News: Joint academy closes, Afghans take over
Story by Cpl. Timothy Lenzo
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – Coalition and Afghan forces continue to make strides toward an independent Afghanistan with the Joint Sustainment Academy Southwest shutting down operations. Afghan National Security Forces developed the capability and capacity to assume the responsibility of the advanced training courses JSAS once offered.
Afghans began their first reception, staging, onward movement and integration course a couple weeks ago. The course, taught by Afghan instructors to ANSF students, showcases the ANSF’s ability to train and sustain their own advanced training.
“The (RSOI) course is really great,” said ANA Sgt. Zakraulla, a student enrolled in the Afghan RSOI courses. “This is a step in the right direction for our country.”
The academy provided more than basic training for Afghan forces. Each course focused on sustainment and professional development of ANSF.
“The mission of JSAS was to conduct advance training for the Afghans on a professional level,” said 1st Lt. Aaron Viana, administrative advisor officer, JSAS. “Give them advance training that they hadn’t received yet.”
The classes included a driving course, where Afghans learned the basic safety and controls of operating vehicles, to more traditional classes expected from a military academy, such as the joint officer and tactical leaders course and the explosive hazard reduction course.
Now the academy is completely closed. A few weeks ago, the Marines transferred responsibility to the Afghans when they started RSOI courses.
“This was history in the making,” said Viana. “We grabbed a brand-new force and helped build them from ground zero. They don’t have the 237 years of military experience like the Marine Corps. They started 10 years ago.
The academy started with recruit training, but as the ANSF developed, so did the role of JSAS. It branched out to the different Afghan police services too. Of the 901 graduates in the last eight months, 333 were ANSF police.
One of the latest goals of the instructors was training the trainer.
“We had a limited window,” said Cpl. Angel Rodriguez, advisor training instructor. “The class that just graduated are key instructors to what we are doing right now at the RSOI course.”
For Rodriguez and his fellow Marines, the key to success was building rapport and respect with their Afghan counterparts. Throughout the years, the Marines taught, ate and lived with the Afghans for their entire deployment.
“The only time they were not with Afghans was when they were sleeping,” said Viana, from Garland, Texas. “The Marines would be with them all day building that relationship.”
For Sgt. Henry Torres, advisor instructor, that relationship helped JSAS become successful.
“The people of Afghanistan have a lot of pride in who they are and their country,” said Torres, from Dallas. “We built a reputation amongst the students of being respectful. We built great a rapport, and they trusted us. That was the biggest thing.”
The Marines and sailors were under the constant watch of the Afghans. They shared hardships together, instantly gaining a mutual respect.
“One day we were on the range getting rained on, with mud to our knees, holding frozen machine guns,” said Torres. “They saw Rodriguez on the range, soaking wet, hungry and cold, but still motivated.”
Many military members can relate to this story. The idea of sharing in misery builds a brotherhood and respect that begins the first days of Marine recruit training. The Afghans understood this and kept focused on their overall goal, serving their country.
“I’d tell them, ‘I’m sorry, I know it’s 120 degrees (Fahrenheit), and we have all our gear on,’” said Torres. “‘I know all we have is water and (meals, ready-to-eat). But I promise you, in the end, you will be a successful leader. You will be able to lead your country. You will be able to fight battles and win. If you stick with me now, I promise it will pay off in the end.’”
The Marines’ maturity and humility helped them reach the Afghans. They set the precedent that they were in this together.
With tensions rising in Afghanistan, Rodriguez, from Chicago, said he never felt threatened working so closely with the Afghans. A key reason was the Marines’ ability to earn a mutual respect with their ANSF counterparts.
Torres said he remembered an Afghan officer who stood up during one of his classes and told his classmates the reason they have their uniforms, the reason they have their weapons, the reason they have the things they have is because the Marines made a sacrifice.
“We had that bond,” said Torres. “I’d tell them we are all the same. We are all equal. All I know is I have more experience in another area that I’m going to teach you about to help you make yourself better. I was a Marine, and they were an Afghan servicemember. That was the only difference.”
For many of the Marines, JSAS offered more than an opportunity to teach another country’s armed forces. It was an opportunity to learn about another culture.
“The Afghans are as patriotic as Marines,” said Rodriguez. “I heard them saying they are here for their country, their family and to fight terrorists.”
The academy may be closed, but that does not mean its influence ended. Many of the graduates are training their Afghan brothers a couple blocks away on Camp Shorabak. Even more Afghans took their skills with them to their units to train there.
With coalition forces preparing for the drawdown, the academy might get lost in the story of Afghanistan, but for Marines like Rodriguez and Torres, their time spent training the trainers will have a long lasting impact on ANSF.
“It was a great experience, from the chain of command all the way down,” said Rodriguez. “We were advisors to the Afghans and that’s a great accomplishment.”