Aug. 14, 2009

Virginia Guard mentor team returns from combat duty in Afghanistan

By Maj. Cotton Puryear
Virginia Guard Public Affairs

RICHMOND, Va. — A team of 16 Soldiers from the Virginia National Guard returned to the  United States Aug. 9 after serving on federal active duty since Aug. 15, 2008 with the mission of mentoring battalion-level Afghanistan security forces. The Soldiers arrived at Fort Riley, Kan., to conduct demobilization activities and returned home to Virginia Aug. 13. Because the Soldiers flew back individually to their hometowns, no formal welcome home ceremony was conducted.

The unit conducted three months of pre-deployment training at Fort Riley that focused on cultural awareness, mentoring techniques and counterinsurgency operations. Six of the Soldiers are from Staunton, two from Charlottesville, two from Northern Virginia and the rest came from other areas of Virginia including Roanoke, Blackstone and the Hampton Roads area.

As mentors, the Virginia Guard Soldiers were dispersed around the second week of November throughout the Eastern Paktika Province and worked side-by-side with various elements of the Afghan National Security Forces comprised of the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Border Police, said Maj. Michael Martin, the officer in charge of the team.

Martin said the circumstances were far from the ideal training environment. “All of the training conducted by the team had to take place in a real combat environment because the Afghanistan security forces could not afford to cease operations for training,” he said. “While American forces often use the term ‘train like we fight,’ this deployment was more of a ‘train while we fight’ situation.”

The Virginia Soldiers quickly bonded with their respective Afghan counterparts, Martin said. “We lived, ate, slept and fought hard beside their companions for the common goals of ‘clearing, holding and building,’ the three key tenets of the commander’s strategy for stabilizing Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” he said. “The Virginians spent their tour on the absolute front line of the counterinsurgency fight, many times outside of the protective umbrella of coalition forces.”

The team of Virginia Soldiers arrived in theater at a critical point in the conflict, Martin said. “The resurging Taliban insurgency was gradually regaining a foothold among the Afghan populace and was proving to be a formidable foe as they stepped up their IED attacks and anti-coalition agenda throughout the fall and winter months,” he said. “The usually quiet Afghan winter was punctuated by numerous firefights and small arms engagements throughout the Eastern Paktika province.”

Martin said the Soldiers were able to put to work both their civilian and military experience to become a valuable resource for training and mentoring the Afghanistan Security Forces.

“Several of the Virginia Guard Soldiers found themselves among Afghan units that were completely bereft of leadership and barely surviving as professional organizations,” Martin said. “One team uncovered a broad-reaching corruption scandal that involved the theft of food, fuel, firewood, and soldier pay, as well as the existence of illegal checkpoints that extorted money from the citizens of Afghanistan and undermined the reputation of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.”

It was the expertise and professionalism of the Virginia Guard Soldiers that was critical in identifying and eradicating many of the corruption scandals, Martin said. This also set the conditions for success by removing the corrupt officials from their posts and promoting more reliable and competent officers and noncommissioned officers to positions of prominence.

Martin said the team boasted an incredible record on the battlefield. “It is hard to document a complete record of the impact that the various team members had in their respective areas because the dynamic combat environment does not lend itself always to accurate record keeping,” he said.

Some of the team’s accomplishments that were documented were:

  • Conducted more than 600 mounted and dismounted combat patrols.
  • Discovered and seized more than 50 Taliban weapons caches with AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers, mines, grenades, home-made explosives and improvised explosive device components during joint coalition operations.
  • Arrested more than 120 suspected Taliban fighters.
  • Logged more than 240 humanitarian aid missions that provided food, water, radios, tools and essentials to the villagers in remote locations.

While none of the Virginia Guard Soldiers were wounded in action, the team did suffer one casualty with the death of 1st Sgt. Kevin Dupont of Boston, Mass. Dupont joined the team while training at Fort Riley, and he was struck by an improvised explosive device in March. He was burned over 70 percent of his body and was evacuated to the Fort Sam Houston burn unit where he battled his injuries for three months before passing away June 17.

“Not a man was left untouched by the heroism displayed by Kevin Dupont,” Martin said.  “His loss greatly affected the team, but we all drove on.”

Members of the team were awarded one Bronze Star Medal for Valor, one Army Commendation Medal for Valor and 12 Combat Infantryman Badges.

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