News: Building a self-sustaining engineer force
Story by Sgt. Joseph Koktan
TARIN KOWT, Afghanistan—As the 2014 drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan approaches, the role of U.S. and coalition forces is moving towards helping the Afghan troops defend their country. It’s because of the evolving mission that three soldiers from the 980th Engineer Battalion, an Army Reserve battalion from Dallas, Texas, were chosen to work alongside the Australian Army to train and mentor Afghan National Army engineer soldiers.
The six-week engineer course in Tarin Kowt trains 13-to-20 ANA soldiers per class cycle. They learn the fundamentals of operating heavy construction equipment—specifically backhoe loaders, compactors, Bobcats and front-end loaders.
British and Australian Army veteran Sgt. Taft Hall, member of Australia’s Mentoring Task Force 3, began the course in September 2011. Taft saw a need to train the ANA soldiers because they lacked the basic engineering skills necessary to maintain and sustain their own patrol bases.
“[Australian] rotations before us never focused on mentoring ANA in construction engineering,” explained Taft. “But now that two classes have gone through, their skills are tenfold and they’ve been given the confidence to operate.”
Currently the 980th Soldiers are assisting the Australians, but when February approaches and the Australians begin reducing their troop numbers, Sgt. Frank Singer, Spc. Kenny Adams, and Spc. Anthony Hartigan will assume full management of the construction course. They are the first American troops to train ANA engineers at Tarin Kowt.
“It was an eye opener to see their eagerness to learn,” said Singer, a native of San Antonio, Texas—currently serving his tenth year in the Army and third tour overseas. “They really want Americans training them. They tell us all the time.”
Abdul Sabur, a member of the most recent construction class, was thrilled to see the Americans arrive to teach.
“Absolutely we need [U.S. soldiers] to come here and train us,” Sabur said through the interpreter. “We’ve learned a lot of things [from them].”
The central mission for the 980th soldiers will be to continue what Taft envisioned for the course—act as mentors and then slowly step back to the point where the Afghans are in full control of the course and ready to execute construction missions without the help of coalition forces.
Even though most of the Afghan soldiers have little education and cannot read or write, Spc. Adams has high expectations the hands-on training will be successful.
“Right now we’re at a crawl, crawl, crawl, walk stage,” said Adams, a native of Wetumka, Okla., serving his first tour. “Their willingness to learn is incredible. They want to learn.”
While Singer and Adams will be the primary mentors for operating the machinery, Hartigan will be responsible for making sure the Afghan soldiers are able to fix and service the construction equipment.
“[The goal] I want to achieve is for the ANA to recognize different parts of the machines and what needs fixing,” explained Hartigan, a diesel mechanic from Forked River, N.J., serving his first tour.
In only a couple of weeks, Hartigan has already seen success with his teaching.
“When we first got here, they hopped in the equipment and went to work. Now they are taking the time to check fluids and do a 360 inspection before operating.”
The Afghan soldiers have already started playing a larger role in training their soldiers. The most recent engineer class is led by a class non-commissioned officer and two well-trained senior NCO operators. The class NCO ensures all the necessary training takes place, while the two senior NCOs do most of the training.
Once Afghan engineers graduate from the engineer course, they are assigned to the ANA 4th Kandak Battalion where they receive further hands-on training and begin patrol base maintenance.
Support for the school is gaining more ground, and new equipment should arrive soon. Adams expects to see bulldozer, tractor-trailer, and road grader training and maintenance added to the course. The 980th Engineer Battalion would also like to add another mechanic and two operator instructors to the course.
The most recent engineer class of 13 ANA soldiers graduated on Jan. 24. Singer, Adams and Hartigan will take over responsibility of the course in February when the next engineer class begins.