War on Terrorism

Monday, October 01, 2012

Unique Wisconsin Guard unit embarks on specialized mission to Afghanistan



By Vaughn R. Larson
Wisconsin National Guard Public Affairs

The 16-member 104th Security Forces Advise and Assist Team (SFAAT) received a salute from Gov. Scott Walker, Maj. Gen Don Dunbar, adjutant general of Wisconsin, and other senior Wisconsin National Guard leaders during a sendoff ceremony Monday (Oct. 1) at Joint Force Headquarters in Madison.

The unit will serve in an advisory and mentorship role to the Afghan National Police concerning internal and external security missions. Lt. Col. David Larson, the 104th SFAAT commander, said the mission is part of the transition required for the Afghans to assume greater responsibility for their security.

"This importance is disproportionate to the size of the group," Larson said. "And it's disproportionate to the short time of our existence - just about three weeks."

Wisconsin Army National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. George Stopper advised the unit to draw on its strengths and make the most of its time during mobilization training at Camp Shelby, Miss.

"We've grown accustomed to having 12 and 24 months lead time for any of these missions that pop up, and that really wasn't the case here," Stopper acknowledged. "So to you and your families, I say 'thank you' for supporting the Wisconsin National Guard. Thanks for moving forward and taking on this huge mission."

Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, commander of the Wisconsin Army National Guard, told family members that few states were considered to support this mission.

"Wisconsin [was] one of them because of the type of Soldier that we continuously send downrange," Anderson explained. "And when we put together the notice for this SFAAT team, we had multiple Soldiers volunteer for each and every position. We were able to pick from the best of the best."

This will be the first deployment for Staff Sgt. Don Runaas, a combat medic with the 13th Medical Detachment. He had been preparing to deploy with the 97th Agribusiness Development Team, but the mission requirements for that unit changed and he found himself among the Soldiers who would not deploy to Afghanistan.

"I was offered this on the last drill of the 97th ADT," Runaas said, adding that it took about half an hour to decide to accept the new mission. "I'm looking forward to the experience and learning new things."

Dunbar said that this mission underscores the intrinsic value of the National Guard.

"We're trying to partner with a nation that really doesn't have well-developed institutions," Dunbar said. "The U.S. Army said we need to take some of these capabilities that exist and partner with some of the brand new institutions they're building in Afghanistan. And where do they turn? To your National Guard. They turn to these 16 Soldiers and say 'We think you can go overseas and educate and you can mentor some of these brand new Afghanistan soldiers.'

"What a great idea, and what a great statement of trust and value in the National Guard," Dunbar continued. "The trust is not misplaced - the trust is exactly where it should be."

Larson acknowledged after the ceremony that the increase in "green on blue" attacks - Afghans in uniform attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan - is a concern, but that each case is different.

"It's part of our training program," he said. "The area we're going into, the incidents have been relatively few. But that doesn't mean we're not going to maintain situational awareness."

Larson said that it appears to him Afghanistan has made progress over the past four years.

"I can see some of the components in effect now that had been talked about when I was there," said Larson, who augmented the 101st Airborne force protection mission from 2008-09. "I think we're moving along with the strategy. I think we're going a lot of good things over there and for the most part it's [going] pretty much according to plan."

Walker observed that the model for the eagle on the 101st Airborne shoulder patch - such as the one worn by Larson - was Old Abe, the Civil War-era mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The governor said that patch illustrates Wisconsin's proud military heritage.

"You are, as Brig. Gen. Anderson mentioned, the best of the best," Walker said. "You are part of a proud tradition - a history - of Soldiers from the state of Wisconsin. We know you're going to do us proud."

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