FORWARD OPERATING BASE KHILAGUY, Afghanistan – If discretion is the better part of valor, the soldiers of Task Force Reaper learned that fortune favors not only the bold.
It also smiles on the nimble.
And it took a blend of the bold and the nimble for the task force to etch its name into the history America’s longest overseas war.
Here in a sun-kissed, snow-capped mountain range between Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif, a group of soldiers from Task Force Reaper made another round of history recently by ferrying the final vanguard of American troops who will stand watch over this vital terrain.
The troops from 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment enjoyed the stunning vistas from the comfort of a Chinook helicopter during the 40-minute flight en route to this far-flung, austere outpost where they will continue the long mission of supporting the burgeoning Afghan National Army and ensuring safe passage on the nearby Highway 1.
They will be the last in a long line of soldiers to serve here.
As the combat phase of the war in Afghanistan winds to a close and more American troops depart than arrive, the men and women of the Missouri National Guard 1-135th Air Attack/Reconnaissance Battalion are in the final phase of supporting a coalition in massive transition.
After nine months transporting warriors and equipment from one end of Regional Command North to the other, the 700 soldiers under the command Lt. Col. James P. Schrieffer are packing their bags and reflecting with pride on the completion of a once-in-a-lifetime mission.
“The country and the state of Missouri should be very proud of them,” he said. “They represented the unit, the state and the nation as extremely well.”
They thrived despite a challenging tour that began long before they touched down here in northern Afghanistan.
The soldiers first spent several months in Idaho learning how to operate a new brand of Apache attack helicopter before advancing to Texas where they integrated elements of an active duty unit to create a unit that included Black Hawk, Chinook and Apache helicopters.
They were transformed from an air attack outfit into a far more complex and comprehensive helicopter unit that supported a diverse set of missions across the largest regional command here in Afghanistan, a tract of Afghan real estate that borders three countries and includes stunning mountains as well as vast arid high desert.
The unit worked around the clock ferrying troops and materials to and from this and other small satellite bases, supporting special operations missions and even transporting a handful of celebrities. They also served as critical links in the logistics hub tasked with closing bases in line with the drawdown of coalition troops.
The troops of Task Force Reaper were part of a massive effort to transfer authority of Forward Operating Base Kunduz to Afghan control.
While it may not be as well known to Americans as cities like Fallajuh or Kandahar, Kunduz is where American troops fired the first shots against the Taliban government that harbored Osama bin Laden and his confederates.
The transfer of the coalition outpost at Kunduz to control of the Afghan National Army was symbolic of the massive shift in strategy here. As American and coalition troops withdrawal, the Afghan National Security Forces are taking the lead against a stubborn insurgency.
Americans, long accustomed to leading the fight, are serving in a support role: training, advising and assisting Afghan determined to wrest control of their country’s fate on their own terms.
That’s where the bold learned to be nimble.
“There were some frustrating moments, but our troops began to understand how they were supporting this mission,” Schreffler said. “We’ve trained for years to fight in combat but here we were lurking in the shadows.”
The absence of coalition fatalities as a result of enemy action during their tour here is testament to their lurking prowess.
“None of the convoys we supported got hit,” he said. “A lot of people got home safe. That’s what success looks like for us.
The unit’s high flying tempo demanded an intense maintenance schedule.
“The pace of the maintenance was certainly the most challenging aspect for our troops,” said Command Sgt. Maj. David C. Gail.
Gail, 52, of Smithton, Mo., said every troop was up the challenge.
“Our troops responded to it by putting in a lot of very long days. The sheer amount of hours they put in is incredible and speaks to the incredible commitment these soldiers display,” he said.
Schreffler, 44, of Branson, Mo., said the stats speak volumes.
“Our operational readiness rates have consistently been above 85 percent. Our maintenance meets and exceeds all Army standards,” he said. “Because of that, all of our missions have been completed without incident or accident.”
Staff Sgt. Travis L. Nicholls, 30, of Kingsville, Mo., was on his second combat tour here. Ten years after his service in Iraq, Nichols approached this tour with a mindset of an experience veteran and dedicated father.
“You come out here and you want to do your best to take care of the troops. They are spending long days, getting dirty and doing the hard work to keep us flying,” he said. “We all miss our families and the comforts of home, but it’s incredibly rewarding to take care of my troops and know they have what they need to succeed.”
Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin T. Berislavich echoed that sentiment.
“Our guys get called in the middle of the night to troubleshoot a problem and they rush out of bed and get out and fix it,” he said.
“As a leader, as a soldier, this has been incredibly rewarding to witness. They’ve given 200 percent and learned so much.”
“I don’t think they even realize yet how much better soldiers they are.”
While it may not have sunk in yet, the troops received an enormous education in international relations.
Camp Marmal and its satellite facilities are the home to approximately 4,000 troops from 17 nations. It’s a singular deployed experience where you can hear a half dozen languages in line for breakfast and where just as many troops make their daily commute from tent to office by bicycle as they do by tactical vehicle.
The German military commands the region, the Royal Netherland Air Force shares the skies with its fleet of F-16 fighter jets, the Mongolian Army serve as sentries as the base gates while a group of Georgia National Guard soldiers just replaced a contingent of Utah National Guardsmen running the dining facilities, power generators and water supplies.
“You would never expect to come to Afghanistan and be a minority on post,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian S. Johnson.
Johnson, 43, of Spring Hill, Kansas, said mission drove a unified effort.
“It’s been an incredible experience to see the cohesiveness of all the different nationalities. Everyone plays a role and is professional in mission accomplishment,” he said.
With their mission accomplished, and a new unit transitioning into their role, the soldiers are also busy make plans for a joyous return home.
Cpl. Nathan J.L. Nolen turned 21 here.
He’s got a clear picture of his recuperation. Far from his Kansas City home.
“I’m going to sit on the beach and have a cold drink,” he said. “And escape the cold season as long as I can, that’s for sure.”
Sgt. Matt W. Kendall, 23, of Troy, Ill., plans to return to college to follow his dreams of working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“This tour is something I will always be proud of and hopefully something that will help me with my career,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be in law enforcement and I’ve got a lot of great experience here.”
Berislavich, 32, of Knob Noster, Mo., longs for a relaxing day at the Pomme de Terre beach with his daughters.
“They love that beach and I just can’t wait to see them playing in the water there,” he said.
Sgt. Ashly M. Cox, 27, of St. Charles, Mo., is thinking about the water, too. Canoeing in Hawaii with an old friend is her recipe for relaxation.
In a landlocked country where even the water from the shower spout can be disappointing – hot showers require an early dash to the shower tent – it’s not surprising many of the troops mentioned the beach with family as the preferred destination.
But the sandy shores will have to wait.
They’ve got a few more days to savor the unique Afghan scents wafting through base, to eavesdrop in confusion at languages they may never hear again and, most of all, to reflect on a mission they will forever recall with pride and satisfaction.
“We came here to do a job and it feels great to say we did it well,” Cox said. “Everyone at home can stop worrying. We’ve accomplished the mission and we’re coming home.”