July 13, 2011

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Recently embedded: with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising

Framed Charlie Sherpa CHASING Last month, I went to Afghanistan to visit my former unit in Afghanistan. Not as a citizen-soldier, but as a citizen-journalist. I embedded as civilian media, with an eye toward writing a larger history of the Red Bull. (I prefer the singular, because that's the 34th Infantry Division's official nickname.)

Having trained for the deployment myself, I thought I knew what to expect. Turns out, I was in for multiple surprises.

Granted, I was already a Red Bull fan when I landed in Afghanistan. And -- journalism and philosophy students take note of this thesis -- the embed process itself skews the reportorial view toward the perspective of U.S. soldiers, rather than Afghan power brokers, or the people they allegedly represent.

That said, here's a sampling of what I witnessed:

-- In Parwan Province, I talked to a platoon of young men that had spent more than 4 hours defending against a complex attack focused on a downed U.S. Army helicopter. After just completing a long night of patrolling by ground vehicle, they responded as a helicopter-borne Quick Reaction Force to Kapisa, a nearby province. Upon landing, they found themselves pinned down, but drawing fire away from Air Force rescue teams. Staff Sgt. James A. Justice was killed during that firefight. Some of the guys shared their stories with me, not because they were boastful or proud--although they have every reason to be--but because they wanted to remember Justice, and the sacrifice he and his family made. They also wanted to celebrate Spc. Zachary Durham, who was injured after deliberately exposing himself to fire while seeking out enemy fighting positions.

-- In Parwan, I saw other Cavalry troopers working to defeat the local network of insurgents that threatens Bagram Airfield ("BAF"). Attacks are down. Morale and motivation are up. They're still seeking out the bad guys around Bagram. 'Nuff said.

-- In Laghman Province, I saw Iowans engaged with a deadly enemy now often unwilling to show their faces in direct attacks. Iowa soldiers there routinely face machine gun and mortar attack, as well as Improvised Explosive Devices (I.E.D.). At the same time, they partner with their Afghan army and police counterparts, U.S. Air Force-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (P.R.T.), and joint U.S. Air and Army National Guard Agribusiness Development Teams (A.D.T.). The latter specialty are comprised of citizen-soldiers and -airmen deployed as much for their farming-related talents as for their soldier skills. It is a unique mission to the U.S. National Guard. Together, these teams quickly flooded a newly created government district with development projects, after Task Force Red Bulls completed "Operation Bull Whip," the largest helicopter-borne "air assault" in Afghanistan in recent memory.

-- In mountainous but relatively peaceful Panjshir Province, I attended a conference in which local and national officials engaged with adventure-tourism experts and investors. The hard but beautiful land may soon appeal to weekenders from Kabul, which is only 2 hours away by car. Some experts thought the area nearly ripe for international tours focused on climbing, caving, hiking, and even kayaking. Panjshir is a vision for what other Afghan provinces might also one day be.

That's great stuff, but the Red Bull ain't done yet.

These Red Bull soldiers -- as well as those in Paktiya and Kabul -- have achieved plenty and sacrificed much. There's a National Guard saying that "deployment doesn't end with a homecoming parade." After they return from Afghanistan, many of our citizen-soldiers will be challenged to successfully reintegrate with their families and friends, to find employment (more than 21 percent of the deployed Iowa soldiers indicate they will not have civilian jobs waiting for them), and to overcome physical, emotional and mental obstacles stemming from their service.

We should give these modern Minutemen more than our momentary notice. They have answered our country's call, and we should stand ready to hear theirs. Their stories, too.



Although it's hard to see, especially from a stateside perspective, I believe that the sacrifices that are being made in Afghanistan will, in time, be seen to have been worth the cost. I'm totally with you that we should honor all those who have served.

Thank you for going back as an embedded reporter. No better eyes and ears than yours. I am sorry for the loss of Staff Sgt. Justice and the injuries. Love learning that Iowa Nat Guard can put ag skills to work too.

Never would have known this story without your writing.

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