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On the Ground in Kandahar

April 2011
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine
E-mail About the Author

 

Staff Sgt. Michael Ackley, USA, runs fiber cable between buildings throughout the Regional Command–South compound. Signalers in the command must contend with active war conditions as well as coordination issues among multinational partners.

An experienced senior noncommissioned officer explains the challenges and successes of work in a multinational war zone.

A forest of antennas is making life even trickier than usual for military signalers at Regional Command–South in Afghanistan. In addition to dealing with a harsh environment, deadly enemies, battle-zone operations and the regular hiccups inherent in systems and networks, communicators in the combat area are fighting against the very tools designed to help them. Personnel in the information-sharing realm have discovered that international signal towers set up in the area are proving to be one of the most time-consuming problems of their deployment.

Sgt. Maj. Donald Spicer, USA, the sergeant major of the Combined/Joint 6 staff section (CJ-6), the communications staff for Combined Joint Task Force-10, explains that he and other domestic and multinational members of the coalition command spend much of their time working around frequency interference on their installation in Kandahar. The combined task force is the Regional Command–South headquarters, and it also is the name the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division—of which Sgt. Maj. Spicer is a member—is designated during the deployment. Various multinational units have their own equipment running, all of which plays havoc with other forces’ antennas and tools. “When you look at this being a multinational area, where you don’t just have U.S. forces, you have a lot of countries, each bringing their own systems ... that makes our job a little more intense and challenging when it comes to troubleshooting, isolating and making it to where everyone can communicate without interference,” Sgt. Maj. Spicer says.

He explains that before his unit deployed, he knew his spectrum managers would have to arrive in country ahead of time to determine how much interference they would face. “We’re dealing with multinationals. We’re dealing with other services. We’re dealing with countries that have been out here for a very, very long time, so we have a lot of unknowns when it comes to different systems and the many, many antennas that are out there,” the sergeant major says. Personnel also have to consider the nearby flight line and the communications used to run its operations to ensure certain frequencies are clear.

The many sources of interference raised a red flag “that we need our spectrum managers to grab their analyzers and ... fine tune interferences,” Sgt. Maj. Spicer explains. This work is critical to the safety of troops in situations such as when convoys need to roll out for a mission, and communications links could make the difference between returning home safely or facing injury or death in the field.

At times, performing this work well means making hard decisions to take down certain lines of communication before they interfere with another more critical system. “It’s basically something we have to maintain and manage and actually capture before it becomes an issue,” the sergeant major says.

He speaks with the authority of experience. In addition to almost 30 years in the Army, he has deployed six times over the last nine years to either Iraq or Afghanistan. His current tour is his third to the latter country. “It’s been a unique experience each time,” Sgt. Maj. Spicer shares. Since his last deployment to Afghanistan, antenna numbers have grown significantly, adding complexities to his job and the jobs of his staff and partners.

And his normal job already involves plenty of work. Sgt. Maj. Spicer oversees division-level assets such as network operations, information assurance, automation, planning and communications security. He also provides his bosses, such as the CJ-6, with technical advice that can assist the division staff, the task force and subordinate units.

Sgt. Maj. Spicer’s work and input help his division carry out its overall mission. “When it comes down to our role here at 10th Mountain, the huge thing is security,” he explains. That involves protecting the local population and the unit’s partnerships. He explains that the original defend-and-protect mode has evolved into partnering and security activities. “The ultimate goal is actually getting the [Afghans] to be able to run their own country and protect themselves with us backing off a little bit,” the sergeant major says. The division would like to see less direct involvement from U.S. forces as the native population begins to secure itself and operate on its own.

He interacts slightly with the regional government in Kandahar, but works more with members of the Afghan National Army. This entails teaching those troops about communications and managing interoperability as well as a mentorship program. One facet of the partnership is helping the Afghans better understand how to develop and use their communications staffs. However, the differences in the resources of the two countries make the task a challenge.

For example, an equivalent of a U.S. division-level G-6 section in the Afghan National Army may have approximately 10 members, all of whom are officers except for one enlisted member, Sgt. Maj. Spicer explains. In contrast, the similar U.S. unit has 70 to 80 staff members overall. Also, “You have to realize they’ve only been in action for about seven years, maybe nine, give or take,” the senior noncommissioned officer explains. “They’re really getting started, so it’s kind of like baby steps.”

Mentoring is a task undertaken by many U.S. units; Sgt. Maj. Spicer’s group sponsors the 205th Corps of the Afghan National Army. “I have one guy who sponsors the 205th command sergeant major, who kind of shows him, ‘Hey, you’ve got all these assets. You have a G-6. You have a G-1,’” Sgt. Maj. Spicer explains. “He kind of focuses on how the structure should be even though sometimes it’s outside of the lane of communications.”

Physical resources also differ between the two partners, an issue that came home to Sgt. Maj. Spicer after his unit hosted an Afghan National Army division G-6 for the first time. “It was interesting, too,” he says, “because we take for granted some of the communications assets we have [compared] to what they have.” U.S. troops are helping to explain to their Middle Eastern counterparts how to structure their sections so they have the right people in place to work the equipment they do have. “They don’t even have engineers,” Sgt. Maj. Spicer states.

Through their efforts, soldiers teach the Afghans how to build their staffs so they can operate as a corps or division G-6, trying to work through shortfalls. “They’re obviously under a lot of constraints when it comes to money,” the sergeant major says. “Money speaks a lot. When you don’t have it, you can’t have the fancy equipment we have.” He emphasizes that the partnerships are important so the Afghans can become more functional. To further this purpose, Sgt. Maj. Spicer has personnel under his command devoted full-time to mentoring. He explains that his people are doing jobs he never expected but that are important to the 10th Mountain Division.

 

Sgt. Maj. Donald Spicer, USA, is serving as the sergeant major of the Combined/Joint 6 staff section (CJ-6), the communications staff for Combined Joint Task Force-10, in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Back home, the task force is known as the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Sgt. Maj. Spicer’s current tour is his third to Afghanistan, where he says he has returned to a forest of antennas that cause interference issues he and his staff section must overcome. (See box below.)

A potential problem in the coalition environment is the variety of languages, but the sergeant major, similar to most Americans in comparable situations, has not found that the differences cause much trouble. “Other countries speak another language, but we all speak the same signaler language when it comes to equipment,” he explains.

Some partnerships important to U.S. troops are even closer to home. Sgt. Maj. Spicer says that his unit does not own a lot of the network pieces in theater, but the group has oversight for many technologies that fall under other external U.S. organizations. He explains that ownership comes down to basic units and forward operating bases (FOBs) that rely on technical administration from the sergeant major and his personnel.

Sometimes the FOBs will have only approximately 20 people on them and will lack capabilities. Sgt. Maj. Spicer says that from these bases he learns of systems he never knew existed. “We’re kind of like the funnel point of getting these systems to locations that didn’t have anything,” he explains. In certain situations, Sgt. Maj. Spicer’s team “trains the trainer” on equipment so when they push it out to small sites they can help end users operate it. He says soldiers have done a “great job on a lot of unknowns out there that we’ve picked up.”

Dealing with multiple networks and multiple agencies presents several challenges. “Certain things are not done in a timely manner when it comes to customer service,” Sgt. Maj. Spicer says. He explains that when a unit owns its own network it can take care of customers immediately, but in his current situation he must rely on outside agencies that require him to open a trouble ticket to resolve an issue. For example, in a self-owned situation, when a VIP needs a phone-system problem handled, the sergeant major says he can send someone down to reset a server and fix it immediately. During a deployment for operation Iraqi Freedom, he worked for Multi-National Division–Baghdad and was able to resolve issues for the commanding general within minutes, or, in the case of a complicated issue, “in a very timely manner,” Sgt. Maj. Spicer says.

In the current situation it may take two processes to have one issue mitigated. Owning the network again is the one item Sgt. Maj. Spicer wishes he could have in his current assignment. “I would say troubleshooting has doubled because we don’t own everything,” he states.

Sgt. Maj. Spicer explains that many unknowns exist for troops but that he finds it exciting to see the interactions between the different players. Partnerships with other coalition members play a big role in operations. One capability in particular has been especially helpful in bringing these groups together. “I like to kind of highlight CENTRIXS [Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System],” he says. “It seems like ... the heart and soul over here for combining multinational efforts.” He explains that one of the issues in theater is to find technologies that allow everyone to coordinate together, a complex task involving various countries and military services.

“CENTRIXS to me would be one that I’m pretty impressed with,” Sgt. Maj. Spicer shares, adding that he considers the system a huge asset. “CENTRIXS aligns it where we all can communicate,” he states. The sergeant major is working to expand CENTRIXS–International Security Assistance Force (CENTRIXS-ISAF), the U.S. contribution to the Afghan Mission Network (AMN), across U.S. and coalition forces operating in Regional Command–South. The AMN is the main command, control, computers, communication, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance network for all ISAF forces in Afghanistan. At its core is the ISAF secret network with national extensions such as CENTRIXS–ISAF.

Ensuring the proper functionality of all equipment and systems is important for mission success. Just as in the civilian world, much of what happens on the battlefields of Afghanistan comes down to computers and networks, from access badges to calls to other countries. Without functioning communications, some missions cannot move ahead as scheduled. Sgt. Maj. Spicer says people might not realize how much work goes into making such capabilities operate both in civilian and military situations. Often tasks that seem simple to technology users, such as making a basic telephone call, require special equipment and coordination to make happen. “A lot of stuff in the middle ... is handled and managed by signalers like all of us over here,” Sgt. Maj. Spicer explains.

One such field example is making sure that video teleconferences (VTCs) operate for those who need them. The sergeant major explains that VTCs are increasing in popularity and overall use throughout Afghanistan. For the video meetings that fall under his command, he has an Army sergeant (E-5) serving as the technician, sitting in on all the meetings to make sure the capabilities work. The E-5’s work is so important that he is empowered to train someone in his job in case a situation arises where he is unavailable.

Personnel in Afghanistan also are employing Adobe Connect more often. The software, which serves basically as a chat function, is helping boots on the ground in country pass information to the right places. And transmitting the right message to the right people, whether through VTCs, chat, radios or other means of communication, is helping the coalition win the war.

WEB RESOURCES
10th Mountain Division: www.drum.army.mil/10md/Pages/10thMtnDiv.aspx

The Face of Service and Sacrifice

Multiple combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan have become the norm for troops serving in today’s U.S. military. But even among the ranks of those dedicated to honor, some stand apart. Sgt. Maj. Donald Spicer, USA, the sergeant major for the G-6 of the 10th Mountain Division, is currently on his third deployment to Afghanistan, where he serves as the sergeant major for the Combined/Joint 6 section for Combined Joint Task Force-10 in Kandahar. In addition to those three overseas assignments, he has served three tours in Iraq, totaling six tours in nine years.

In his humble way, Sgt. Maj. Spicer quickly explains that two of those deployments were “short tours,” meaning he only went to war zones for six to seven months instead of a year or more. Though such commitment would mean sacrifice for any military family, the loved ones Sgt. Maj. Spicer leaves are in an uncommon situation. He has raised his triplet sons—Brandon, Matthew and Timothy Spicer—as a single parent since the boys were seven years old. “They travel everywhere with me,” he explains, talking about his journeys across the United States and to Europe to various permanent duty stations. “They’ve been through everything I’ve been through. My sons play a huge factor in what I do and decisions I’ve made in the military.”

During the nine years of nigh-constant deployments, the sergeant major says, “The only break was when I went to the Sergeants Major Academy. That was a nice little breather. I got to focus on my sons.” That year also was the boys’ senior year of high school, so father and sons graduated together and then had to make plans for the future. At the time, the 10th Mountain Division was looking for sergeants major to deploy. “I figured it would be one last little hurrah before I considered retirement,” Sgt. Maj. Spicer, who has served 28 years in the Army, states.

The family made the decision together for the senior noncommissioned officer to volunteer. After taking the assignment, he settled his sons into the dorms at St. Lawrence University, about an hour away from Fort Drum, New York, home of the 10th Mountain Division, and then he deployed to Iraq.

Fast forward to today. “They’re juniors in college and I’m here in OEF [operation Enduring Freedom],” Sgt. Maj. Spicer explains. “It’s sentimental to me because I look at transitioning, at retiring, and my sons will graduate from college at the same time. It’s significant in every way. I volunteered to deploy, and my sons sort of helped me in that decision and said, ‘Dad, go ahead and go do it,’ and they’re going out there to be men, too.”

As the family glimpses change on the horizon, its members will maintain values they already live and will keep the military in the family. Brandon, Matthew and Timothy all are enrolled in Army ROTC, preparing to follow in their father’s footsteps in service to their country.