Fort Bragg paratroopers stand watch in Afghanistan
KABUL — The two sides met in a flurry of niceties. On one side were American and Australian military advisers. On the other, leaders of the Afghan National Police.
As everyone in the crowd exchanged handshakes and greetings, while they posed for photographs and embraced, and long after they sat down to cups of hot tea, a separate group stood on the edge of the gathering and watched.
The soldiers - Fort Bragg paratroopers sent to protect advisers who are often high-ranking military officials - are the only coalition troops in full combat gear.
While the advisers and their Afghan counterparts set aside their body armor, the paratroopers - part of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment - stood with their rifles at the ready and their eyes scanning the crowd and the perimeter.
They are guardian angels with jump wings.
Two years removed from their days patrolling the Afghan countryside in search of insurgents and improvised explosive devices, the 82nd Airborne Division soldiers deployed here are filling a variety of other roles.
Their missions include moving soldiers across the busy capital city and serving as a strategic reserve or quick-reaction force.
For the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which last deployed in 2012, the new mission hits close to home.
The "guardian angel" mission was created in recent years after several attacks on coalition troops by Afghans thought to be allies.
At least nine Fort Bragg soldiers have been killed in so-called green-on-blue attacks in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to an unofficial tally by The Fayetteville Observer. That includes soldiers who deployed with the 2nd Battalion in 2012.
The soldiers of 2nd Battalion now aim to prevent those types of attacks. While others meet with Afghan forces, the paratroopers search for signs of danger and stand prepared for the worst.
Lt. Col. Andrew Zieseniss, commander of 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, said his soldiers complete roughly 20 missions each day, driving officials around the country and then providing security during engagements and training.
He said the soldiers' goal is to be "the quiet guy in the back that's not really noticeable."
"Anything can happen in a split second, and our guys are there to prevent that," he said.
On Monday, 2nd Platoon, A Company soldiers carried military officials - including U.S. Army Col. Mark Migaleddi, the director of National Logistics for Afghan National Security Forces - to visit with Afghan officials.
The next day, 2nd Platoon, C Company carried contractors to the Afghan National Military Intelligence Center so they could teach a class to Afghan army intelligence officers.
Those are some of the missions for which 2nd Battalion soldiers provide transportation and security.
About 400 members of the battalion are in Afghanistan, spread across the country with platoons in Kabul, Herat in the west, Mazar-e Sharif in the north and Kandahar in the south.
The soldiers drive both tactical mine-resistant vehicles and nontactical vehicles such as up-armored SUVs, depending on the mission.
Zieseniss said the footprint suits his soldiers.
"(Paratroopers) are used to being on their own with small groups of leaders," he said. "They'll just run with it."
While the security mission is their main focus, the paratroopers also are a reserve force of sorts, Zieseniss said.
The platoon in the west was called on to conduct an air assault to rescue a wounded coalition soldier who was in an unsafe area, he said. And other paratroopers form a quick-reaction force for Kabul.
While less common than two years ago, there are still reports of insider attacks. One of the most recent incidents was earlier this year when two Fort Bragg Special Forces soldiers were killed after two men wearing Afghan uniforms opened fire on their unit.
Spc. John A. Pelham and Sgt. 1st Class Roberto C. Skelt were assigned to 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, and were killed in Kapisa province in February, officials said.
A Pentagon spokesman said the attack occurred as a small number of coalition advisers were meeting with their Afghan counterparts.
In the past, the guardian angel mission has fallen to National Guard soldiers, according to 2nd Battalion officials, but it is a mission the soldiers have embraced.
It's also one that hits close to home for some in the battalion. On their last deployment, in southern Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Jordan Bear and Spc. Payton Jones were killed when two Afghan National Army soldiers and a civilian literacy teacher opened fire at paratroopers from a guard tower at the Sang-e-Sar outpost, according to reports.
Both soldiers were assigned to B Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and were killed weeks into the 2012 deployment.
That incident is now part of a briefing all troops receive when they arrive in Afghanistan, officials said. Being reminded of it at the start of the deployment only spurred on the soldiers.
"We know things can go to a very, very bad day very quickly," said Capt. Sam Garrison, commander of A Company.
Garrison said 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers are uniquely prepared for the mission because of their experience in Afghanistan.
"We have enhanced situational awareness," he said. "We see things other soldiers do not."
Capt. Pierce Cote, commander of C Company, said paratroopers bring a different perspective from their National Guard counterparts.
He said the soldiers "ruffled some feathers" when they arrived in Afghanistan because of how strictly they perform their duties.
"We are not a weak target," Cote said, explaining how the battalion essentially had tryouts to determine who would deploy. "These aren't your normal 20-something-year-olds. These are the best of the best."
Garrison said that while different, the mission is no less important. He said officials had to train to change the mindset of soldiers who, in the past, have been told to fight.
On the guardian angel mission, he said, that might not always be the answer.
"Sometimes, the right answer is to push through and get to safety," he said. "The right answer isn't always going to be close and destroy. If it goes wrong, our priority is to keep everyone safe."
Cote said he is proud that his soldiers have embraced the mission.
"A lesser trained group of guys would probably make wrong decisions," he said. "And we've been here when they've made wrong decisions."
The combat veterans could have easily come in with bad attitudes, Cote said. Instead, they take it seriously.
"We know we're going to be here," he said. "We know we're going to be among the last people holding the door open while everyone else runs through."
Zieseniss said the changing mission is a good thing.
"Nobody is doing what we were doing in the past," he said. "That's a great thing - it means we're in the final phases."
Cote also said the change is a good one.
"They've been worked hard," he said of previous deployments with little downtime on small combat outposts.
"This is not what most deployments are like," Cote said, referring to Camp Phoenix's two gyms, Morale, Welfare and Recreation center and many food options. "I wish this could have been every deployment."
But that does not mean the deployment is without its threats.
Leaders work each day to keep soldiers from being complacent or falling into patterns while on missions that can last eight hours, Garrison said. And efforts are made to temper the expectations of young paratroopers still hoping for a fight.
"War is hell, but not for the reason that you think," he said. "You need expectation management. It's not what you think it'll be."
Garrison said he thinks the biggest threat is vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.
"That's the biggest threat," he said, "what keeps me up at night."
Four months into the mission, Garrison and Cote said their soldiers have yet to fire a single shot.
They also have begun to notice some changes on their missions. For one, Afghan soldiers and police are beginning to join them on the perimeter with weapons and body armor.
"We try to model professionalism," Garrison said. "They see that our guys are important to us and said, 'Hey, our guy is important, too. If this is what right looks like, this is what we want to be doing.'"