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Iowa Soldiers Remember Afghanistan

posted on November 10, 2011 at 3:56 PM


October 2011 marked the 10th anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom. Of the more than 90,000 troops currently serving in Afghanistan, nearly half are National Guard and Reserve soldiers. Iowans were among the first to answer the call. After record deployments, the troops reflect on their experiences and tally the emotional toll.

Note: This program contains adult language that may not be appropriate for younger viewers.

October 2011 marked the 10th anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom. Of the more than 90,000 troops currently serving in Afghanistan, nearly half are National Guard and Reserve soldiers. Iowans were among the first to answer the call.

Staff Sgt. J. Winkowski, Belle Plaine: "I was still pretty sure we weren't going to make it out through all this especially when the snipers started happening.  I was like, 'Oh, man', you know, 'how are we going to get out of here?'"

Sgt. Heather Eberly, Altoona: "...and for some reason his face still haunts me...To this day, I still see the faces."

After record deployments, the troops reflect on their experiences and tally the emotional toll...  as Iowa Soldiers Remember Afghanistan.

On September 11, 2001, America's worst nightmare became a reality. Terrorists attacked sites in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C.

President Bush: "The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon..."

The attacks sparked a 10-year battle which came to be known as the "War on Terror."
Led by full-time U.S. military soldiers, a coalition of international forces assumed primary responsibility for engaging a largely unseen enemy.    

The coalition was supported by National Guard and Reserve Units from every state in the Union, including Iowa which, in July of 2010, mobilized more than 3,000 soldiers who served in the largest single-deployment of the state's troops since World War II. Serving in Operation Enduring Freedom, they've helped root out Al Qaeda forces and the Taliban soldiers who protect them. Most Iowa troops were stationed in the eastern part of Afghanistan, not far from the border with Pakistan.

Colonel Ben Corell, from Strawberry Point -- a veteran of several deployments in the War on Terror -- commanded more than 2,800 Iowa National Guard soldiers. Corell had two major objectives: first and foremost, to find and disable enemy forces; and secondarily -- but no less important -- to work with the local government to help Afghani officials take control of their country.

Col. Ben Corell, Strawberry Point: "I'm building relationships with these governors to really help them understand what it is that I can do for them to help, number one secure their people, number two help accomplish their goals and objectives for the future of their province and their people and that's tough stuff because it isn't what you typically see people in a military uniform being good at.  But I'll tell you that we're really good at it."

Des Moines Register reporter Tony Leys was embedded with the Iowa troops for more than two weeks.  

Tony Leys, Reporter, Des Moines: "I wasn't expecting to be all-out warfare every minute and it wasn't, because that is not the way things are there. I have done some other foreign travel when you actually get to sit and talk with people and sit in their homes and in this situation it is very hard to have a natural conversation with people and I think that is true for the soldiers too."  

Staff Sergeant J. Winkowski of Belle Plaine was among the Iowa soldiers who relieved National Guard units from Vermont.

Staff Sgt. J. Winkowski, Belle Plaine: "I always say that I felt like I was born to do this, and that... that didn't resonate fully with me until I was an actual combat leader on the ground in Afghanistan."

When the departing guardsmen handed-off duties to the Iowa troops in December of 2010, they gave Winkowski a few rules for staying alive.

-Never call for a medical evacuation helicopter unless the injury is serious.
-Stay and fight as long as you can.
-Never venture into the side valleys.
-Always stay on the hard-surfaced roads.
-And never climb the mountains.

Winkowski and the other members of Iowa's Task Force Red Bulls abided by the first two guidelines, but discarded the rest... choosing instead to confront the enemy in the mountains and valleys.  Within a month, Winkowski and other members of the task force abandoned the security of their armored vehicles to push the enemy back on foot.  

Staff Sgt. J. Winkowski, Belle Plaine: "And that was maybe the first time the enemy saw us away from our vehicles. Vehicles nowhere in sight, just off by ourselves, and instead of running back to our vehicles we ran towards the enemy. ...And my soldiers performed flawlessly and the reports came back later on that night that we inflicted causalities on the enemy that they had retreated with their casualties and that was it."

Confidence in the capabilities of his fellow soldiers notwithstanding, as the battles wore on Winkowski began to wonder privately if he would return home alive.

Sgt. J. Winkowski, Belle Plaine: "I wrote a letter to my daughter, just so that she could have something to remember me by.  You know every time we went on a really hairy mission that I knew I was going to see we were going to get into a fight, I knew I was going to see direct combat, you know, I would call - call my wife.  You know talk to her a little bit, hear her voice, talk to our daughter on the phone so I could hear her voice, have her hear Daddy's voice. And, you know, I think my wife I think she knew, she knew what was going on."

Over the next three months, coalition forces pushed deeper into Taliban territory.

1st Lt. Andy Zaidi, Johnston: "When we talked to elders around here. Nobody will sign any documents or nobody really wants to be seen talking to us because they are afraid of what the Taliban will do to them."

Rodney White, Des Moines: "Where would they be?"

Lt. Andy Zaidi, Johnston: "The Taliban are about 1 kilometer, about 800 meters to the west of us."

Col. Ben Corell, Strawberry Point: "Well, it is a chess match.  There's people that think the enemy is pretty simplistic and that is not the case at all.  These forces that we're fighting, they have purpose, they have agenda.  ...the motivation may be a little bit different than what we think it is too, because I don't think that in most cases you're going to find a, from a strategic perspective what it is that they are focused on. It's not world dominance, it's not to expand for religious regions, it's really to line their pockets, it has backed off a lot and it is more what I would say criminal, a mafia-type enterprise."

While some missions included hostile confrontations with the enemy, other patrols proved to be more routine.  And for Iowa journalist Tony Leys, that was almost worse.  

Tony Leys, Reporter, Des Moines: "It's so random... not so much like a set battle like WWII would have been.  It's...You are driving down a road and you have been down this road a bunch of times before and everything has been fine, but one of these days something might blow up and you don't know when that is going to be."

Tony Leys, Reporter, Des Moines: "...younger Afghan men would come up and talk or shake hands with people on the patrol when we were actually in the village and afterward I was talking to the guys and said, 'do you think some of those are Taliban?' 'Oh, yeah, absolutely they are and it is like a macho thing for them to go up and shake an American soldier's hand and that is a very eerie feeling."

Operation Enduring Freedom entailed more than simply pushing out the enemy and restoring order. A less confrontational -- but no less formidable -- battle was waged for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.  

After a decade of fighting, Afghanistan's already dilapidated infrastructure was heavily damaged. U.S. forces attempted to repair and improve key buildings like hospitals and schools.  A strategic decision to rely on local labor and materials infused cash into the local economy.  
Cpt. Randy Stanford, Clive: "Whoever the project manager is hires, like, 10 people. They do the work and the money goes right back into the community. That's their biggest complaint, especially out here where they're just farmers. You know, hey, 'we need the money to stimulate the economy to stop guys from being insurgents.'"

Immediate benefits of the tactic were undeniable. Long-term results, however, are subject to debate.  

Tony Leys, Reporter, Des Moines: "Well when we pulled up it was just a rundown school, fairly significant, probably about as big as a typical American elementary school and it was just most of the windows were broken, the concrete was just completely falling apart, ...fixtures were missing, it was just a total wreck and I thought, 'Wow this place has got to be 40, 50 years old' ... And come to learn that school had been built in 2004 with ... taxpayer dollars and it was... they used local materials and local workers which in theory is a good idea to put people to work and teach them how to do it.  But in practice, this thing was falling...completely falling apart.  And to talk to the soldiers, they said they had seen that a lot."

In addition to combat troops, Iowa forces also included members of an agribusiness development team or ADT, whose mission was to improve the lives of local farmers. Virtually all of the men and women serving in these specialized farmer-soldier units volunteered for the assignment.

Colonel Craig Bargfrede of Ankeny, who has since been promoted to General, commanded Iowa's ADT.

Gen. Craig Bargfrede, Ankeny: "They know how to farm pretty well and as long as they could get water to the farm ground they could grow some pretty awesome crops.  The real need was at the provincial and district level and helping those officials build their capacity and their ability to plan projects to secure funding that they needed."

Sixty-five members of Iowa's ADT were stationed in the Kunar Province, about two miles from the Pakistani border. Through coordinated efforts with local government officials, the soldiers built demonstration farms and vaccinated thousands of animals.
Dr. Loren Adams of New Liberty sold his veterinary practice prior to his deployment. His goal was to connect local veterinarians with impoverished farmers unaccustomed to fundamental animal health services.

Maj. Dr. Loren Adams, New Liberty: "Everything I did I wanted to bring them together with their clients.  Feeling that the people are so poor I wanted them, they don't even know what the veterinarians can offer to them."

Each time Adams or any other member of the ADT stepped outside the wire, a combat mission, complete with security detail, was planned and executed. It quickly became apparent he would get more accomplished by hiring some of Kunar Province's 50 veterinarians. Under Adam's supervision, local vets vaccinated more than 20,000 animals.

Members of Iowa's Agribusiness Development Team also taught Afghan women basic veterinary practices and helped them develop cottage industries like soap making and carpet weaving. "Task Force Hawkeye," as the group was officially known, worked with local officials to develop a sewing and tailoring program. Those who completed the course were given sewing machines and supplies to make a few projects.

During off-duty hours, Iowa soldiers were confined inside the wire, where some tried to balance the rigors of war with the shear boredom of a long deployment.  

Sgt. Chester Harrah, Davenport: "I'm 49. I've noticed my abdominal muscles have been shrinking since I've been riding this so you get exercise."

To break up the monotony, some of the soldiers helped the Afghan National Army repair vehicles. Others played musical instruments or joined Afghan locals for an impromptu game of cricket.  And still others maintained the old army tradition of adopting stray dogs.

Sgt. Brad McKinney, Le Mars: "My mom and dad send me flea collars, flea powder and puppy treats. ...They're our early warning devices, they let us know, they see and hear what we don't."

In March of 2011, members of Task Force Red Bulls participated in the largest air assault in Iowa National Guard history -- Operation Bull Whip. Prior to the strike, U.S. forces dropped leaflets warning civilians to stay in their homes – a message the Afghani's took to heart.  Iowa soldiers with Task Force Red Bulls captured more than 10 insurgents and recovered 15 hidden stockpiles of weapons without firing a single shot.  

The operation culminated in a large meeting known as "Peace Shura," in which Afghan authorities introduced newly appointed leadership. Corell believes the Taliban were among those in attendance.  

Col. Ben Corell, Strawberry Point: "I'm pretty confident that they were in there but there's nothing to say that's who they were.  But I think that is the key to what we're doing.  We're not going to kill them all, it's just not feasible, it's not possible.  But slowly they have got to understand that we're not as bad as what the propaganda says that we are either and we're not there to be occupiers, that's a misconception as well."

In May of 2011, Iowa forces received reports that the small town of Do-Ab (DOE-ab) was being overrun by hundreds of Taliban fighters. Local police had called for several days asking for help, but reconnaissance video failed to reveal any hostilities in the area. Nevertheless, Colonel Corell decided to send a small force to investigate. As part of the patrol sent to assess the situation, Sergeant Winkowski prepared for the worst and instructed those in his squad to assume anyone they encountered was an insurgent.  

Staff Sgt. J. Winkowski, Belle Plaine: "I filled my pockets with grenades.  I filled my soldiers' pockets with grenades and I told them every single person in that district center is to be treated as a hostile unless they are obviously, obviously a civilian, like i.e. a small seven year-old child or a woman fully dressed with a basket of fruit or something like that."

Immediately after insertion, the small force was attacked and pinned down for several hours.
Staff Sgt. J. Winkowski, Belle Plaine: "I was still pretty sure we weren't going to make it out through all this especially when the snipers started happening.  I was like 'oh, man,' you know, 'how are we going to get out of here?"

Col. Ben Corell, Strawberry Point: "About four hours after we first made contact...we could pick up the traffic through collection sources that they were on their radios and their cell phones saying, 'Hey, everybody, we've got them pinned down and it's time for a turkey shoot.'"

Fearing his troops were about to be overrun, Corell sent in attack helicopters, a C-130 gunship and called for close-range airstrikes from fighter jets.  He also ordered reinforcements to the scene.  When the dust settled from the 8-hour battle, coalition forces had killed 300 enemy fighters without suffering a single casualty.  

Shortly after the fight, wounded enemy soldiers approached coalition forces seeking medical attention.  Iowa troops remained on the scene several days to provide security.
         
Amidst the daily fight for command and control, a simultaneous battle was waged for Afghan self-sufficiency.  Initially, U.S. forces had little faith in the Afghan National Army.  But, as the Iowa soldiers began to place their faith in their local counterparts, they discovered many of their preconceptions were unfounded.  

Staff Sgt. J. Winkowski, Belle Plaine: "When we first got in the country we could immediately tell that there was this friction between the Afghan National Army soldiers and U.S. soldiers and we really got that from the people we replaced.  They said 'don't trust the ANA'...We started to say 'hey, we will put that blind trust in them and just see what happens - just see where it takes us.'  And what ended up happening was that trust began reciprocating back to us in the form of they were on time, they had the right stuff, and it went from being on time to they were early, they were waiting on us."

Several months into the deployment, Afghani citizens were asked for their impressions of U.S. troops.   And, they too noted a change in some of their perceptions of Americans.  
Gen. Craig Bargfrede, Ankeny: "And their reply was is 'We thought Americans were dishonest. We thought you liars and cheaters we thought you came to our country to rob our country of various things. After working with you we have totally changed our opinion you are honest, hardworking people, you say what you mean and you follow through on promises.'"

Inside the wire, some soldiers experienced issues rivaling those endured outside the wire.  Sergeant Heather Eberly of Altoona served as a medic with the Iowa ADT.  Working primarily in the agricultural areas of Kunar province, she rarely treated soldiers wounded in combat.  But early one morning, that all changed.   

Sgt. Heather Eberly, Altoona: "Once they started coming in.  It didn't seem like it was ever going to stop and it was it was probably one of the saddest days I have ever seen.  To this day I still see the faces.  There is one young man, he was from Arizona, twenty years old, he came in with the first wave at 4am and he ended up dying in transit. I think a lot of it has to do with he was still speaking. He was just living on adrenaline. And for some reason his face still haunts me."

In addition to emotional stress, Eberly also faced physical danger. The notion of being safe inside the wire proved to be an illusion, as the remote base was attacked sporadically with rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs.  One assault ignited fuel in a supply depot and destroyed several vehicles.  Rather than seek shelter, Eberly reacted with what she characterizes as a typical Iowa response

Sgt. Heather Eberly, Altoona: "...to this day we joke about it because it is kind of like a true Iowan when the tornado siren goes off.  What does every Iowan do? They go outside to see the storm. Same thing for 'incoming.'"

One month prior to returning home, Eberly was riding in a convoy ambushed by Taliban forces when her vehicle was struck by an RPG.  

Sgt. Heather Eberly, Altoona: "When we got to Jalalabad we looked at the truck and I went 'oh, shit.'  You know there is a big old hole in the side of our truck and there is bullet holes all over our truck."

In addition to personal safety issues, Eberly also was concerned about alarming family members back home.  Initially, she decided against keeping anything secret from her husband, Josh, who also serves in the Iowa National Guard.  But with each passing day she felt a greater need to insulate her loved ones from the details.   

Sgt. Heather Eberly, Altoona: "And when I came home I said, ok, and I showed him pictures.  'This is what I was dealing with.' 'Wow, you didn't tell me this stuff' and I said well, 'no I didn't.  But I couldn't because I knew you'd worry.' And I did the same thing for my parents as well."

Finally, in July of 2011 the troops began returning to Iowa.  In emotional -- and sometimes bittersweet -- ceremonies, most of the soldiers were reunited with loved ones.
 
Shortly after returning home, many of the soldiers confronted different enemies.  
Nationally, the unemployment rate for veterans of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeds 11 percent... more than two points higher than the general population. And a military survey of Iowa soldiers returning from Afghanistan in 2011 revealed 20 percent did not have jobs waiting for them.

Acclimating to civilian life apart from the military routine may also pose a challenge.  Many soldiers report sleep disturbances, difficulty with anger and increased attention to threats -- both real and perceived...

Most veterans cope with the emotional distress effectively, but some develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.  Iowa National Guard officials say virtually EVERYONE returning from a combat zone copes with some degree of emotional distress.  

Sgt. Heather Eberly, Altoona: "My husband if you asked him he would say, 'Yes, she has PTSD.'  Myself?  I am an anxious person anyway.  So I think yeah maybe a little residual PTSD but I am dealing with it and I think I am dealing with it in a pretty healthy way."

Heather and Josh Eberly were married just before she left for Afghanistan.  Realizing the stress her deployment placed on both of them, the couple agreed to seek counseling from "Military One Source" a free service provided by the Department of Defense.

1st Sgt. Josh Eberly, Altoona:  "If you care for someone you will stay through that anger and you will try to work through it.  Right now we are going to see a marriage counselor to make sure our bond of our marriage bond is not broken, bent, tied in as a knot and it will stay there."

Staff Sgt. J. Winkowski, Belle Plaine: "When I first came back from Iraq, for the first time I really experienced PTSD. I became what I referred to as being hyper-alert , meaning that I was constantly waking up, constantly staying awake, having trouble falling back asleep, because I thought someone was in my house or something was going on to where I needed to be up... I think it's a little easier the second time around. I still feel like I've gotta have a weapon on me. It's to a lesser extent than it was in Iraq but I think it's a good idea to get back into counseling and going through that same type of things that made things better the first time around."

Of the 2,800 Iowa soldiers who served in Afghanistan under Colonel Corell, 175 were seriously injured and four were killed.  And after returning to Camp Dodge in Johnston, the commanding officer reflected on the deployment.     

Col. Ben Corell, Strawberry Point: Sure, 'we had success' but I think it goes back to 'what does that success look like?' 'What is the end game?' When does the green light come on for us to say, 'We've met success and we're going to move out?'  Otherwise we continue to dump resources into this of blood and treasure with I'm not sure what the outcome is. I guess that is for a higher power to decide of when that success is fully done we can actually back out of there. I think we've gotta determine as a people and a nation what that is. And I'm not sure we've defined that clearly yet."

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