History depends on efforts of Washington National Guard unit in Afghanistan

Staff writerDecember 3, 2013 

Staff Sgt. Stephen Mattson, left, and Capt Keith Kosik post in the ruins of a Soviet building at Bagram Air Field last June. They are gathering historical information for the archives at the Center for Military History in Washington, D.C.

COURTESY OF CAPT. KEITH KOSIK

When the Army looks back to write its official history of America’s longest war, its authors will draw heavily from material gathered this year by a small team of soldiers from the Washington National Guard.

Three soldiers from the Guard’s 141st Military History Detachment are in the country “vacuuming up” battlefield reports by the terabyte and interviewing leaders from Army units that are streaming out of Afghanistan as the war comes to a close.

Those raw documents and recorded interviews are destined for the archives at the Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., where they’ll become source material for future books, documentaries and movies.

“Just knowing that all these stories that I’m collecting will survive for generations to come really keeps me going,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Kriess, 35, of Tacoma.

He’s stationed at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul with Capt. Keith Kosik, 36, of Tacoma and Staff Sgt. Stephen Mattson, 31, of Juneau, Alaska.

Their roughly nine-month assignment allows them to fly to just about every corner of Afghanistan for discussions with soldiers about their experiences on their latest deployments.

The trio’s reports have a secondary purpose as a resource for soldiers to verify their combat experiences when they leave the military and apply for veterans benefits. Without those records, veterans can have trouble unlocking the benefits they earned.

“We really believe in the mission,” said Kosik. “We take it seriously and we feel pretty blessed doing it.”

Typically, the historians visit Army commanders about a month before they’re scheduled to go home. They collect documents from staff officers and sit down to record interviews with leaders at the division, brigade and battalion levels.

They also make a point to visit soldiers who are in charge of training Afghan forces. The historians are looking for signs to indicate how the country’s security might hold up as Western nations withdraw after a dozen years of fighting.

Kosik said the commanders tell him that Afghan security forces can stand on their own. Last summer, the U.S. military stepped back from partnered patrols with Afghan forces and moved into a support role that has Afghans fighting independently more often.

“The Afghans have made huge progress and they are a capable fighting force. That’s what I’ve been hearing,” Kosik said.

The vast majority of U.S. forces are expected to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, through some could remain in a support role. Afghan leaders are debating a security agreement that could lead to several thousand American military service members remaining in the country indefinitely to assist Afghan forces.

The history detachment teammates have spent most of their time working with a 101st Airborne Division command in eastern Afghanistan, but they’ve also traveled to forward bases in the country’s northern and southern provinces.

Kosik’s favorite assignment took him to a Washington National Guard military police unit in northern Afghanistan near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where he enjoyed catching up with familiar faces.

“To see the guys from back home was fantastic,” he said.

This is Kosik’s first deployment. Mattson and Kriess have served on front-line combat assignments in Iraq. Kriess was a combat engineer patrolling Iraqi roads; Mattson was a gunner on a security detail and his unit’s property manager.

Their current mission has a far different feel. It’s safer because the soldiers mostly travel between fortified positions.

Its rewards will come several years in the future when someone uses their work to help others learn about the war.

“That many years from now millions of Americans will have access to what their grandparents or great-grandparents did during the wars is invaluable,” Kriess said.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com

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