FORT POLK, La., May 26, 2010 — Army Staff Sgt. Chris Kleinhans has just about seen it all during his past two-and-a-half years as a trainer/mentor at the Joint Readiness Training Center here.
He has facilitated about 20 rotational training units as they performed their last critical mission rehearsal exercises before deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan. Nearly all of the most-recent rotations, including the 101st Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team that’s wrapping up its training here, are headed for Afghanistan.
This current rotation, Kleinhans’ last at JRTC before reporting to his next duty station, holds special significance. He’s on orders for the 101st Airborne Division, and recognizes that he could well be serving in combat with the troops he’s coaching here.
“It’s not a matter of making you work harder at this job, but it does make it a lot more personal,” he said.
Kleinhans is among a highly experienced cadre committed to ensuring units get the most out of their JRTC experience.
“The bottom line is, we are helping them achieve the readiness level they want before they go to combat,” said Army Lt. Col. Val Keaveny, the JRTC brigade commander and senior trainer/mentor
“Each of us here has served in their shoes, and each of us know, or at least hope, we will serve in their shoes again,” Keaveny said. “So as trainer/mentors, we are committed to helping them maximize the very short amount of time they get here.”
JRTC abandoned the term “observer-controllers” about two years ago, adopting a title Keaveny said far more accurately depicts their relationship with the rotation training units. “To observe is passive,” he said. “And we don’t control anything. It is their unit. What we do is focus on training them and focus on mentoring.”
Trainer/mentors observe each unit’s performance, coaching and teaching doctrine as they manage mock engagements, monitor safety, and conduct after-action reviews. All have deployment experience under their belts and keep well-versed in current operational doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures.
“We have all been there, and we have experienced some of the pain,” said Keaveny. “And now, in a position like mine, after seeing it here for two years straight, I can help them avoid some of the pain.”
But as JRTC’s trainer/mentors will attest, it takes pain to save pain. So they put rotational units through the most realistic and challenging training possible, enhanced by role-players portraying Afghan leaders and citizens and a formidable opposing force that replicates a wily and ever-adapting insurgency.
Army Sgt. Darrell Blige, a trainer/mentor for the past year, remembers the challenges he’d faced going through JRTC before deploying to Afghanistan in 2007 as an 82nd Airborne Division platoon sergeant.
“They beat me down on the lanes out there,” he said, referring to the mission-oriented situational training exercise lanes that provide individual and collective tasks and battle drills instruction under realistic conditions.
“But it all paid off when I got to Afghanistan,” Blige said. “I see the value of making the training here as hard as it can be.”
Now Blige is helping the 4th BCT Currahees’ distribution platoon and forward support company fine-tune their convoy operations skills. The training focuses heavily on securing convoys against improvised explosive devices and direct attacks as the soldiers move mission-critical water, food, fuel, construction materials and ammunition. “We replicate the challenges they will face downrange. We don’t duplicate them exactly,” Keaveny said.
“Some areas don’t have a mortar threat today. Some areas don’t have a rocket threat today. But there are certain things we always train, because conditions fluctuate as the enemy adapts to our tactics,” he said. “Beyond that, we stay linked very, very closely to what is going on downrange so we can accurately replicate what they will face.”
Keaveny’s work with the rotational training units starts months before they arrive at this isolated western Louisiana pine forest. His team flies to the unit’s home station to provide pre-rotational instruction, and enhances that with interactive DVDs, video teleconferences and other training tools.
“We use the term ‘getting left of the rotation,’ ” Keaveny said. “We don’t wait until they arrive. We start as far out as humanly possible, providing trends, best practices, classes. The list of classes is a mile long in what we provide the rotation.”
From his first meeting with incoming commanders, Keaveny tells them straight up: “Here are the frictions you will face.” He lists them, and then says, “Here is the best practice out of the two years I have been doing this. This is the No. 1 tactic, technique or procedure, to avoid that friction or make the most of it.”
But Keaveny and his trainer-mentors also recognize there’s no simple, cookie-cutter formula for every situation they’ll face in Afghanistan.
“It is very easy for me to say, ‘Here is the problem and here is the solution,’ ” he said. “The hard part is helping them achieve that capability. Getting to that is how we spend the majority of the time here.”
Favoring the “human dimension,” with more back-and-forth discussions than formal briefings or data charts, Keaveny strives to help rotational command groups identify strengths and weaknesses during their training rotations.
“I’ll ask them, ‘What frictions have we had today? And what do we need to do to make it smoother or gain more efficiency or effectiveness?’ ” he said.
Keaveny recognizes that it’s easy while operating within a JRTC scenario “to be consumed by what is going on right now” rather than looking out at the big, strategic picture. “So I look out ahead to identify where multiple operations will overlap, where the enemy might potentially take advantage of us, where we might have missed something because we were so consumed by what is going on right now,” he said. “We try to identify those for the leadership ahead of time so we – the TMs in the unit – can work our systems to prevent that problem.”
Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Cogdell, a Fort Riley, Kan., soldier augmenting JRTC’s trainer/mentor staff, said he found tremendous value in the feedback he received at JRTC when his 1st Infantry Division unit conducted its training rotation for Iraq.
“I can stand back and see things a platoon sergeant doesn’t see because he is in the middle of the fight,” he said. “Even the most elite unit has room for improvement, and different settings make you look at things in a different way.”
When he assesses what his trainer/mentors bring to the JRTC training experience, Keaveny sums it up with the sage advice that a former sergeant major trainer/mentor had provided to incoming rotational units.
“He said, ‘You need to leave here with confidence in yourself, your equipment and your leadership,’ ” Keaveny said. “When you think about it, he was dead right. That’s what we’re after: confidence in those three things.”
That’s exactly what Sgt. Ryan McGrath, a 4th BCT soldier, said he’s gaining during his JRTC rotation.
“This is some of the best training we get out here,” said McGrath, as he conducted a roadside security mission under the watchful eyes of trainer/mentor Staff Sgt. Chris Ream. “They try to make it as real-life as possible out here .… It’s a big part of getting us in the ‘green mode,’ prepped and ready for deployment.”
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Monte Abshier recognizes that rotational units already have extensive training – and in many cases, deployment experience – under their belts when they arrive at JRTC.
“They already have their systems in place. What we try to get them to do is work their systems here at JRTC,” he said. “JRTC gives them the opportunity to test them in a realistic environment that replicates almost everything they can expect to encounter in [the combat] theater.”
Army Staff Sgt. Jason Wells, JRTC’s newest trainer/mentor, ensures rotational training units learn the basics that served him well during 37 months of deployments in Iraq. “Are they doing battle drills to standard?” Wells said. “Are they assessing casualties to standard? Are they doing situational reports? Are they keeping the commander informed?” Wells said he also pulls rotational platoon sergeants aside to remind them of some of the easily overlooked fundamentals.
“You can’t always run these guys 100 miles an hour,” he explained. “An aggressive platoon isn’t a bad thing. But sometimes you need to calm down, catch your breath and assess the situation. If you don’t, that’s what can lead you into an ambush. You can be baited into something.”
Reviewing his own experience as a trainer/mentor, Kleinhans said there’s tremendous gratification in helping rotational units fine-tune their systems before deploying.
“This job is great, being able to watch soldiers come here at one level, then be at a different level when they leave,” he said. “It’s not something that happens in leaps and bounds. It’s gradual. And it isn’t something we give them in the classroom. It’s on the ground, employing their tactics, techniques and procedures in the most realistic environment we can give them.”
Kleinhans said his experience as a trainer/mentor at Fort Polk will give him a tremendous leg up when he goes to Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division.
“Being able to be an outsider looking in gives you a perspective not a lot of people get in the Army,” he said. “The biggest thing people take out of this experience is learning from the mistakes they make. I get to see what people do, both right and wrong, and it gives me a lot of insights that I can put into my kit bag and take with me.”
(This is the third 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.)
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