War on Terrorism

Monday, January 31, 2011

Iowa National Guard Soldiers discuss 'average' days in Afghanistan

By Army Sgt. Joseph Sawyer 133rd Infantry Regiment and Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Matson
Task Force Red Bulls

NURISTAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan (1/31/11) - For two National Guard Soldiers from Iowa, their mission to Alingar District Center with Task Force Red Bulls on Jan. 20 felt like just another day in the books.

It was just one of the more than 300 they will spend in this mountainous country far from home.

However, it was another key ingredient in helping improve Afghanistan’s security and economy.

Army Spc. Jarod Huser and Army Pfc. Corey Vanotegham, along with the other Soldiers of 1st Platoon, Company C, 133rd Infantry Regiment, visit the Alingar District Center, two or three times a week. Each trip includes several smaller chores or duties depending on the circumstances.

During this mission, the Iowa National Guard Soldiers assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Task Force Red Bulls, provided both transportation and security for a civil affairs officer who is working feverishly to complete a budget that will affect the thousands of Afghan citizens in the area.

“We go to Alingar quite a bit,” said Huser, an infantry gunner. “For that mission, we did a mounted patrol down to Alingar, checking for roadside bombs along the way, pulling security at all times, watching out for enemy activity, just getting a feel for what’s going on in the villages.”

Mounted in mine resistant ambush-protected vehicles, the Soldiers convoyed from Forward Operating Base Kalagush south through hills and valleys to Alingar.

Once there, they positioned themselves tactically throughout the town, watching for anything out of the ordinary while Army Maj. Andrew Dejesse, a civil affairs officer with Company A, 413th Civil Affairs Battalion, went to work.

DeJesse spoke with Fetah Mohammad, the Alingar District Manager of Village Affairs, trying to finalize points in a budget plan for the district for the upcoming year, one that was due in three weeks.

He also talked at length with the district education director for his recommendations on the budget. There are 72 schools attended by more than 38,000 students, so finalizing the budget was big business, and was the main reason 1st Plt. conducted the mission to Alingar.

While DeJesse was inside talking to the education director, Huser was inside his MRAP manning the gun, constantly monitoring for threats around the perimeter of the village using the truck’s Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station.

Operating the CROWS, the gunner is not in an external turret potentially exposed to enemy gunfire and IED blasts, but sits inside the vehicle and maneuvers the gun with a joystick while carefully monitoring his surroundings through a camera.

“I love being a gunner,” Huser said. “I do the CROWS, but also do open turret sometimes. I like being able to be up in the truck looking around. I watch for everything, but ridgelines (are) a big thing. I can look through the CROWS and find people up there moving around I wouldn’t be able to see with the naked eye.”

After DeJesse conducted his business, the Soldiers walked the streets of Alingar with their ANA counterparts.

“Just about every time we go out, we try to get our faces out on the streets,” said Vanotegham, an infantry radio telephone operator. “People see we’re there, that we have a presence and have good intentions. Going out and seeing the people, trying to speak a little Pashtu with them and seeing what they have to sell is interesting.”

After the patrol through the city, the day was not done for the Soldiers from 1st Plt.

The Soldiers received word of a possible IED near the town of Tupac. The Soldiers spent almost an hour scouring a steep ridge outside the village and combing the fields along the valley for signs of the device.

The IED was located the following day by another platoon after a tip from another villager. A Soldier walking on a bank of the valley uncovered the IED’s command wire. The wire to detonate the device was a copper wire not much thicker than a fishing line completely buried in the dirt in a valley.

“It’s really hard to find an IED without hitting it,” Vanotegham said.

Vanotegham said he likes that there is no “average” mission.

“I like just running missions in general,” he said. “The mission to Alingar is somewhat predictable, but then again, it could be unpredictable. At any moment there or on your way back, you could come into enemy contact.”

Vanotegham said missions will often change.

On this day’s mission, in addition to the IED, the Soldiers heard gunshots in the distance and investigated the shots with the local townspeople as they patrolled through the village.

The shots were far enough away not to be of any great concern to the Soldiers, but they are typical during operations in the field.

Soldiers must be prepared for anything while out on a mission, he said.

At any moment, the Soldiers may receive a mission to climb a 7,000-foot mountain to try and locate an enemy fighting position or indication of enemy presence in the area. They will walk and search for hours and often uncover very little, if anything at all.

“You might not find a goldmine, but if you find any indicator of someone being present who’s not supposed to be there, it’s worth it,” Vanotegham said.

“You can’t just skip that step, because the one time you do find something, it might save somebody’s life.”

Besides being together in Afghanistan, both Huser, 22 and Vanotegham, 21, share another common bond. The two Soldiers are both Iowa State University “Cyclone” students.

Huser is a business management major and Vanotegham is an agricultural education major. In fact, Vanotegham said the highlight of this mission for him was seeing a reminder of home, a Holstein cow at the Alingar farmer’s market. It was the first Holstein he had seen since arriving in country four months ago.

“I had to snap a picture, which I know everybody back home will be commenting about on Facebook,” Vanotegham laughed. “It’s just something that’s kind of neat.”

Though the farms here are much smaller and more primitive than those in Iowa, Vanotegham smiled when he thought about the comparisons.

“You see a lot of kids out doing work in the fields or playing in them, just like back home,” he said. “There’s a lot of crops here I’ve never seen before, but a lot of the same principles.

“It’s just amazing how they make do with what little they have compared to back home where everything’s just so plentiful.”

In another seven months or so, Vanotegham and Huser will return to the cornfields of Iowa, but until then it will be many more days and missions like this one, one after another.

But one thing is guaranteed, no two days will be the same – and these Soldiers will be ready for whatever comes their way.

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