CAMP JOHN PRATT, Afghanistan – Capt. Richard “Rudy” Varner arrived here with a troop of cavalry soldiers well-trained and mentally prepared to take the fight to the enemy.
What the Fort Knox-based soldiers encountered instead was a mission in monumental transition with Afghanistan’s burgeoning armed forces taking the lead in the struggle against insurgents and Americans playing support roles.
“We arrived here and really had to pump the brakes and realize what our mission is. And these guys responded despite their desire to get out and fight like they were trained,” said Varner, an Army Ranger veteran who will complete his seventh combat tour when the cavalry unit returns to Kentucky in January.
Now, as the troops of 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division pack their bags and prepare for a return home shortly after the New Year, Varner is reflecting with pride on the accomplishments of his soldiers.
“I’m proud of these guys,” he said. “I bet they don’t know it, but I’m really proud of these guys.”
Sgt. Stephen H. Smithers, 28, whose voice resonates with the hard-fought experience acquired on a previous tour in Afghanistan and another in Iraq, captured the most glaring benefit of the shift in strategy.
“Not having any casualties or any losses is fantastic. That’s what everybody strives for and unfortunately it doesn’t always work out that way,” the Winchester, Va., native said. “We’re leaving with everyone we came with. That’s amazing.”
American and coalition troops allowed the Afghans to realize the potential of their training and forge a tougher force with lessons that can only be taught on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, Varner and his troops tore down longstanding and distant outposts, served as a stand-by quick reaction force for coalition and Afghan troops still hunting insurgents and, as needed, reinforced years of mentoring with their Afghan counterparts.
First Sgt. Todd W. Hines, 37, said he was pleasantly surprised with the progress he saw in the Afghan National Army.
“They are like plug and play,” the Philadelphia, native, said. “They know exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it.”
Their progress belied his assumptions.
“I had some preconceived notions on how they would act,” said Hines, who will complete his first tour here to complement his previous three in Iraq. “They are smart individuals and are adept at problem solving. You give them a task, and they find a way to get it done.”
With the Afghans taking on greater responsibility, Hines and Varner led their troops in the deconstruction of two outposts, one with historical significance not lost on the troops.
Spc. Miles E. Owens could count his age on his fingers when the World Trade Center was struck by terrorists linked to this impoverished and war-ravaged country.
He was a 21-year-old junior enlisted soldier as one of the last soldiers at Forward Operating Base Kunduz.
“It gives you the satisfaction that you will be the last Americans in that area,” he said.
Kunduz may not be as well known to Americans as cities like Fallujah and Kandahar, but it was here in northern Afghanistan that American troops fired the first shots on the Taliban government that harbored Osama bin Laden.
Seizing the Kunduz plateau was the first step in the eventual overthrow of the Taliban and the ongoing 13-year war that has followed.
Varner recalled watching news coverage of the fighting here as a senior in high school. The same year many of the men he led this tour were first learning to multiply and write in cursive.
Varner, who will have logged approximately 40 months in either Iraq or Afghanistan when he completes this tour, was part of an Army Ranger contingent that fought a resurgent Taliban in 2010 in Kunduz.
“Closing the base there instead of fighting there, a lot of the guys don’t get it yet. But that’s a win,” he said. “It’s going to take them reading a history book to go ‘Oh yeah, that was a big deal and I was the last one there’.”
There will be plenty of time for reading about the history they made here in Afghanistan.
For now, these troops have their focus set on making up for lost time with family. Mixed with a healthy dose of fun, of course.
Sgt. Buddy A. Nasset, 37, Clarksville, Tenn., plans on taking his wife and three sons to West Virginia for a family snowboarding lesson.
“It’s killing me that it’s snowing right now in Kentucky and I’m missing it,” he said. “The boys are at the point where they want to do what dad wants to do. And I’m ready to hit the snowboard and just enjoy being with them.”
Spc. Phillip J. Ramsey, 22, of Floresville, Texas, who logged long hours and gained new leadership skills manning the entry control point, is stoked for a trip to Hawaii to visit his wife’s family.
Owens turned 21 here. He’s betting on a trip to Las Vegas.
“Yeah, Vegas sounds about right,” he said with a grin.
First Lt. Erik J. Kunkle, 33, of Stahlstown, Pa., who leveraged experience from past tours in Iraq as an enlisted soldier, longs to hold his wife close and thank her for the unwavering support that carried him through the inevitable tough days.
“Whenever I talk to her and she’s says she proud of me and what I’m doing it helps me get through some of the tough crap you have to put up with over here,” he said with a gritty frankness uniquely earned by soldiers who’ve spent years on the far side of the planet.
“Every time I come back from deployment I feel so thankful to have her and to be able to appreciate all the simple things like just being a family.”
Smithers’ son celebrated his first birthday without his father. He has no interest in missing any more of the firsts.
He speaks with simple wisdom to explain his intentions.
“Just being there is probably the biggest things you can do anyway,” Smithers said. “I just want to be there.”
||CLARKSVILLE, TN, US
||FLORESVILLE, TX, US
||PHILADELPHIA, PA, US
||STAHLSTOWN, PA, US
||WINCHESTER, VA, US
This work, Fort Knox Cavalry Unit redeploys, by LTJG Bryan Mitchell, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.