Marines Climb Mountains to Help Afghan Army
By Staff Sgt. Luis P. Valdespino Jr., USMC
Special to American Forces Press Service
KONAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan, Jan. 8, 2008 Marines in eastern Afghanistan are climbing the mountains they currently call home to bring progress to the Afghan National Army soldiers they mentor.
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Reynaldo S. Datu is followed by Afghan National Army Maj. Abdul Latif, executive officer of 3rd Kandak (Armored), 3rd Brigade, 201st ANA Corps, as they make their way back from an observation point on top of a mountain to a border checkpoint 500 meters below. Datu is part of an embedded training team deployed to Afghanistan from Okinawa, Japan, to work with the ANA. Photo by Staff Sgt. Luis P. Valdespino Jr., USMC
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Marine Sgt. Seth E. Lewis, of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lance Cpl. Michael J. Subu, of Jacksonville, N.C., are the sole embedded training team mentors for an Afghan army platoon at a border checkpoint near Bari Kot village in eastern Konar province. They mentor the Afghan soldiers during missions and help them as embedded training team liaisons. These responsibilities call for leadership, initiative and a lot of mountain climbing for the young Marines.
The checkpoint is an Afghan Border Police post with an Afghan National Army observation post about 500 meters up a mountain and just across the Konar River from Pakistan.
Since being posted at the checkpoint, Lewis estimated, he has climbed up the mountain to the observation post at least 50 times. Most of the Afghan soldiers they mentor work and sleep at the top of the mountain, and part of the Marines’ job has been to help make it possible for the Afghan National Army to build up and secure the observation post.
The two Marines, meanwhile, are housed in a billeting hut at the bottom of the hill, as are additional Afghan soldiers, a platoon of U.S. soldiers and some border police.
Subu and Lewis are deployed to Afghanistan as part of Embedded Training Team 7-2 from 3rd Marine Division, in Okinawa, Japan. Lewis was first assigned to the checkpoint in early autumn, and Subu joined him in November. The team is based out of Forward Operating Base Naray, but mentors are divided throughout the area in six groups of two or three Marines -- with one Navy hospital corpsman at FOB Naray and another at FOB Kamdesh.
Most of the embedded training team Marines arrived in country during August and have been involved in operations throughout eastern Afghanistan with 3rd Kandak (Armored), 3rd Brigade, 201st ANA Corps. A kandak is an Afghan battalion. A couple of Marines, including Subu, joined the team in mid-November. The team was divided into two on arrival to mentor the 3rd and 5th Kandaks with 3rd Brigade, 201st ANA Corps. The 5th Kandak and its Marine mentors are based out of Jalalabad.
“Because the teams are split up, … the job here requires (noncommissioned officers) to step up,” said Marine 1st Sgt. Matthew S. Seamans, a 42-year-old Shorewood, Minn., native and senior enlisted mentor with the embedded training team. The expectation during training was that the NCOs would be mentoring NCOs, staff NCOs would mentor staff NCOs, and officers would mentor officers, but as the Afghan army has grown, so have the ETT mentor responsibilities.
But Lewis and Subu said they appreciate their responsibilities and the experience they are getting. Lewis was the sole Marine and embedded training team mentor at the checkpoint for weeks before Subu joined him.
“I was actually pretty happy, … because I would be able to prove my worth as a sergeant,” the 29-year-old Lewis said. Working with the Afghan army has helped him learn to better handle responsibility and maturity and has afforded him the opportunity to see the results of his efforts, he explained.
During a recent visit from the kandak commander and training team leaders, Lewis led ETT mentors up the mountain to the observation post with Afghan soldiers. Seamans and Marine Lt. Col. James F. Werth, embedded training team chief, commented that the post’s structures had substantially been improved since their last climb up the mountain. The sergeant had coordinated the hiring of local labor to get supplies to the Afghan soldiers for solidifying the post with adequate living facilities.
Aside from coordinating logistical support for the Afghan National Army soldiers, Lewis said, he focuses much of his efforts on trying to help Afghan soldiers see leadership as the Marine Corps uses it – with NCOs and staff NCOs, not just commissioned officers -- having leadership roles and responsibilities. And with consideration for the embedded training team goals, he said he encourages the soldiers to accomplish tasks on their own.
“I try to push that if they want something done, something that’s simple, to do it themselves (instead of hiring labor to do the work),” Lewis said. “What are they going to do when the (American-provided) money goes away?”
Lewis said he wants Afghan soldiers to be able to deal with various challenges and projects on their own, as they will have to when they are no longer supported by training teams.
“The ultimate goal is for the ANA to function without ETTs,” he said, adding that he believes his tour will be worth his efforts when he is done. The Afghan leaders said they have benefited from the relationship with Lewis, Subu and other training team mentors.
“We have the best relations with the ETTs,” said Afghan army Lt. Col. Mohammad Naseem, 3rd Kandak (Armored) commander. The training teams have worked closely with and provided much logistical and operational support for the Afghan soldiers. And, Naseem said, the terrain has not slowed Marines.
“The U.S. forces are powerful and (athletic) – all the time ready to climb mountains,” Naseem said.
He said they also have proved ready for any tactical missions that have come up.
(Marine Staff Sgt. Luis P. Valdespino Jr. serves with Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan Public Affairs.)