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Commander of Afghan 'game changer' unit visits mentors at Fort Bragg

By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: October 24, 2015

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — The commander of an elite Afghan aviation unit was on Fort Bragg this week, learning from local Army aviators and reuniting with officers whom he called brothers.

Afghan Brig. Gen. Abdul Fahim Ramin is commander of the Afghan Special Mission Wing, a unit that U.S. special operations leaders in Afghanistan have called a "game changer" in the fight against insurgents.

As U.S. Army aviation has drawn down in the country over the last few years, the Special Mission Wing has filled the gap with its highly trained pilots and fleet of Mi-17 helicopters and PC-12 airplanes, leaders said.

The wing, formed in 2012 from the counter-narcotics-focused Air Interdiction Unit, has been mentored by special operations leaders serving in NATO Special Operations Component Command - Afghanistan and Special Operations Joint Task Force - Afghanistan, the joint command that oversees coalition special operations troops in the country.

Whereas the Air Interdiction Unit was focused on ferrying troops and supplies, the Special Mission Wing focuses on night air assaults into highly contested areas, officials said.

Those are skills that didn't previously exist in Afghanistan, Ramin said.

At first, U.S. aviators flew the missions for Afghanistan, then they progressed to flying alongside them as advisors.

Today, it's rare for an American to accompany the wing on any missions, officials said.

"We learned from our mentors," Ramin said of the progression. "It was new for us. And we still are in the learning process."

By chance, Ramin's previous two mentors are currently serving on Fort Bragg: Col. Erik Gilbert, commander of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, and Col. Donald Fallin, an aviation officer with the 18th Airborne Corps.

Gilbert, Fallin and their families reunited with Ramin and his current advisor, Lt. Col. Matthew Weinshel, during the Fort Bragg visit.

Gilbert said the families were elated to meet the man they had heard so much about.

He called the visit a family reunion of sorts and said the term "mentor" doesn't fully encapsulate the relationship the men share.

"It's a two-way relationship," Gilbert said. "We're there to support, but at the end of the day, he protects us."

Each mentor, from Gilbert to Fallin to Weinshel, lived alongside the Special Mission Wing soldiers on an Afghan compound. They worked in an Afghan headquarters.

During their year-long stints, Gilbert said Ramin was the man who protected them from harm.

"We owe him our lives," he said. "That bond is special."

Weinshel agreed.                                         

"We've spent hours upon hours with each other down range in good times and bad times," he said. "He forever has brothers here in the U.S."

Ramin's U.S. trip began in New York, with a visit to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

He then visited U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida.

Once he leaves Fort Bragg, the general will travel to Washington to meet with more U.S. military leaders, officials said.

At the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade headquarters on Friday, Ramin observed a mock mission brief before sitting in on a simulated mission that involved carrying a M777 Howitzer to the top of a mountain near Kabul.

A day earlier, he made a similar visit to U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command, also based at Fort Bragg.

Ramin said the visit was educational, in that it showed him first-hand how U.S. Army aviation units operate at home.

Unsurprisingly for a unit that has been mentored by U.S. forces for years, Ramin said the two forces share many similarities.

But Gilbert said the comparisons weren't perfect, because no aviation unit in the world faces as difficult a task as the Special Mission Wing.

While U.S. units have time to retrain and refit after serving in combat, Afghan aviators have been in a constant fight for more than 15 years, he said.

"It's always, constantly in combat," Gilbert said of the Special Mission Wing. "That challenge is mind blowing."

And the wing is succeeding, Gilbert and Weinshel said, thanks to Ramin's leadership and the reputation he's helped build for the unit.

Many young Afghans want to serve in the still-growing wing, they said.

So much so, that when the unit recently went 70 days without being paid because of a government transition, it didn't lose a single soldier.

"That would be a challenge, even in our organizations," Weinshel said.

Gilbert said it shows the loyalty Ramin inspires.

"There is no recruiting," he said. "There is just word of mouth and reputation. People want to be a part of it, they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, to do what's right for Afghanistan."

During the mission brief, Ramin discussed tactics and the evolution of the Special Mission Wing with his current and former mentors.

He said the reputation of the unit was such that, in most cases, insurgents run from the sound of the Special Mission Wing helicopters.

The men commiserated on some of the same challenges facing each of them as commanders.

Ramin said he struggles to get involvement from ground commanders when planning operations.

Weinshel said that's because many ground forces in Afghanistan lack an understanding of aviation and don't understand that pilots are looking out not only for their own self interest, but the safety of the forces they move across the battlefield.

Gilbert said that was a universal issue.

"That's always the challenge with every unit," he said.

Gilbert praised the Special Mission Wing and said was building the experience critical to any elite aviation organization.

"Every mission is unique. It's hard to come up with a template that would work everywhere," he said. "But that institutional memory is the thing that keeps great organizations alive."

Weinshel said leaders are anticipating a long relationship with the Special Mission Wing, that will live long past the time U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan.

It's a relationship Ramin welcomes.

Afghanistan is on the front lines of the efforts to counter terrorism and narcotics, he said.

And it needs American support, equipment and training to succeed.

"Terrorism is not only an Afghanistan problem," Ramin said.

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