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News | May 24, 2010

Airborne brigade returning to familiar ground in Afghanistan

By Donna Miles , American Forces Press Service

The Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., prepares rotational training units with scenarios that replicate situations they will encounter during deployments to Afghanistan.
The Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., prepares rotational training units with scenarios that replicate situations they will encounter during deployments to Afghanistan.

FORT POLK, La. (May 24, 2010) — For troops seeking the most realistic training experience possible before deploying to Afghanistan, most wouldn’t expect to find it within the pine forests of western Louisiana.

But here at the Joint Readiness Training Center, that’s exactly what the 101st Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team is realizing, as it goes through a rehearsal exercise designed to build on its strengths and identify any shortcomings before the deployment.

The 4th BCT “Currahee” arrived here earlier this month. It is wrapping up a demanding training regime that Army Col. Sean Jenkins, the brigade commander, is counting on to ensure mission success in Afghanistan.

“This is our last big training exercise,” Jenkins said, before the 4th BCT deploys to eastern Afghanistan as part of the 30,000-troop surge force there.

The 4th BCT will be the last of five 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagle” brigades to deploy to Afghanistan. As Army Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, the division’s commander, was casing the division colors back at Fort Campbell, Ky., Jenkins’ troopers were focusing on the skills they’ll need when they arrive in eastern Afghanistan.

About 60 percent of Jenkins’ soldiers will be returning to the same area of Afghanistan they served in a year and a half ago – a big plus in Jenkins’ book.

“It’s an incredible advantage,” he said. “It takes some of the home-court advantage away from the enemy.”

The Currahee brigade had built strong relationships with their Afghan counterparts during the past deployment that Jenkins plans to reinforce in the months ahead. He was struck how deeply the bonds run when several of the brigade’s former Afghan military counterparts paid a visit to Fort Campbell.

“They knew them by name,” he said. “And I’m not just talking about our guys knowing their names, but them knowing our soldiers, too. “I think it’s a great advantage when you can build upon what you left 17 months ago.”

The biggest change since the brigade’s last deployment is President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, being implemented on the ground under the leadership of Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.

“I think the goal is the same: a stable, secure Afghanistan where the people have confidence in [and] support the government of Afghanistan,” Jenkins said.

And McChrystal’s revised tactical directives, issued last July, place an emphasis on protecting innocent civilians while confronting the insurgency.

“It really comes down to the allocation of your resources – your most precious being people – and how you apply the [counterinsurgency] strategy,” Jenkins said. “I don’t look at it as … limitations or constraints. It is actually a benefit. You are getting after that same goal without violating the culture.

“You are honoring the culture of Afghanistan and you are … showing the people that, ‘See? We can do this,’” he said. “We can bring agriculture to your region. We can bring medical. We can bring education without violating the culture.”

Another big change since the Currahee Brigade’s last deployment is the emphasis on increasingly moving Afghan national security forces into the lead.

The 101st will be largely responsible for training and mentoring Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police forces. And exercising a “combined action” strategy initiated by the 82nd Airborne Division, they’ll embed with their Afghan counterparts.

“As we do things forward, everything is [going to be] combined action,” Jenkins said. “Everything this brigade will do, there will be an Afghan lead. So if we are out on patrol, there are Afghans there with us. We have planned it together. We have rehearsed it together, and we are going to execute it together.

“If someone needs to go into a house, the first one in the house is [going to be] an Afghan,” he continued. “The first voice [one] hears is Afghan.”

That focus has been paramount in the training plan the 4th BCT worked out with the JRTC cadre months before its arrival at Fort Polk.

The Currahee have been keeping their eyes on what Jenkins calls the “big six.” It’s an extensive array of capabilities he considers critical to battlefield success: physical fitness, marksmanship, battle drills, medical skills training, driving and, reflecting an area of Army-wide emphasis, resilience.

The brigade’s “Toccoa Tough” program – named for the Georgia town where the storied unit that came to be known during World War II as the “Band of Brothers” was founded in 1942 – emphasizes mental as well as physical resilience for soldiers and their families, Jenkins explained.

Now at JRTC, the brigade is hammering away at those and other capabilities, with an emphasis on company-, troop- and battery-level operations difficult to conduct within the confines of its home station.

JRTC’s extensive training space – 200,000 acres that includes live-fire ranges, situational training exercise lanes and 22 mock Afghan villages – provide the perfect venue for fine-tuning those skills that will be critical in Afghanistan.

Operating under the watchful eyes of trainer-mentors from the JRTC cadre, the soldiers are working shoulder-to-shoulder with role players serving as Afghan security forces as they confront a wily opposing force well-practiced in insurgent tactics.

They interact with the local population, also portrayed by role-players, ever attempting to sway the “hedgers” and fence-sitters and bolster support for the coalition, and more importantly, the Afghan government and national security forces.

“It is not us, [going] forward,” Jenkins said. “It is them seeing the legitimate government of Afghanistan [and them seeing that the] Afghan national security forces are legitimate, and that they are the ones doing it. We are just helping them do it. We give them some backing. We give them some training. But like we have seen in other areas of the world, they have got [to be the ones to do it.]”

Jenkins expressed that commitment in the Pashtun language during a mock news conference integrated into a JRTC training scenario. The brigade will stand “shohna ba shohna” – shoulder to shoulder – with the Afghan national security forces to provide a security environment that “will allow the Afghan people to live their daily lives without fear of insurgents,” he said.

“The Currahee’s number-one priority is to assist the Afghan people and do everything in our power to improve their quality of life,” Jenkins said.

Speaking to his Afghan military counterpart, role-played by an Afghan national, Jenkins pledged his brigade’s support and assistance to the mission. “We are proud to be part of your mission,” he said, emphasizing the word “your.”

“And we will support you in your mission to provide the people a better way of life,” he added.

After the mock news conference, Jenkins expressed confidence that the Afghan national security forces ultimately will be up to the task of assuming full responsibility for their country’s security.

“Many of them are phenomenal,” Jenkins said. “They are incredibly competent people, incredibly competent officers.” Many Afghan noncommissioned officers, he noted, are graduates of the sergeant’s major academy.

Jenkins said he recognizes the importance the U.S. leadership is placing on what happens in Afghanistan during the next six months. And he has no doubt that his own soldiers are up to the task ahead.

“Mission accomplishment is something you are taught from day one,” Jenkins said. “And I think they are going to look at it and say, ‘OK, here’s the challenge. Let’s go out and get after it.’”