganized into a Security Force Assistance Brigade.

"For the 3rd Brigade, we are in the process of transitioning to a Security Force Assistance Brigade, (which is) very similar to the brigades that are in Afghanistan, so even though we are not on orders to deploy, we are preparing to deploy," Whitehurst said.

The SFABs reflect the changing mission in Afghanistan, where the emphasis is on training and mentoring Afghan security forces as they take the lead in shaping the future of their country. The 3rd BCT will, if called upon to deploy, accomplish their mission through the use of various, highly specialized teams known as Security Force Advise and Assist Teams.

The advise and assist teams are relatively small teams of officers and enlisted personnel, with the intended purpose of providing guidance and training to help Afghan forces operate as efficiently as they can.

"The purpose of the SFAAT is to advise and assist the (Afghan National Security Forces) on their operations and their systems -- how to utilize their systems in a better way in order to facilitate security for their country," said Maj. Phillip Serpico, operations officer for the brigade's SFAAT Team 5.

Each of the brigade's SFAATs and the Soldiers who deployed to the field to support them were tested with simulated combat exercises requiring them to draw on every skill in their inventories, from the most basic tasks and drills to coordinating use of cutting-edge technology, such as the new Capability Set 13 communications system now available.

In the weeks leading up to Mountain Peak, the brigade had conducted its own Spartan Peak exercise, which focused on company- and platoon-level combined-arms live-fire exercises, while using simulated enemy forces to test leaders and Soldiers.

"Our training objective was to test this new organization that we have transitioned to during the last few weeks," Whitehurst said. "We've been out doing company live-fire exercises, and we've also been running different training scenarios with dedicated (opposing forces) and with role players who have been replicating everything you could see in Afghanistan."

Attention to detail during the Mountain Peak exercise ensured that the training scenarios replicated what the advising teams could encounter while in Afghanistan.

For example, role players were complemented by native-born Afghans, who even spoke in the Dari or Pashto language as they posed as senior officers and leaders during key leader engagements with the American forces.

"There were Afghan-Americans who were not Soldiers who came here and played army officers or police officers," Whitehurst said. "It gave me a chance to interact through an interpreter very similar to what I may be do-ing here in the near future."

The addition of Afghan role players also boosted the confidence of Serpico and his team.
Serpico, who served in a similar advising mission in Iraq, remembers not having had the advantage of practicing in engaging key leaders with native language speakers then.

"It made it easier for us to sharpen our key leader engagement skills," Serpico said. "I'm fairly more confident in my key leader engagement skills now than I was years ago on the other patrols."

Soldiers with Spartan Brigade practiced and were tested on various skills throughout Mountain Peak with the support of fellow Soldiers, and the long days and nights they endured in the field went a long way to instill their abilities to ensure a successful rotation through JRTC.

Whitehurst, who previously served as an observer-controller at the Joint Readiness Training Center, said the nine-day exercise did a first-class job of simulating a real-world combat environment.

"I feel very confident," he said. "Two years ago, I was an observer-controller at JRTC, and in that position I was able to see brigades come through -- brigades that were preparing to go to either Iraq or Afghanistan -- and I saw the challenges that they faced in JRTC.

"What the division has been able to do here comes very close to replicating the very same challenges that they have in JRTC," he added.

"We've had the benefit of going through Mountain Peak, identifying what wrong with our organization and fixing those issues before we go through JRTC," Whitehurst said.

"Many units don't get a workout like they get at JRTC until they get they get there, so hopefully we'll be a few steps ahead."