Helping Hands: NMCB 25 Seabees Prepare Afghan Engineers for the Future

Part I: Officer Training

By MC1 Patrick Gordon, NMCB 25 Public Affairs

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EQCM (SCW/FMF) Kirk Ruetten (left), NMCB 25 SFAAT senior enlisted advisor, and Lt. Cmdr. Jeromy Pittmann, NMCB 25 SFAAT officer in charge, November Company commander, review blueprints of an Afghan National Engineer Brigade (NEB) barracks under renovation at Camp Ghazi, Afghanistan. Photos by MC1 Patrick Gordon

“Shipmates helping shipmates,” is a common saying in the Navy. It describes the sense of obligation one has to their fellow Sailors and their future success. It’s a phrase that holds as much power on land as it does at sea. In some cases, it even bridges nations.

The Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 25 take their duty to others seriously. The battalion, operating under the U.S. Army’s 2d Engineer Brigade in Joint Task Force (JTF) Trailblazer, is currently involved in a train, advise and assist (TAA) mission with the Afghan National Engineer Brigade (NEB). The mission ensures that the Afghan engineers are a viable, well-trained and equipped force ready to face the engineering and disaster response needs of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The operation is a group effort, requiring participation from the entire battalion. Spearheading this combined effort are two Seabees of the NMCB 25 Security Force Assistance Advisory Team (SFAAT).

“Our roles are to train the staff of both Kandaks [battalions within the Afghan National Army]: the Specialty Engineering Kandak (SEK), which does water well and bridging projects; and the Construction Engineering Kandak (CeNK), which does vertical and horizontal construction,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jeromy Pittmann, SFAAT officer in charge and the November Company commander, responsible for the TAA mission. Pittmann and Master Chief Equipmentman (SCW/FMF) Kirk Ruetten, NMCB 25 SFAAT senior enlisted advisor, lead the battalion’s mission to train the NEB’s Kandaks and mold them into an engineering force within the Afghan National Army.

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EQCM (SCW/FMF) Kirk Ruetten (kneeling right), NMCB 25 SFAAT senior enlisted advisor, reviews blueprints of a barracks building under renovation Camp Ghazi, Afghanistan. Photo by MC1 Patrick Gordon

This training begins at the top. Pittmann and Ruetten dove headfirst into their new roles as trainers, coordinating with the previous training battalion, NMCB 28, and the other NMCB 25 staff officers to refine a cogent and understandable lesson plan for their counterparts within the NEB.

“What we’ve done is gotten our staff-code officers together and developed training plans for them utilizing their ANA doctrine and their mission-essential task lists that they’re graded against,” said Pittmann. “Our staff codes go out twice a week for six to eight weeks to train their counterparts in the NEB on their roles and responsibilities. Because, at the end of the day, they’ll have to sustain themselves.”

Every aspect of battalion leadership and management is covered – administration, supply, security, etc. – in order to best prepare the Afghans for the future. Pittmann said that getting to know the officers they would be working with on a personal level in their working environment was the first step toward effective leadership training, and extremely important when dealing with a new force manned by such a diverse group within the Afghan National Army (ANA).

“The NEB was just created this year, and we’re only the second battalion to take up the train, advise and assist mission with them,” said Ruetten. “And they were pulled from all of these different Afghan National Security Force units from all of the theater to create the NEB. They have the experience and the knowledge, but now we’re bringing people from different backgrounds to do this job. So, some of these guys may have been a logistics officer, or an XO, or an operations officer somewhere else in an infantry unit, so we’re bringing all this military experience from all over Afghanistan to one organization. So yes, there are a lot of experienced people here, but now we have to develop engineers from infantry soldiers.”

Through these “meet-and-greets,” the trainers can better assess the officers’ skill sets, education and needs from the Seabees, which has paid dividends thus far. 

Just like anybody else, people have to earn a certain level of trust before they can commit to any kind of working relationship,” said Lt. Ruben Chavira, NMCB 25 supply officer, who has been working closely with the NEB’s supply officers. “The mission was different from what I expected; I didn’t realize the challenges we were facing when we came in, in terms of their infrastructure. The challenges accessing their logistics system has been one of the biggest things.”

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Lt. Cmdr. Jeromy Pittmann (second from left), NMCB 25 Security Force Assistance Advisory Team (SFAAT) officer in charge, November Company commander, conducts a tour of a barracks under renovation with Afghan National Engineer Brigade (NEB) officers at Camp Ghazi, Afghanistan. Pittmann and other NMCB 25 officers work directly with their NEB counterparts to ensure effective leadership of the fledgling engineering brigade.

By getting to know the NEB officer corps and work closely with them, Chavira said, the Seabee trainers have been better able to know what obstacles face the NEB and their progress. He describes the NEB as starting “from the ground up,” with no infrastructure to speak of when they were first formed. The NMCB 25 officer trainers formed a close working relationship with their counterparts day after day, and have been able to make great improvements to the training abilities of the NEB.

It’s been very unique in the sense that we’ve had to help them leverage Afghan processes and systems to obtain Afghan equipment,” said Chavira. “One of the strategies has been to utilize the Foreign Exchange Personal Property program established here in theater as a bridging mechanism to help them obtain the basic, necessary items that they need to complete their mission – tools kits, material, things like that. The food was a big success; we were able to work with our Turkish counterparts and the Ministry of Defense here in country to get their allocation so the NEB could get food and other things.”

While progress has been made, the training has not been without difficulty.

“How the ANA does business [at the staff level] is different than the U.S. military…it’s a completely differently system,” said Ruetten. “So not only is there a learning curve for our S-codes to get up on their system and incorporate leadership aspects and the mentoring portion on the ANA side, but also on utilizing the U.S. military leadership style.”

Pittmann and Ruetten explained that obstacles were expected well before the mission began, such as being Navy personnel training foreign allies familiar with an Afghan Army doctrine developed by the U.S. Army. Certain cultural customs and behaviors had to be adapted as well. In addition to taking regular prayer breaks throughout the workday to facilitate the NEB soldiers, historical ties had to be acknowledged as some of the NEB leaders had served on different sides of the same conflict years ago.

“You have some officers who came from the Mujahedeen – who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan – and you also have other officers who were with the Soviets at the time,” said Pittmann. “So things like that can create quite a bit of tension within the brigade itself. But we have been taught the differences now by the different commanders and personnel there, so we’re more adept at knowing when and where to say certain things. We just try to maintain conflict management. For example, we have Kandak commanders from the Mujahedeen side, and both of their executive officers are Russian Soviet-era academy graduates, and they seem to work fairly well together.”

Current political climates and connections prove to be an issue at times, which the trainers must work around. Pittmann and Ruetten explained that while some members of the NEB have welcomed the Seabee trainers with open arms, others have proven more resistant to the teaching, preferring to rely on the old way of doing things.

“Sometimes you’ll run into a situation where you have people in the NEB who are related to generals in the Ministry of Defense or somewhere else, so they want to rely on those connections,” said Pittmann. “And it can make the training difficult because rather than learn how to work within protocol they’ll just say, ‘We don’t need to do this because we have connections.’”

As with any new organization, the NEB is still in the process of developing key relationships inside the Ministry of Defense and ANA structures. As a national asset, it also has a unique position in the ANA structure with no direct connection to an ANA Corps. Both of these factors have amplified the challenge of sourcing equipment, personnel and supplies for the fledgling NEB organization. Despite competing for resources among multiple Corps and their subordinate Kandaks, the importance and uniqueness of the NEB’s work continues to drive the mission forward.

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EQMC (SCW/FMF) Kirk Ruetten, NMCB 25 SFAAT senior enlisted advisor, meets with Afghan National Engineer Brigade (NEB) sergeants major during a senior enlisted leadership meeting at Camp Phoenix, Afghanistan. Part of NMCB 25’s train and assist mission is open exchange of ideas and concerns among all levels of leadership in the chain of command to help ensure the NEB’s future sustainability.

“[The NEB’s mission] is very important, because we’ve already had several natural disasters in the country this year, like the earthquake in Badakhshan Province and massive floods in Baghlan Province,” said Pittmann. “And these were discussed at an engineering conference for the ANA where it was made clear that in the future, the NEB needs to be capable to take care of these missions, and help their own citizens if a disaster happens.”

Because of this importance, the training continues. Those undertaking the task warn it is not for the faint of heart, but comes with a unique set of rewards.

“I would tell anyone doing this mission to come with a lot of patience and nerves of steel, but we stress the ‘team,’ – it’s a team effort,” said Pittmann “We work with them, and not against them.”

“Because the biggest thing is the sustainability of the Afghan National Army,” added Ruetten. “And we’ve made progress there.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series…

 

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