KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — The team of American soldiers was just leaving after a day of advising Afghan police officers when the shots rang out. For the first and only time on their nine-month deployment, they returned fire with a roar from the guns mounted on their armored trucks.
No one was hurt, but that incident in March stuck in the minds of many members of Security Force Assistance Team Koa, especially those members who never expected to be in a firefight.
The shift from combat operations to advising has left many American soldiers in Afghanistan complaining of boredom. But because much of the advising effort in the country is focused on such issues as logistics, intelligence or medical care, advising teams often have pushed rear-echelon soldiers out of the office and to the forefront of preparing Afghan units for the departure of most NATO combat troops by next year.
And sometimes that means sharing the danger Afghan police forces face every day.
“That March firefight was the first time firing my weapon at someone who was firing back,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Soberon, 27, an intelligence analyst from Illinois. “As an office guy, I never would have thought I would be out there working with the Afghans, let alone be behind a gun firing back.”
While the switch to advising can be tough for soldiers used to combat, many members of Team Koa, now on their way home after nearly nine months, say the advising mission gave them opportunities to interact with the Afghans and be a part of the war effort in ways that never would have been possible in their usual roles in artillery, intelligence and logistics units.
Based at Forward Operating Base Joyce in the historically volatile Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan, Team Koa is one of many SFATs whose membership fluctuates between 12 and 16 soldiers. The team was tasked with advising Afghan police in two districts along the Kunar River Valley.
Soldiers and advisers
“I think there is a difference between a soldier and an adviser,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Gulley, 30, a Missouri native who volunteered for the deployment and serves as the team’s top noncommissioned officer. “As an adviser you really have to have empathy. You have to build rapport and build trust that you’ll be there for them. Soldiers don’t really have the mentality that we do.”
For Team Koa members, the difference between their usual jobs with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, and the role they were asked to play may be especially stark, given none of the soldiers has law enforcement experience.
Gulley, who has served in the Army for 14 years, was trained to handle sensors for artillery units. “My trade is somewhat boring,” he said. “This way, I get to see more on the ground.”
Soberon, an eight-year Army veteran who deployed once to Iraq, concurred.
“I was behind the scenes in Iraq,” he said. “I feel here I’m more active. I’m a gunner when I need to be, I’m a guardian angel when I need to be and I’m an adviser when I need to be.”
Most of the team’s members attended three weeks of basic advising training at Fort Polk, La. But the training didn’t provide much information specific to police work.
Capt. Kellen Blythe, another artillery officer, gained some experience by advising a city council and police force during two tours in Iraq. But he said the team’s soldiers didn’t need to be law enforcement experts to help the Afghan police.
“None of us are trained police officers, but our willingness to learn helped us overcome that,” he said.
In his position advising Afghan investigation officers, Blythe said he relied heavily on law enforcement contractors for technical help while the soldiers provided expertise in more general issues such as planning and leadership.
Advising and training is nothing new for the Army, said team leader Maj. Stacy Soutter, 37, an Oklahoman on his fourth deployment. On his one previous deployment to Afghanistan, Soutter worked in the same region and said he has seen progress among the Afghan forces.
“We are really here to provide moral support,” he said. “They are going to make mistakes, and we try to make sure they learn from them.”
As advisers, the soldiers also become mentors and diplomats, sometimes risking their safety to build relationships.
The insider attacks by Afghan forces that claimed 62 NATO soldiers last year have eased a bit. But the danger hangs over the team constantly. Armed soldiers called “guardian angels” are assigned to watch over all the meetings between the Afghans and the advisers.
Two U.S. soldiers and a civilian contractor were killed by an Afghan soldier in June, which put a hold on most SFAT work for several days.
“When we walk in the police stations we drop our kit,” said Gulley, referring to the many pounds of body armor, ammunition and other supplies soldiers carry every time they leave their base. “That isn’t very smart, but we want them to know that we trust them to take care of us.”
Some of the risks are less serious. Blythe recalled becoming ill after eating a meal provided by the Afghan police. “I got so sick, but I would do it again,” he said, laughing. “You just don’t share with your host what happens after you leave.”
Like the rest of 1st Brigade, Team Koa is preparing to leave Afghanistan by the beginning of August. After it leaves, it won’t be replaced by a new SFAT. The police will largely be on their own, with the new advisers focusing on the highest levels of ANSF leadership.
“This is the most important mission: to get us out of Afghanistan,” Gulley said. “Some of the police are better prepared than others, but we’ve done everything to help them as much as they want to be helped.”