HERAT, Afghanistan - Driving a 4.5 ton up-armored vehicle up and down steep mountains on unprepared roads takes skill.
To swiftly navigating the same vehicle tactically in combat takes expertise. To survive a roll-over and continue to fight takes a level of capability that only rigid training and a motivated Soldier can master.
At Camp Zafar, Herat Province, Afghan National Army recruits are undergoing such training at their Basic Warrior Course, the ANA version of Basic Military Training.
“Afghans are here training Afghans on this difficult task,” said U.S. Marine Sgt. Jason Epstein, a 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines from ‘the Lonestar Battalion,’ Austin, Texas.
After an ANA soldier masters tactically driving a Humvee, they progress to light terrain vehicle training. Many Westerners learn to drive passenger vehicles and LTVs prior to even entering military service. Such is not the case for the majority of Afghans.
“Afghans arrive with a varied amount of driving skills,” said Epstein. “I’ve had people drive to the course on one hand, and people who’ve never even been in a truck on the other.”
Though most Afghans have seen vehicles passing by on roads near their towns and villages, many have never rode in a vehicle, much less driven one, said Epstein. Teaching them to drive tactically really starts at ground zero.
Having Afghan instructors is paramount, said U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Kenneth Sturgis, 1/23 Marine from Shreveport, La. Instructors speaking the same language as those being instructed expedites the process.
“My Marines mainly provide feedback at the end of the day but will intervene if something is drastically wrong,” said Epstein, who summed up his Herat deployment as very rewarding. “The ANA instructors are taking charge and dealing with nearly all issues. That wasn’t the case in years gone by.”
The 1/23 previously deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
From a driver’s perspective, Iraq and Afghanistan are vastly different conflicts, but many aspects remain the same. For example, regardless of road conditions and environment, preventative maintenance is key to sustaining a vehicle’s operability.
Being that driving motor vehicles is a novel concept to many Afghans, the necessity of vehicle maintenance is also new.
The soldiers recognized that, and are taking steps to engrain their Marine Corps maintenance practices into the ANA recruits during BWC.
“We’re very meticulous about preventative maintenance, turret directions, and really all details while on convoy,” said Epstein. “We modified the course here to make it painfully obvious that all checks and preventative maintenance will be done before even entering a truck.”
Epstein hopes that by learning it at BWC, it will stick with them when they get out to their field units, he said.
Once recruits learn to tactically drive and maintain both vehicles, they move into the final stage of their vehicle training and learn to egress a rolled over vehicle.
The Marines utilize a Humvee Egress Assistance Trainer, or HEAT simulator, to accomplish this task.
Groups of five recruits enter the HEAT. From the inside, the HEAT simulator looks like an operational Humvee, and recruits soon learn that after strapping on body armor and loading the vehicle with their weapons, there is little wiggle room.
After a crew of recruits is loaded, the mentors start the simulator, which rotates a full 360 degrees and spins as long as the mentors need to throw a recruit’s sense of direction off.
While the HEAT spins, the recruits sitting in the back two seats must not only secure themselves, but pull the turret gunner down into the simulator.
Failure to do so in a real-world roll over could cost the gunner his life.
After the simulator stops spinning, recruits must gain their sense of direction, then unbuckle their seat belts and egress in a sensible order so that trainees are not un-strapping their belts and literally falling onto a fellow recruit seated below.
The trainees can egress through doors or the turret, depending on in which position the HEAT stops. As an added hurdle, mentors can lock random doors from the outside, which simulates a real-world phenomenon of a door being bent or jammed shut during a roll over.
Mentors are pleased with the rate recruits learn all aspects of the training, said Epstein. “The knowledge is being passed correctly to Afghan instructors, which is being taught correctly to the Afghan students. They are learning more rapidly than I expected.”
All mentors agree that a well trained ANA is vital because who knows who will be on the next patrol or convoy with these recruits. The training they receive now could someday save a life.
Moreover, when coalition forces leave Afghanistan, these are the generations of Afghans who will continue to keep their people safe.