CHARLESTON, S.C. — More than a decade after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, the war in Afghanistan is starting to draw down, but the task of training the Afghan military is in full swing.
Master Sgt. Erin Manley, 14th Airlift Squadron, 437th Airlift Wing loadmaster instructor, recently returned from a 365-day tour in Afghanistan …her ninth.
Manley’s mission was different this deployment. Instead of contributing to the fight by moving supplies and troops in and out of the country, Manley, was assigned to the 538th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron in Kabul, Afghanistan, tasked with the job of training the newly formed Afghan air force airmen to become loadmasters.
Manley was the first female flyer to be sent to this location to train Afghan military members.
“I was given very short notice for this deployment, but I felt honored to have been chosen to complete this mission,” said Manley.
“I wouldn’t say I was scared,” said Manley. “But I was worried about how difficult it would be to complete my task when I’m teaching individuals whose culture doesn’t allow women to hold positions of authority.”
Besides cultural difference, Manley also had to learn a completely new air frame. The Afghan Air Force uses the C-27A Spartan, an Italian-built aircraft.
“I am used to flying and operating out of the C-17 Globemaster III, which has four jet engines,” said Manley. “The C-27 was much smaller and instead of jet engines, it was powered by prop engines.”
Manley attended a 40-day course in Naples, Italy, with Italian speaking instructors who taught her the ins and outs of the aircraft. The course also included five training flights.
“This course was very challenging, but I can say I learned a lot and saw some of the most beautiful sites flying around Naples, Italy,” said Manley.
Once her training was complete, Manley was ready to tackle the difficult task of training more than 20 Afghan military members.
Fortunately, Manley was not the only Team Charleston Airman going on the deployment. Lt. Col. Kenneth Norris from the 437th Operations Support Squadron would also be deploying.
“We left the same day and both served the full 365-day tour,” said Norris. “Our positions were different, but we both knew our purpose was the same – train, advise and mentor the Afghans.”
Norris was assigned as the 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group deputy commander, overseeing several squadrons including the squadron Manley was serving in, the 538th AEAS.
“We both met challenges there,” said Norris. “We quickly realized we needed to understand the Afghans’ culture and earn their respect before we could even start to train or mentor them.”
Manley, the first woman to fill the position of a loadmaster mentor in Afghanistan, had the difficult task of training soldiers who were raised in a culture that doesn’t freely accept women in leadership positions.
So Manley and the other advisors immersed themselves in the Afghan culture so they could work hand and hand with them on a daily basis.
“We worked ‘shohna ba shohna’ (shoulder to shoulder) – a NATO training mission – Afghanistan motto,” said Manley. “To be successful in a flying squadron all the members have to work closely.”
“Learning their culture was paramount to success and picking up a few of their words really showed them respect,” said Manley. “Once the Afghans knew I respected them, they started to come around and respect me.”
Once the Afghans warmed up to Manley, the real training began.
“You have to understand that the Afghan air force is less than five years old, so things like customs and courtesies that are and have been set in place for years in the United States Air Force aren’t there for them,” said Manley.
Manley would teach the Afghan airmen their core competencies for becoming a loadmaster and in between, she would discuss customs and courtesies and everyday military interactions.
“We were given military members who had no operating instructions or professional development guides to rely on,” said Manley. “We had to start from scratch.”
The training approach Manley and her team members used to teach the Afghans was “for them, with them and by them.” The advisors would first perform the task of loading cargo while the Afghans watched. They would then perform the task with them. Once the Afghans had an understanding of the task, the advisors would sit back and watch them perform it on their own.
“It was very satisfying watching each of the Afghans learn and start to perform loadmaster tasks with little to no assistance,” said Manley.
At the end of Manley’s 365-day tour, she had trained the 20-plus Afghans to be loadmasters and helped to train the first two Afghan loadmaster instructors.
“Our goal was to train the Afghans to be self-sufficient and we achieved that,” said Manley. “With the two instructors, they can now begin to train one another which will lessen our need to be there.”
“How I thought it was going to be and how it really turned out were completely different,” said Manley. “I was actually sad to be leaving the Afghans I had trained and befriended. This deployment was my proudest and favorite moment in my military career.”
Manley was nominated for the Air Mobility Command Lance P. Sijan Award, in the senior non commissioned officer category, for her efforts on the deployment. She is currently awaiting results on the award.