FORWARD OPERATING BASE LIGHTNING, Afghanistan – The Spartan security force advise and assist teams of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division can focus on their mission of helping their Afghan counterparts lead in the defense of their nation thanks to a select group of soldiers who watch over them, ensuring their safety.
The shift in the U.S. mission focus from leading the fight to more of a supporting role has meant fielding teams of subject matter experts with an emphasis on mentoring the Afghan National Security Forces, as they continue to develop their capability. This shift has created the need for specialized U.S. soldiers with the capability of providing a high-level of security for these advisory teams.
Known as guardian angels by those they protect, they are hand-picked, highly trained soldiers dedicated to ensuring the safety of their teams.
“The primary mission of the guardian angels is to be the security force for the advise and assist team members when they meet with their counterparts to advise them,” said Army Capt. James Guglielmi, the Commander of Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, “They are alert, pro-active as well as reactive, ready to ensure the safety of those advisers.”
Guglielmi’s unit is currently assigned to the 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, which has been tasked with providing security for the Spartan brigade. He oversees the program that provides guardian angels.
The guardian angels are individually chosen from among the Spartan brigade’s ranks.
“We looked throughout our formations for soldiers that could operate independently with limited guidance while also being very vigilant and perceptive,” said Guglielmi.
Due to the nature of the job, the soldiers selected as guardian angels primarily come from the Army’s combat arms career field, giving them an already formidable tactical skills set.
“Almost all of my guardian angels are either 11Bs which are infantrymen or 19Ds, which are cavalry scouts,” said Guglielmi
The training for the soldiers selected as guardian angels is comprehensive and challenging. They receive in-depth instruction, as well as complex practical exercises, involving many different scenarios.
“The soldiers received advanced situational as well as advanced marksmanship training,” said Guglielmi, “They practiced shooting from different positions as well as shooting while using different types of cover such as shooting from behind a desk or from around a wall.”
Situational training was conducted prior to their deployment at a special weapons training range known as a shoot-house. The shoot-house is an enclosed facility designed to train, as well as test the soldiers, on their ability to engage targets as a team in extremely close quarters.
“The guardian angels and their teams would go inside the shoot-house where they would encounter situations while meeting with their counterparts,” said Guglielmi, “Something would happen either inside or outside of the meeting and they would have to react accordingly.”
The soldiers who execute the guardian angel missions understand how changes in their line of work reflect the changing nature of the mission in Afghanistan, especially those who have deployed as security specialists before.
“I was with a personal security detail for a general during my last deployment and in a personal security detail, we lock everything down, we own the area,” said Army Sgt. Justin Cook, a guardian angel team leader for Security Force Advise Assist Team 12 of the 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, “This is a much more focused and complex mission because it is relationship based.”
Cook is a cavalry scout and a seasoned non-commissioned officer, who recently completed the advanced leader course for his military occupation specialty. Despite his level of experience, he finds the new job presents some gray areas where there was once simplicity.
“Balancing the security requirements with the relationships is difficult because we are acting as more of a reactionary force,” said Cook, “It’s also difficult to balance our security posture with our relationships”
Security posture refers to the level of protective presence the soldiers display, and it can vary from aggressive to low key, as the situation dictates.
In the past, it was standard procedure for the soldiers to wear full body-armor when conducting meetings with their Afghan counterparts. Today, soldiers conducting this mission wearing full body-armor, with their weapons prominently displayed, can be perceived as overly aggressive or intimidating. It may also convey mistrust. Finding the right level of security posture is a tricky question for the guardian angel teams, with no easy answers.
“Although it is left to the discretion of the security force advise assist team leaders,” said Gugliemi, “We want them to have an overt as well as covert presence so that they are prepared to react.”
The demands and expectations placed on the guardian angels can be seen as overwhelming at times, so it is a real credit to their high standards of training and their exceptional professionalism that they accomplish what they do regardless of their numbers or their rank.
“It is amazing to me what we are asking our lower enlisted to do,” said Cook, “I’ve got privates going out on missions that would be difficult even for me and they’re doing it. I’m amazed at how far they’ve come.”