Two Alabama Army National Guard units, with a combined total of about 230 soldiers, have finished their tours in Afghanistan, and they could be the last Alabama Guard units of any size to see action there.
Bravo Company with the 1st Battalion, 169th Aviation Regiment from Birmingham, and two companies with the 877th Engineer Battalion from Haleyville, spent most of this year in Afghanistan. Both succeeded Guard units that were performing basically the same missions as the ones they took on.
This time, however, there were no units waiting in the wings to take the place of the 877th and Bravo Company soldiers. In fact, the Guard units were operating in an environment with far fewer U.S. and coalition troops, all because of the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. And a part of their missions involved helping to make that drawdown happen in a military sector of the country known as Regional Command East.
“Normally when we’ve deployed in the past, we’ve fallen in on equipment and then we’ve handed it off to somebody else,” said Maj. Lee Thompson, the 877th’s operations officer. “But this time, we had to actually fall in on it and then turn it all in at the end so that they could ship it all back or cut it up or whatever they were going to do.”
Thompson was part of the battalion’s first Afghan deployment in 2009-10 when its soldiers put up barriers, guard towers and other structures to accommodate a surge of U.S. troops into the country. (The 877th also did a tour in northern Iraq in 2003-04.)
This time, under the command of the 877th, Guard soldiers from other states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin dismantled a lot of those same things.
“We demolished a lot of structures, a lot of tents, moved a lot of barriers, did a lot of earthwork, all kinds of stuff,” said 877th commander Lt. Col. Kelton Pankey. Also deployed with the 877th were about 15 members of the Guard’s 1305th Survey and Design Team.
About 160 soldiers with the 877th, along with soldiers from the 1305th, came back to Alabama last week. Bravo Company’s approximately 70 soldiers were due to come home on Thursday. While in Afghanistan, Bravo pilots and crews flew twin-rotored Chinook helicopters, ferrying troops and supplies on night combat missions and taking human and materiel cargo out of bases that were closing down.
The mission, especially its combat phases, was similar to those of two previous Bravo Company deployments in Afghanistan, and the rugged Afghan countryside and harsh weather posed challenges to the Alabama aviators. This time, however, the challenge was compounded by the declining number of U.S. and allied bases in that countryside.
“As we closed down bases, you know, the stops in between became few and far between,” said Bravo Company commander Capt. Shep Morris in a telephone interview Tuesday from Fort Hood, Texas, where his unit was completing paperwork and other procedures before heading home. “So we had a lot farther to go. We had a lot less information as far as weather reporting and that type of stuff, just a lot less…information to go on in a lot of areas. …
“If you had a problem somewhere, a mechanical problem or other type of issue here, your options were much more limited than what they would have been before…when you had a more spread-out U.S. presence, and you had many forward operating bases and combat outposts throughout the country.”
Not every U.S.-built base has been dismantled in Afghanistan. Thompson said part of the 877th’s mission was to downsize some installations that were being turned over to Afghan forces.
“Our piece of that was deconstruction or right-sizing it so that they had a base that they could defend,” Thompson said. “They didn’t have the forces necessary that we did in terms of numbers.”
Morris got glimpses of Afghan troops in action on the night combat support missions he flew. The Afghans were usually with a team of U.S. Special Forces soldiers. Morris said some of the Afghan units “actually performed really well, and other ones, not so well.”
That leads to a larger question: What does the future hold for Afghanistan, now that U.S. and NATO forces are largely gone from there? Morris said he had an opinion, but he declined to give it.
Thompson said the country’s prospects for peace and stability will be much better if its people view themselves as part of a nation and its leaders — among them new president Ashraf Ghani — can succeed in selling them on that idea.
“That’s the hard part, so we’ll see,” Thompson said.
“I mean, they’ve never had a nationalistic vision before,” he continued. “So now they have the opportunity to have that. I think that the conditions are there. … We’re going to support them in any way we can, but it’s ultimately up to them.”
The 877th’s homecoming took place at Army Aviation Support Facility No. 2 at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. Besides dozens of flag-waving and poster-holding relatives and friends, those on hand also included Maj. Gen. Charles Gable, the Alabama Guard’s assistant adjutant general, and Col. Thomas Vickers, commander of the 226th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, of which the 877th is a part.
Vickers headed a headquarters company with the Guard’s 1203rd Engineer Battalion in Iraq in 2007-08, and has been dismayed by the past year’s sectarian violence and the military gains in the country by jihadist fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq, or ISIS.
In reflecting upon Iraq, Vickers suggested some of the same problems there could afflict Afghanistan now that most U.S. and allied forces are out of the country.
“Those countries have been in that condition before they were countries, when they were tribes,” Vickers said. “We’re not going to change them in 10 to 12 years, you know. They have got hundreds of years of tradition and history that they go back to when we’re not there.”
In his remarks, Gable reflected on the happiness of the 877th homecoming, but he also asked those gathered to keep some now-deployed soldiers with the Birmingham-based 20th Special Forces Group (SFG) in their prayers.
“They’re probably going to be busy for some time to come, given the conditions in the world that we now have,” Gable said.
In an email, Maj. Andrew Richardson said the 20th SFG had “approximately 40 troops deployed,” but he said he could not say anything about their mission or their location. Given the fact that the U.S. has troops doing training and support missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Alabama soldiers could be in either country.
Officially, the only Alabama Guard unit now in Afghanistan is Detachment 5, Operational Support Airlift Command from Montgomery. Richardson said the unit consists of 10 troops and flies “a small, fixed-wing aircraft that is often used for VIP transport.”
Richardson said other Guard units, with specialties ranging from explosive ordnance disposal and military policing to logistics and contracting, will be deploying to Kuwait or Kosovo in the spring and summer of 2015.
In remarks this week to some troops returning from Afghanistan, President Obama said nearly 180,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq and Afghanistan when he took office. Fewer than 15,000 will be there by the end of this month, the president said.