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AFGHANISTAN: The Long View
When First Lieutenant Raechell Toomey’s platoon departed Forward Operating Base Shank in the Logar province of Afghanistan on Oct. 21, 2014, it marked a milestone in the Global War on Terror. Escorting a convoy of HEMTTs filled with radio equipment and other supplies to Bagram Air Field, the platoon was officially closing down one of the largest bases in the country. The move signified a transition from Operation Enduring Freedom, in which troops had been embroiled since 2001, to Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the U.S. military’s continuing plan for securing Afghanistan by building upon the gains of the last 13 years.
Toomey, platoon leader for the 1176th Transportation Company, Tennessee Army National Guard, understood not only the importance of her Soldiers’ job that day but what it meant for the conflict as a whole.
“I was particularly proud of that mission,” she says. “Getting to help shut down FOB Shank meant that we were one step closer to concluding the war and getting Soldiers home to their families. It’s what my platoon was trained to do, and we did it well.”
One step closer. Even though America’s official combat mission there has ended, work remains, and the 1176th’s accomplishment is representative of a legion of Guard actions that have moved Afghanistan forward over the past 15 years, whether from the tip of the spear or the base of support.
Today, government corruption and extremist forces, from remnants of al-Qaeda to the surging Islamic State, are undermining confidence in Afghanistan’s future. Reading reports about wastefulness and instability there can lead OEF and OFS Veterans to wonder whether what they did matters.
The answer is: It does—more than Afghans and Americans will ever know. Responding to the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the Guard helped expel the Taliban from power, offered ordinary citizens a chance to build a freer society and kept American threats on defense, far from our shores.
Despite the problems plaguing Afghanistan—and there are many—nothing can diminish the sacrifices and achievements Guard Soldiers made there. Their impact on the security, economy and citizenry will be felt for years to come.
Toomey’s pride is the Guard’s pride. But because younger Soldiers might not know the full scope of what was achieved (after all, Toomey was 15 when the conflict began), now is the perfect time to look back—and ahead.
INTO THE FRAY
Everything changed on 9/11. Excluding the 19 hijackers, 2,977 lives were lost, and more than 6,000 were injured. The Guard sustained its first casualties of the impending war that day: Indiana Lieutenant Colonel Canfield Boone and Maryland Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Ruth died at the Pentagon, and three New York Guard Soldiers—First Lieutenant Gerard Baptiste, Sergeant Larry Bowman and Specialist Rashan Singh—were killed when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
Three days after the attacks, Congress granted President George W. Bush the authority to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against the perpetrators. The U.S. and its allies began poring over fragmented intel like pieces of a puzzle—al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden—and eventually assembled the picture of a ruthless enemy in a barren battlespace. On Oct. 7, 2001, Bush announced the dawn of Operation Enduring Freedom. And less than a month later, some of the first Guard Soldiers entered the fight.
Among them were linguists from Utah, Illinois and Washington, fluent in Arabic, Urdu and other native languages, who deployed to Uzbekistan. Acting as translators and interrogators, some of these troops later moved into Afghanistan, embedding with Special Forces units and helping to train Afghan forces.
Between October 2001 and September 2002, the Guard’s 35th Infantry Division formed Task Force Santa Fe, deploying over 2,000 Citizen-Soldiers from infantry and armor battalions based in Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Nebraska to provide security on military installations throughout the European theater.
Next, it was Guard combat units’ turn. Hundreds of Soldiers from the 19th and 20th Special Forces Groups fought alongside the Army’s 5th SFG in the Hindu Kush mountain range between Afghanistan and Pakistan. By April, the 19th was searching the caves of eastern Afghanistan for weapons and intel, rooting out the remnants of Taliban fighters.
That spring, the Guard suffered its first combat deaths since the Vietnam War. Sergeant First Class Daniel Romero, a 19th SFG Soldier from the Colorado National Guard, was killed April 15 when rockets from a Taliban weapons cache prematurely exploded as ordnance experts were setting up a controlled detonation. A month later, Staff Sergeant Gene Vance, a cryptologic linguist with the 19th from the West Virginia Guard, died during a firefight in eastern Afghanistan.
Special Forces Soldiers were also the first Guard members to earn the Silver Star during the conflict. In March 2004, Sergeants First Class Andrew Lewis and Joshua Betten of the 20th SFG, Florida National Guard, fended off 30 Taliban fighters from a forward outpost sniper position, preventing a surprise attack against their firebase.
SUPPORTING THE WAR EFFORT
The enemy was entrenched, the fighting was fierce, the work was grueling, and the landscape was demoralizing. But Guard Soldiers pressed on, helping to cripple the Taliban regime and install a new government. As the situation in Afghanistan shifted, so did the Guard’s role, with units making inroads in areas as varied as they were critical:
Building an army. For the epic task of training a 70,000-member Afghan National Army, which was needed to ensure security and reinforce the fledgling government’s legitimacy, the U.S. Army turned to the National Guard. The Guard has a long history of successful oversight of state academies, training sites and support teams—and this endeavor in Afghanistan was one of its major contributions to the war effort.
When Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Brigade assumed command of Task Force Phoenix, as it was called, in September 2003, it marked the first major commitment of a brigade-sized Guard force in Afghanistan. The 45th would eventually mobilize 1,100 Soldiers from 19 states, including expert training teams from Rhode Island and Texas. The brigade quickly grew the ANA to over 14,000 strong and fielded a corps-sized force ahead of schedule. The Guard would maintain command of this vital mission through to completion, with Indiana’s 76th, Florida’s 53rd and Oregon’s 41st Infantry Brigades also taking turns at the helm.
Early on, Task Force Phoenix instructed the Afghans on weapons, tactics and basic soldiering skills. As the mission progressed, Guard Soldiers helped bolster a professional NCO corps, teaching leadership, command and control of larger units. They embedded teams and advisors in the field, assisting the new ANA units in developing their forces and effectiveness. They also served as liaisons between the Afghans and U.S. forces during joint operations.
The mission came full circle in 2009, when Citizen-Soldiers joined the 30,000-troop surge that enabled the ANA to gain control of the fight against Taliban forces and take over its own security.
Cultivating a nation. Over 80 percent of the Afghan population depended on farming or herding for survival. But years of war wreaked havoc on the country’s agriculture. To mitigate it, the U.S. Army sought to develop teams of troops with farming experience to help rejuvenate Afghanistan’s agronomy. Again, it turned to the Guard, which was charged with leveraging its Citizen-Soldiers’ vast civilian expertise for the creation of crucial Agribusiness Development Teams.
And again, the Guard delivered. The Missouri and Texas National Guards led the way, mobilizing the first ADTs in 2008, and in the following years, teams from numerous other states would join the cause. Although methods varied based on the region to which an ADT was deployed, they all assessed agricultural problems facing the Afghan people and helped develop feasible solutions to get them back on their feet. They taught improved farming techniques, irrigation and cold storage. They assisted with animal husbandry, proper care of livestock, even beekeeping. They improved economies and helped the local population learn to sustain itself.
By early 2014, 49 ADTs had operated in 15 Afghan provinces, tackling more than 680 agricultural projects and generating more than $42 million in economic impact for the people of Afghanistan.
Forming critical bonds. Throughout Afghanistan, cultural norms prohibit male troops from talking to or even making eye contact with female locals. Soldiers needed some way to communicate with these women, whose influence on males in the community could ward off attempts by insurgents to recruit or sway them.
Enter the Guard’s Female Engagement Teams—groups of female Soldiers who volunteered to patrol with infantry and Special Forces units in an effort to connect and develop relationships with Afghan women. Acting as cultural mediators, they helped the U.S. build trust with local populations, limiting misunderstandings that had the potential to quickly turn deadly.
Engaging the enemy. In addition to the Guard’s unique missions throughout the Afghanistan War, Soldiers also participated in myriad other aspects of combat operations. The Guard deployed all types of units to theater, including combat engineers to detect and destroy IEDs, military police to detain prisoners, transportation companies to move supplies and infantry regiments to battle the enemy.
The Guard made headway. And it made sacrifices. Case in point: Missouri’s 203rd Engineer Battalion spent a year in Afghanistan, from 2009 to 2010. It recorded 74 enemy engagements and took indirect fire 139 times. By tour’s end, the unit had suffered four Soldiers killed and 72 wounded.
And another example: After being lured into an ambush, a platoon from Iowa’s 133rd Infantry Regiment, along with joint terminal attack controllers from the Air National Guard, killed nearly 270 Taliban fighters without suffering a single casualty during a seven-hour fight.
On Dec. 28, 2014, the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan concluded its combat mission, marking the official end to the longest war in American history.
As Operation Enduring Freedom gave way to Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, nearly 10,000 troops would remain in the country, training Afghan security forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda. Guard Soldiers are still there today, ensuring we finish the job, and in the process, honoring their more than 170 comrades who never came home.
The Global War on Terror clearly demonstrated the National Guard’s unique capabilities and monumental value to America’s defense. The situation in Afghanistan remains tenuous, but as long as the threat exists, Citizen-Soldiers will continue to serve with valor.
THE MISSION CONTINUES
In order to understand today's U.S. military endeavors in Afghanistan, GX consulted with officials from the National Guard Bureau, and referred to expert testimony before Senate and House Armed Services committees.
Q: What is Operation Freedom’s Sentinel?
A: A counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan directed against the remnants of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups that threaten the U.S., such as the Islamic State. Held in conjunction with the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support, the mission aims to help Afghanistan build its own forces to secure and stabilize the region.
Q: What is the U.S. military’s overall mission in Afghanistan?
A: “We remain there to ensure that another terrorist attack—originating from Afghanistan and directed against the U.S. homeland—will never happen again,” said former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, during a February 2016 statement before the House Armed Services Committee.
Q: How many Army Guard troops are in the country now?
A: Just over 500 from myriad states, according to Colonel Chip Lynn, chief of the Army’s Mobilization and Readiness Division. “When U.S. Army Forces Command sends us a mission,” he says, “we look at units across the U.S. with the needed capabilities. We source against where they are in the readiness cycle. Then we go to the unit with the capability for that mission.”
Lynn says most mobilizations occur at the company level.
Q: What are Guard Soldiers doing and why?
A: They’re performing a variety of functions, including engineering, aviation, security and air defense, Lynn says, with the objective of turning over facilities and security to the Afghans and helping to stabilize the region.
They’re using heavy engineering equipment—bulldozers, graders, etc.—to build and dismantle structures. They’re using fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, moving people and equipment around the country and performing lift missions. They’re providing force protection, protecting convoys and facilities. And they’re embedding with Afghan forces, continuing to train and mentor the ANA.
Q: What are some current problems facing Afghanistan?
A: The security situation there is deteriorating, experts say. As of February, nearly one-third of the country’s districts were outside of the Afghan government’s control or influence. In September 2015, the provincial capital of Kunduz fell to the Taliban for the first time in 14 years. Other provinces, including Helmand and Baghlan, are at risk.
As a result, suffering has increased among the civilian population. In 2015, conflict-induced displacement was at its highest in 13 years, and civilian casualties reached a record high, the United Nations has reported.
Q: Are the problems insurmountable?
A: No. The U.S.-led coalition has made great strides in terms of containing the enemy and in training and working with Afghan security. Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for al-Qaeda and other international extremist groups. There has not been another attack on the U.S. homeland originating from Afghanistan.
Additionally, enemy forces do not fully dominate within Afghanistan.
“As I meet with Afghan Soldiers and police, I remind them that the Taliban are not 10 feet tall and bulletproof,” Campbell said in February. “They face significant challenges and they can be defeated.”
Taliban gains in Kunduz and Helmand came at great cost to the enemy, which is plagued by infighting, he said.
Q: What is the outlook for Afghanistan?
A: The nation faces significant security challenges, experts say.
The National Unity Government (NUG)—a U.S.-brokered power-sharing arrangement between the Afghan president and chief executive officer—and the enemy remain embroiled in conflict. The NUG has not completely expunged al-Qaeda, nor forced the Taliban to a cease-fire.
Other extremist groups have entered the fray.
“The emergence of Daesh, or the [Islamic State], has further complicated the theater landscape and, potentially, expanded the conflict,” Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee in October 2015. “Most recently, the Taliban have increased the tempo of their operations in order to reassert their prominence within the insurgent syndicate after the announced death of their spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.”
Fighting is projected to be more intense this year, said John F. Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, in February testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
“Although the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] has fought valiantly this first year, the information we have suggests that Afghan forces are facing a crisis because they still lack the capability to effectively hold off the insurgency on their own,” he said.
Campbell summarized the situation: “Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and while we take every measure to reduce force protection threats, our service members, civilians and coalition partners remain in harm’s way.”
Q: What is the timetable for ongoing Army National Guard operations?
A: There is no timetable, says Lynn. The Army Guard will maintain current force levels for at least another year—about 13,000 Soldiers mobilized throughout the world—and numbers in Afghanistan will stay the same.
“These Soldiers are out there doing [admirable] work and answering the call when their phone rings,” Lynn says. “Even with the reduced footprint we have there, [Afghanistan is] still a very dangerous place.”
LEADING THE CHARGE
From the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom, Citizen-Soldiers fulfilled roles as varied as they were vital. Here’s a sampling of some of the first Guard personnel in Afghanistan and their contributions to the warfight.
829th Engineer Company, Wisconsin Army National Guard
In early November 2001, 12 of the unit’s members were ordered to Active Duty. The group of plumbers, electricians and carpenters first deployed to Uzbekistan in mid-December to construct housing for Special Forces Soldiers. When they entered Kandahar in February 2002, the engineers earned the distinction of being among the first noncombat Guard units in Afghanistan.
19th Special Forces Group (Airborne)
Part of Joint Special Operations Task Force–North, Soldiers from Colorado, Utah and West Virginia mobilized Dec. 5, 2001, deploying first to Uzbekistan and then conducting combat operations in Afghanistan by early January 2002.
300th Military Intelligence Brigade (Linguist), Utah Army National Guard
Several small teams of intel specialists and linguists—including those from Utah’s 141st and 142nd Battalions; Washington’s 341st Battalion; and C Company, 341st Battalion out of Illinois—mobilized in November 2001. These highly specialized instructors, translators and interrogators were crucial to operations in the region.
20th Special Forces Group (Airborne)
Preceded by a small number of Alabama and Florida Guard Soldiers who deployed to Uzbekistan in November 2001, one of the earliest major call-ups of Guard Special Forces occurred in January 2002 and included troops from Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Virginia.
130th Military History Detachment, North Carolina Army National Guard
Reaching Afghanistan by early March 2002, the unit’s mission was to collect historical information and material on in-theater units to gain an understanding of the Army’s use of resources and how those resources performed.
OEF AT A GLANCE
Sept. 11, 2001
A coordinated terrorist attack by al-Qaeda on U.S. soil kills 2,977 people from 93 nations, sending shockwaves throughout the world and touching off what would become America’s longest war.
Oct. 7, 2001
Operation Enduring Freedom begins with a U.S. air campaign against Taliban and al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. B-2 bombers from the Missouri-based 509th Bomb Wing fly the longest mission in aviation history—44 consecutive hours.
Oct. 19, 2001
Two 12-man teams from the 5th Special Forces Group (ODA 555 and 595) infiltrate Bagram Air Field, becoming the first U.S. military forces on the ground in Afghanistan.
Nov. 25, 2001
Five hundred Marines arrive at Camp Rhino near Kandahar, America’s first FOB in Afghanistan. They are the first conventional U.S. ground forces in the country.
Dec. 5, 2001
First major National Guard mobilization for OEF—376 Soldiers from the 19th Special Forces Group.
April 15, 2002
SFC Daniel Romero, 19th Special Forces Group, Colorado Army National Guard, dies during an accidental explosion of ordnance. He is the Guard’s first casualty in the Global War on Terror.
May 19, 2002
SSG Gene Vance, 19th Special Forces Group, West Virginia Army National Guard, is killed when his unit comes under fire while on patrol, marking the Guard’s first combat death since the Vietnam War in 1969.
Sept. 19, 2003
The Oklahoma Guard’s 45th Infantry Brigade mobilizes to assume command of Task Force Phoenix, with the task of training Afghan security forces. Over the next few years, the 45th would grow the ANA to over 14,000 Soldiers.
June 28, 2005
Nineteen U.S. troops are killed during Operation Red Wings, one of the war’s deadliest battles. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the sole survivor, would receive the Navy Cross for his actions that day.
Jan. 3, 2008
The National Guard’s first Agribusiness Development Team—Missouri’s 935th—deploys to Nangarhar province to help Afghans develop better and more sustainable farming techniques.
Nov. 30, 2009
President Barack Obama announces his decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan as part of a surge against the Taliban and to allow the ANA time to take control of the fight against enemy forces.
May 2, 2011
Osama bin Laden is killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, during Operation Neptune’s Spear, a daring raid by the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group, aka SEAL Team 6.
Sept. 21, 2012
The last of America’s additional 30,000 “surge troops” fully withdraw, leaving 68,000 troops in theater to continue training Afghan forces and combating Taliban and other insurgents.
Dec. 28, 2014
The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan concludes its combat mission, marking the official end to the longest war in American history.
Whether they were at the tip of the spear or providing critical mission support, Guard Soldiers proved to be up to any challenge. We asked a few of them to reflect on what they did and the memories that will stay with them forever.
CLEARING THE WAY
SGT Greg Pina
South Dakota National Guard
I remember getting the call that we were deploying. I was a specialist at the time and had never deployed before. Not going to lie—I was terrified. But at the same time, I was excited. I deployed in September 2009 with the 211th Engineer Company. Our mission was route clearance, and I worked as a Husky operator.
The Husky has some of the strongest armor of any vehicle, and its sole purpose is to find mines and IEDs. It’s a one-person vehicle that’s a tight fit with your body armor on, and the only way in or out is through the top. It has two types of detectors; one for metal detection and another called GPR, ground-penetrating radar.
The hardest part of the deployment was the pressure of driving that Husky—knowing that the lives of the people following me were in my hands. But on the flip side, there was no greater feeling than finding an IED and knowing that everyone behind me was safe.
Before I got the feel for the GPR, I remember thinking everything was a bomb. The first time I found one, I literally drove over the pressure plate and the IED. When my sergeant told me over the radio that I had found my first IED, I was so excited I was jumping around and yelling in my Husky!
I was hooked. All I wanted to do was drive that Husky and find every IED I could. There was no bigger rush, and the more I drove, the better I got. Over time, I could tell exactly where the IED was from my marking, how deep it was and if there was more than one. I took great pride in leading the way for my company and the convoys behind us, and I would go back and do it again in a heartbeat.
I’ve been in the South Dakota Guard for nine years, and with the 211th for all of them. There is no other group of Soldiers I would rather risk my life for. We left Afghanistan with our heads held high, knowing we performed our mission to the fullest of our capabilities. We covered 19,214 miles over 428 missions with 139 IED finds.
My deployment with the 211th changed me, and what did it was the group I was with. The unit is a family, and I will never be closer to a group of guys in my entire life.
FORGING NEW BONDS
MAJ Jodi E. Marti
Iowa National Guard
I was deployed in 2010–2011 as forward support company commander for E Company, 334th BSB, attached to 1/133rd Infantry Battalion (2/34th IBCT). The 1/133rd was located mainly in Laghman province, in eastern Afghanistan.
Serving on a Guard Female Engagement Team and accompanying infantry and Special Forces teams was an honor. One of my most memorable moments was entering a village to speak to some of the women there about insurgents, weapons caches and drugs, and to see what they needed. Until I took off my helmet and eye protection, no one realized I was a woman. Several women prepared tea and invited me to sit and talk on their “porches.”
[While there], an elderly woman reached out to me, pulled my face toward hers and kissed my forehead. At first, I was worried because I wasn’t sure what this meant, but then, through an interpreter, she told me she was glad I was there because she knew I had come to help her village.
Until recently, female Soldiers were denied this kind of opportunity. My team helped find and confiscate drugs, money, cellphones and weapons, and we gathered intel that would never have been uncovered without us. I miss it, and I’d go back in a heartbeat.
CHILDREN OF WAR
SSG Amanda Morrill
North Carolina National Guard
During OEF, I deployed once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan. My 2013 Afghanistan deployment was the best experience of my military career.
I had the privilege of being attached to Security Force Assistance Team 4/3, Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), ISAF “Team Fury.” Our team was made up mostly of Guard Soldiers from North Carolina and California. We were stationed mainly out of Bala Boluk, an Italian outpost in Farah province. Our mission was to work with the ANCOP as advisors and mentors in the field of military police operations.
While on a poppy field eradication mission at an ANA outpost, I was able to interact with some Afghan children. They were shy at first, but we had some extra water we could spare for them. They seemed excited and happy that we were there, helping the ANCOP gain back their land from the terrorists who were using it to grow poppies to fund their war efforts. It was humbling to see how those children lived, played and experienced life in a war zone.
THE DAILY GRIND
1LT Jonathan Bratten
Maine National Guard
I deployed with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 133rd Engineer Battalion, to Bagram Air Field from September 2013 to June 2014, as the company executive officer. Halfway through the tour, I rotated into the S3 operations planning cell as the assistant plans officer. Both jobs shared a common denominator: significant amounts of paperwork.
I oversaw company operations, training, supply and administration. I handled manifests, routes, overlays and requests for air support. When the commander was absent, I assumed command. My days began at 0500 and ended at 1800. When I wasn’t in my office—which was in a dusty tent—I was inventorying shipping containers, overseeing maintenance operations, or working to rectify admin issues.
It was hardly glamorous—nothing you would see on an Army recruiting commercial—but it gave me a better understanding of how the Guard works. There is a process for everything. And if you want to take care of Soldiers, you need to know the processes. I went from a platoon-level to a brigade-level understanding of how things ran. And I learned that 90 percent of a leader’s job is working with people. If you can [do that], you will be a far more successful leader.
TRASHING THE ENEMY
SSG Gilbert Gonzales
Kansas National Guard
As a 46Q military journalist with the 102nd Military History Detachment, I was attached to the 101st Airborne Division from June 2008 to July 2009.
After being out for 14 days straight, we stopped one night at a FOB. We had reports that FOBs farther out had been attacked in the middle of the night. It was late, and I was tired and feeling sick—fever, body aches. I wanted to step out for some cool air and remember looking at all my gear on the floor; it was always heavy, but that night, it just seemed too heavy. So I headed out without it.
It was dark, but I could still see shadows. As I sat on some stairs, all of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I saw an image close to me. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and my heart raced. Before I knew it, I had jumped up and swung around kicking while unsheathing my Ka-Bar. When my foot made contact, it was light—not like kicking a person. Then I realized there was trash blowing all over.
I had attacked a trash can. A Soldier about 15 feet away turned and yelled, “Hey bro, you OK?” I thought, He didn’t see anything. As cool as I could, I replied, “Yeah, I’m good. I just tripped.”
So all the years of combatives and hand-to-hand combat training paid off—that trash can didn’t have a chance. Bruce Lee himself would have been proud of that spinning kick. I remember thinking as I picked up the trash, I am so glad I didn’t bring my M4 out here tonight. When I finally mustered enough self-respect to tell [my buddy] about it, he was in tears from laughing. It helped lighten the load while we were there, and we still laugh about it today.
MOMENTS OF PEACE
SFC Clinton Barnett
Kansas National Guard
I deployed to Laghman province in 2010 as a member of Agribusiness Development Team 2. As an S4, supply NCO, receiving supplies proved to be a challenge on a small remote FOB, because you never knew when they would show up with your stuff. Our liaison officer in Bagram would package up supplies and put them on a Chinook that was making the rounds. No times or specific dates were disclosed. It would come only at night and it was a "drop and go" kind of movement, so you had to be prepared to grab your stuff and get off the landing pad as quickly as possible. When everything went as planned, it would take just a few minutes for the helicopter to land, dump cargo and passengers, and take off. It was an adrenaline rush being under the rotating blades behind that aircraft, and the heat from the exhaust would cook your face. But once you backed away with the cargo, the tail would close and the helicopter would dust off, taking all the chaos with it.
When things didn’t go as planned, it would not even show up. There were several times I waited 8-plus hours for the helicopter to come in and then be told that it wasn’t coming due to a mechanical issue or small-arms fire. It really makes for a long couple of days with a few hours of sleep to keep you going. Although I had to wait, it really wasn’t that bad. After dark, all lighting on the FOB had to be extinguished and the faint sound of generators was all you could hear. The area would cool, and when you looked up, the stars were infinite. It's kind of ironic how peaceful a combat zone can be at times. This experience was just something that I think about every once in a while.
Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t all fairy dust and smiles. But it could have been worse, that’s for sure. I am really grateful for the Soldiers I deployed with. They kept drama to a minimum and believed in taking care of things.
A LASTING BOND
SSG Todd J. Perkins
Maine National Guard
As squad leader for the 1035th Survey and Design Team, attached to the 133rd Engineering Battalion, our deployment was focused in support of CRME [Combined Response Mission Exercise] missions. Missions were conducted at various FOBs in Afghanistan. They consisted of drainage design and field surveying. We designed, surveyed and assisted horizontal equipment operators in erecting weapons berms to safely store weapons caches that had to be designed to strict standards. We also designed, surveyed,and aided the horizontal equipment operators with runways and their repair, HLZs [helicopter landing zones] and a variety of other horizontal and vertical survey and design missions. Our team members were often sent to outlying FOBs for weeks or months at a time to conduct these missions.
Some of my most memorable experiences were simply seeing the members of my team become a more cohesive unit and become more tactically and technically proficient as the deployment went on. One that stands out the most is the fact that, in the beginning, one of our reclass Soldiers didn't like survey and design. Over the course of deployment, he gained a wealth of experience and is now in college studying computer-aided design and working for a company assisting in the design of naval ships.
I gained a group of brothers from this deployment. They are people I can always count on and who can always count on me. I hope that I grew as a leader and positively influenced them in some way. I know that deploying with them has created a bond that will endure forever.
TRUST THROUGH TRAINING
LTC Doug Bogenhagen
South Dakota National Guard
From February 2006 to July 2007, I was part of Task Force Phoenix V, commanded by the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Oregon Army National Guard. Our mission was to split into embedded training teams of 16 Soldiers from nearly every state and then deploy as battalion and brigade training teams.
I had the distinct pleasure of serving with 16 Soldiers from the South Dakota National Guard’s 147th Field Artillery Brigade, and we deployed to Regional Command East in Paktika and Paktia provinces. As a field artillery major, my job was to train and mentor a brigade-level staff with a focus on training the brigade S3 and brigade fire direction officer.
It was a very successful year with the Afghan National Army. The artillerymen were proficient on the D-30 howitzer, and we were able to establish firebases and conduct counterfire in combat situations. We formed a trust and bond [with the Afghan Soldiers] over the year, and we never felt threatened in their presence. I left the country feeling that we had made tremendous strides in developing an Army that could defend its country after U.S. forces left.
SSG Allison Haase
Minnesota National Guard
I was in Afghanistan from January to November of 2012. My duty position for the deployment was post office NCOIC/platoon sergeant. I had a team of eight or nine Soldiers, and we ran the post office on FOB Fenty [in Nangarhar province, near Jalalabad], plus we completed missions to over 20 outlying FOBs and combat outposts.
The job was very satisfying for my team because of the Soldiers we dealt with on the missions. The deployment made me realize how important mail is to Soldiers. Some of the places we went, the Soldiers didn’t have access to email, so for them to receive a package or a letter, or to be able to send out a package or letter, meant more to them than anything.
THE CITIZEN-SOLDIER EDGE
LTC Cynthia King
South Carolina National Guard
National Guard members bring skill sets that cannot be understated when we are called to support: military expertise coupled with vast community experience. As a prior Active Duty public affairs officer and now PAO in the South Carolina National Guard, I deployed for OEF in 2012 to support a special operations command.
I was told I was selected over other candidates because they needed a seasoned PAO. On our own South Carolina National Guard PAO team, we’ve had an award-winning magazine photographer, a college sports broadcaster and several corporate public relations specialists who have shared their ideas and knowledge from years of working in this demanding career field.
My National Guard experiences working with the media and understanding their challenges proved invaluable during my deployment. The media personnel I escorted throughout Afghanistan told me they enjoyed working with the Guard because we understood the inner workings of the industry and were extremely supportive. They said they appreciated the access afforded to leadership, particularly under deadline or with follow-up questions. The command I supported was also very pleased after seeing the positive results of these media engagements.
A movie producer I supported throughout Kunar province, Brandon Hogan, said that in his 10-plus years deploying to combat areas, National Guard PAOs were always in tune with the media, largely because of their roles as civilians. That’s what made a difference to everyone we supported in Afghanistan—we understood and appreciated the job they were doing.
It was a tremendous honor to serve as a Citizen-Soldier on the OEF deployment and showcase the unique perspective we bring to the warfight. In the National Guard, we see beyond the mission and know the importance of enduring partnerships and building relationships—and we get this from living, working and serving in our communities.
REAPING THE REWARDS
LTC Dwayne Eden
Iowa National Guard
I volunteered as a member of the 734th Agribusiness Development Team, which deployed to Kunar province in northeastern Afghanistan in August 2010. Our ADT also included some interns who visited our project sites to inspect the progress of construction, speak to locals and take pictures. They were invaluable to the 734th ADT, allowing us to stay informed about how various projects were going without us having to be at the site.
In late October 2010, my team accompanied infantry Soldiers into the Dewegal Valley for a shura, or consultation, with local villagers and farmers. This was my chance to visit with Afghan farmers about various issues in that area. During the first shura, I learned about irrigation problems in the valley and how devastating rains the previous July had washed out some of the channels. I am not an engineer, but I was amazed by the Afghans’ ingenuity with building canals. They have been farming this way for hundreds of years, and I remember thinking, They are experts in gravity irrigation systems.
On our second trip into the valley, I was talking to some farmers in a very beautiful setting when an irritated local farmer wanted to speak to me. The infantry commander was speaking to some elders about 20 feet away. I was talking to the aggravated farmer through my interpreter, who was having a hard time translating for the guy. After a while, my translator made a circling motion around his ear with his finger. I understood his American slang: This guy is crazy. After listening to him for five more minutes or so, I noticed the rest of our group moving away. All of a sudden, the local farmer tapped me on the head and said, “Give me certified seed and fertilizer, or I will plant poppies.” Then he walked off.
As a company commander in Iraq in ’03–’04, I was never able to actually meet any of the local populace. Working in a “nontraditional” role in Afghanistan, and seeing firsthand the progress we made for the people of that country, was a huge benefit for me as a Soldier.
IMPOSSIBLE IS POSSIBLE
SFC Christopher Hopper
Maine National Guard
I deployed with the 133rd Engineering Battalion as the battalion S6 NCOIC. When we arrived at Bagram Air Field (BAF), the 133rd was located in a series of nine tents that housed the battalion ALOC [Army logistics operations center] and TOCs [tactical operations centers] for HHC, FSC and the company TOCs for the rest of the battalion. Each CO TOC had its own SNAP satellite system that provided phone and Internet connectivity. The SNAPs for the COs would go down numerous times each day, and none of the commo Soldiers in the battalion had any training on them. In 28 days, we had to get the battalion ALOC switched to hard lines, including 150 computers and about 200 phones. All of those devices had to be completely re-imaged, and the only way to do that was to take them—10 phones and 10 computers at a time—to the BAF helpdesk.
Upon hearing about the deadline, our battalion commander asked my S6 OIC if we could get it done in time. Without hesitation, my OIC responded, “Yes, Sir.” I thought there was no way humanly possible we would be able to do it. Luckily for me, I didn’t understand my OIC well enough yet, and had severely underestimated his ability for unconventional planning and motivating others to accomplish the mission. Also, it was a good test of what I had been trained to do as a good NCO. I expressed my doubts to him without being disrespectful, and then set those doubts aside and gave full effort to support his plan, being careful not to show any reservations to our section.
We organized the small section into shifts of 12–14 hours to facilitate 24-hour operations. There were some significant emotional events and not much sleep. We kept the same OPTEMPO and schedule for a month and a half after the battalion ALOC was complete to get all of the CO TOCs converted. So our first three months on the ground consisted of 24-hour ops, working as fast as we could push ourselves to go.
There were many key takeaways from this experience. It forged us into a tight-knit section right off the bat. It solidified a good working relationship between the OIC and NCOIC. It kept our minds off adjusting to deployment—we were too busy to focus much on anything but the mission. And it really gave me an appreciation for the quality of the young Soldiers in our section. Nobody complained about extraneous stuff; they just rolled up their sleeves and worked like mad to get things done.
I also found out that areas I thought I was strong in as a leader needed more work. I confirmed that if I ever get to a point where I think I have leadership perfected, it’s time for me to get out. As a leader, there is always something to learn or improve on. I learned that it’s OK to admit mistakes in front of my Soldiers and to follow up with efforts to correct them. It builds trust and sets the right example.