By t. Col. Paul Fanning
CJTF Public Affairs - Afghanistan
CAMP PHOENIX, KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - A Vermont Army National Guardsman is heading home after completing nearly two years of active duty, including 18 months spent as a mentor to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP.)
Master Sgt. Lesley Urban left his landscaping business and was deployed in June 2007 along with 12 other Green Mountain Soldiers for service on Embedded Training Teams for the Afghan National Army, as part of Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix (CJTF-Phoenix.)
Following training at Fort Riley, Kan., he was assigned to a 16-member team with one other Vermont Soldier and helped train and guide an ANA artillery unit equipped with former Soviet D30 122mm guns in northern Afghanistan for nearly a year.
Back in Vermont, Urban is assigned to the 1st Battalion 86th Field Artillery and because of his artillery background he became the senior noncommissioned officer mentor for the ANA’s 4th “Kandak” of the 209th Corps.
He trained and mentored ANA leaders as they trained and improved their soldiers. “They were pretty good when we got there,” said Urban. “By the time we left they were light-years ahead of any others.”
This kandak was among the first Afghan units to be validated for independent operations through 31 separate Warrior Tasks and seven Battle Drills used to prepare Afghan units.
“I worked with the Afghan sergeant major to design a training program for his unit. He was determined to get it validated and the kandak went from the lowest rating to the highest in a set time frame,” he said.
The training was focused on preparing the kandak’s scouts and reconnaissance elements, engineers and artillery batteries in addition to its infantry force.
“They were very proficient on direct fire,” said Urban, adding that they were making considerable progress on mastering the challenges of delivering accurate in-direct fire that would be needed to support units under attack from dug-in enemy forces.
“They did a lot,” he said indicating that strong bonds had developed between Afghan soldiers and their American trainers and mentors. “They loved us and we were proud of them and the progress they made.”
When this duty was completed, he was asked to extend his service to help mentor the fledgling ANP, which was in need of experienced mentors to prepare them to conduct counter insurgency operations.
He was transferred from northern Afghanistan to Herat in the west and was initially assigned to work at a Regional Training Center (RTC) set up to teach new police recruits basic skills.
In 2008, the Focused District Development program was launched as a way to rapidly train police recruits from a district all together and then match them with a team of police mentors as they returned to their assigned district. Their mission is to provide security, protect the people and conduct counter insurgency operations.
“After I worked at the RTC at Andraskan I was assigned to a team and we were sent to Shouz to set up another training facility,” he said.
He was eventually assigned to mentor police in Ghor province in the largest district known as Chighehheron. “We went out on a lot of joint patrols with Lithuanian troops assigned to ISAF (International Security Assistance Force,)” said Urban.
“My work was to link with and advise the police chiefs in the various centers to help them improve their force and guide them as they planned and conducted their operations, usually alongside ISAF troops.
Whenever possible, the Afghans led the operations and were supported by coalition troops.
“Our biggest challenge was to get the ANA and ANP to work with each other because they usually don’t get along,” he said. “But eventually they got to work together.”
During his time as a mentor to both ANA and ANP forces, his team was actively engaged in humanitarian efforts to support the Afghan people.
“We assisted in the building of three schools and we got lots of support and donations from back home. We got things sent to us from all over the U.S., including from our families. Schools and civic groups sent us lots of things like school supplies and children’s clothing,” he said.
“We had our ANA unit adopt a local village to build relationships. We made sure we conducted quarterly visits to bring donations to the people. We had regular meetings with village elders.
“I always wrote or emailed responses to the people and groups who sent us things,” he said. “I created our own certificate of appreciation that I sent along, too.
After 21 months of service without taking leave, Urban is going home to his wife and children with a strong feeling that he and his team made a difference.
He spent a year with the ANA and six months with the ANP. He completed more than 330 missions, earned a Bronze Star, Combat Action Badge and two Army Commendation Medals, a Danish Achievement Medal and German marksmanship badge.
“There is so much work to do,” he said. “I don’t think people really understand the condition this country is in. The starvation, kids in the snow without boots … They are tired of war.
“They want to bring their country forward,” he said. “We worked hard every day and there is more to do.”