Training Prepared Division for Combat Deployment
By John Valceanu
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 14, 2005 Looking back on a year of successful operations performed by his soldiers in Afghanistan, the commander of the 25th Infantry Division attributed their success to the training they received before deploying.
Maj. Gen. Eric T. Olson and a major portion of his division deployed to Afghanistan from their home base of Schofield Barracks Hawaii in April 2004. At that time, Olson assumed command of Combined Joint Task Force 76, and units of the 25th Infantry Division played important roles in the task force.
One of the division's brigade combat teams and an attack helicopter battalion had deployed to Iraq in January 2004. This was the first time since the Vietnam conflict that the entire division was deployed at the same time.
At the time of the division's deployment, there were many unanswered questions about how the unit would perform in combat, according to Olson.
"Across the whole Army, there was interest in seeing how the 25th ID would do and whether or not our preparation, our training, was appropriate to the challenges we were going to see," Olson said from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan during a March 11 phone interview.
The nature of training and the type of operations the division conducts in the in the Pacific were very effective in preparing the division's soldiers for the operational environment they would encounter in Afghanistan.
Olson said that because the unit is based in Hawaii, the soldiers were used to operating in a joint environment.
"If you look at Oahu, all the services are right there," Olson said. "So that was no real change for us at all, especially at a leader level."
The many multinational exercises in which the division participates, according to Olson, prepared the soldiers to function as part of a multinational coalition.
"We do a lot of work with engagement, going to places in the Pacific on exercises where we make direct contact with the armies of the Pacific nations and with populations," Olson said. "Cobra Gold, Balikatan and other exercises like that were great preparation for the operations we did in Afghanistan."
Though there were many similarities between working with the military of partner nations in the pacific and working with military forces from coalition nations, Olson said there were enough differences to keep the situation "interesting."
"Some of the coalition partners we had, obviously were very different from the folks we were used to working with in the Pacific," Olson said. "We really were blessed, I think, here in Afghanistan with the fact that there is a very clear purpose here, and the purpose is tied to the global war on terrorism. Every member nation of the coalition over here is convinced of the importance of fighting terrorism worldwide."
The common purpose of fighting terrorism helped unify the coalition, helping the 25th Infantry Division's soldiers to overcome any type of friction that might have occurred because they weren't familiar with the tactics, techniques and procedures of some of the other nations, Olson said.
"I think this is a very strong coalition over here. It continues to be, and it's actually growing in strength," Olson said. "There are more coalition partners interested in joining the fight over here, because it is very clear that Afghanistan represents to the world that Afghanistan was the place where the global war on terrorism was joined back in 2001, and it continues to be that kind of place."
Much of the division's training also focused on low-intensity warfare, as opposed to major warfighting operations, Olson said. And that is exactly what the soldiers encountered in Afghanistan.
Through outreach missions to indigenous populations in the Pacific area, Olson said that his soldiers were also used to working with and helping civilians, which is a hallmark of contemporary military operations.
"Twenty-first century warfare is about a lot more than find, fix and finish. It's also about focusing on the populations, especially when you are talking about counterinsurgency," Olson said. "There is focus that has to be on the enemy, but there is also focus on the population. You have to separate the population from the guerilla. You win over the population through lots of things that you do."
According to Olson, soldiers of the 25th Infantry Divsion "adapted remarkably" to the missions they were given in Afghanistan, particularly to the task of separating the guerillas from the population.
"They showed the population that we offer a better alternative than does the guerilla," Olson said. "Once you've started to win over the population, it makes it that much easier to either marginalize the enemy or isolate them or, if need be, to go out an close with and destroy the enemy."
As the division's soldiers pack up and head home, having successfully completed their tour, Olson said he had full confidence in them from the beginning.
"I am enormously proud of them and of what we were able to accomplish," Olson said. "I personally was not surprised at how well the soldiers did. I think we came over here with a pretty good understanding of this type of operation and just got better and better as time went on."
A transfer of authority will be conducted March 15, when the 25th Infantry Division will be replaced by the Southern European Task Force and its paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, deploying from Vicenza, Italy. In addition to having conducted a parachute assault into Iraq, during the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Italy-based soldiers have experience conducting exercises and contingency operations throughout Europe and Africa.