FORT POLK, La., May 25, 2010 — The day kicked off here late last week as a celebration in the fictional Afghan village of Sangari. A ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the reopening of the municipal center, headquarters for the provisional governor, the regional police commissioner and local police chief, as well as a public works service office.
U.S. forces – the 101st Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, pulling a month-long training rotation here at the Joint Readiness Training Center – arrived hours before the late-morning ceremony, along with their Afghan army and national police counterparts.
The “Currahee” Brigade focused on the same tactics, techniques and procedures they’ll apply when they deploy to Afghanistan in the coming months as part of the troop surge there. Working shoulder to shoulder with their Afghan counterparts, they set up checkpoints at three roads leading to the tiny village – one of 22 dotting the training center, all built to resemble real-life Afghan villages. They set up a perimeter around the village, taking pains to remain as far in the background as possible so the Afghan forces could take the lead.
Army Lt. Col. Donn Hill, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, discussed the security plan for the event with his Afghan army counterpart – an Afghan role player supporting the exercise.
“It looks like a good turnout,” Hill said, speaking through an interpreter as he surveyed the villagers dressed in authentic Middle Eastern clothing as they gathered in front of the municipal center, awaiting the ceremony under the hot Louisiana sunshine.
“I know my people’s biggest concern is a suicide bomber,” Hill told the Afghan commander, whose role-playing Afghan troops and police manned the forward security line.
A CH-47 Chinook helicopter swirled the air as it landed nearby, depositing more role players depicting provincial reconstruction team leaders who had come to attend the ceremony.
The provincial governor arrived next, along with an Afghan army general and U.S. Army Col. Sean Jenkins, the 4th Brigade commander.
No one realized that Army Spc. Kevin Pemberton of the Joint Readiness Training Center’s opposing force lurked inconspicuously among the crowd. A member of the 1st Battalion, 509th Infantry “Geronimo” Regiment, for the past 15 months, Pemberton has carried out the full range of “Red Force” roles against rotational units training here. He’s emplaced simulated improvised explosive devices, launched small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade attacks on coalition troops and has set up complex ambush attacks, among other insurgent tactics. For the municipal dedication ceremony, he carried an Afghan citizenship card identifying him as “Zabidullah Nafi’e Hamet Mahsud.” And beneath his flowing dishdasha robe, he concealed a suicide vest rigged with five bricks of C4 explosives and a detonator tucked into his pocket.
Pemberton’s plan was to wait until the ceremony concluded and the crowd started to disperse to detonate. It would reduce civilian casualties, he explained, and more importantly, serve as the ultimate counterpoint to any message of assurance offered during the ceremony.
The local religious leader kicked off the ceremony, chanting verses from the Quran before the Afghan leaders took their turns at the podium set directly in front of the municipal building.
Some in the crowd became unruly, complaining they couldn’t hear what was taking place, and pushed closer toward the building. The Afghan security forces initially tried to hold the security line, then reluctantly relented to allow the crowd to move in closer.
After the Afghan leaders addressed the crowd, Jenkins took his place at the podium, hailing the reopening of the municipal center as “another example of successful development” in Sangar province, calling it the result of the security the Afghan army and national police have provided the people of Sangari. He credited the close partnership among Afghan forces, coalition forces and the Sangari people for making it possible.
Just as the officials cut the ribbon and the crowd started to return to their homes and shops, Pemberton made his move to storm the municipal center. The Afghan soldiers and police tried to stop him, and he detonated – an action made more realistic, thanks to a fire marker who sent up an air cluster generating smoke and noise.
Chaos erupted among the crowd, as screaming men and women fled the area. Left lying behind, along with Pemberton, were 12 mock casualties – six Afghan soldiers, four Afghan police officers and two civilians.
The Currahee Brigade responded instantly, with squad and platoon leaders moving their soldiers into position. Then, as if remembering that the Afghans were to be in the lead, they readjusted toward the rear, providing backup.
Meanwhile, Army medics ran toward the scene, checking the pockets of each role player on the ground for a card that, for the exercise, designating the extent of their injuries. The triage quickly completed, Pfc. Christina Piatt tended to one patient as Spc. Tyler Westlund and Spc. Anthony Stein loaded another onto a litter to be evacuated from the site.
More disruptions rang out amid the chaos, signs of a coordinated strike. Simulated rockets crashed down in the distance. Insurgent forces engaged U.S. and Afghan forces manning the control points into the village. An enemy sniper fired shots from the top floor of the local hotel.
Two OH-58D Kiowa Warrior reconnaissance helicopters circled overhead, and an A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” soared high overhead, dropping flares simulating close-air support.
As the scenario concluded, the Currahee soldiers headed toward their command outpost, a plywood structure ringed with concrete barriers and wrapped in concertina wire. After they cleared their weapons, they filed into the building to catch their breath and await an after-action review.
Army Staff Sgt. Jason Wells, a Joint Readiness Training Center trainer-mentor who had carefully watched every detail of the operation as it unfolded, followed behind.
“Suicide bombers are particularly tough,” he said. “But they could have done a better job of crowd control. It’s one of the things they’ll learn here.”
Wells never has deployed to Afghanistan, but he has spent 37 months in Iraq, including the initial invasion in 2003, when he served with the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment.
As the “new guy” with just two months on the center’s trainer-mentor staff, he said, he sees tremendous value in the training deploying troops get here.
“If you know you are going into this type of situation, you need to get trained for it,” he said. “If you’re not ready and you go in messed up, you are going to get messed up.”
(This is the second article in a series about how the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., is preparing the 101st Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team for its upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.)
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)