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They are expected to perform their duties as infantrymen in combat and — in a split-second — transform into vigilant bodyguards protecting commanders’ lives at the first sign of trouble.
They are the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division Personal Security Detail Soldiers who trained at Fort Wainwright’s Combined Arms Collective Training Facility during the first week of September to hone their skills in avoiding a direct confrontation with an enemy who wishes to harm a senior leader.
This unique requirement may often seem to run counter to the infantry’s mission of maintaining contact with the enemy and maneuvering to destroy or capture him.
“It takes quite a bit of a mental gear shift to go from an infantry unit — where your job is to close with the enemy — to a situation where your job is to keep an individual from becoming a casualty,” said John Holschen, Insights Training Center instructor. “Which means frequently that you need to avoid contact or break contact at the first opportunity.”
Holschen, a 20-year Army veteran who spent half his career in military intelligence and the other half in Special Forces, ran his training staff like a cadre of drill instructors, maintaining an aggressive timeline and strict order among the students while compressing a two-week course into six days.
He said the need for senior leader PSDs arose during the Global War on Terrorism due to the nature of modern warfare. During the Cold War, combat was expected to include linear orders of battle in which a commander could orchestrate the fight from a relatively-secure command post.
Today, however, operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are executed among the civilian populace, with no defined battlefront or easily-identifiable enemy combatants. These conditions set the stage for security challenges that can be ably met with trained PSDs.
“We have senior leaders who — in addition to leading and fighting their elements — are performing degrees of diplomacy, civic management and operating in some cases as an adjunct to a civil administration,” Holschen said. “It requires them to move around in a populace that we know has people that wish to do them harm.”
Holschen said due to the compressed timeline, the PSD Soldiers had to learn individual and collective task training at the same time. The training regimen included combat driving, convoy procedures, walking formations and battle drills for all types of attacks.
“Pretty much everything in the infantry that we have been taught so far is about returning fire and destroying the enemy, and in this training environment and in actual combat, we are going to be protecting the principle, which is our battalion commander,” said Sgt. Bruce Ford-Coates, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment PSD. “Basically (our mission) is to keep him alive until we can get him evacuated.”
The injury or death of a commander has far-reaching consequences that go beyond the loss of a key leader, Holschen said. In the age of instant Internet videos, the coalition cannot afford exploitation from a successful assassination attempt.
“What would be the impact if a couple of half-trained insurgents without a large support cell (who) manage to come up with a way to kill a brigade or battalion commander?” Holschen asked. “Look at the relative impact. Even if we kill him or he is a suicide bomber, they lost three poorly trained but motivated individuals. We’ve lost a man responsible for a large portion of the effort in the region. Not to mention the propaganda material that they will gain.”
Holschen said the PSD training is geared toward equipping Soldiers with the skills necessary to protect commanders in a crisis. On the last day of training, commanders participated in the training to integrate with the PSD and to learn what steps are taken during an incident.
“We have a conflict where we need to protect (commanders) in an unsecure environment who are — at their core — still war fighters who (feel) they don’t need to be protected; they need to lead their troops and fight their troops,” Holschen said. “That takes an adjustment from both sides.”
Sgt. 1st Class Esteban Florentino, 3-21st agent in charge, said the AIC needs to garner an effective working relationship with the protected individual to ensure he responds to the directions of the PSD.
“The training highlights the importance of the people we are guarding…and the importance of getting the individual from ‘point A’ to ‘point B,’” Florentino said. “It also makes sure we’re not playing the infantry game but (performing duties) as a PSD.”
The sea change may include the commander allowing himself to become a passenger until he is ushered to a secure environment.
“The most important thing is knowing your mission,” Florentino said. “If we are going to meet someone and we get hit, our main mission has now changed to protecting the principle.”
Holschen said his team has cultivated a mindset among the trainees that puts more stock in a cool head over other combat skills.
“We like to say that we need thinkers that are shooters, not shooters that are thinkers,” Holschen said. “In the field, you need to be a thinker first, and then to be competent with your weapons systems as necessary. Weapons proficiency is a given.”