CAMP SHELBY, MS -- Thousands of miles from home, the mission of some New York Army National Guard troops in Afghanistan will be distinctly local.
The 48 Soldiers of the Stabilization and Transition Team (STT), which left here Feb. 29, will be mentoring Afghan National Army soldiers and police officers to create local police in areas where the Taliban has influence, said Sgt. Maj. Joseph Marra, the team's non-commissioned officer in charge.
"In those areas, they want to pull Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police assets to build local police," explained Marra, of Tannersville, Pa. "We've successfully built the Afghan National Army, they've built up the Afghan National Police, the next step is the local police. We'll be more or less mentoring them, to point them in the right direction."
The local police should be an extension of the central Afghan government, Marra said. By helping build local police, they'll be helping the Afghan government protect the people of Afghanistan, he explained. Team members will be based mainly near Kandahar, he added.
"We just want to get them as close to success as we can," he said. "The people have to feel their government is protecting them, or else they'll simply side with whoever has the most power in the area."
Among other things, this mentorship will involve gauging the Afghan Soldiers' and police officers' skills and ensuring they're meeting their mission requirements, such as having enough food, ammunition and other supplies, Marra said. They'll also help them try to overcome common operational pitfalls, and analyze their systems and assist them in overcoming systematic problems, he added.
"The ultimate goal is for them to operate on their own, without our help," said Team member Master Sgt. James Weaver, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "By 2014, it's going to be all them."
Made up of mostly New York Army National Guard Soldiers, the team is now part of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division. Most the team arrived here in mid-January and began training.
In addition to completing requirements like counter-IED exercises, urban operations and weapons qualifications, they also spent two weeks in Ft. Polk, La., learning about Afghan culture, key-leader engagement and how to speak basic Pashtu -- the language spoken by the Afghans they'll be dealing with, Marra said. Overcoming language and cultural barriers will be some of their biggest challenges, he added.
"These are big hurdles for U.S. troops," he stressed. "The more cultural awareness you have, the better off you are."
Marra took part in civil-military operations in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. During these operations, they engaged with key Iraqi leaders and tried to win their trust, he said.
"I wanted to see that we were there trying to help them," Marra explained. "They see your patch," he added, pointing to the 2nd Infantry Division patch on his left sleeve, "that's how they recognize you."
Common sense, the golden rule and basic humanity will help them establish trust and working relationships, Marra said.
"Also, if you treat people as you'd like to be treated, that goes a long way," Marra said.
At Ft. Polk, former Afghan Army and police officers taught them to avoid common social mistakes which could hurt the relationships they're trying to forge with other Afghans, said Sgt. 1st Class Leonard Claus, the team's senior intelligence non-commissioned officer. When dealing with Afghans, for example, it's rude to start off talking business, said Claus, of Schaghticoke, N.Y. You have to be patient and allow time to socialize, he explained.
"That was huge," Claus said of the training at Ft. Polk. "It was a lot of fun. That was, by far, the most interesting training I've had in the past year."
The cultural awareness training involved dining with the Afghan officers and eating Afghan dishes. Though he couldn't recall the names of the Afghan food, Claus said it was spicy.
"It was good," he said, smiling.
Weaver also found the Ft. Polk training interesting. The Afghans have thousands of years of history, while America has only 300 years of history, he reflected.
"You really have to pay attention to their culture, and make sure you don't do anything wrong," Weaver said.
The time spent at Camp Shelby was largely transitional, and they weren't actually doing their jobs, Claus said. He's looking forward to arriving in Afghanistan, establishing a routine, interacting with the Afghan National Army and police and mentoring them so they can establish security and stability for the Afghan people, he added.
The team is made up mainly of senior officers and non-commissioned officers who have a wealth of experience to accomplish the mission, Weaver said. Team members are going to have to watch each other's backs and keep their eyes open, he stressed.