Capt. Erjok Erjok, center, chemical officer with 2nd 'Dagger' Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, and a native of South Sudan, speaks with noncommissioned officers from 7th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team during Dagger University, which teaches basic language and cultural issues to soldiers deploying to Africa. (Sgt. Daniel Stoutamire / Army)
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In one month, soldiers from the first regionally aligned Army unit have conducted missions in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Niger and Ghana.
Soldiers from 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, also known as the Dagger Brigade, are aligned with Africa Command. They are expected to participate in as many as 140 activities in 34 African countries as the Army seeks lessons learned to align the rest of the force with combatant commands around the world.
The effort, known as regionally aligned forces, is a priority for the Army as it transitions from more than a decade of war. Aligning Army units with the various combatant commands will give troops the chance to focus and train on a specific region and participate in theater security cooperation and exercises with partner militaries.
It also will give combatant commanders access to trained and ready troops for their missions and exercises after playing second fiddle for more than 10 years to the demand for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. Jacinta Bonner was among the first soldiers to go on a mission, traveling to Malawi in late April to participate in a two-week transportation and unit movement exercise with the local army.
“We’re building a partnership and relationship with them, and we were training them on the practices we use,” she said.
This was Bonner’s first trip to Africa, and she’s itching to return.
“It was so wonderful to be a part of this mission,” she said. “It was a life-changing experience..”
The trip to Malawi also was different from her deployment to Iraq, she said.
“Going to Malawi, there were no weapons, so that in itself was different, and it changes your mindset,” she said.
Bonner said she believes the brigade’s work with Africa Command is vital.
“I think what we’re doing is great, to go over there and provide assistance and build partnerships and relationships,” she said. “But at the same time, you can learn so much, and it’s an experience most people in their lifetime don’t get to do.”
To prepare the soldiers from 2nd Brigade for their upcoming activities and missions, the brigade, based at Fort Riley, Kan., is conducting monthly training programs called Dagger University. The second iteration began May 6, and about 70 soldiers received language and cultural training specific to the countries they’ll be visiting, said Col. Jeff Broadwater, the brigade commander.
The six-day training program features role players, including soldiers in the brigade who are native to Africa, and experts from nearby Kansas State University.
The 162nd Infantry Brigade from Fort Polk, La., and the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group also are providing trainers and mentors, Broadwater said.
During Dagger University, soldiers cover topics such as basic phrases in the local language, cultural do’s and don’ts, local laws, force protection and preventive measures against disease and injury, Broadwater said.
The training culminates with a practical exercise featuring role players, he said.
Capt. Erjok Erjok is the brigade’s chemical officer. A native of South Sudan who speaks Binka, Swahili and Arabic, Erjok is one of the role players for Dagger University.
“The first thing I tell other soldiers is once you know which country you’ll be going to, try to take time to understand the country,” he said.
This includes learning some basic phrases in the local language, and reading up on that country’s culture and tribal lines, Erjok said.
“Knowing and understanding that can help you in completing your mission,” he said.
Erjok, who moved to the U.S. when he was 19, said he’s glad American soldiers are getting the chance to work with their African partners.
“I’ve seen what’s going on in that continent, and for this brigade to be aligned to Africa, I’m happy that the Americans are able to have the time to partner with the Africans,” he said.
Broadwater estimates the brigade will conduct about 50 more missions by the end of the fiscal year in September.
“We’re preparing to do medical training,” he said. “We’re also doing some leader development training, [and] basic advise-and-assist missions such as platoon tactics or basic marksmanship.”
Brigade leaders continue to attend planning conferences for future exercises.
Brigade leadership also had to make sure their soldiers had passports and the appropriate visas and travel documents — something they didn’t have to worry about when deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan, Broadwater said.
First Sgt. Douglas Whittaker traveled to Sierra Leone for a weeklong senior leader engagement with the Joint Logistics Unit of that country’s armed forces.
“We gave them a concept of the U.S. Army logistics, and they gave us a concept of how their logistics systems worked,” he said.
This was Whittaker’s first trip to Africa.
“It was great,” he said. “We were treated like royalty over there.”
Whittaker, who’s deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, said he drew on his experience serving on a transition team in Iraq.
“We went and taught the Iraqi army, so this mission I was on went right in line with that,” he said. “I could go and teach and mentor and coach.”
Soldiers from 2nd Brigade, which returned from its last deployment, to Iraq, in October 2011, are committed to Africa Command through the summer of 2014, Broadwater said.
“It’s great that we’re getting to do something in a part of the world that not many people in a lot of formations have had an opportunity to do,” he said. “We’re learning a lot. The countries we’ve been in, the soldiers have been very positive and really appreciated the support.”■