Fort Bragg activated two new units Thursday that are made up of a new kind of culturally-aware soldiers who will be doing an old job: advising the forces of U.S. allies.
The units are Security Force Assistance Command, and also one of the half-dozen units of about 800 soldiers each that it will oversee, the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade, or “2nd SFAB.”
Army leaders say that professionalizing the role of combat advisor makes sense, given that it has essentially become a large, and permanent part of what the military does.
“What we’ve been doing is taking a conventional brigade and splitting its leaders off, and leaving its soldiers here,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Landes, the leader of the new command, in an interview. “And we’ve been doing that for years. And so you have brigades that have leaders deployed, soldiers not training on the decisive action they need to, so we’re just saying hey, let’s quit doing that, let’s build an organization that does the advising so we can train the brigades for decisive action.”
In a brief speech during the ceremony, Landes noted that there is a long tradition of combat advising in American military history, reaching all the way back to Baron Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian who helped train George Washington’s Revolutionary War Army.
US troops have long acted as advisors to help the militaries of allies, perhaps most famously in Vietnam. And combat advising has been a major part of the mission in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But Army leaders decided that units of soldiers picked and trained specifically for the role will do a better job, and free up the conventional units that have been doing the work, so they decided to create the permanent units dedicated to the task.
The advisor units are seen as so important that the Army chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, flew down to speak at the ceremony.
“We’ve been doing advisory missions all along,” Milley said. “Special Forces has been doing it, the conventional Army’s been doing it. But we were doing it on an ad hoc basis for the most part. And we were ripping apart conventional brigade combat teams’ leadership in order to form these advisory missions. And there was a better way to do it, and the better way is what you see here on the field today.”
The 2nd SFAB at Bragg is one of six SFAB brigades that will eventually be scattered at bases around the country, including one made up of National Guard troops. They’re being created quickly. The 3rd Brigade, at Fort Hood, Texas, is about halfway through being built up, and the 4th Brigade at Fort Carson in Colorado, has just started filling its roster, Landes said.
The demand for advisors is huge, something Milley noted from the podium, singling out Brig. Gen. Scott Jackson, the commander of the Georgia-based 1st SFAB, in the crowd. Jackson’s unit had just returned from its first deployment, in Afghanistan.
Milley said Jackson’s unit could expect to be home for about nine months before being sent out again. That, he said, was the kind of pace the advisor units could expect.
Soldiers volunteered to be considered for the units. All are non-commissioned officers or higher, and many have done multiple combat deployments. They had to be willing to work closely with people from different cultures, and be able to deal with the unpredictability of the job. And they get months of additional training, including with language and cultural awareness, as well as heightened training in more typical military skills with firearms, battlefield medicine and things like survival and evasion.
“What we needed was soldiers who can adapt very fast,”said Command Sgt. Maj. Darvin Williams, who is with the new 2nd SFAB. “And some people people, change will make them crumble, and these soldiers are all about change, and making whatever happens, the best it can be.”
Landes said that it’s a given that the soldiers chosen are are experts at their jobs, but they had to picked and trained for another skillset: the ability to effectively teach what they know, and to troops who may be substantially different from them.
“We talk about that all the time,” he said. “Being a subject matter expert doesn’t mean you can convey that subject… and so we have to train them in those interpersonal skills, cultural awareness. They have to have charisma to be able to project what they’re trying to instruct.”
The 2nd SFAB is about to deployment to Fort Polk in Louisiana for a round of elaborate training involving mock villages, Afghan role-players and scenarios similar to what they would face while advising Afghan troops.
Then they’re expected to deploy to Afghanistan.