Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Afghan Soldiers Learn Advanced Explosive Disposal Techniques

Iowa Troop Pantry currently supports a unit that works on IED disposal. This unit is frequently short on food and socks. If you are looking for items to donate to help our deployed service members, new socks are much needed (crew-length in white or black are requested).

FORWARD OPERATING BASE DELARAM II, Afghanistan - There’s little protection and even less room for error when disabling improvised explosive devices by hand, but for Afghan National Army soldiers, it’s necessary work.

IEDs are the insurgent weapon of choice in Afghanistan, and up to now, coalition force explosive ordinance disposal technicians have borne the responsibility of clearing them. But, increasingly that responsibility is falling on Afghan forces. This is part of the coalition force effort to transition security responsibility in the country to Afghan National Security Forces. The key to a successful transition is training and mentorship.

Several members of Combined Joint Task Force Paladin, an organization responsible for the counter-IED mission in Afghanistan, are training select groups of Afghan National Army EOD soldiers everything they know about bomb disposal.

“The sooner we train them, the sooner we get out of Afghanistan. The safer we train them, the longer they live,” said Senior Airman Michael Garrison, an ANA trainer and member of JTF Paladin.

This isn’t entry-level training. First Lt. Theodore Ehlert, executive officer, Company C, 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division (Forward), likens this four-week program to on-the-job training. The two ANA soldiers going through now already graduated a 12-week formal EOD school in Mazar-e-Sharif.

For a threat as dangerous and evolutionary as the IED, “the school house is not enough,” Ehlert said.

This is the first iteration of the program for the ANA’s 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps. Ehlert helped organize the course, using a similar program taking place at Camp Dwyer in southern Helmand province as his example.

For the four weeks, the soldiers meet with their instructors five hours a day, learning the latest techniques and procedures coalition forces use for defeating the IED threat. It’s also a way to make sure the soldiers are using the knowledge from their formal school.

“We want to see them do everything safely (on base) before we go out with them,” said Ehlert.

It’s still early in the training, but he’s seen a lot of progress so far. Most importantly, Ehlert said, the students and instructors have developed a bond. At first, the ANA soldiers would show up late, and were hesitant to trust. Now, he said, they show up on time, early even, and pay close attention to the training.

At the start of one recent afternoon session, Air Force Staff Sgt. Benjamin Lee and Garrison were laughing with the ANA soldiers, Staff Sgt. Gulbuddin and Sgt. Din Mohammad. Gulbuddin was joking about Lee’s Dari skills, which are close to zero.

While there was laughter in that moment, Garrison, from Corpus Christie, Texas, pointed out the language barrier does make training much more difficult. EOD is not an easy skill to begin with, he said. Later, as he observed Gulbuddin disabling a dummy IED, Garrison wondered out loud if he would have been able to grasp EOD concepts if he were taught in a different language.

This gap makes the role and quality of the translator critical. Lee, from Andover, Conn., credits their translator, Silab Naeemi, as a part of the reason for progress. He said Naeemi is proficient in both English and Dari and takes the time to learn and understand EOD lingo before translating it for the ANA soldiers.

The importance of the information they’re learning – in any language - is not lost on Gulbuddin and Din. After a few minutes of joking, the training turned serious. Lee showed an old artillery shell packed with a hard resin, nuts, bolts, and screws. In EOD terms, it’s a directional fragmentation charge. Translated, it’s a two-foot-long homemade shotgun shell. Lee demonstrated to the soldiers how the enemy uses them.

“Our role is very important,” said Gulbuddin. “We could lose our lives, so this training is important.”

Din agreed. “We should have professional people do this job, so this training is good.”

Gulbuddin, a 23-year-old from Mazar-e-Sharif, said joining the ANA was not his original plan when he graduated high school. He was going to go to college, “but our economy was weak and our income was low.”

The ANA was hiring, and he saw an opportunity to serve his country. He joined a year and a half ago and says he chose the EOD job.

“It is good work for the country. It is good to protect the lives of civilian people,” he said. “This training is so we can protect our people and Afghanistan. We are happy to do this.”

Towards the end of their training, Gulbuddin and Din will face a final assignment before certification: several real-world missions. Under decreasing guidance and supervision, these two ANA EOD soldiers will disable live IEDs outside the confines of the base and without the comfort simulated IEDs afford. The certification will allow these ANA soldiers to do their own EOD missions without coalition force supervision.

For Din, it’s a step he’s confident in taking.

“The U.S. forces, when they came to Afghanistan, they brought many changes. People are more educated. They helped us increase the capability of the ANA. We are ready, but the U.S. has helped us, and we appreciate it,” he said.

After Gulbuddin and Din finish the training, it starts over for the next small group of ANA soldiers in the 215th Corps’ Route Clearance Tolay.

Getting them as much training as possible before the transition is the goal. Just because the coalition forces leave, doesn’t mean insurgents will too.

“They’re going to be dealing with IEDs long after we’ve gone,” said Garrison.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Forward Operating Base Delaram II currently houses Regimental Combat Team 6 in 1st Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.

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