By Chuck CannonJanuary 22, 2019
FORT POLK, La. -- As the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) goes through its paces at the crucible known as the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, the goal is to prepare Soldiers to handle situations that might - or will - arise during their deployment to Afghanistan later this year.
The SFAB are specialized units with the core mission to conduct training, advising, assisting, enabling and accompanying operations with allied and partner nations.
The 1st SFAB recently redeployed from Afghanistan, to be replaced by the 2nd SFAB.
Lt. Col. Javier Lopez, commander, 353rd Infantry Regiment, commands many of the trainers who have worked to prep the advisors and security forces - Guardian Angels - for their mission to provide assistance and guidance to their counterparts in the Afghan National Army.
"We've integrated with and dispersed our expert trainers and instructors within [JRTC] Operations Group," Lopez said. "It's a challenging mission and we're happy to support Operations Group. It helps us beyond this rotation as we develop additional training for SFABs."
Lopez said there have been improvements in training since the 1st SFAB visited JRTC.
"We always look at how we can do better," he said. "When Operations Group and JRTC looked holistically at how we improved from the 1st SFAB, we connected the highest level of the SFAB brigade all the way down to the lowest advisor teams, improving communication."
Another improvement was scenarios that more closely mirror what is currently happening in Afghanistan, Lopez said. "We connect with Afghanistan on a daily basis with our LNO (liaison officer), and pull information on what is going on right now," he said. "The goal is not to duplicate, but to replicate. We were able to integrate into the design certain scenarios that are relevant today and thus prepare the SFAB when they go into theater to deal with those situations.
A third improvement in training was the integration of the ANET - the Advisor Network Tool.
"The ANET is used today in Afghanistan in support of Operation Resolute Support and is the official means to communicate laterally and vertically by advisors to capture reports and engagements," Lopez said. "Anyone at any echelon can get information and help an adjacent unit or advisor. It's new for this rotation that we implemented with the help of Operations Group and NATO."
In preparation for the 2nd SFAB rotation, Lopez said his Soldiers provided training for the Guardian Angels - those tasked with protecting advisors - and the advisors themselves on how to relate to their counterparts.
"Abraham Lincoln was once asked how he would prepare if he was given 9 hours to chop down a tree," Lopez said. "He supposedly answered he would spend six months sharpening his axe. What we have done is incrementally connect with the 2nd SFAB and the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment, [the Wisconsin National Guard unit providing Guardian Angel support] and gave them training, teaching them to protect the advisor teams in October. It was successful. We see a huge difference today."
Next, security force assistance advisor training took place in November at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
"We taught them how to reinforce advisor fundamentals collectively," Lopez said.
Then in December, 2nd SFAB senior leaders came to Fort Polk and were given theater-specific advisor training.
"We brought in 1st SFAB veterans who shared their experience with them," Lopez said. "Now they are here, all together. We have dispersed our trainers across every task force. It's taken some time, but we see improvement every day. They are very good tactically, and we want to give them advisor fundamentals to make them balanced. Being an advisor in a different country isn't black and white, it's gray. It's a huge team effort."
Additionally, Lopez said his unit is sending 10 linguists, MOS 09L, with the 2nd SFAB when it deploys. The Soldiers, each native Dari Pashtu speakers from Afghanistan, are attached to the 2nd SFAB during the current rotation.
"Ten of our 09L are attached for the rotation and will deploy with them. These Soldiers are physically fit, and include the first Ranger qualified 09L," Lopez said "With the 1st SFAB we deployed four, that was increased to 10 based on the Army agreeing this was a great program."
Capt. Miguel Moyeno, commander, Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 353rd Infantry Regiment, said that while the rotation has been a challenge, it's proven the point of the JRTC crucible experience.
"It's a replication of Afghanistan by design," he said. "It's what they'll be doing in Afghanistan. The cultural role players they see here will resemble what they see in Afghanistan. We offer them the expertise on what happens in the room when advisor teams and Guardian Angels meet with their counterparts."
That includes little things like cultural differences, such as Afghani versus Afghan.
"Afghan is what you call someone from Afghanistan," Moyeno said. "Afghani is their currency. We point out those cultural differences."
As readiness remains the Army's top priority, JRTC rotations prepare units like the 2nd SFAB to meet global demands while remaining postured for major contingencies that require the ability to conduct the full range of military operations.
The rotation has also allowed the 2-127th Guardian Angels to test standard operation procedures developed in the wake of their training at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin in October.
"We're testing the leadership all the way down to the lowest level," Moyeno said. "The Guardian Angels are able to implement their SOPs with the 2nd SFAB here at the JRTC, instead of waiting until they go down range."
Moyeno said the 2nd SFAB rotation differs from most JRTC rotations in another way - its detail.
"Most of our rotations don't actually execute the mission the unit is headed to" he said. "It could be completely different than what they see when they deploy.
"This one is unique: We're training them specifically on with where they're going and who they'll deploy with. It will probably be the most specific rotation ever designed to mimic exactly what environment they will see when they deploy in the next 30-60 days."
Staff Sgt. Christopher Manuel is part of an observer/controller/trainer team observing one of the 2nd SFAB teams interacting with their ANA counterparts.
"Thing have gone pretty well," Manuel said. "The first day was a little rough, but they've improved by leaps and bounds since then."
He said part of his focus has been explaining how the same word can mean different things in different cultures.
"They're taking the advice and keying on the things we're pointing out," Manuel said. "I think they are going to do just fine."
Jan. 16 found Sgt. Major Scott Thomas, Operations Sergeant Major for 3rd Squadron, 2nd SFAB, observing a team deploying an AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven unmanned aircraft.
"We have a Raven to look for point of origin sites," Thomas said. "We took some indirect fire today so we launched the Raven in the direction we think the fire came from and it will give us a bird's eye view of the site."
The team consisted of Staff Sgt. Anthony Williams, Staff Sgt. Christopher Holmstadt and Staff Sgt. Joseph Meadows.
"Sometimes it's hard getting flight clearance out here [in the JRTC training area], but we're getting better and better the more we use it," Thomas said.
Master Sgt. Bryan Hardy, A Co, 3rd Bn, 353rd Inf Reg, is the Regionally Aligned Forces training team NCOIC. He said his team is responsible for ensuring role players know and understand scenarios so the 2nd SFAB can be trained and tested.
"There are a lot of intricacies in advising foreign forces," he said. "We have to get our Soldiers out of the habit of trying to apply U.S. solutions to Afghanistan problems. We have to identify Afghan solutions to Afghan problems, and that's what we're trying to drive 2nd SFAB to accomplish."
To that end, Hardy said his team is also are teaching the ANA role players how to look for Afghan solutions.
"We have a mix of actual native Afghan role players filling leader roles and our 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division Soldiers that are playing ANA Soldiers and planners," Hardy said. "At the end of the day, there's not a lot of differences [in ANA and U.S. Soldiers], it's just their capabilities are not up to our level."
Hardy said during Phase I of the rotation there were some struggles, but during Phase II the 2nd SFAB addressed them and showed improvement.
"I think that by the end of the rotation they'll do a good job and will have worked through any difficulties they had," he said.
Staff Sgt. Eric Bishop, A Co, 3rd Bn, 353rd Inf Reg, is a security force advisor and O/C/T, and said much of his focus was on logistic issues the 2nd SFAB might be faced with.
"Logistics is one of biggest failures in ANA - systematic logistical failures," Bishop said. "Simple stuff like paper work not getting passed up. These guys have to advise them how to make it better without insulting them."
Bishop said the key is making them think changes are their idea.
"You try to sell an idea and let them develop a solution," he said. "We can't do it our way, we have to work within the Afghan system. The teams seem to be grasping that idea well."
Capt. Kyle Callahan, A Co, 3rd Bn, 353rd Inf Reg, is working with Regionally Aligned Forces and said his focus has been identifying communication issues between ANA and 2nd SFAB company advisor teams.
"It was a little rough at the beginning because the CATs weren't located at the same FOB (forward operating base) as their counterparts [ANA]," he said. "They had some communication issues. Being located on the same FOB during Phase II, it's gotten better."
Callahan also noted some of the Guardian Angel security forces posture was a bit aggressive.
"I think that was due to not conducting enough rehearsals with the Guardian Angels about proper posture," he said. "That's hurt them a little bit. After each engagement we pull them and give guidance on what they should be doing, and each time they've responded favorably, and using what they're learning. Our 1st SFAB Soldiers are giving them valuable guidance on what they've just experienced over there."
One of the 09L linguists, Spc. Abdul Srrosh, 41st Translator/Interpreter Company, attached to the 2nd SFAB for the rotation and then deployment to Afghanistan, said he is honored to do his part as a U.S. Soldier. Srrosh, a native of Afghanistan and a former soldier in the ANA, said because of his six-year experience as a captain, commando, and graduate of U.S. Airborne, Air Assault and Special Forces Q Course, he'll be able to provide valuable insight to the 2nd SFAB team he's assigned to.
"I know there might be some risk going back to Afghanistan as a U.S. Soldier, but the risk is more important than what might happen," he said. "I fought the same enemy when I was in the ANA as we fight now, whether you call them ISIS, Al-Qaeda or Taliban, they are all enemies of humanity. The flag I wear on my sleeve is the country I serve."
The 2nd SFAB JRTC rotation will conclude Jan. 23.