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‘Whirlwind’ mission in Afghanistan

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Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 12:00 pm

13th Sustainment troops busy teaching Afghans how to use systems more efficiently

By Rose L. Thayer

Fort Hood Herald

It's been seven months since the 13th Sustainment Command left for its historic training mission in Afghanistan. It's been an amazing journey with plenty of successes, the unit's top official said.

"It's been a whirlwind," said Brig. Gen. Clark W. LeMasters Jr., commander of the 13th Sustainment Command and deputy commander of support operations under NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, during a phone interview July 15.

The Fort Hood-based command has about 150 soldiers in support of the training mission, which aims to teach Afghan military forces to use their own sustainment systems more efficiently.

It's the first time the command has deployed for a training mission. Typically, the unit sustains U.S. forces through supply and logistics.

To prepare for the mission, soldiers trained for six months to learn the Afghan logistics system and now work through translators.

"We're not here to design an American or a British system or a NATO system," said LeMasters, who came to the command just three months ago from his position as commandant and chief of ordnance at the U.S. Army Ordnance School and Corps at Fort Lee, Va.

Learning Afghan policy

That also means training within the Afghan polices, which are dictated by senior officers that were educated under a Russian system. Most military leaders, he said, trained in the Soviet Union for years and use a system with a strong central government.

"Besides working with the Afghans, which is interesting, frustrating and enjoyable, we have the joint folks here as well," he said.

On a daily basis, the command works with military forces from 38 countries.

"The 13th (Sustainment) makes up just a little piece of it," said LeMasters. With all of the attached and assigned units, there are about 1,800 soldiers from around the world serving under the command.

With the headquarters element in Kabul, the command is responsible for six regional support commands located throughout the country.

"Here in the headquarters staff at Camp Eggers, we have Germans, Australians and Albanians. ... Mongolian soldiers guard the gate. Sometimes it's interesting to walk by outside and hear all the different accents and see all the uniforms," said LeMasters. "In some cases, some of our younger people have never worked in a joint task force or coalition. They get to see all these different people from a different country or service, and they may talk a little different, but they have skills just like mine and sometimes even better than mine."

Challenging mission

LeMasters and the soldiers don't deny that the mission has been a challenging one, as they work through language barriers and learn to step back and stop doing, and start teaching.

"It's hard for U.S. people to watch somebody do, especially when they are doing it wrong," he said. "One of the challenges that we face is not being the typical Americans that want to fix it. It's like teaching a kid to ride a bike. You can give advice, but they've got to come up with their own solution to it."

Lt. Col. Kurt D. Giese, an intelligence officer with the command, said the most rewarding aspect of the mission so far is seeing soldiers complete these very difficult tasks in a very demanding and stressful combat environment.

"It is rewarding for me to see them accomplish a mission that seemed impossible and daunting," he said. "I am amazed daily by their work ethic and commitment to the mission. To me that is the most rewarding aspect of this mission, the soldiers."

Another unexpected challenge came to the sustainment in February, when the commander the unit deployed under, Brig. Gen. Terence Hildner, died of natural causes.

LeMasters said he knew Hildner personally, and once he got past his own feelings of loss, he was quickly placed in a deployed unit also dealing with emotions, but while continuing a very complex mission.

"I did a lot of interface before deploying, but until you get out on the ground and see everything, it's a whole different thing," he said. "I was extremely proud to see how the young officers all stepped in and did what they were expected to do. In the Army, we've been talking over this whole conflict on resiliency. To come in and see these guys, it was not just a word. They internalized it emotionally and socially, as did the families back in the rear."

Transitioning

When Hildner deployed in December, he said their mission was key to the U.S. transitioning out of Afghanistan by 2014. LeMasters said he sees events every day that show the Afghans are working hard and ready to take over.

There are already plans he said to begin transferring ammunition and supply depots back into the hands of the Afghans — each one a display of success and victory.

"Units are going out and doing their mission and (Afghan forces) are in the lead in many operations," he said. "I see police in the street directing traffic and controlling what's going on. They clearly understand and take it serious. They're committed to it."

Capt. Monika Comeaux, 13th Sustainment Command Public Affairs Officer, also contributed to this story.

Contact Rose L. Thayer at rthayer@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHreporter.

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