‘It’s Not About Revenge Anymore’
Story and photos by Tim Dyhouse
VFW Magazine, March 2004
Morale is high for GIs in Afghanistan. From Kabul to Kandahar, U.S. troops continue to fight what's left of the Taliban and al Qaeda. But the one thing GIs believe is unreported is how they're helping the citizens help themselves.
A brightly colored Ferris wheel stands in the middle of Kandahar, Afghanistan. By American standards, it is modest, as is the small amusement park that surrounds it. But the fact that it even exists is a monumental step in this country's recent troubled history.
Across the street sits the city's infamous soccer stadium, where not too many years ago the fanatically oppressive Taliban executed their fellow citizens with AK-47 rounds to the backs of their heads.
Teenagers now use the stadium for its intended purpose, while smaller children and their parents enjoy rides in the amusement park. In a land where less than three years ago playing music was a punishable offense, this freedom is a vivid symbol of how GIs on the ground are slowly dragging this Third World country out of its misery.
"I don't think it's about revenge anymore," said Spc. James Callaway, a Humvee driver with A Trp., 2nd Plt., 3rd Sqdn., 17th Cav, 10th Mtn. Div. "It's about helping these people.”
That help is not limited to Kandahar. While infantrymen and special ops troops scour the mountains of eastern Aghanistan to eliminate remnants of the Taliban, other GIs are helping to rejuvenate the country.
For example, last fall at Bagram Air Base, the 452nd Combat Support Hospital, an Army Reserve unit from Wisconsin, probably saved the lives of more Afghani land mine victims than U.S. troops.
At Camp Phoenix and Pol-e-Charkhi near Kabul, soldiers comprising Task Force Phoenix (mainly from the lIth Armored Cav, 31st Infantry, 32nd Infantry and 124th Infantry regiments last fall) train local men for the new Afghanistan National Army.
In villages throughout the country, U.S. Army Provisional Reconstruction Teams build schools, wells, bridges and roads. And near u.s. military bases, private contracting work and regularly scheduled bazaars pump much needed U.S. dollars into and add critical jobs for the local economies.
"Every single serviceperson in Afghanistan helps the people, directly or indirectly,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Tim Green, who runs base operations at Bagram.
In his job, Green, a VFW life member, handles a variety of tasks. It could be said he is the police chief, deputy mayor and public works director for the sprawling mini-city of some 10,000 people. One of his projects is providing local children with things like shampoo, toothpaste, clothing, blankets, pillows and self-respect.
"I give the kids things they need for health and education,” he said. "If we can help these children become leaders in their communities, or perhaps their country, then the U.S. mission in Afghanistan will be overwhelmingly successful.”
In general, the locals appear to appreciate the U.S. presence in their country. The translator for the U.S. commander at Bagram says that most Afghanis regard al Qaeda's terrorist attacks as an affront to Islam. He said most of his countrymen respect American troops' belief in God and discount the Taliban's militancy as a heretical sham.
"According to Muslim religion, you cannot take a person's life unless you're defending yourself or your house;' said Sayed Abedi. "Suicide bombings, or the concept, does not exist. It was made up by bin Laden and his group:'
Worst Part is 'the Unknown'
Afghanistan is still a dangerous place, and providing security for the locals is a main objective for American troops. The problem is the uncertainty of determining who is friend or foe.
"Most of the people are pretty friendly, especially the kids," said Sgt. George Elsaesser, also of A Troop. "But it's also pretty easy to attack us and [then] meld into the crowd if they want to.”
Elsaesser explained that in early November in Kandahar a Humvee in his patrol had to "take out" a Toyota Corolla that had ventured too close to the convoy. A week later a car bomb exploded at the UN building, and a patrol received incoming rounds near the soccer stadium. No one returned fire, Elsaesser said, because they couldn't determine the source of the shots. (Gunmen again attacked the UN building in Kandahar with grenades and small-arms fire on Jan. 5, the day Afghanistan adopted a new constitution. The next day, a double explosion - blamed on the Taliban - killed 17 1ocals.)
A Humvee patrol through Kandahar's chaotic streets can be a bewildering ride of bizarre and unfamiliar sights. No stoplights. No street signs. Dust everywhere.
Raw meat for sale hanging from rafters of broken-down shacks. Putrid, unidentifiable smells and occasional sinister looks from bearded men in shadows.
"The worst part of driving through the city is the unknown," said Sgt. Charlie "Mac" McCall of 2nd Sqd., 2nd Pit., 10th MP Co., stationed at Kandahar. "You hear us talk a lot of B.S. with each other when we're out here, but that's just to keep ourselves alert:'
It's even more of a problem in isolated rural areas.
"Like a lot of Third World countries, everyone's your friend during the day, so we have to be diplomatic" said Sgt. 1st Class AI Lombardo, who provides armed recon and security details for civil affairs missions with Task Force Liberty out of Bagram. "We travel as fast as we can. Speed is an ally. It's hard to level an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] when a target's moving fast. But driving fast can be hard to do over here. There are only two paved roads, or about 75 miles, in Afghanistan.”
Venturing out on the open roads calls for vigilance. Convoys regularly pass through checkpoints manned by armed, supposedly friendly, Afghanistan Militia Force members.
"Most are former Taliban and are supposed to be loyal to the new government, but you never know," said Lt. Ross Berkoff of A Troop, which he noted was the first Cav scout unit "to step foot in Afghanistan since Operation Enduring Freedom began.”
Lt. Ross Berkoff of 2nd PIt., A Trp., 3rd Sqdn., 17th Cav, 10th Mtn. Div., inspects
his troops before they head out on a "presence patrol" through Kandahar.
These patrols remind local citizens of the U.S. military presence
and overwhelming firepower.
'No Better Honor' Than to Serve
Leading a convoy through smaller towns and villages is like throwing fish food at carp. It seems as if all the locals, except the most industrious or infirm, are drawn to u.s. military vehicles. For some soldiers, like McCall's Humvee driver, Pfc. Brian Smith of Sherman, Texas, it's a thrilling experience.
"I like these patrols," he said. "I like seeing the people.”
But for others, it can be highly stressful.
“We'd like to give the kids candy, but if you give some to one, they all come out of the woodwork, and it's a mess;' said McCall, a VFW life member from Watertown, N.Y. "They told us in training that locals might give you something, and it could blow up in your hand."
Regardless of where they are stationed in Afghanistan, GIs say they are dedicated and ready to serve.
"I was in Shkin recently, and our guys were getting contact daily," said Staff Sgt. Rob Moore, a Navy Gulf War vet who joined an Army National Guard field artillery unit in 1996 and now serves with Det. 1, 303rd AG Postal Co., in Kandahar. "I hate being in the rear echelon, but I want to do what I can to support them."
For many, an Afghanistan deployment is an opportunity to use years of training in real combat.
"There's no better honor than to serve my country:' said 1st Sgt. Jason Silsby of HQ Co., 2nd Bn., 22nd Inf. Regt., 10th Mtn. Div., and a VFW member. "I've been waiting 17-1/2 years for this.”'
All members of Silsby's battalion earned the Combat Infantryman's Badge during Operation Mountain Resolve last fall in southeast Afghanistan. The 36-year-old husband and father plans to make the Army a career and says his 12-year-old son, who is "extremely proud" of his father's service in Afghanistan, wants to join the Army, too.
'Let's Get Some Payback'
Pride in service is a recurring theme among U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Though far from home and desperately missing friends and family, the universal feeling among GIs is that they're fighting for a just cause. For some, it's more personal.
Lombardo, who served with the Navy offshore during the Vietnam War, is a New York City police detective. He was in Brooklyn on Sept. 11 2001, and remembers something his son, who served on a scout/sniper team with the 2nd Bn., 25th Marines in Iraq, told him during the clean-up of the World Trade Center.
"He said it best: ‘ Any doubts I might have had about serving my country died under that rubble," Lombardo said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Bob Jenks, who served a six-month tour at Camp Phoenix before returning to the States in December, is a 14-year firefighter with Truck Company 2 of the Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Fire Department. He was at Ground Zero on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001.
"It was unbelievable. Absolute, incomprehensible, mass destruction,” said the New York VFW member, who, along with seven fellow GIs, earned a CIB on Oct. 12 last year during a firefight near Camp Phoenix. "I felt an intense inner need to go to Afghanistan and contribute. It was very fulfilling to help transition the Afghans from an indigenous force to a professional army. I felt like we made a difference.”
Spc. Shannon Coolbaugh of the 17th Cav's A Troop and a member of VFW Post 1568 in Towanda, Pa., said that immediately after the terrorist attacks, his training began to include more interaction with the public, such as detaining individuals and searching vehicles. He says he was eager to deploy to Afghanistan.
“A plane went down in my home state, and living on the East Coast, I'm glad I was able to do my part,” he said. “Something needed to be done. We needed to show that the United States is not vulnerable.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Ralph Borja of 2nd Bde., 10th Mtn. Div., also relished his time at Camp Phoenix. He was serving at Fort Campbell, Ky., on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I knew when I joined the Army at 18,” said the 42-year-old husband and father of three children, "that I wanted to do something for my country. It's rewarding to serve here in Afghanistan to eliminate the threat of terrorism."
Borja, who has been a VFW member since the mid-'80s after earning a CIB on Grenada, has a son, Zachary, serving with 7th Bn., 101st Aviation Regt., 101ST Abn. Div., in Iraq.
"My wife worries about us,” he said, "but more about him.”
For Elsaesser, who was stationed at Fort Knox, Ky., on Sept. 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks had a "profound effect" on his career as a soldier.
"Before then, the Army was pretty much a 9-to-5 job,” he said. "Afterward, I gained an appreciation of our purpose. It made me feel that what I'm doing is important. A lot of us were like, 'Let's get somewhere for some payback.' "
Moore, a member of VFW Post 8819 in Billerica, Mass., says it is "rewarding" to serve in Afghanistan.
"It's a just cause,” he said. "As a father, I never want to see a 9/11 happen again. As long as I'm alive, I will support the war on terrorism."
Green calls his service in Afghanistan "extremely fulfilling."
"I bristled with pride watching the 101st Airborne Division and 10th Mountain Division--friends of mine, troops and units I had trained at JRTC [Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.]--do so well over here the first few months of intense combat,” he said. "As a career soldier and infantryman, I burned with envy not being over here, leading soldiers into combat, participating in some way. It's not about revenge for me, it's about participating."
And that participation, by GIs throughout the country, is slowly bringing Afghanistan into the 21st century. But it is difficult duty. A soldier in Kandahar expressed what many have on their minds as they endure the danger, boredom and loneliness. Watching from the driver's seat of his Humvee as the sun quickly faded and yet another mission was about to begin, Spc. Callaway of the 3/17th Cav turned and said, "Don't let the folks back home forget about us." [End]
Article transcribed by Roger “Bear” Young, 4 Mar 04
A Troop, 3/17th Air Cav webmaster - http://northwestvets.com/spurs/spurs.htm
Member, VFW 2713, Seattle, WA.