3 National Guard soldiers recovering after attacks
Three Washington National Guard soldiers are recovering at home from wounds that ended their combat tours this year, taking a toll on a veteran contingent of guardsmen that has been reduced to 31 members in Afghanistan.
All three soldiers are recuperating in stateside military hospitals, said Lt. Col. Andy Leneweaver of Tacoma, the Washington National Guard’s mobilization director.
“We’re proud of the job the guys are doing over there,” said Capt. Keith Kosik, the state Guard’s spokesman. “We had a close call, and we’re thankful they seem to be recovering well.”
The soldiers were assigned to so-called security transition teams advising Afghan police mostly working along the country’s northern border with Tajikistan. They’re broken up among a group of combat outposts protected by larger numbers of troops from the Ohio National Guard.
Two Washington soldiers were wounded in a grenade attack just after the February burning of Islamic holy books at a NATO air base. They were defending their base amid a riot, Leneweaver said.
Another Washington soldier was wounded in an April 4 suicide attack that killed three Ohio guardsmen.
The incidents underscore the serious role that Guard and Reserve forces have accepted in modern wars. They have laid to rest the “weekend warrior” stereotype and have done hard duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan, accounting for roughly 1 in 10 U.S. casualties since 2001.
The largest Washington Guard unit, the 81st Brigade Combat Team, deployed twice to Iraq, in 2004-05 and in 2008-09. The Defense Department in February removed the 3,000-soldier brigade from the roster of units being considered for upcoming deployments.
The Washington soldiers currently in Afghanistan have a mission that foreshadows the direction U.S. forces want to take the war as they draw down their ranks by tens of thousands of service members this year.
Small advising teams are setting up at joint bases all over the country where they will augment Afghan forces by calling in American air support, artillery and explosives teams. They aim to bring Western expertise and technology to Afghan units in such a way the local forces can fight with minimal American help.
The risk for the advising teams, as with the Washington guardsmen, is that they’re asked to work on small bases that can be vulnerable to insurgent attacks.
Lt. Col. Joe Maasen, 48, of DuPont declined to say how many Western soldiers are based at his combat outpost.
“We’ve got enough security to man the combat outpost,” he said.
The shift to small outposts is a big change for Maasen, whose previous deployment to Iraq with the Washington National Guard’s 81st Brigade Combat Team in 2004-05 centered on work at an air base with 2,000 U.S. service members.
“Here, we’re very far from the flagpole,” he said in a phone interview.
The Washington soldiers trained for the mission with about 200 hours of history and cultural lessons to prepare them for close work with Afghan service members, as well as courses from troops who recently served in Afghanistan.
Maasen warmed up to the officer who commands the 140-man Afghan border police unit he’s advising. They set up a routine over the winter in which the Afghan commander visits Maasen at the outpost for a weekly meal. So far, the Afghans have asked for help with the logistical practice of ordering and delivering their own supplies, and they have requested marksmanship training.
“Our mission is to work with the (Afghan border police) to help them be more efficient developing one of the few legitimate revenue streams in this country, taxing the imports and exports,” Maasen said.
He enjoys his opportunities to leave the combat outpost and meet with villagers near a border crossing. He and the Washington guardsmen would like to complete a project building a new well, and they’d like to get more supplies to local schools.
The Washington National Guard has not received a request to send more soldiers to fill in for the three wounded guardsmen. Leneweaver described the remaining troops as “serious guys; many of them have Special Operations backgrounds.”
“They’ve been around the block,” he said.