It's All About the Mission: Inside the New 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade
Soldiers who volunteered for assignment to the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade are training for a mission the Army says will enhance their careers, but many say they signed on because they believe in the mission that could soon place them in Afghanistan.
“It’s what I joined the Army to do, to help people,” said Lt. Col. Brian Ducote, a 1999 U.S. Military Academy graduate who jumped at the chance to take command of an infantry battalion in the Army’s newest unit before his first battalion command was over.
A veteran of five combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he took on the advise and assist mission from its earliest days, Ducote said sharing what he knew of soldiering and leadership was the best way he could contribute to the U.S. strategy of building professional security forces and enabling them to stand on their own.
Though he loved the mission, he saw room for improvement in how it was being done. He and others in the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) are convinced it is the right structure with the right people and will be an enduring combat advisory capability for the Regular Army.
“Intellectually, leaders have always known something like this was needed,” he said. Now, with the SFAB established as an Army force structure with inherent advisory capability, he said, “I’m excited as a professional soldier and as a person because I believe in this mission; it’s something I’ve done.”
When Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley directed SFAB creation early last year, he promised soldiers who volunteered for the mission that it would enhance their careers. He assured them that promotion boards would view the assignment favorably, follow-on assignments of choice would be prioritized and $5,000 in assignment incentive pay would be granted.
While it is too early in the new unit’s history to cite any historical data on fulfillment of Milley’s promises, the brigade’s units are filling up with volunteers who say the three-year assignment and the SFAB’s mission will succeed because of the quality of people being selected, the focused training and the support from top leadership to get the resources they need for the job.
‘Morale Is Exceptional’
Lt. Col. Joe Jackson, commander of the 4th Battalion, the 1st SFAB’s field artillery unit, and a veteran of multiple military advisory missions, said some of his soldiers have questioned the career issue, but he reminds them of Milley’s promise and holds the view that anytime something is new there is uncertainty. Still, he said, “morale is exceptional” and soldiers understand that assignment to the SFAB is taking place among the top 1 percent of soldiers who have career options.
His soldiers want to do what soldiers join the Army to do—shoot, deploy and help people, Jackson said.
For Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Lever, the fire support NCO with the 2nd Battalion, one of two infantry battalions in the 1st SFAB, the assignment is a bit of a dream come true.
After 18 years in the Army with progressively more responsibility for young soldiers, he said “it’s nice to be able to work and talk with other seniors instead of worrying about what your young soldier is doing this weekend.”
Ducote, who commands the 1st Battalion, believes soldiers who have volunteered are seasoned enough to understand what the Army is trying to do and are eager to deploy again in a new unit with senior soldiers and resources not found in conventional units.
“It makes them want to stay and at the end of the day, you don’t do it for your career. You trust that this is something we’re putting an emphasis on and it’s the way ahead,” Ducote said.
Organized like a conventional brigade combat team, the SFAB is a U.S. Army Forces Command unit and intended to operate with about 600 seasoned officers and NCOs who are high performers and second-time leaders. They are training to work in 12-person combat advisory teams that support combatant commanders in strategically aligned regions. The SFAB model is designed to advance U.S. objectives overseas without compromising combat readiness in the Regular Army or combat power downrange, and because of its structure, it can be ramped up to full BCT capability by filling in the ranks below captain and sergeant.
That is good news for planners and commanders who have watched readiness erode as slices of their formations were pulled away to train foreign forces.
The 2nd SFAB was to be activated at Fort Bragg, N.C., in January, and the Army intends to stand up three more Regular Army SFABs and one in the Army National Guard. Col. Scott Jackson, commander of the 1st SFAB, said the codification and number of planned SFABs points to the importance of this new type of brigade, and the Army’s recognition that the mission is here to stay.
“Security force assistance is an enduring mission. We’ve been doing it forever, not just 16 years in the 21st century, but throughout the 20th century. It’s in our best interest and we’re going to keep doing it,” said Jackson, who was hand-picked to command the 1st SFAB and set up shop at Fort Benning, Ga., in May. It is his second brigade command. “With the SFAB, you allow the conventional brigades, and to a degree the special operations community, to step back from the advising requirements and focus on their missions.”
Training and Resources
Another difference to many SFAB soldiers, and something that signals support from the top, is the level of training and resources made available. Cultural and advanced skills training begins at the new Military Advisor Training Academy, a U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command school established at Fort Benning specifically for the training and advising mission.
Capt. Kelsie Cummins, a transportation officer with a background in working with special operations units out of Fort Bragg, deployed twice to Afghanistan. On her second deployment, she was tapped to work on a small team advising an Afghan commando battalion, a mission for which she had only three weeks to prepare. The six-month deployment, Cummins said, was “on-the-job training.”
Back home, on orders to be an instructor at the Captains Career Course, she was recruited instead for the SFAB and immediately saw the value of the unit’s focused cultural train-up, organizational structure and advanced equipment. “It’s going to be a great asset and provide continuity for Afghanistan and the U.S. There was no standardized way of training or partnering with the Afghans. Here, we’re building a foundation,” she said.
The gear being procured and delivered to 1st SFAB soldiers is not found in conventional Army units, something that helps with recruiting, according to 2nd Battalion commander Lt. Col. Jason Sabat, who said the guidance given to him and other 1st SFAB soldiers is to train for multiple scenarios and do what works for the mission.
“They may be in places with little or no water and that requires a very unconventional mindset,” said Sabat, a graduate of the Military Academy who left battalion command at Fort Carson, Colo., and reported to Benning immediately to take his second command. Forces Command leadership “told us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he said, adding that relaxed grooming standards, while not on the table yet, “are open for discussion.”
Soldiers are sporting elements of the uniforms and combat kit normally reserved for special operations units, and using communications equipment expected to be invaluable in austere environments. The list includes tactical vests, ear protection with embedded communications systems, the new M17 pistol, modular helmet kit, advanced medical kit, improved multiband interteam radios with simultaneous voice and data, satellite phones, and a hand-held android device with tactical military software connecting to Army servers.
The unit will have its own headgear, distinctive unit insignia and heraldry.
“In Afghanistan, I worked with [Afghan military and ministerial] leadership. The will was there, but the systems weren’t there. This is an opportunity to do it again but with more tools,” said 2nd Battalion fire support officer Capt. Eric McCullars, who volunteered as soon as he found out about the SFAB.
Getting the Right People
Having spent the bulk of his 21-year career in special operations and with 10 deployments behind him, 4th Battalion Command Sgt. Maj. James McGuffey said he’s all about the mission because it might just be the key to keeping his own kids from going to war. The people selected, he said, are making all the difference.
“I was in the 75th Ranger Regiment and that’s a tight organization. In just two months, we became a team. We’re getting the right people, all volunteers with multiple deployments who want to be here. I think this mission is what it’s going to take to end this in Afghanistan,” he said.
Absent in earlier iterations of the advisory mission, the new SFAB model requires candidates to go through an assessment and selection process developed to identify the right people, a process used by only a handful of Army units. Belief in the mission, professional maturity, compassion for others, a proven record of leadership and sound ethical behavior are some of the qualities sought in the officers and NCOs who will fill out the leadership positions in the brigade.
Many attribute the high morale described by Jackson to the level of professional maturity among its soldiers and the types of personalities being recruited.
“It’s a small Army and a lot of people know you by reputation,” said Maj. Adam Tobias, commander of A Battery in the 4th Battalion, who was part of the Army’s earlier advising effort using mobile training teams. “I think the Army understood there was a capability gap in how we were doing our advisory mission. It did the best it could with the MTTs, but there was no vetting of people. The quality varied drastically.”
SFAB volunteers are required to be above the rank of captain and sergeant, with some exceptions for qualified promotable specialists and corporals.
McCullars, the 2nd Battalion fire support officer, said anytime there is a vetting process in the Army, it’s a trigger for something good. “I see this as another shot at furthering what we did on my first deployment. You can feel it’s not a secondary mission, it’s a deliberate action, it’s more clear.”
Lever, the fire support NCO with the 2nd Battalion, explained that he spent six years of his career as an observer-controller teaching his MOS, and realized that this advisory role reminds of him of that job.
“I love to teach people my job, to take my expertise and teach within a different dynamic, learning their systems, their language,” he said. “This will fill a hole in my heart I didn’t know I had.”
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Do You Have What It Takes?
The 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade is one of only a handful of Army units that uses an assessment and selection process to identify the right soldiers for the mission. The process involves physical, mental, emotional and military skills evaluations, as well as an interview designed to assess some harder-to-read traits. Soldiers will need to demonstrate the following traits to make the cut:
Soldier professionally: Demonstrate expertise in the profession of arms. Focus on first principles and frame efforts based on proven fundamentals. Act courageously and decisively in the face of a determined enemy or adverse conditions.
Adapt to change: Be physically fit, mentally tough, morally stringent and resilient enough to adapt to changing conditions. Be able to accomplish a mission with less, lead the way through a difficult situation and give the maximum effort to overcome challenges and obstacles, with flexibility in changing conditions.
Lead and follow: Shape behavior through trust and quickly form authentic relationships. Take initiative to influence success within the organization and with partner forces, regardless of rank or position. Possess humility, recognizing that sometimes following is better than leading. Epitomize the professionalism needed to motivate foreign forces with charisma, expertise and esprit de corps.
Bear the Army standard: Lead with strength in a unique Army mission through Army values and care for subordinates. Exude a positive personality who wants to be part of a solution and lead others by exemplifying the standard.
Solve complex problems: Refuse to be stumped by complexity and find opportunity in change, being always persistent and not easily discouraged or frustrated.
Understand humans: Recognize practically and empathetically the challenges of host nations and develop solutions that fit within those challenges. Demonstrate cultural sensitivity and awareness while retaining own identity, and appreciate the value in mentoring others to “do it for themselves.”
Use common sense: Get the job done by working efficiently and effectively for the good of the mission and the team. Keep an open mind, recognizing that the American way of doing things is not the only way. Set realistic, obtainable goals based on circumstances.