Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Georgia Guard troops train for historic Afghan mission

By Army Capt. Marvin J. Baker
120th Infantry Brigade, Division West

FORT HOOD, Texas (1/17/12) - A Georgia Army National Guard unit will play a significant role in the expected reduction of United States forces in Afghanistan.

The 648th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade headquarters staff will have a three-fold mission: management of the Kabul Base Cluster, route security to and from camps, and civil affairs in the areas where coalition forces work and live.

Before they will deploy to Afghanistan, the Georgia Soldiers wrapped up nearly 30 days of post-mobilization training at Fort Hood earlier this month with Division West's 120th Infantry Brigade.

During the 648th MEB's culminating training event, to ensure the Guard Soldiers are adequately prepared to deploy, the 120th Infantry Brigade tested every staff section with events replicating those the Soldiers may face during their upcoming nine-month deployment.

"As we developed the plan to train the 648th MEB nearly a year ago, we talked to and looked at the functions of every staff section, considered the top 10 issues they may face, then made sure the 648th MEB commander's training objectives went into developing the final training exercise," said Army Col. Gary Brito, 120th Infantry Brigade commander.

The 648th MEB's robust staff includes judge advocate general, civil-military affairs, information operations and directorate of public works sections. The sections will work together to meet the unit's overall top three missions in Afghanistan.

"We have nearly 67 different military specialties and branches in this headquarters," said Army Col. Andy Hall, 648th MEB commander. "We have a large contracting section, attorneys and engineers we brought on our team that we will use to start and oversee the construction and improvements to living conditions at the nine camps in the Kabul Base Cluster."

While the unit will manage nearly a billion dollars in military construction and local government projects - also known as commander's emergency response program projects - in Afghanistan, the 648th MEB's primary mission is base infrastructure, maintenance and safety for its nearly 10,000 customers, Hall said.

Helping to meet this challenge are many Georgia Army National Guard Soldiers with relevant civilian- or military-acquired skills. Hall said one of his goals was to take advantage of the diversity in skill and thought while preparing the unit to deploy.

As the United States plans to reduce its military footprint in Afghanistan, the 648th MEB will face challenges that come with fulfilling base space requirements while also helping to responsibly hand over U.S.-controlled camps to Afghan forces. During the unit's deployment, the United States plans to withdraw some 30,000 service members from Afghanistan. As of last fall, nearly 100,000 service members were in Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense.

"We will tie in closely to the base-closure planning in Afghanistan," Hall said. "We may be asked to develop plans to help decide which camps may close and when and where those service members will live as they complete their tour of duty."

While the drawdown guides the 648th MEB mission toward closing bases, it also focuses the mission toward opening facilities for the people of Afghanistan. Soon after the Georgia Soldiers arrive in Afghanistan, they will take control of several CERP projects, starting with an orphanage and a school, from the Massachusetts Army National Guard's 26th MEB.

"One of the first things I will do when we arrive in Afghanistan is conduct a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the school built by the 26th MEB," Hall said.

The 26th MEB sent the deputy director of its engineering section from Afghanistan to Fort Hood to advise and mentor the 648th MEB's DPW section during the Georgia unit's week-long culminating training event.

"I came back to help train the DPW because the process for the base camps to request construction support can be complicated," said Army Maj. Ralph Pickett of the 26th MEB DPW section. "It is important that the camps function well, because some camps are also used to train the Afghan Forces service members so that they can assume the responsibility for securing the country after the coalition leaves."

To help train and validate Army National Guard and Army Reserve units for deployments, Division West regularly brings in trainers and subject matter experts from various locations. To build a full cadre of observer controller/trainers for each exercise, trainers may come from the 75th Training Division Mission Command, or units currently working in the relevant theater of operations, or from Division West's own pool of experts from its eight training brigades.

Last year, Division West trained nearly 9,000 Army and Air National Guard and Army Reserve members at Fort Hood. Later this year, the Texas Army National Guard's 136th MEB is scheduled to complete post-mobilization training at Fort Hood before the unit deploys to Afghanistan to replace the 648th MEB.

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