Heading overseas for his sixth deployment, Maj. Nathan Sawyer feels the tug of emotions.
The career officer is proud to go back to Afghanistan, a country where he last served three years ago with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker Brigade.
But he knows he’s going to be thinking of his two kids, ages 5 and 6, all the while.
“I put on this uniform every day, and this is what we’re here for,” said Sawyer, 39. “But I’m going to miss my family, and that’s the hard part.”
He’s one of about 70 soldiers from JBLM’s 7th Infantry Division who are leaving this month for duty in southern Afghanistan advising Afghan leaders on how to fight a persistent insurgency.
They’re taking on a difficult assignment. USA Today reported this week that casualties among Afghan forces have spiked by 70 percent in the first quarter of 2015 as insurgents test the strength of homegrown troops and the U.S. reduces its footprint after 14 years of fighting.
The JBLM soldiers on their way to Kandahar are not supposed to participate in direct combat, but they’ll be on the ground to support U.S. allies.
“We’re not going to do everything for them, but we’re going to do everything we can within the strategic guidance, which is to wean them from American military power,” said Brig. Gen. Paul Bontrager, who will lead the command at Kandahar Air Field.
The deployment is a milestone for the division, which launched at JBLM in the fall of 2012. It was created to focus solely on training and supervising soldiers in the combat brigades that grew here during the Iraq War.
Late last year, the Army added staff to the 7th Infantry Division and set it in line for a deployment.
“When our country came calling to see if we could do something hard overseas, we were ready,” Bontrager said.
The assignment is scheduled to last for 12 months, but the soldiers leaving now will not be in Afghanistan for all of that time. The division plans to rotate new soldiers in Kandahar to replace the group departing now.
Sawyer last saw Afghanistan in 2012, when he managed logistics for JBLM’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. This time, he’ll be working to make sure that the U.S. headquarters is supplied, but also coaching Afghans on supporting their own bases.
“They’re a very young nation trying to build a system we’ve had for years, yet I feel they’re up for the challenge,” he said.