Marines with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, attend a briefing with Afghan soldiers at Camp Dwyer, Afghanistan, Jan. 1.
CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan (Jan. 7, 2010) – During mid-afternoon on New Year's Day, a sea of men in green, brown and black camouflage uniforms shuffled awkwardly inside a crowded beige tent here.
Men with thick, black beards and hard faces sat next to clean-shaven youths with full smiles. Each one wears the uniform of his nation's military, and each one carries a weapon.
The full company of Afghan National Army soldiers, fresh out of boot camp, was being integrated directly into Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.
Pairing the soldiers of a host nation with coalition forces is not a new practice; this time however, the soldiers will be integrated with Marines at the smallest operating level. Each infantry company will nearly double in size, and Afghan soldiers and Marines will work side by side.
"We've never worked this extensively with the [Afghan army] before," said squad leader Marine Corps Sgt. Neil Terranova.
Integrating the forces is designed to build up the strength of the Afghan army through mentoring and joint operations. It will start at the company level and move down, all the way through the platoons and on to the fire teams, explained Terranova, who is on his third deployment to Afghanistan.
Terranova acknowledged he was reluctant to take part in the training at first, but said he came around when he thought about the ultimate outcome of the war and its impact on future generations. "I have a son,” he said, “and I don't want him coming back here in 20 years. If we do this right and they do it right, we might not have to come back."
The development of the Afghan army's noncommissioned officers is the primary focus of the training and mentoring. Marine NCOs will work closely with their Afghan counterparts in the hope of developing their small-unit leadership, said Marine Corps Sgt. Ryan White, Alpha Company’s assault section leader.
"We'll be mentoring them on the fly, giving a crash course in basic Marine infantry training," White explained. "The goal is to see them grow and develop, see them stand on their own and defend their country for themselves."
Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Stephen Vallejo Jr., an Alpha Company platoon sergeant, explained how the information flow will work. "Integrating the companies directly allows for information to be passed quickly since the two companies will be set up like mirror images of one another; with each platoon down to the squads and fire teams being paired with their Marine or Afghan counterpart," he said.
"The NCOs are our main focus,” said Vallejo, who is on his second deployment to Afghanistan and has worked with the Afghan security forces before. “All the [Afghan soldiers] graduated in the same class, and the most mature became their sergeants. We'll be starting with basic individual tasks, like weapons handling and cleaning, before moving on to team-level training, where we'll be giving the NCOs more leadership and responsibility."
Vallejo said the largest obstacle is neither language nor culture. It’s time.
"What we put into it is what we'll get out of it," he said. "This puts an Afghan face on everything that we're doing here. If they can grasp just a piece of what we're teaching, we'll be successful.
“Personally, I feel we should give full respect and trust from the get-go,” he continued. “Everyone makes mistakes, but it's all about respect and getting to know them, their families, and who they are."
As the Afghan soldiers listened to Marine Corps Lt. Col. Calvert Worth Jr., the battalion commander, welcome them through an interpreter, soldiers who had slumped on cots or leaned against the buttstocks of their weapons sat a little straighter, and their platoon commanders and sergeants stood at parade rest among their counterparts in Alpha Company.
"The main goal is getting these guys to take responsibility for their country," Vallejo said. "They want to do this. They want to be a part of this, and want to get out of it the same things that we want: to have it be Afghan-driven."