484TH STANDS READY
Guard Members Finish Pre-Deployment Training In Texas, Afghanistan Next
By Samar Fay Courier Editor
Published: Thursday, June 14th, 2012
FORT BLISS, Texas – It’s going to be brutally hot in Afghanistan when two Montana Army National Guard companies from eastern Montana arrive for duty this week, so what better place to train than the hot Texas desert? The soldiers have spent two months at Fort Bliss, honing their skills before deploying for a year.
The Guard recently brought this reporter and three other Montana journalists to Texas to view the training and interview the soldiers just before they board airplanes headed east. This week, the story will focus on the 484th Military Police Co., headquartered in Malta with detachments in Glasgow and Billings. Next week, the attention will be on the 260th Engineer Co. from Miles City.
The 484th has about 150 members, including two women, ready for their first overseas assignment – the exception being the two who volunteered to go again after six months back. The company has been deployed before, back in 2004, when they went to Alaska for a year to fill in for a unit that did go to the Middle East. They experienced the separation from family and their usual employment, but not the foreign environment. Now it’s their turn, and excitement is high.
TRICKY TASK: TRAINING
AFGHANS BEFORE U.S. PULLS OUT
The MPs are given a tricky task in anticipation of the pullout of American troops from Afghanistan in a year or two. They are to train the Afghan National Police, the primary police force in a country that has only a shaky national identity, mostly tribal and family allegiance. The cultural differences between northeast Montana and a war-torn Muslim country are enormous. How to teach those police without running into stone walls of opposition?
Camp McGregor is a huge serving of red sand, mesquite bushes and yucca outside of Fort Bliss, about an hour from El Paso. The sprawling camp is designated as a training area for military units on their way to the Middle East. It is staffed by the 5th Armored Brigade, which has refined dealing with waves of new units down to a science.
There are firing ranges, motor pools and vast stretches of dusty road to patrol. Al Hadiz is a ghostly collection of small cinder block buildings that replicates a village. The training cadre includes native Pashtu speakers who dress in traditional garb and only converse through interpreters.
On June 6, the 484th MPs were receiving some makeup training with M40 protective masks from civilian contractor instructors, most of whom are former non-commissioned officers. The entrance to the plain classroom building was tented with sand-colored camo netting to provide some shade. Soldiers stood around in desert uniforms, M4 rifles slung at rest. As MPs, they were “dual carrying,” wearing M9 Beretta 9mm pistols in leg holsters. Team leaders also had a grenade launcher mounted under the rifle barrel. The MPs will use mostly smoke grenades, probably not HE (high explosive) rounds. Some soldiers were wearing water packs on their backs, in the never-ending battle against dehydration. It was 102 degrees.
At the door, two metal 55-gallon drums were packed into a stack of sandbags, to enforce the combat safety practice of clearing weapons before entering a building. The rifle magazine is removed, the chamber is cleared and the muzzle is stuck into the slot in the barrel. Pull the trigger. There should be a click. If there is a loud bang, that soldier is in the biggest trouble he has ever seen.
“Our mission is to advise the Afghan uniformed police,” said Staff Sgt. Matt Sonsteng, a Glasgow native who lives in Billings with his wife and young son. “We’re helping them stand up on their own and train each other.”
Sonsteng is on leave from his job as a fisheries technician for the U.S. Forest Service. He has been in the Guard for 12 years and says logistics is a big thing for the Afghan police.
“It’s about money and basic manpower,” Sonsteng said. “How do you get people to show up for work when they haven’t been paid for three weeks?”
PREPARED TO DEAL WITH
SHEIKS & VILLAGE ELDERS
He said their trainers were the best role players he’s ever seen. Wearing robes and practicing local customs of diplomacy, they teach these soldiers how to engage the policemen they will be meeting, how to talk to them, how to draw out intelligence information. Sonsteng said they learn to sit down with a police chief and ask how training is going, or with a sheik and village elders to find out how the village is doing. They set up scenes in which pamphlets had been dropped telling locals not to trust the Americans.
“This is for mission awareness,” Sonsteng said.
They have had multiple briefings on how to advise the Afghan chain of command, said Sgt. Adam Olson of Glasgow, a nine-year veteran of the Guard. He has been working in the Bakken as an oil rigger, but that’s on hold. The Americans will present information as diplomatically as they can.
“(The Afghans) have to see if it’s necessary,” Olson said.
Each detachment of the 484th MP Co. is a platoon, and each will be assigned to a different area. For security reasons, they did not name their destinations, but Sonsteng said his platoon would be based in a little town near a fairly large city.
The 484th has just finished their cumulative training event, a five-day test of everything they have learned at Fort Bliss. The unit passed and is validated.
“Things are going good,” said Olson “They’re saying good things about the unit, like we’re very professional and very well trained. They said we’re some of the best they’ve seen.”
Sgt. Ryan Michaelsen, married with a daughter, a member of the Wolf Point Police Department, has been in the Guard nearly 10 years. He was one of those who went to Alaska.
The family preparation for their departure has been good, he said. Linda Sundby, the Family Readiness representative for his unit, calls his wife monthly to see what they need and how they are doing. He said he has been using Skype to keep in contact. Olson is cautiously optimistic that this can continue “in country,” as they call it.
“It is rumored there will be Internet access,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Darin Hanson is a bank loan officer in North Dakota, but he grew up in Malta and has remained a member of the Malta detachment. A soldier for 16 years, he drives back every month for drill. He sticks with the buddies he trained with and went to school with.
“It’s good people,” Hanson said. “It’s tough to imagine training with someone else.”
THE HARDEST PART:
BEING AWAY FROM LOVED ONES
Anyway, training is not the hard part, Hanson said. The hard part is being away from your family and friends, adjusting to a new life. He went to Alaska but said it’s a “whole different ball game this time.”
“None of us imagined this when we joined the Guard,” Hanson said.
The company commander of the 484th is Capt. Fred Terry, who is full-time in the Guard with 24 years of service. He is in charge of information technology support for all the Army and Air Force National Guard at Joint Force headquarters in Helena. Normally, commanding this company is his weekend job.
“My wife is very supportive,” Terry said. “She knows I’m doing what I love. No matter how bad it gets, it’s still fun to me. I enjoy solders and being around soldiers, even when things get goofy and there are problems.”
He said leadership is an opportunity to “speak to young men’s lives,” mentor them and give them skills for the rest of their life.
Terry was a field artillery officer who retrained to stand up the unit as the 484th MP Co. He said there is an attitude difference between field artillery and MP.
“MPs are police officers dealing with the public, not warriors,” he said. “It a mindset, a community protection mindset.”
Terry said he was really pleased with the unit’s training prior to coming to Fort Bliss. He said they were set up for success, and there was nothing new that they weren’t prepared for.
“This is one of the best-prepared units I’ve been with,” Terry said. “It’s the best group of soldiers I’ve had the opportunity to be with, a real professional group.”
In just days, these soldiers would leave home soil and step into a complicated war that has been going on for longer than some of them have been alive. They have fresh training in their minds and buddies at their backs. The object is to do a good job and come home.
“This training – if we do it right and they can stand on their own, we shouldn’t have to go back,” Sonsteng said.
“Our hope is to train ourselves out of a job,” said Hanson.
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