By Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen
Division West public affairs
FORT POLK, La. — Deep in the tall piney woods and steamy summer heat of the Joint Readiness Training Center, a team of First Army Division West soldiers prepares to make history.
Ranging in rank from a staff sergeant to a full-bird colonel, and comprised of two women and seven men, the soldiers — all from Division West's 191st Infantry Brigade, Joint Base Lewis McChord, Wash. — are a Security Force Assistance Advisor Team.
In just a few weeks, in direct support of the U.S. shift from kinetic to advisory operations in Afghanistan, the team will deploy to Regional Command East, not to go out on patrols in search of insurgents, but to work side-by-side with their counterparts in the Afghan army, police and border police as advisors.
"It's a very decisive shift, and it's a very critical shift," said Col. Shawn Reed, commander of the 191st Infantry Brigade and leader of the team. "The transition to putting (Afghan National Security Forces) in the lead ... is the critical aspect of success or not in Afghanistan. Being part of that is historic."
The Division West team's deployment is historic on another level, too.
"First Army hasn't deployed into a theater of operation as an organization since World War II," Reed said. "We're very proud of our heritage, very proud of our history, and we're very proud to be representing First Army in this fight in Afghanistan."
Every year, First Army's two divisions — West and East — train tens of thousands of National Guard, Reserve and active-duty soldiers, plus airmen, sailors and Marines, for deployments to Afghanistan and other theaters of operation. The (team's) mission is a natural one for the First Army "training machine," Reed said.
"The 191st Infantry Brigade was called up to provide expertise in the arena of advising and training," Reed said. "Of course, that parallels very closely with what we do on a day-to-day basis with our reserve component and active component training mission, our enduring mission for First Army."
Reed's team is the seventh supplied by Division West, and the unit is already preparing soldiers for future team rotations. All together, the nine Division West soldiers on Reed's team already have more than 30 deployments under their belts.
"This is another in a long line, but this one with the 191st is special," said the brigade's Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Woods, whose first of nine previous deployments was to Grenada in 1983. "On a personal level, it is kind of neat that I get to take a unit out that hasn't been out the door since World War II."
Woods is in charge of the team's personnel and administrative duties, as well as serving as the team's unofficial historian.
The Division West team is one of more than 250 teams to go through the 162nd Infantry Brigade's Security Force Assistance Course at Fort Polk since January, according to Maj. Conrad Schupay, deputy operations officer for the 162nd. Perhaps the most difficult challenge for the advisor teams, he noted, is to step back and let someone else be in charge.
"As we transition from combat operations, Afghans have got to take the lead," Schupay said. "Americans are there to advise, but not to do the job for them."
Maj. Michael Doyle, who has previously deployed three times to Iraq, has a dual role in the Division West team as executive officer and operations officer. The biggest challenge for their team, he believes, is that they will get to work with their Afghan counterparts for only a short time.
"There are limitations to what we can accomplish in nine months, but we have to look at long-range strategy. Even after we're gone, what we do has to last," Doyle said.
Nine months is also a short time to become fluent in the customs and courtesies of a foreign culture, so the teams get a head start on that learning process at Fort Polk. During the eight days of their initial intensive coursework, soldiers spend their mornings in the classroom and the afternoons applying that day's lessons to interactions with role-played Afghan police, army and border police officials.
"Every day, there's an event that you have to achieve and that you're being graded on," Schupay said. And it is not designed to be a cakewalk. For instance, on day one, the (team) soldiers meet their role-played Afghan counterparts for the first time, speaking to them through an interpreter — an interpreter who has been instructed to deliberately miscommunicate.
"The team has to figure that out," Schupay grinned.
This team "is doing exceptionally well" during the field portion of their training at the training center, said Lt. Col. George Kranske, an observer controller/trainer with the 162nd Infantry Brigade.
"It's very evident, from the first day that they arrived at the 162nd, that they have obviously formed together very early on, which we believe is a cornerstone to their success," Kranske said. "(They are a) superb team, one of the best teams I've ever seen."