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‘First Lightning’ trains Guinean Soldiers during Africa mission

By 1st Lt. Casey Nugent | 1ST BN 7TH FA REGT. | March 25, 2014

CONAKRY, Guinea – The beginning of 2014 was full of experiences for a group of artillerymen with the 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, as they took part in a bilateral training event as part of the brigade’s regional alignment mission in Africa.

More than 30 Soldiers from the unit were tasked with training and certifying a newly formed Guinean Army battalion made up of handpicked Soldiers and officers from across the West African nation.

The Guinean battalion, called the Gan-Gan Battalion, is training to conduct peacekeeping operations in Mali for its nation’s first United Nations mission in more than a decade.

“Our teams have been able to make this training so much better than we had anticipated thanks to how receptive and enthusiastic the Guinean Soldiers have been,” said Capt. Ritchie Rhodes, commander, Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 1st Bn., 7th FA Regt.

“First Lightning” Battalion trainers and mentors have worked six days a week for eight weeks to prepare each of their assigned Guinean companies for the challenges they will face while conducting operations in Mali. Training included instruction on checkpoints, cordon-and-search operations, Combat Life Saver, or CLS, skills and weapons familiarization ranges. Additionally, classes were given on peacekeeping and human rights.

The training revolved around using a mentor system, rather than pure instruction. Mentors were embedded with their respective companies and taught every class to the same group of Guinean Soldiers. Soldiers from both nations also conducted physical training and played sports together, improving their camaraderie during the eight weeks.

The mentorship model developed a strong bond of respect and partnership between the Guinean battalion and the First Lightning trainers, said 1st Lt. Josh Wohlers, platoon leader, Battery A, 1st Bn., 7th FA Regt.

“It has been an outstanding few weeks and a privilege to serve with the Guineans,” Wohlers said. “They are extremely motivated and have done a fantastic job during recent training events.”

Training is approached as a discussion between mentors and trainees, rather than simple memorization.

“First, we asked Nimba Company – one of the Guinean units – to show us how they would conduct a checkpoint on a road,” said 1st Lt. John Fridlington, assistant operations officer, 1st Bn., 7th FA Regt. “After they showed us how they do it, we discussed some things Americans do differently when conducting a checkpoint, using examples from deployments and the UN training manuals to get them thinking about different scenarios, what works and what doesn’t work.”

Another area in which strong bonds have developed between the two militaries is in the CLS course. Here, the method of “train the trainer” was employed to first teach Guinean medics new techniques for treating a casualty. In turn, the Guinean medics trained each of their companies on the techniques, despite differences in equipment.

“The Guinean medics have embraced the techniques we’re teaching,” said Spc. Brandon Lawhon, medic, HHB, 1st Bn., 7th FA Regt. “It’s a challenge because of how different the resources are, but the fundamentals remain the same, and they find a way.”

Rifle marksmanship and familiarization have been particularly challenging hurdles to overcome, as most Guinean Soldiers have never fired a weapon. Mentors were required to start from scratch, teaching the Guineans how to safely and properly handle their AK-47 rifles, light-machine guns and heavy-machine guns.

Preliminary marksmanship instruction was trained and stressed to drill the Guinean Soldiers on effective firing techniques and familiarize Soldiers with each weapon. Instilling the mindset of handling a weapon safely was fundamental among mentors’ training goals, with the intention that all of the training will filter throughout the Guinean military in time.

“The lessons these Soldiers and leaders learn here will hopefully stay with them, not only when they deploy, but also when they are the ones teaching it to new Soldiers after their deployment,” said Sgt. 1st Class Lee Frost, Division Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1st Inf. Div.

The training conducted by the First Lightning Battalion has benefitted the trainers as much as the trainees.

“Not only are we doing training to enhance the Guinean capabilities, we are also developing our American leaders, getting them experience training a foreign army,” said Maj. Joey Errington, operations officer, 1st Bn., 7th FA Regt., and the mission lead.

Some of the Guinean Soldiers trained with another American unit more than 10 years ago.

“The training the Americans are doing has eased many of my concerns for the upcoming deployment. I thank them for the update to the training the American Rangers gave in 2002,” said Guinean 2nd Lt. Ibrahima Soury Camara, platoon leader, 1st Mechanized Company, Gan-Gan Battalion.

The eight weeks of training culminated with a 36-hour training lane, taking each company through offensive, defensive and peacekeeping scenarios, as American mentors watched from a distance, allowing Guinean leaders to take the initiative. The exercise was their final training prior to UN validation and deployment.

“This lane was designed to test the platoon leaders,” said Lt. Col. John Mountford, commander, 1st Bn., 7th FA Regt., “We’re no longer training individual tasks, but observing the Gan-Gan leadership put all the tasks together – command and control, fire and maneuver.”