January 15, 2009

Virginia Guard Soldiers begin Afghan training and mentoring mission

By Maj. Cotton Puryear
Virginia Guard Public Affairs

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Capt. Jacob Goodine and Maj. Jim Contreras of the Virginia National Guard Brigade Embedded Training Team complete a tabletop exercise with their Afghan counterparts (Photo by Maj. Michael Booker, Virginia National Guard Brigade Embedded Training Team)

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia National Guard Soldiers serving in Afghanistan to train and mentor members of Southern Afghanistan police officially began their mission Dec. 24 with a change of command ceremony in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

American forces from the Regional Police Advisory Command - South gathered at Forward Operating Base Walton to take part in the change of command ceremony where Col. James M. Harris of the Virginia National Guard assumed command of all police mentors in Southern Afghanistan. Also in attendance were Afghan Police officers from throughout southern Afghanistan and the Commanding General and staff of the southern Regional Afghan Police headquarters. Harris assumed the command from Col. John F. Cuddy of the New Hampshire National Guard. 

The mission of the RPAC-S is to mentor the more than 14,000 members of Southern Afghanistan's police officers and train, equip and prepare them for a lasting peace in southern Afghanistan. Harris and the other members of the Virginia National Guard Brigade Embedded Training Team work hand in hand with their Afghan counterparts to mentor them at the headquarters and company level.  The team is scheduled to return to Virginia in late August 2009. In addition to the 16-Soldier Brigade Team, Virginia also has a 16-Soldier team serving at the battalion level.

“I think the Soldiers from the two Virginia teams recognize the importance of this mission,” Harris said. “When you see and sense the threats that the Afghanistan population face, you quickly develop an urge to want to help protect them and help them rebuild their nation. It's quite rewarding to see small successes.”

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Col. James M. Harris and Maj. Gen. Wahdat watch as Col. John F. Cuddy of the New Hampshire National Guard gives his outgoing address at the RPAC-S change of command ceremony. (Photo by Maj. Michael Booker, Virginia National Guard Brigade Embedded Training Team)

Harris said those successes could be as simple as learning a new Pashtu phrase or as significant as meeting with the Regional Police leadership, providing security for a food distribution convoy, or winning a gunfight against the Taliban.

The two Virginia Guard teams are working at different levels and scattered across the terrain of Afghanistan, but the common theme is that the Virginia Guard Soldiers are there to mentor, Harris said. “The spectrum lies somewhere between teaching and soldiers to conduct small unit tactics to battalion and brigade staffs interacting with the Afghanistan police staff to help them become more effective in their respective functional and operational areas to with the end state of them Afghans being able to operate independently.”

With the official start of the mission taking place the day before Christmas, the holiday itself was just another work according to Maj. Michael Booker, a personnel officer mentor for the brigade team. 

 “The teams continued to do missions and we worked at the headquarters like it was a regular day,” Booker said. “We cut out a little early and had Christmas dinner, with the commander and sergeant major serving the troops. Our base doesn't have a dining facility, so we cook for ourselves. The guys did a great job creating a typical Christmas meal.”

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Command Sgt. Maj. Henry Motley stands in formation with his troops from Regional Police Advisory Command - South. (Photo by Maj. Michael Booker, Virginia National Guard Brigade Embedded Training Team)

Booker said that gaining the trust of the Afghans they work with is key. “So far we have formed strong bonds with them,” he said. “With a National Guard rotation of 9-10 months, it is difficult to maintain consistency with police, but if we do the job right then the next teams coming in will pick up on our successes.”

The Afghan Police is not 100% trusted yet by the people, Booker said, so the efforts of the Virginia Guard Soldiers are to help the police gain that trust. “We are very cautious in convoys because there are still IED dangers all over Afghanistan, but the key is to mentor the police so that they can manage themselves and protect the people without assistance.”

Day to day life presents a challenge due to the harsh living conditions in the unit’s area of operations. “We spend a lot of time just taking care of our life support issues,” said Capt. Jacob Goodine. “There are just a few people on this forward operating base and we take turns cooking and cleaning and maintaining all of our equipment.  The desert environment just destroys equipment very quickly, and almost every day some important piece of equipment breaks and we've had to find a way to get it fixed. This is everything from washers and dryers to our generator to various parts on our vehicles.”

Even with mission requirements and dealing with harsh living conditions, Soldiers have made time to take part in humanitarian assistance operations. “We try to do something of each month,” said Maj. Tim Crider. “Our first HA effort was to give coats for kids that a lady back in the U.S. had sent. There weren't a lot of coats but for one person sending it seemed to make a big difference.”

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