USA — Trainers Provide Lessons-Learned to Deploying Troops

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.

Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La
Army Staff Sgt. Chris Ream, a trainer/mentor at the Joint Readi­ness Train­ing Cen­ter at Fort Polk, La., right, coach­es Sgt. Ryan McGrath from the 101st Air­borne Division’s 4th Brigade Com­bat Team dur­ing a road­side secu­ri­ty mis­sion in prepa­ra­tion for the brigade’s deploy­ment to Afghanistan.
DoD pho­to by Don­na Miles
Click to enlarge

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.)

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)