FORT POLK, La. — About 3,200 soldiers in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division received realistic training on the intricacies of combat at the Joint Readiness Training Center in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan this summer.
Soldiers left for a 30-day rotation to the center starting April 29 for training on a mission to support the withdrawal of forces and equipment from Afghanistan by closing outposts and bases.
“Strangely enough, you would think that in Afghanistan, the Taliban, who is the main enemy over there, would want us to leave,” said Maj. John Sandler, operations officer for the brigade’s 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment. “But to some degree, it’s a political information operations victory to be seen fighting us out the door.”
To prepare for its retrograde mission downrange, the “Black Jack” Brigade participated in a scenario at the training center designed around closing down a joint combat outpost downrange that the Afghan National Army no longer needs, Sandler said.
If Afghans don’t want the buildings, some of which have been expanded throughout 12 years of war, U.S. forces will retrograde and reduce the buildings’ structure.
Preparing for everything
Soldiers combat skills were tested Saturday during a simulated attack on 4th Squadron, where insurgents overtook a mock Joint Combat Outpost Turani, resulting in 200 U.S. casualties. The attack was part of a six-day force-on-force exercise, which ended Tuesday.
While the soldiers’ primary mission is security and retrograde, Col. Robert Whittle, brigade commander, said they’re preparing troops for whatever situations arise.
“These combat training centers are the most realistic environment that soldiers can train in,” he said. “What we’re doing is ensuring every soldier is prepared for combat operations.”
Whittle said the realistic scenarios and rehearsals are aimed at making responses to situations second-nature to the soldiers and leaders in formation.
He also said the center — about 100,000 acres of training grounds at Fort Polk, La., known as “the box” — simulates Afghanistan through the replication of everything, including role players portraying Afghan civilians, security forces and nongovernmental organizations.
“This just ensures that every soldier knows how to shoot, move and communicate and that they’re extremely confident when they head out to combat,” Whittle said. “What we want to have is a formation full of competent, confident soldiers and leaders who are fully prepared to head to Afghanistan and complete the mission.”
Change in mission
While the unit has been training at the center since late April, the exercises soldiers are executing aren’t part of the mission “Black Jack” Brigade soldiers were originally assigned.
Lt. Col. Mark Huhtanen, brigade deputy commander, said changes in the brigade’s task strengthened the soldiers’ cohesion.
Black Jack returned from its fourth deployment to Iraq in December 2011, and about half of the brigade was tasked to train for a security force assistance mission in Afghanistan about six months later. While soldiers were preparing to deploy, their mission was called off, and, in late February, the entire brigade was assigned a theater-enabling mission.
“These changes have probably made us come together faster than other units,” Huhtanen said. “It all came together and that’s the strength of this unit. We’ve got a lot of great soldiers and we’ve reacted to all these changes well. We built the team and that’s our strength really.”
Because of the training’s brevity, Lt. Col. Robert Smith, 4th Squadron commander, said one day at the center replicates about seven days in combat. “It’s meant to do that to put you under stress and see where you’ll make the mistakes so you’ll learn from them,” he said. The mass causalities during Saturday’s attack will stick out in many soldiers’ minds once they’re downrange fighting for real.
‘Think of today’
“If we came down here and we defeated the enemy as they attacked, we wouldn’t learn anything. When you put us in this kind of situation ... there are things you forget to think about and as they occur, you learn a lesson,” Smith said. “(If) we find ourselves in this same position in Afghanistan, they’re going to think of today.”
While it’s unlikely for a squadron to be overrun like the “Dark Horse” squadron was during Saturday’s attack, Sandler said it’s all a part of training.
“A lot of people maybe start doubting themselves (when they lose), but as leaders, it’s our job to remind them that we’re like a rubber band,” Smith said. “If you don’t stretch it, it doesn’t get any more elastic. They were stretched to the breaking point. Now it’s our responsibility to ask ourselves what we learned, how we’re going to integrate it (downrange).”
The training also gave commanders an opportunity to speak with members of the Afghan National Army and Afghan Uniform Police through an interpreter.
On Sunday, leaders of both Afghan security forces sat with U.S. military commanders as the two forces discussed security prior to provincial and district elections during a training scenario Sunday.
Lt. Col. Jason Joose, commander of the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, said it’s important for Afghans and Americans to work together toward a common goal, so if uncertainty arises in the future, both parties can be reassured they will be OK.
“If you have more trust and more confidence in your ability to get something done, it takes less time to make that happen,” he said. “If we have mutual trust with each other — if we need help or they need help — the time to get that help is reduced a lot.”
Joose said security is a main talking point between Afghan and U.S. officials.
“That’s what the American Army is very good at,” he said. “If there are other matters to discuss, we prefer to leave those matters of discussion to the experts that do that, from the Afghan government (to) the international community.”
Smith said one technique to use when discussing local issues with Afghans is referring them to entities within their own province instead of having them come directly to the U.S. so they can become independent.
“It’s no different than what you do with your children,” Smith said. “If you continue to do for them, when they become an adult they’re not able to do for themselves. It’s more important to show them how to do (things) than it is to give it to them.”
Soldiers are wrapping up training this week with after-action reviews and will be back at Fort Hood by the end of the month.
JRTC puts stress on the Army’s systems, soldiers and leaders, and Joose said the training gives them an opportunity to test all of those things in a short period of time with resources not available at Fort Hood.
“This whole rotation is our last chance as a battalion to prepare ourselves for a very dangerous mission,” he said. “The biggest thing we’ve been able to learn is that our soldiers are very adaptable, very ready, and they’re very motivated to accomplish the mission. They’re ready to get the job done.”