Spc. Michael Wilkersonfoy, of the 420th Route Clearance Company from Pittsburgh, Pa., grasps hands with an engineer of the Afghan National Army’s 4/1/209th Corps during a training break, March 4, 2012 (Photo by 2nd Lt. Brittany N. Ramos)
FARYAB PROVINCE, Afghanistan (August 16, 2012) — Six Engineer Training Teams under Task Force Hurricane are responsible for preparing Afghan National Army Route engineer units in Regional Command North for independent operations.
Combat engineers proudly hunt for the dangerous obstacles most others seek to avoid. They spend years in counter improvised explosive device, or IED, training and often attend additional courses to become certified to operate cutting edge detection equipment or work with explosives.
When the 420th Route Clearance Company, a U.S. Army Reserve unit out of Pittsburgh, Pa., received activation orders in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, many of the of its Soldiers were excited to finally put all of that training to good use. That excitement came to a sudden halt for Sgt. Douglas Thomas and eleven others when they were informed they would not be joining their platoons on the road, but instead, training Afghan engineers to assume responsibility for that mission.
Even with 19 years of Army Reserve service under his belt, Sgt. Thomas, of Clarion, Pa., could find nothing but a few choice words and apprehension in his mind directly after being assigned as a member of one of six Engineer Training Teams, or ETTs, in Task Force Hurricane. The Task Force is led by the 841st Engineer Battalion from Miami, Fla.
It has taken on a historic role as the last engineer battalion to operate in Regional Command North in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and singularly is responsible for all construction, all route clearance, forward operating base deconstruction, and Afghan National Army, or ANA, Engineer training in the 62,607 square-mile region. Task Force Hurricane is partnered with the ANA 209th Corps and three ETTs are assigned to ANA construction companies, while three ETTs are assigned to ANA route clearance companies.
Spc. Michael Wilkersonfoy, a 21-year-old combat engineer from Butler, Pa., and a member of ETT 1 with Thomas, recalls initially being told, “You guys are going to train these guys; figure it out.”
With that guidance, and Taliban bounties on their heads for being designated ANA trainers, the team of two junior noncommissioned officers and two specialists traveled to meet with their assigned ANA route clearance company.
“When we arrived, we had no idea of the situation we were walking into; no idea how much training they had received, what equipment they had or even how many soldiers they had,” noted Wilkersonfoy. “We found out, when we met them, that they had been conducting missions, which really consisted of them driving around hoping not to get blown up because they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing.”
The team was able to secure ANA brigade leadership support for halting all missions temporarily so the focus could shift to training. Every day, the team would leave the U.S. security perimeter and walk to the ANA compound to train anywhere from 40 to 120 soldiers.
“At first, they were shy, but eventually the tension eased and we would even tease each other,” said Wilkersonfoy. “The Operational Mentor Liaison Team produced a mission essential task list and we started teaching things from it by priority after we ranked them.”
They started with basic soldiering tasks like how to assemble and dissemble their weapons systems, first aid techniques, and supply inventory. Along the way, they adjusted their training techniques to be almost solely hands-on instruction and practice, which seemed to work the best. When certain instructions did not translate well, they were fortunate enough to have a highly experienced foreign language assistant to fill in the gaps lost in translation.
“Sometimes he would just take over the lesson for five to ten minutes because he had heard it so many times in his three years working in training environments. He was able to explain on his own when the troops weren’t grasping our explanation.” said Wilkersonfoy.
They worked their way up to creating fake improvised explosive devices and training lanes to teach the soldiers how to spot indicators. They drilled on the proper use of handheld mine detection equipment and soon they began having mounted practices within the ANA camp perimeter and even sending a couple leaders at a time to ride with 420th’s Route Clearance Package, or RCP, 67 who was stationed nearby.
“Every week we assessed their knowledge and continued to make things more challenging when they got cocky.” Foy explained. “We would give them fake missions to conduct around the compound and then just watch and evaluate every step of their planning and mission preparation. They kept high morale despite having no air-conditioning and no latrines or showers.”
All training is conducted outside due to lack of space in the facilities they have at their particular compound. When harsh weather, such as rain would interfere and the ANA troops would start to lose focus, Wilkersonfoy said they taught them the old Army adage, “If it ain’t rainin’, it ain’t trainin’!”
With a chuckle, he added, “They really liked that phrase and I heard them say it in Dari so many times I actually learned it in their language.”
Sundays through Tuesdays, the training day begins at 7:30 a.m. and continues until 6 p.m. with a two-hour lunch and prayer break. Thursdays are prayer and religious training days and Fridays are a half-day. Saturdays are reserved for cultural awareness and language training (English and Dari). When asked about what kind of dedication to training the soldiers showed, Wilkersonfoy admitted that at first, there was one platoon, in particular, that was uncooperative and nonchalant about training.
“I told them, it is your life you are putting at risk, not mine. So if you don’t want to train, don’t blame anyone but yourselves when your buddies get blown up.”
After that, the team would release the platoon after a full day of training, only to find them huddled together, training for hours more in the evenings. The ANA noncommissioned officers began stepping up and enforcing discipline standards. Dedication and hard work on both sides has certainly paid off.
After a few weeks of training, a group of ANA engineers conducted a pre-approved joint mission with the ANA commandos and, with their embedded ANA Explosive Ordnance Disposal, or EOD, team, cleared three anti-tank mines. Only a month after beginning training with ETT 1, First platoon found an IED, using the very mine detectors they had trained so diligently with, while on a partnered mission with RCP 67.
Thomas explained that the ANA was conducting an area sweep of a hill and within minutes returned to him stating they had found a wire. Without thinking much of it, he told them to continue sweeping until they found multiple indicators. Moments later, they returned stating “We find IED.”
Thomas followed them to take a look and, sure enough, the ANA had dug out almost an entire pressure plate. They maintained security of the area while a Navy EOD team blew the bomb in place. Wilkersonfoy beamed with pride when recalling the event and said it was the most rewarding time of his deployment thus far.
“They executed everything exactly as we had taught them,” he said.
Three months later, that platoon was moved to clear routes in support of a construction project, and successfully found and defeated at least four IEDs in their first week of completely independent operations. As the platoons became more and more proficient, they began helping to train their infantry and heavy equipment counterparts in counter-IED operations.
Third platoon, the latest to join the training, found an IED on their 3rd mission out, while partnered with RCP 67 and has begun successful independent operations in a new province since then. The other platoons have been assigned to other parts of the country and are following suit.
The bond of mutual respect that the ETT members have formed with their trainees is apparent. While some soldiers are irreconcilably uneasy around Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, due to the recent rash of violent incidents between Afghan and Coalition forces, Wilkersonfoy consistently referred to his assigned ANA soldiers as “we” and Thomas noted, “we have fun, joke, they talk about their families; it will be very difficult to leave.”
Despite their initial disappointment, both stated they are glad they were assigned this mission and are thankful for the experience.
Warm feelings aside, coalition forces are quickly drawing down in the north, making the apparent success and timing of their efforts exceptionally historic. The results will be closely watched as indicators of how well ANSF will take over security and stability operations after 2014.
“If they get the support they need, they will do really well when we are gone. If they don’t, they won’t,” Thomas added, referring to logistical and sustainment support.
Whatever happens, these brave teams, with little to no training in being trainers, embody the very spirit of the U.S. Army engineers by using what knowledge and resources they do have to work with individuals far beyond their pay grade, and overcome systems and obstacles that have been entrenched for centuries and get the job done. Day after day, they put their lives on the line for the sake of the Afghan people and that is the true spirit of service and dedication that exemplifies the Army Corps of Engineers.