On The Ground
Training Over In Texas; 260th Engineers And 484th MPs Arrive In Afghanistan
By: Samar Fay, Courier Editor
Published: Wednesday, June 20th, 2012
FORT BLISS, Texas – By now, the soldiers in two Montana Army National Guard companies have boots on the hot, dusty soil of Afghanistan. After a year of preparation and two months of trial by Texas fire at Fort Bliss, they are on the job in Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Guard recently brought this reporter and three other Montana journalists to Texas to view the training and interview the soldiers just before they boarded airplanes headed east. Last week, the story focused on the 484th Military Police Co., headquartered in Malta with detachments in Glasgow and Billings. This week, the attention is on the 260th Engineer Co. from Miles City, which has detachments in Sidney and Culbertson.
About 95 soldiers from the 260th, mostly natives of eastern Montana, are in this deployment.
The 260th will be seeing a lot of miles of Afghan road, which won’t be much like the pride of the Montana Department of Transportation. Mainly, the engineers will be clearing roads of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the homemade roadside bombs that take their toll of civilians and military alike. IEDs have been called the number-one threat in Afghanistan.
The U.S. military went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq with trucks, personnel carriers and Humvees that proved very vulnerable to roadside explosions. Now there is a new generation of vehicles that are specially armored to deflect blasts, tall, burly things called MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles). The familiar Humvee is also armored, with a V-shaped floor plate to send blast force outward rather than up into the vehicle.
DISARMING ROAD MINES
The engineers have new technologies to detect the IEDs and disarm them, including radio frequency jamming devices, which disrupt the cell phone signals often used to trigger IEDs, high frequency radio pulses that deactivate IED electronics, microwave-pulsing devices that ruin the electronics and lasers to detect IED explosives. They can disarm some with an MRAP called a Buffalo, which has a 30-foot robotic arm and claw mounted on the front.
Technology alone can’t detect every danger. Soldiers have to be aware of how the people around them are acting; they have to be suspicious of booby traps in ordinary places.
After an engineer company brought their Humvees back from a training run on the back roads of Fort Bliss, they cleared their weapons and assembled for a “hotwash,” a debriefing and critique of their performance that day.
“Details!” the sergeant barked. “What did you see? What were they wearing? How many vehicles?”
Sgt. Sean Welliver was a Cascade County correctional officer, now he is one of three medics in the 260th. He has advanced EMT and CPR training, on a par with a paramedic. Every month he drives eight hours from Missoula to Miles City for drill. Welliver has already served one tour in this war. He returned last October from a year as a medic with the the Montana Guard’s 1-163rd Cavalry. His memories are of 127-degree days, and nights that might fall to 85 or 90. His house had air conditioning that brought the heat down to 90 in the daytime. Part of his medical work is basic – educating the guys on the importance of plenty of water.
He is single with no children, but communicating with his parents is important to him. He said his mom just got a smart phone and he has convinced his dad to buy a new computer. He figures Skype will be better this time.
Spc. Justin Qualley of Wibaux will face a challenge in Afghanistan.
“Heat is not my favorite,” Qualley said. “I prefer Montana weather.”
He said he is “kind of excited to go” because he has never been outside of Montana before and has never seen the ocean.
Qualley, 23, is a full-time Guardsman trained in the Defense Travel System. He said he joined because of his brother, Patrick, 21, a newly married man with a child, who is in another platoon of the 260th.
The highest-ranking non-commissioned officer in the company is 1st Sgt. Jon Anderson, whose civilian job is with the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office. He said he keeps his finger on the pulse for the company commander, Capt. Roger Henschel, and he oversees everything from training to logistics. His 22 years in the military began in the Army Reserves, from which he transferred to the Guard 19 years ago.
DEPENDS ON OTHERS
In Afghanistan, he said the mission of the 260th will depend on the mission demands of others, those who have to use the roads.
His soldiers will have infrastructure and some amenities at their base.
“They will not be living in shelter halves,” he said.
Asked what he would like to say to the families of the soldiers in the 260th Engineers, Anderson said, “I appreciate them being strong back home so my soldiers can focus, do what’s right and have success.”
Sgt. 1st Class Barry Big Horn is a 13-year Guard veteran from Poplar, who has left his job as a judge on the Fort Peck Tribal Court to go with his unit to Afghanistan. He is also leaving his wife, children, grandchildren, father, brothers and sisters and nephews, who, he says, have never really visualized him in military gear.
He heard there is Internet capability over there. If not, he might actually write letters so there is a history of his time at war.
He was with the unit when they were MPs. Now they are horizontal engineers, road-builders, or in this case, road-clearers. His responsibility will be operations, to coordinate logistics and training, and track soldiers. He said the unit has a lot of special equipment for their task of route clearance.
“I’m a liaison between moving parts,” Big Horn said. “There’s a lot of moving parts.”
When asked why he joined the Guard, Big Horn paused to think back.
“I was a kid. It was a sense of duty more than anything else,” he said. “It will be tough to leave the family. The separation will be the most difficult part.”
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