News: 203rd Afghan Engineer Kandak celebrates first anniversary
Story by Sgt. Javier Amador
FORWARD OPERATING BASE THUNDER, Afghanistan – The 203rd Corps Engineering Kandak celebrated their first full year of operations in the early afternoon of Feb. 17, with a ceremony held on Forward Operating Base Thunder and celebrating with them was the Spartan brigade’s Engineering Security Force Advise Assist Team who helped make the unit the success story it is today.
The ceremony, which consisted of a formation and inspection tour by the Commander of the Afghan National Army’s 203rd Corps, Afghan Army Maj. Gen. Mohammad Yaftali, the Engineering Kandak’s Commander, Afghan Army Lt. Col. Sado Gul, as well as U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David Haight, and U.S. Army Maj. Andrew Olson, the former officer- in- charge of the Spartan brigade’s engineering Security Force Advise Assist Team, both with the 10th Mountain Division.
Haight and Olson presented a brand new flag to be used as the unit’s official colors, after which Haight reminded everyone present about the great importance engineering units hold in any army.
“In the U.S. Army, historically, some of our smartest and most skillful soldiers are our engineers,” said Haight, “You have special skills which many of your other soldiers don’t have and we need you to maintain those skills to help your army.”
The kandak, which in the Pashtu language means battalion, has accomplished much during their brief existence. They have constructed over 62 kilometers of road, built observation and combat outposts, completed numerous shelter and force protection projects on Forward Operating Base Lightning as well as assisted a local community when a its deep well collapsed. They used their equipment to recover the casualties, a mission that lasted 26 hours. These are notable milestones that demonstrate what is possible when soldiers who are driven to learn and build their country work side by side with soldiers who bring hard-earned experience and knowledge.
“Anyone they have sent to work with us has been eager to learn,” said Marcus Cargill the engineering SFAAT’s construction technician. “Whatever we can teach them, they absorb like a sponge. Anything you give them, they want more. Tthey want to understand why we do things.”
The Spartan brigade’s engineering SFAAT brings with them a combination of both engineering and organizational knowhow. This enables them to do more than just mentor their Afghan counterparts in the technical areas. This enables them to develop the kandak into an empowered, learning organization capable of ensuring their own growth.
“A big part of our job in our Army, as officers, is planning and while an officer is planning, his Non-Commissioned Officers and his platoons are executing the mission,” said Olson., “You don’t see much of that with the Afghans.”
An example of how empowered soldiers are in the U.S. Army is clearly demonstrated by how quickly an event can go from the planning stage to its actual execution.
“Executing a training event for us is really simple,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Cody, “You have your company commander who can approve a risk assessment and from there you can go out execute the training. For them, it takes the Corps Commander to approve a training event such as certifying their soldiers to drive down the road.”
The Spartan engineering SFAAT team members understand the changes their Afghan counterparts must make as they develop their capabilities. They also understand there are some, just as there would be in any other population, who are resistant to change.
While the Spartan soldiers provide their mentorship for the benefit of all of their Afghan counterparts, the Spartan soldiers are making an extra effort to reach those who are most receptive to change by using their Mobile Training Team, which is an Army Reserve unit that is teaching the Afghans construction techniques.
“We’ve actually empowered a lot of the junior NCO’s, and they are starting to step up and fill those roles like we would,” said Cargill., “They’re seeing how we run things, and they’re picking up on it.”
Empowering the younger Afghan enlisted leaders has encouraged them to take on roles that allow them to exercise their growing leadership abilities.
“The Mobile Training Team is teaching them vertical construction skills such as masonry, carpentry and electrical wiring and each of the sections trains on their own. These guys got the junior NCOs and sometimes, even senior NCOs to take charge of the smaller classes,” said U.S. Army Capt. Joshua Snyder, who is the officer-in-charge of the engineering SFAAT. “They make corrections and make sure people are there when they’re supposed to be there.”
The Spartan engineering SFAAT has been working with their Afghan counterparts since Oct. 2013, and know the time they have to make a difference is short. Knowing this, they have set attainable short term goals with substantial, long term returns. They are working on a variety of programs from a trainer certification process and developing their vehicle and heavy equipment maintenance program. There is another program which Olson explained could potentially have the greatest reach.
Olson explained the program, “There’s a hospital being built by Afghan civilian contractors right outside their base. So we facilitated a meeting between the kandak commander and the contractors building the hospital. They worked out an informal agreement to allow certain engineering soldiers to work side by side with the contractors,” said Olson.
There were fears the relationship would be difficult to maintain, especially with the differences between the military culture and the civilian culture. The fears eventually proved to be unfounded.
“We initially saw it as being a fragile relationship, but it has really blossomed. It’s Afghans helping Afghans, forming relationships outside of the army. They are making engineer connections, and it’s a win-win situation. The contractors get more work done for free, the ANA get training which would be very difficult for us to provide,” said Olson.