News: Ohio native’s initiative changes face of Afghan communications
Story by Sgt. Earnest J. Barnes
CAMP SHORABAK, Helmand province, Afghanistan – Something spoke to 1st Lt. Joseph M. Russell’s heart as he watched the Twin Towers fall to rubble on that infamous day in September 2001. The Richmond Heights, Ohio, native heard a voice inside of him telling him to stand up against the wrongs done that day and fight for his country … so he did, not knowing his contributions would change how an entire Afghan National Army unit operates.
Russell, now the communications advisor for the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps, is wrapping up a deployment to Helmand province in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, where he advises the communications officer for the 215th Corps in his daily operations to increase the ANA’s capabilities and independence.
“I’m a communications officer. My job – my mission – is to enable command and control for [a U.S.] commander, ensuring he can command throughout his battle space,” said Russell, who is on his first tour to Afghanistan. “My mission in Afghanistan as the communications adviser is to assist and advise the 215th Corps communications officer in enabling command and control for the 215th Corps commanding general.”
Russell started his career in the Marine Corps Reserve as a field radio operator, a ground-level communicator, drilling one weekend a month and two weeks during the summer while he attended college.
“I was admittedly a post-9/11 guy; after 9/11 I felt this strong sense of patriotism,” said Russell, who joined in 2004. “I wanted to do it after I saw the attacks on T.V. when I was in high school. When I graduated high school, that was the first thing I did.”
Russell built his communications skills during his monthly drills to increase his capabilities. His transition to become a Marine Corps officer began during those same monthly drills. As a young intellectual, Russell wanted to make an impact that would affect those troops in his position. He took on a mantra learned while attending college and embodied it later in his career: be the change you want to make in the world.
“If you have it in you to change something that you see is not correct, then you might as well go and do that. I wanted to take on more responsibility,” said Russell. “That is one of the things that really drew me to wanting to go up to the next level; I thought, why complain about what I’m doing when I could go and make tough decisions and make [an] impact on the lives of junior Marines.”
That is exactly what Russell did after graduating in 2008 from Miami University of Oxford, Ohio. Though a one-year deployment to Afghanistan wasn’t exactly what Russell had in mind to applying his bachelor’s degree in diplomacy and foreign affairs, it did give him the opportunity to work with a foreign military and test his skills as a professional communicator.
Russell walked into his current deployment unaware of the 215th Corps’ full capabilities, but he had one overlying goal for his deployment: independence.
“What I really tried to focus on is independence with this mission. Afghan independence is something I think everyone should be seeking while they are over here in Afghanistan,” said Russell. “Sooner or later that’s it; we’re out of here – the Afghans will have the sole responsibility for their own security.”
Russell added he tries to facilitate that idea in everyday operations with his counterparts and gets into the details at the ground level to offer advice, even with the simplest of tasks.
“I try to do that by assisting, advising in day-to-day aspect of the communications section here, and I try to do so with a lot of over-the-shoulder work with the communications officers,” said Russell, 25.
Russell, along with Sgt. Alan Coleman, a Fountain, Valley, Calif., native and the enlisted communications adviser for the 215th Corps, has seen his counterpart and the soldiers of the communications section grow in their abilities and confidence since the beginning of his deployment in February 2011. He has been able to exploit their progress and take their training to the next level to achieve independence toward facilitating the future transition of the security role in Helmand.
“That is one thing over the long term we’re really striving to develop: ‘train the trainer,’” said Russell. “We can’t keep training … if we are leaving here. Independence in the training environment is something that we are striving for lately.”
Russell added since being trained, the Afghans are good at their jobs. They know specifically what they need to do, so he and Coleman are teaching the soldiers to learn one another’s jobs, so they can be interchangeable and plan for missions and logistical needs.
He said a great example of this is one of the Afghan technicians, Sgt. Taj Muhammad. This soldier came to the 215th Corps with no education as a soldier’s apprentice, and he is now capable of cleaning, repairing and encoding encryption into field radios. From not being able to write his name to being able to program complex radios, giving him a valuable trade skill, Russell simply said, “He is a success story.”
Muhammad is not the only success story that spurs from Russell’s efforts as an adviser. The radios Muhammad works on everyday were not easily available, especially with encryption, when Russell arrived in Helmand. He quickly saw the danger of operating without encrypted radios and immediately began working on a plan to correct it, but doing so where it would be fixed strictly through Afghan means.
Russell adopted the age-old adage of, “You can do more with less,” from his nearly eight years in the Marine Corps. He knew if he helped them walk through the process using the ANA supply system and accomplish this daunting task, they could see it could be done without the assistance of coalition forces.
“What I’ve been trying to focus on throughout this deployment is taking a more realistic approach with the communications section, in terms of thinking about logistics, thinking about the constraints their supply system places on them, and learning to work with what they’ve got,” explained Russell. “There are a lot of things that the communications section has been able to accomplish with limited resources at their disposal.”
“Lieutenant Russell provided a decisive, connecting file in helping to not just push, but also mentored the 215th Corps [communications officer] toward improving their communications capabilities, their communications training, and maintenance,” said Col. Dudley R. Griggs, the communications officer for 2nd Marine Division (Forward). “Those things add up to readiness – readiness to operate, readiness to deploy, readiness to execute campaign plans and orders.”
Russell said by helping his Afghan partners work through their own system, seeing the planning and orders work correctly, they gained the confidence needed to perform similar tasks when U.S. forces begin to withdraw. Confidence in their ability is the key to being able to operate independently. The soldiers Russell mentors gained the faith needed with his mentorship to get radios, encoders and encrypted circuit boards to begin outfitting the units of the 215th Corps with a new, secure means of communication.
“[Russell] recognized a vital lacking capability on arrival that without encryption, those forces could not operate alongside their coalition partners without compromising operational security,” said Griggs, a Denver native. “At the ground level this would mean a platoon of Marines operating with [a company of Afghan] soldiers … could potentially compromise the operational security of what they were doing.”
Griggs added, “An insurgent who wanted to listen to what was going on could [previously] use an over-the-counter radio scanner, could quickly learn what was occurring, and gain situational [awareness] on how to defend or fight against it.”
Griggs, a 1988 graduate of Colorado College, stated having secure communications is vital to the security of both the Afghans and the coalition forces working shoulder-to-shoulder with them; the examples like insurgents potentially infiltrating communications is why Russell’s initiative is appreciated by not only his Afghan counterparts, but coalition leaders alike.
“Lieutenant Russell was able to recognize a requirement, help work through Afghan channels – logistics channels, purchasing channels and installation channels – to then obtain the necessary encryption cards to fulfill all of the radios across the 215th Corps,” said Griggs, a 23-year veteran of the communications field. “Russell did so to help make his partnering force more capable, more survivable, and more affective in their daily operations as they patrol the villages and road networks in order to provide security for the Afghan populous here in Helmand province.”
Griggs said it is very important the 215th Corps is able to do so, as they take the lead in counterinsurgency operations in the coming year. He said without Russell’s action on the issue, the Afghans’ quick tempo toward transition and assumption of the security role in Helmand would have been significantly degraded.
“This is a typical and classic Marine story in partnership with coalition forces. I’ve seen this all over the globe and across the Middle East – I’ve seen it in Central and South America in other partnered situations – where young Marines with three or four years of experiences – often they are [noncommissioned officers] or junior officers – are able to see well beyond what they are trained to see and have an impact far beyond what would normally be expected,” Griggs concluded. “They do this through initiative; they do this through hustle; they do this through commitment in trying to make the units they are working with far stronger. This is the classic story that goes back through long lineage of Marines in partnered relationships we’ve had for the past 150 years and really all the way back to the beginnings of our corps.”
Editor’s note: The Afghan National Army 215th Corps Communications Advisor Team is currently assigned to 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.