By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J., July 13, 2011 – The situation had become dire. A broken pipe was spilling raw sewage through a fictional Afghan village. Its well was now contaminated, leaving three babies dead and sickening scores of other villagers. Fear gripped the village as the region’s only tiny clinic struggled to keep up with the demand for medical care.
Army Staff Sgt. Larry Marquez knew he had his hands full as he led a team of civil affairs soldiers into the mock village to meet with the provincial governor and village elders to discuss possible remedies.
Marquez and his fellow Army Reservists with the Encino, Calif.-based 425th Civil Affairs Battalion were midway through a three-day mission rehearsal exercise last week at this joint base deep in the heart of New Jersey’s “Pine Barrens” forest.
They’d already completed their pre-deployment combat skills training, including the combat lifesaver course, and been to the firing ranges. Now, they were getting a week of concentrated civil affairs training, including a five-day exercise that would be their test before being declared ready to deploy this week to Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.
Once in Afghanistan, the soldiers will fan out in small teams across the province to conduct a broad range of civil affairs missions, helping the Afghans build and strengthen government institutions so they can deliver education, medical care and other services to the population.
Trainers from U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command’s 1st Battalion, 1st Training Brigade -- many just back from their own deployments -- had thrown the soldiers every curve ball they could come up with to make the training realistic and challenging.
“The scenarios are based on what is actually going on in the theater,” said Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Matthews, the training battalion’s first sergeant. “What we are putting them through here is as close as we can get to what they are going to encounter when they go downrange.”
It hadn’t always been that way. Matthews remembers his frustration when he went through the training himself in 2006 before deploying to Iraq.
“It all was based on very generic scenarios,” he said, many of them no different than what he trained for before deploying to Bosnia years earlier. “The complaint we had when we were going through [the training] was that nobody was actually training us for what we were going to be doing.”
So after returning from his deployment, Matthews volunteered to return to the training brigade to revamp the instruction and increase its relevance for deploying troops. Now, scenarios vary significantly, depending on whether a unit is headed to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa or elsewhere, and are updated regularly based on input from troops on the ground.
“This is the only exercise in all the training [deploying civil affairs and psychological operations soldiers] do that brings together everything they do: the medical play, their actual [military occupational specialty] skills, the tactical skills, the convoy stuff, the communications,” he said. “This is as realistic as we can possibly make things without actually being downrange.”
Just as in real life, the outcome of each scenario sets the stage for the one to follow, Matthews explained. A mistake made here -- an offending remark or promise not kept during a training scenario -- carries over to complicate follow-on engagements.
Army Maj. Brad Cary, commander of the training battalion, said the goal is to impart critical lessons before the soldiers deploy to the combat zone.
“It is better to screw up here, because here, we can pause and reset. We can say, ‘Stop what you are doing. You are going down the wrong path,’” he said. “Here, you can learn from your mistakes. You can say, ‘I didn’t mean to say or do that, to upset that sheik or imam or business leader.’ And then you can start again and set things right.”
Army Sgt. George Rodriguez was experiencing the realism of the training firsthand last week as his security detail led Marquez’s team through into the mock village to meet with Prawiz Ali-Shah, a native of Kabul, Afghanistan, role-playing the provincial governor.
Afghan villagers, role players from the local community dressed in Afghan garb and many speaking Farsi or Pashtun, offered mixed greetings as the soldiers stepped from their armored vehicles and entered the village on foot. Some extended their hands in welcome, some peeked curiously from windows and doorways and others warily diverted their eyes altogether.
Wails echoed from the medical clinic as the soldiers approached, water purification tablets in hand to offer the health director as a temporary fix to the contamination problem. Army Staff Sgt. Nancy Gonzalez tried to comfort mothers who had just lost their babies. Meanwhile, Marquez met with Shah and the elders to discuss remediation plans. What was needed, they agreed, was a new well away from the sewage lines and an education program to teach villagers how to treat contaminated water until it could be dug.
They also discussed expanding the medical clinic and moving it to a larger, larger, more central location where it could better serve the community.
As they talked, confusion within the building escalated into a frenzy as a fourth baby died. Some of the villagers pointed to the Americans as the source of their problems.
Army Spc. Rene Ruiz, sensing trouble, issued the previously agreed-upon call -- “Burger King” -- that notified his fellow soldiers that it was time to leave. The troops repeated the call to each other to ensure all had gotten the message, and Marquez wrapped up his deliberations and joined them in slowly exiting the village.
Shots rang out as the soldiers were ambushed during the walk to their assembly area. They returned fire, some chasing after their attackers and others remaining behind to treat five soldiers wounded in the attack.
Gathering the soldiers for an after-action review, three 1st Training Brigade observer-controllers, all with civil affairs experience in Iraq or Afghanistan, offered their assessments.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Willie Williams, noncommissioned officer in charge of the training lanes, reviewed the encounter step by step from a civil affairs standpoint, from how the soldiers had engaged the Afghans and expressed concern about their losses to how they responded when things began to go wrong.
Ruiz had made “a good call” in identifying when it was time to cut the engagement short. “Things may have escalated and gotten a little crazy,” Williams said. “Now you can come back and conduct business another day.”
Army Staff Sgt. Pete Hoffman critiqued the medical aspects of the scenario. The soldiers had made good decisions in identifying the source of the water contamination and recommending ways to provide better medical care for the villagers. When ambushed leaving the village, they had responded quickly to evacuate the wounded, but hadn’t taken the time to triage them before beginning combat lifesaver care.
Army Sgt. Kevin Parra discussed the tactics, from the pre-mission briefing and inspections to how they had led their convoys into the village and set up security. One glitch he identified: when enemy shots came from the right, the left side of the formation had responded rather than remaining vigilant for the attack from the left that soon followed.
“Remember, no matter what happens, you are soldiers first,” he reminded them. “But I will tell you: the way you guys are moving and communicating, it’s spot on. So keep doing what you are doing.”
Ultimately, the goal of the civil affairs mission is to get to the point where it’s no longer needed, explained Army Maj. Tim Brooke, the training battalion’s executive officer.
“What we are always trying to do is get out of the business of being in business,” he said. “We want to transition those functions normally done by civil government back to the host nation.”
“The big thing we push to the guys coming through the pipeline is that, in order for us to be able to get out of Afghanistan or out of Iraq completely, we have to legitimize the local governments,” Matthews said. “We want to put an Afghan face or an Iraqi face on everything that is done over there. … We are trying to stand up the government and legitimize the local government and give the people that they govern confidence that their government can work for them.”