Surrounded by hostile forces in a faraway land, Army Command Sgt. Major Terry Gardner spent Christmas singing with his troops.
“I was able to sit down with them and sing Christmas carols,” Sgt. Maj. Gardner said during a conference call from Afghanistan between he and Col. Morris Goins and Anchorage-area media on Tuesday, Jan. 3.
Gardner explained that he visited several outposts in the restive Khost and Paktia provinces during the holiday. At each stop, he asked the youngest and oldest soldiers to choose their favorite holiday songs.
“We as a group would sing that together,” he recalled.
The unit is based out of Forward Operating Base Salerno near the eastern city of Khost. The mountainous and forbidding region near the Pakistan border has been one of the most dangerous for U.S. troops, and it’s where members of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division will be spending the next 10 months of their lives.
So far, Col. Goins said the unit — since renamed “Task Force Spartan” — has had a relatively quiet time of things, with only minor skirmishes reported.
“We have had some contact, but no one injured severely, thank God,” said Col. Goins, who leads the 3,500-member task force.
Most of the injuries, he said, have come from explosive improvised explosive devices (IEDs) blowing up near armored vehicles.
“Somewhat like being in a car accident,” was how he described the majority of the injuries incurred thus far.
Goins spoke at length about the unit’s mission in Afghanistan and what he hopes to accomplish while they’re deployed. He said the unit’s main goals include improving infrastructure in the region and helping local Afghan security forces learn to better deal with insurgents such as the Taliban and Haqqani Network.
“I think we will have failed them if we don’t do that,” Goins said.
One key strategy the unit has used since beginning its deployment in November has been the use of female American troops as a liaison with local Afghan women. Goins said that mission has been well-received thus far. Because Afghan women in the tribal regions are extremely uncomfortable speaking with foreign men, Goins said the female troops have helped bridge the gap between the Army and civilian population.
“It’s just a nice interface,” he said.
Sgt. Maj. Gardner said the use of women on the battlefield has already begun to pay dividends in the form of increased communication and cooperation with locals.
“It’s been paying off pretty good,” he said.
Despite the positive early signs, Goins admitted that the U.S. still has a long way to go toward making friends in Afghanistan. The area remains hostile to the U.S. presence — though he said that’s not the case everywhere. He likened the situation to good neighborhoods versus bad ones here in the states, and said there are places where the U.S. occupation is welcomed.
Unfortunately, “we spend the majority of our time in the neighborhoods where they’re not happy to see us,” he said.
When asked if the unit’s mission includes rescuing captured Army Sgt. Bowe Berghdal — a Ft. Richardson-based soldier captured by the Haqquani Network in 2009 in Eastern Afghanistan — Goins said he could not go into specifics. However, he did say that U.S. forces continue to explore all avenues that might lead to Berghdal’s release or rescue.
“Rest assured we are looking for him and we are looking for him extremely hard every day,” Goins said.
Both men took time during their remarks to thank the people back in Alaska for the community’s support during the initial phase of the deployment.
Gardner said the unit recently received several packages from the Eagle River VFW that contained letters and cards from local elementary school students. Just hearing from friendly voices back home, he said, gave the troops in Afghanistan a major morale boost.
“That definitely lifted the spirits of our soldiers,” he said.