JANUARY 10, 2017, SUROBI DISTRICT, Afghanistan – Radio chatter crackles loudly through a handheld speaker as Afghan and U.S. forces perch on a dusty mountainside, watching an element maneuver through the barren valley Dec. 27.
The U.S. forces on the mountainside are from Train Advise Assist Command-East, part of an expeditionary advisory package observing the unit. The ground forces conducting the drill belong to the 3rd Brigade, 201st Afghan National Army Corps operating out of Camp Torah in Surobi district.
The company level unit, known as a “tolay,” is conducting a collective training cycle as a part of the winter campaign strategy.
The scene could be right out of previous years of the war here, but this time around advisors are getting to observe training within a brigade element. Ordinarily, they would see only what happens within the corps headquarters.
“To our knowledge, nothing like this has been done before in the 201st Corps,” said Maj. Tino Colon, the operations advisor in the military advisory team for Train Advise Assist Command-East. “Collective training used to mean manning guard towers or observation posts. This time it’s different.”
Colon is assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. In his second deployment working with the 201st Corps, he said, he has watched the transformation of the organization.
“Before, they didn’t incorporate the entire tolay in the training process,” Colon explained. “They are now incorporating — not only the tolay leadership — but all organic elements and enablers. This allows them to build cohesion as a unit and increase their effectiveness.”
Colon and his team of advisors have been working with the 201st Corps on a daily basis, training the trainers and evaluators. Their advising efforts, he said, have resulted in Afghan-led training and a sustainable, long-term program for the corps.
According to Colon, the tolay training has allowed the unit to practice the integration of enabler support into their battle plans. During this drill, the unit uses mortar fire as an enabler in conjunction with their maneuver to take out a simulated enemy outpost.
“The employment of fires [mortars] illustrates the communications between ground forces and the forces shooting,” Colon said. “The corps artillery officer is already coming up with an improved scheme of fires for the next cycle of training.”
For those who are observing the training from the mountainside, it’s hard to forget war is still going on. There has been recent insurgent activity in Surobi. A group of U.S. soldiers provides them with security as they advise the Afghan counterparts.
“We are the first line of defense,” said Sgt. Eric Capel, a guardian angel assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment. Capel is one of the many guardian angels, a term used for the soldiers who are responsible for providing security to the advisory teams.
“Being here allows us [guardian angels] and the advisors to see the effect of the advising effort first-hand,” Capel said. “We get to see the advisors in action and also see how their efforts are enabling their Afghan counterparts to get better. This is really the whole reason why we are here.”
Spc. Timothy Leslie, also a guardian angel assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, agrees with Capel. This will be something people will look back on years from now and remember, Leslie said with pride.
“Being out here is important to me,” Leslie said. “I get to be a part of history as it takes place. I get to watch the 201st Corps improve, and know I contributed to that effort by providing security for the advisors. Because of my work, the advisors were able to focus solely on their jobs.”
The 201st Corps will continue conducting collective training iterations throughout the winter months to improve overall readiness, with the coalition forces by their side.
As the Corps undergoes its training cycle, it remains responsible for security in seven provinces and the Surobi district in eastern Afghanistan.
By Capt. Grace Geiger