Fort Bragg Unit Will Play Key Role in Army's Future Strategy

Capt. Christopher Young, a combat advisor team leader for the 2nd Battalion, 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, engages with a local civilian role player during the unit’s rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, last January. (US Army photo/Sierra A. Melendez)
Capt. Christopher Young, a combat advisor team leader for the 2nd Battalion, 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, engages with a local civilian role player during the unit’s rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, last January. (US Army photo/Sierra A. Melendez)

It was a recruiting poster that first caught the attention of Sgt. Jacob Rosales.

The poster, at Fort Irwin, California, highlighted a new type of unit and a promise for a fundamental change to how the Army plans to prosecute long-standing missions in countries like Afghanistan.

And at Fort Bragg, that promised change is becoming a reality.

The 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade is nearly at full strength, officials said. And the unit, the second of its kind in the Army, is already preparing for a deployment early next year.

Once deployed, 2nd SFAB soldiers will advise, assist and, in some cases, accompany conventional military partners in combat, providing individual and unit mentorship to allies looking to beef up their security forces.

Soldiers like Rosales, who joined the unit earlier this month, are arriving every day, even as the unit continues to receive equipment and move into buildings dispersed across the sprawling installation. At the same time, the soldiers are constantly training for their role as combat advisors and trainers with partner forces.

Meanwhile, Army leaders are watching the unit -- and others like it -- with great interest and are committed to ensuring the 2nd SFAB is organized, trained and equipped with the best the Army has to offer.

"This is a national level commitment," said Under Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy, who visited the brigade last week alongside Rep. Richard Hudson, whose congressional district includes Fort Bragg.

The two spoke with soldiers involved in the assessment and selection of new SFAB soldiers and to some of the soldiers who have begun to populate the unit.

They left impressed with what they had seen and heard from the men and women wearing their unique brown berets.

"We're very excited about this," McCarthy said, praising the talent and humor displayed by the soldiers during numerous stops around post.

"The morale is high," he said. "You can feel it."

"The talent pool we have here at Fort Bragg," McCarthy added, "it was the right decision putting this SFAB on the ground."

Building the brigade

The 2nd SFAB was launched at Fort Bragg earlier this year and is set to deploy a little more than one year after its first soldiers were assigned to the unit.

That has presented unique challenges for the brigade, which is still filling out to its planned end strength of 800 soldiers.

"We're a startup, which is exciting if you're in the business world, but it's also exciting in the Army," said Col. Donn H. Hill, the commander of the 2nd SFAB. "Our No. 1 priority is bringing in the right soldiers to the brigade. That's not a small challenge given that this time last year there probably were only a handful of people in the Army that could spell SFAB and a handful that could actually explain what SFAB was."

Hill and Command Sgt. Maj. Ken Killingsworth are helping create a specialized unit that has a key role in the Army's future strategy, hence the attention from McCarthy, Hudson and others.

And on Thursday, McCarthy reminded the soldiers he met with that they were part of something special -- one of the largest commitments to institutional change in the Army in recent decades.

The full weight of Army leadership is behind the effort, he said, from the chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Mark A. Milley, to partner organizations at Fort Bragg that are ensuring that the 2nd SFAB is properly manned, equipped and trained.

The unit, and others like it, are key to the National Defense Strategy released by the secretary of defense in January, he said. That strategy has four pillars of capabilities the nation needs to support its objectives around the world: nuclear posture, near-peer competition, irregular warfare and partnership capacity.

SFABs strike to the heart of two of those pillars, irregular warfare and partnership capacity, McCarthy said.

And it also frees up traditional brigade combat teams to train for near-peer fights against potential adversaries like China or Russia instead of advise-and-assist missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hudson said he supported the creation of SFABs, in part, because of the relief they are set to provide to other units, including those at Fort Bragg.

The congressman visited U.S. troops in Afghanistan in November and met with soldiers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division in Kandahar, where they were serving as part of a train, advise and assist mission. The brigade deployed last summer and spent nine months overseas with thousands of soldiers involved in the effort to train Afghan forces.

Since its return in March of this year, the brigade has refocused its training back to its more traditional mission -- being ready to deploy at a moment's notice.

Hill said the SFABs -- the 1st SFAB was created at Fort Benning, Georgia, last year and the Army has plans for six brigades by 2022 -- represent a fundamental change in how the Army looks to help partner nations.

"It's not new what we're doing for the Army. The Army's been doing it for a decade," he said. "But we've not done it the way we're going to do it now with force structure change -- establishing purpose-built organizations."

To help that process, McCarthy said the Army has committed a dedicated structure that includes schools, new policies and changes to promotion and recruitment in an effort to contribute to the success of the SFABs.

And early results are encouraging, he said.

The 1st SFAB, created amid a compressed timeline and deployed to Afghanistan earlier this year, has "exceeded every expectation," McCarthy said.

Based on feedback from the 1st SFAB, McCarthy said the Army has begun adjusting the equipment and training other SFABs will receive.

And the 2nd SFAB has begun to gather lessons learned from their counterparts in the 1st SFAB through regular discussions between the two units.

According to officials, the 2nd SFAB will report to its first combat training center rotation in January as a culmination of its ongoing training.

At the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, the soldiers -- along with troops from the Wisconsin National Guard who will deploy alongside them -- are expected to be validated ahead of a deployment to Afghanistan that will likely come early that same year.

Gen. Robert "Abe" Abrams, commander of U.S. Army Forces Command, said the 1st SFAB is expected to return home from its deployment in November. That will create a gap of several months with no SFAB in Afghanistan, but Abrams said Army leaders are looking at ways to mitigate the risk that creates.

Some teams could be sent to Afghanistan early, he suggested. And once the 2nd SFAB does deploy, some 1st SFAB soldiers will likely return to Afghanistan to help the new unit begin its mission.

But Abrams also cautioned soldiers to be prepared to change plans quickly.

"Where you think you're going today may not be true by next February," he said.

Moving fast

The Army is wasting no time in building its SFAB force.

The 2nd SFAB is at 89 percent of its full strength, officials said. And the 3rd SFAB, at Fort Hood, Texas, is 28 percent manned.

"We are moving quickly, but we still are moving responsibly," McCarthy said.

He said no unit will be deployed without the appropriate experience and repetitions.

"It's everything. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if we put them in a position where they couldn't get the training that they needed," he said. "It would be irresponsible."

Hudson noted that almost every SFAB soldier he came across had a previous deployment.

"They are experienced," he said. "They are some of the best."

And that's important, especially because of how fast the units are being built.

"We can't cut corners," Hudson said. "There's a lot on their shoulders. They can't make mistakes."

With the deployment fast approaching, SFAB soldiers said they are constantly training, with a focus on individual skills related to their specific military occupational specialty.

The soldiers will eventually add more collective training to their schedules, but will continue to emphasize individual skills while building the small teams that will work together while deployed.

While it was a poster that caught Rosales's attention, it was opportunity that reeled him in.

A petroleum supply specialist previously assigned to 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at the National Training Center, Rosales views the SFAB as a way to further his Army career.

He's found that and more.

Rosales, who reached the rank of sergeant in approximately three years, said he has typically been among the best soldiers in his previous units.

But where he would smoke previous colleagues in two-mile runs, he's finding himself more average among the soldiers of his new unit. Instead of finishing first in a recent run, Rosales said there were several soldiers ahead of him. And nearly everyone in the 2nd SFAB finished the run within 30 seconds of him.

Staff Sgt. Derek Roberts said that's not an uncommon realization for new soldiers.

Roberts, a signal support systems specialist, previously served with the 115th Combat Support Hospital at Fort Polk. He sought a position in an SFAB because he wanted to work as part of a small, close-knit unit that strives to be the best.

Roberts said the SFAB is made up of the best of the best -- "studs" from units across the Army united by a challenge and a desire to make history.

"Everyone wants to be here," he said. "This is a really unique experience."

While most other soldiers in the conventional force are assigned to units, SFAB soldiers must volunteer and be assessed and selected.

Killingsworth, the senior enlisted leader of the 2nd SFAB, said the unit only accepted motivated, mature and professional soldiers who are experts in their field and who were vetted by the Army and then assessed over two days at Fort Bragg.

The soldiers then trained for a month at Fort Benning with the Military Advisor Training Academy before receiving additional training in language, foreign weapons, mediation, culture and other areas of expertise.

To aid in that search, the Army has offered thousands of dollars in bonuses and other incentives to entice troops to join an SFAB.

The Army wants the best and brightest men and women for its SFABs, McCarthy said. And he stressed that it's much more than physical prowess that is needed for success.

"It's what's in between the ears," he said. "You need really smart, sharp young men and women who have had unique experiences."

The available training -- and the promise of deployments -- is what attracted Staff Sgt. Thomas Lewis to the SFAB.

Lewis, a radio operator-maintainer who previously served with 3rd Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment at Fort Bragg, said he has served with seven units in his Army career. But none have compared to the culture surrounding the fledgling 2nd SFAB.

Leaders and soldiers alike set a high bar and push each other to get better, Lewis said.

"Coming here was like a breath of fresh air," he said. "It's phenomenal to be around."

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This article is written by Drew Brooks from The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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