What began as a beautiful and peaceful day in Kostif Village, Afghanistan, didn’t end that way.
A dispute between the village leaders and a police chief was turning into a potentially dangerous situation.
A mounted combat patrol of United States combat advisers, traversing the village in up-armored Humvees, with rotating turrets manned with .50-caliber machine guns, were searching for hidden improvised explosive devices (IED)s along the unpaved roadways around and near Kostif.
Learning of the disruption in the village, the team leader moved his patrol of 10 advisers – nine Air Force airmen and one Army soldier, of varying officer and noncommissioned officer ranks – to Kostif to engage in a dialogue.
Col. Derrick Hirata, USAF, the team leader, set up his vehicles in a security perimeter around the village to contain any possible threats while he dismounted, entered a house and talked with the villagers and the police chief.
After resolving the controversy, Hirata, the village elders and police chief were walking out of a house and into the village when a call to prayer, echoing from the minaret of the mosque, was suddenly interrupted by a loud IED explosion.
The IED, hidden in an automobile, was in close proximity to the villagers who were gathering for their mid-afternoon religious service.
Several villagers were seriously injured, and one female Air Force combat adviser was hit by the IED’s shrapnel, but did not receive life-threatening injuries.
The crowd became restless as they watched family members and friends on the ground bleeding profusely – some already minus a limb from the earth-shaking blast at the base of the mosque.
Moving into a supportive role, the American combat advisers on the village’s perimeter, watched with a careful eye as the host nation security forces took charge by managing the screaming, out-of-control crowd; administering first aid to the wounded, and maintaining order among the people who had been devastated by the bombing.
This tragic event in war-torn Afghanistan actually took place on Range 42, Fort Polk, La., as part of the 162nd Infantry Brigade’s Foreign Security Force – Transition Team training mission which is, simply stated, to prepare future American combat advisers who will be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to train, coach and mentor police and security forces in the host nation countries.
This joint effort – between the American forces and allies – will prepare Afghan and Iraqi forces for the eventual transfer of security responsibilities back to their countries.
Overseeing this exercise is 1st Lt. Scott Walters and several noncommissioned officers who will be rating and evaluating the team as in moves through the village and faces the problems inherent in an operation of this type in Afghanistan.
Walters, an Arizona State University graduate who served in Afghanistan with the Mine Action Center at Bagram Air Field, is well versed in the art of patrolling for and detecting mines and IEDs.
The exercise – staged by the 162nd Brigade’s Directorate of Cultural Influence and Counterinsurgency (DCC) – is conducted during an intense two-week course in the 10-week, 60-day resident course taught at Fort Polk.
The DCC course stresses leadership engagement, cultural awareness, language familiarization and IED training, along with other fields of concentration.
Hirata told AUSA NEWS in an interview after the exercise, "Our IED training was very realistic. Prior to getting to the IED lane we learned how to mount a combat patrol through a lane that would have IED threats, language training, cultural sensitivity training – all building up to leader engagement … with role players actually from Afghanistan."
Leader engagement exercises, according to Army officials, are vital because they allow the future combat advisers to learn how to build rapport and interact with tribal leaders, local town folks and officials, and the security and police forces that are taking on more responsibilities for the host nation.
"This team," Walters said at Kostif Village, "is to work with all parties involved and defuse the situation. We evaluate how well they do. How well they monitor the security, delegate to the local security force. We make it as realistic as possible."
Following the exercise, a "Hot Wash," or after action review, was conducted by Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Pickett, noncommissioned officer in charge of small group advisers, who emphasized to the training team that in a situation like the one they had just faced: "Don’t fight the plan; fight the battle."
Adding, "The plan will change, so you must be flexible," when you are participating in leader engagement.
Pickett also gave advice when searching for an IED that was obviously missed in the car by the mosque during the exercise.
"Always patrol the perimeter [as you did], but keep eye contact with the villagers and other vehicles" [in the area].
"Slow down," he said, "don’t lose your momentum [in the search], but be cautious and observant."
Recalling that one member of the team, an American Air Force sergeant, was wounded in the explosion, Pickett said, "Always remember to keep your higher headquarters informed. Your commander has to know what’s going on, especially if there is a casualty and you need medical assistance."
Most importantly, "Know you capabilities. Know your weapons and equipment. Know the capabilities and limitations of all your equipment," he said.
Commenting on the exercise and the training, Hirata said, "Once we got to the village, we were responsible for providing our own security and advising the Afghan security forces how to set up their own security [for the village and its people.] We couldn’t take it over.
"It was a challenging event."