In the five months since they arrived in southern Afghanistan, members of a Minnesota-based National Guard unit have gone outside the wire to clear roads of mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) without a major incident in one of the most dangerous regions remaining in the country.
But on Monday, a suicide attack on their base carried out by suspected Taliban combatants left five members of Litchfield, Minn.-based unit wounded, including one serious enough to be airlifted to Germany for treatment.
One American soldier, Chief Warrant Officer Edward Balli, 42, of Monterey, Calif., was killed in the attack, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
The assault occurred Monday about 10:30 a.m. on a base in Kandahar Province, said Lt. Col. Kevin Olson of the Minnesota National Guard. As the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan winds to a close after more than 13 years, the Minnesota National Guard continues to play a role in a country that has still proven dangerous for U.S. troops. About 250 Minnesota Guard members are currently deployed in Afghanistan.
The injuries from the attack on Monday are some of the most serious against Minnesota Guard members in Afghanistan since Specialist George Cauley was killed in October 2009 when his truck struck an explosive device. He is one of 28 service members with Minnesota ties to be killed in Afghanistan.
Officials were not disclosing identifying information about the Guard members from the 849th Mobility Augmentation Company or their conditions.
But the mother of one of the wounded Minnesota soldiers said she got a brief telephone call from her son, Staff Sgt. Robbie Sheets, saying he had been hit in the leg and back by shrapnel.
"He said, 'We got ambushed.' Robbie kept saying, 'We're all alive, we're all alive,'â€‰" said Kim Schwich, of Green Isle, Minn. "That mother instinct is very strong. I told him, 'I'm glad to hear your voice, but really, are you OK?'â€‰"
One airlifted out
One Minnesota Guard member was flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for treatment and "is recovering," Olson said. The others are recovering in Afghanistan, he said.
Sheets told his mother he would be remaining in Afghanistan with his "comrades."
For Schwich, the injuries to the Guard members come at a time when attention to the conflict in Afghanistan seems to be waning back home.
"After a while, people just get tired of hearing it," she said. "The media tends to pull away. That doesn't mean the problem has gotten any smaller. I hate to tell you how many people have said, 'Really, we're still over there?'â€‰â€‰"
When word spread of injuries, families back home assumed it was from an explosive device on a mission, Schwich said.
A YouTube video shows the intensity of the unit's assignment in a region of the country known as the birthplace of the Taliban. On a mission in Kandahar Province in November, they encountered small-arms fire and 14 suspected IEDs during a 60-hour operation to clear routes suspected of being fortified by Taliban forces.
Members of the 849th come largely from Minnesota communities and a few cities in Wisconsin. Their mission in Afghanistan is to clear routes to ensure the mobility of coalition forces. They also carry out limited infantry operations.
There had been no combat-related injuries before Monday's incident.
There were 95 members of the 849th in this one-year deployment, which began in July with training before their arrival in Afghanistan.
Of the 250 Minnesota Guard members in Afghanistan, 150 are with the Duluth-based 114th Transportation Co.
Members of the Minnesota Air Guard also have been involved in flying missions in Afghanistan. More than 60 airmen with the Minneapolis-based 133rd Airlift Wing and the Duluth-based 148th Fighter Wing remain deployed in various locations in Afghanistan.
Attack at the gate
The attack began when a small truck packed with explosives drove to the main gate of Forward Operating Base Pasab, according Lt. Col. Will Griffin, of NATO's International Security Assistance Force.
The driver set off a powerful blast, killing himself and the American soldier, Jamal Agha, governor of the Zhari district, told the New York Times.
A minivan then immediately sped to the gate, and eight gunmen in military fatigues and wearing suicide vests jumped out and tried to storm the base, officials told the Times.
"There was moderate damage to the outer perimeter of the base," Griffin said. "However, the base was quickly secured and all enemy forces were killed during their attack."
The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the assault.