Marines become Afghan teachers

Published 11:09 pm Saturday, February 11, 2012

A group of Air Wing Marines pose for a photo at the Joint Sustainment Academy Southwest aboard Camp Leatherneck Feb. 3. Throughout their yearlong deployment, the Marines played a pivotal role in graduating more than 2.500 students from different Afghan forces. Staff Sgt. Donald Farrington, a Suffolk native, is second from left, kneeling.

By Cpl. Meredith Brown

Special to the News-Herald

For the past year, Marines from various aircraft wing specialties have stepped out of the realm of their everyday jobs to train and mentor Afghan National Security Force soldiers and police at the Joint Sustainment Academy Southwest aboard Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan.

Email newsletter signup

Throughout the Marines’ deployment, they were continually asked to learn new teaching skills to meet the emerging battlefield requirements placed on Afghan forces. The academy offered everything from basic training for the Afghan Uniformed Police to tactical leader’s courses for company-grade Afghan National Army officers.

“Honestly, I pretty much had to learn an array of new skills,” said Cpl. Paul Perez, an instructor at JSAS. Perez, a native of Orlando, Fla., was originally trained in supply administration and was serving at Marine Aircraft Group 29 out of Marine Corps Air Station New River prior to the deployment.

“It had some challenges, but I definitely think it was a good experience, because I was outside of my original [military occupational specialty] and working with different people and learning from different backgrounds,” he said.

In addition to teaching military-specific skillsets, the instructors at the academy engage the Afghan students in general education, like reading and writing. Though some of the Marines were new to the instructor mindset, veterans of military education like Staff Sgt. Donald Farrington welcomed the challenge.

“I was working as an instructor already,” said Farrington, a native of Suffolk, Va. “What way is there to become a better instructor than to come out here and teach others that speak a different language?”

Farrington works as the literacy staff non-commissioned officer in charge at the academy, though he typically functions in the capacity of an MV-22B Osprey mechanic with MAG-26 out of MCAS New River.

In taking on such a dynamically different role than his usual occupation, Farrington attests to the challenges of living and working with the Afghan soldiers.

“There is a lot of stuff different here that a lot of people in America don’t know about,” he said. “They don’t get to see it except for on TV, but actually living out here and experiencing it and seeing how different the cultures are will blow your mind away.”

However, the language barrier remains a challenge for others.

“We have interpreters out here, but sometimes stuff gets lost in translation,” said Sgt. Robert Kerby, an instructor at the academy. “So during a period of instruction you’ll say it one way, and you expect it to get translated that way, but the interpretation gets lost during the period of instruction. So that was a challenge.”

Kerby, who can normally be found working as an aviation electronics technician at Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 14 out of MCAS Cherry Point, saw firsthand the impact of the lessons he taught during a AUP basic training course while on a trip to Zaranj, Nimroz province.

“I got to see some of my students actually out there working,” said the native of Green Forest, Ark. “Seeing them implement some of the stuff we taught them was really rewarding.”

Kerby explained that during the course, the students were taught basic marksmanship, how to operate a checkpoint and how to search people. All of these skills were implemented when he saw his former students occupying a checkpoint in Zaranj.

Since teaching at the academy, the Marines have played a pivotal role in graduating more than 2,500 Afghan security force students throughout the year.

“Just seeing the large amount of students we were able to put through here, you take a pretty big sense of pride in what you do, seeing them walk across that stage at graduation,” said Sgt. Samuel Thilbeault, an instructor, whose primary job is an aviation electrician out of MALS-26.

“Knowing what we did here made a difference [is what I’ll take away from this experience],” explained the Millington, Mich., native. “[The graduates] are actually going out there and using the skills that we are teaching them and making a difference in Afghanistan for themselves.”