FORWARD OPERATING BASE ALTIMUR, Afghanistan -- On a brief trip to see their friends again, a group of advisors inside UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters descended onto this Afghan National Army base.
Once on the ground, Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Velez and others with the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade quickly jumped out and crossed the gravel landing zone.
A flurry of handshakes, smiles and rounds of chai tea greeted the advisors as they sat down with leaders of the base's Afghan battalion, known locally as "kandaks."
While many 1st SFAB advisors support the corps and brigade levels of the Afghan army, some advisors, like Velez, fly from nearby Camp Dahlke to visit the smaller outposts.
The fly-to-advise missions allow advisors to gauge progress at the tip of the spear. It also strengthens the trust between both armies.
"Nothing solidifies a relationship like face-to-face encounters," said Velez, the NCO-in-charge of Combat Advisor Team 1312, assigned to the brigade's 3rd Squadron.
Since March, the 1st SFAB, which redeploys this month, has placed teams across Afghanistan to conduct the Army's re-energized train, advise and assist mission.
A concerted effort of personal interaction with Afghans at the different leadership levels has been their calling card throughout the deployment.
"At the end of the day, the goal is to make sure these guys are taking the fight to the enemy," said Velez, 34, of New Bedford, Massachusetts. "And we can't really do that when we're sitting behind our T-walls."
This year, the 1st SFAB restarted kandak-level advising after it was halted a few years ago when the U.S. military drew down many of its troops from the country.
With plans to stand up a total of six SFABs, the Army hopes to further gains made by similar security assistance efforts using the new specialized, highly-trained units.
"We're just going to keep moving the ball farther down the field," said Brig. Gen. Scott Jackson, the 1st SFAB commander. "The Afghan army is going to get better and better, and the subsequent SFABs are going to pick it up where we leave it off."
SFABs are permanent organizations, he said, whereas previous advising teams, such as military transition teams or security force assistance advisory teams, were mainly ad hoc formations.
Members of an SFAB will train, deploy and redeploy together as part of an enduring team. After some time resetting back at home, the teams in that same brigade will deploy again.
"There's no loss of information, there's no loss of continuity," Jackson said. "The institutional lessons we get this deployment will be carried over to the next deployment in the same teams that we're in right now."
During their first deployment, the 1st SFAB's roughly 1,000 Soldiers have already seen positive results due to their regular advising efforts.
One highlight has been the advisors helping the Afghans integrate their air and ground assets.
"That's a pretty advanced level of skill to bring an Afghan airplane and drop an Afghan piece of munition or ordnance in support of Afghan ground maneuver with next to zero help from us," the general said.
The 12-member teams in his brigade -- comprised of seasoned Soldiers from different military career fields -- also bring a variety of other skills.
"You walk into an organization and you can automatically be value added to your Afghan partner," Jackson said, "and they respect you and they bring you into the organization faster because of it."
As a result, leaders of the Afghan army's 203rd Corps often ask the general and other advisors to attend their battle update briefings so they can provide their insight.
When the 1st SFAB started to recruit, it sought skilled NCOs and officers who cared about the mission and who were willing to take on new roles.
"You're not just going to be a one-trick pony, you're going to be a jack-of-all-trades," Jackson said. "With only 12 people on an advising team, we can't have one person just do one job.
"We say that everybody fills sandbags in the SFAB and that's because you got to do what you got to do each day."
That sort of work ethic sparked interest in Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Davis, a fire support specialist with 11 years of service.
"I felt it was an opportunity to be part of something bigger," said Davis, now an advisor with 1st SFAB's CAT 1320 at Advising Platform Lightning, where the brigade is headquartered. "It's something that could have a lasting effect on the Army."
In his first advising role, Davis built up an artillery leaders course and a land navigation and reporting course for Afghan soldiers. He has also taught them on their communications systems.
Because of the training, he said, the Afghans have been able to fire artillery more accurately than ever before.
"They've made a lot of those improvements based on the things we taught them," said Davis, 32, of Portland, Oregon. "It gives them the ability to improve their lethality."
BACK TO KANDAKS
Benefits that come from schoolhouse training and senior leader advising should eventually trickle down to the kandaks.
For Velez and others on the fly-to-advise missions, it's their responsibility that they do.
"By us coming out here at the kandak level, we're really [integrating] that advising network at all levels to make sure everything is synchronized and everybody is talking," he said. "That's what really makes this mission unique."
But getting out to see the kandaks has proved challenging at times for the advisors.
Since ongoing advising had not taken place for years at the kandaks, and even at the Afghan brigade in their area of responsibility, Velez's squadron had to align resources to start it back up.
"Frequency of advising is something we're always looking to increase," said Lt. Col. Ian Palmer, commander of 1st SFAB's 3rd Squadron. "There are only so many helicopters, there are only so many resources that you can leverage to go.
"We would love to be able to go out there every single day, but you can't. There's a limitation, so you have to design your advising objectives to fit the amount of time you can spend out there."
When advisors do manage to fly out to the Afghan bases, they are able to learn much more than what they could over a phone call.
"You can tell a lot about a unit and what their strengths and weaknesses are by being face-to-face with their leaders as well as seeing their soldiers and how they operate," Palmer said. "It's exponentially better to be in their areas of operation than at a distance."
Strong friendships are also forged during these encounters.
During their recent visit to this Afghan base, Velez's team shared their knowledge, but also some laughs with their counterparts.
They even gifted the Afghans a case of a popular energy drink commonly found on American combat bases. It's also a favorite drink of Afghan Command Sgt. Maj. Abdul Rahman Rangakhil, the senior enlisted leader of 1st Kandak, 4th Brigade, 203rd Corps.
When offered one, Rangakhil cracked open the aluminum can and drank it. Velez then sipped chai and ate some sugarcane candy offered by the sergeant major.
"When they visit, it's like a family coming together," Rangakhil said through an interpreter.
The sergeant major has appreciated the advisors, he said, who have helped improved his unit's logistics and trained his soldiers on radios and combat lifesaving techniques.
"We are so happy that they support us," he said. "It's good to learn from them."
Velez has also been impressed with the Afghans. Units in the surrounding area now talk more among themselves and share information regarding the battlespace.
"That's important because that's going to give the Taliban less of an ability to travel freely throughout the area," he said. "That's a huge win."
And while the Afghans can already fight, Velez said, advisor support just strives to make them more effective at it.
"We don't need to teach them how to fight, we need to teach them how to sustain the fight," he said.