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Petty Officer 1st Class Latonya Welch is deployed as a chaplain’s assistant with Joint Task Force-76 at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.
Petty Officer 1st Class Latonya Welch is deployed as a chaplain’s assistant with Joint Task Force-76 at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. (Jason Chudy / S&S)

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — In his desert camouflage uniform with a 173rd Airborne Brigade patch on his left sleeve, Chiakazia Ragin II may at first glance look like any other soldier.

But Ragin’s not a “sky soldier,” as the brigade calls its troops. Instead, he claims proudly that he’s a “ship soldier.”

The Navy petty officer 2nd class is a sailor attached to the brigade’s Combat Support Company for part of their current Afghanistan deployment.

The 25-year-old Brooklyn native is a machinist’s mate assigned to the Southeast Region Maintenance Center in Mayport, Fla., but has been deployed with the Army since April.

His trip from the American south to southern Afghanistan came about all because of a ringing telephone in his Mayport office.

When he answered, a voice on the other end told him to tell his fellow sailors that the Army was looking for an E-5 machinist’s mate to deploy to Afghanistan.

“I didn’t tell anybody else until my chit [Navy request form] was approved,” said Ragin, a seven-year Navy veteran. “This was something I really wanted to do.”

Less than a week later, the surface warfare specialist left Mayport for two weeks of ground warfare training at Fort Benning, Ga., and a flight to Bagram Airfield.

“I actually had no information on what I’d be doing,” Ragin said about his pending job. “I only knew I’d be going to Kabul.”

Convoying to Kabul from Bagram, Ragin found that Army officials had no idea what to do with him. After a week waiting in Bagram, he was told to fly to Kandahar and report to the combat support company.

Company soldiers, he said, welcomed their new sailor with open arms.

“He fit in pretty good,” said Sgt. Sunday Otolorin. “He’s an engineer and we’re engineers, so he fit in.”

Sgt. 1st Class Donald Finley Jr., noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the Task Force Bayonet assistant brigade engineer shop, became Ragin’s first sergeant.

“The way that Petty Officer Ragin fits into the system is he’s got a mechanical background, including [working on] pumps and electrical [systems],” Finley said.

“We cross-trained him … in winterization [of equipment] and general engineering requirements.”

One of Ragin’s main jobs is to visit the company’s assigned forward operating bases, where he assesses equipment and machinery, also checking on equipment repair work orders.

“By the end of his six-month term, he’ll have visited all 11 satellite locations,” Finley said.

Visiting the outlying bases, Ragin said, is the highlight of his time in Afghanistan.

“Going out to the FOBs, I feel like I’m doing something [for the war],” he said. “I’m on the front lines.”

Ragin’s previous wartime experience was aboard the Yokosuka, Japan-based USS Kitty Hawk. The aircraft carrier launched helicopters loaded with special forces troops for the initial attack on Afghanistan in late 2001.

Ragin watched that launch, never expecting to actually visit the landlocked nation. Four years later, he finds himself deployed there as a member of the Vicenza, Italy-based Army airborne brigade rather than with a Navy unit.

“Working with the Army’s pretty easy,” Ragin said. “I try to do as much ‘Army stuff’ as I can.”

This drew a friendly reminder from Otolorin that’s he’s still a “leg,” or nonairborne qualified soldier.

But even understanding the term “leg” shows that the sailor is becoming more and more Army.

“He’s picked up the acronyms fast,” Finley said. “He asks a lot of good questions.”

“I’ve adopted ‘hooah’ and ‘high speed,’” Ragin said about his favorite Army terms. “I’m taking them back with me.”

But if Ragin has his way, that return to Florida may be postponed a bit. “I’m supposed to leave in October, but I’m trying to extend until December,” he said. “The Army’s here a year, so I can do a couple of extra months.”

For chaplain’s assistant, a flock is still a flock, even in Army clothes

They’re rare, but sailors working at Kandahar Airfield aren’t unheard of. Petty Officer 1st Class Latanya Welch from Naval Training Center Great Lakes, Ill., is a chaplain’s assistant deployed with Combined Joint Task Force-76.

She serves as the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the Fraise Chapel on Kandahar, with six soldiers working for her.

“They said, ‘What do we call you — sarge, petty officer, RP1?’ What’s an RP?” she said, remembering her early meeting with those soldiers.

RP1 is Navy-speak for a religious programs specialist, which is Welch’s military specialty.

Despite the differences in services, being a chaplain’s assistant is the same in any service, Welch said.

“The responsibilities are similar,” said the seven-year Navy veteran. “Working with a chaplain and a faith group is the same. With the Army, there are different forms and standards.”

The Miami native said she enjoys her position at the chapel. “It’s pretty interesting and a unique experience,” she said. “It’s an honor to be out here. It feels good to be part of it.”

When she returns to Great Lakes later this year, she’ll become a recruit division commander — the Navy equivalent of a drill sergeant. Her experience in Afghanistan, she said, will benefit both her and the sailors she trains.

“I’ll … tell them I did six months in Afghanistan [deployed] with just Army personnel,” Welch said. “We’ll talk about teamwork and how you never know what … your next duty [station] could be.”

— Jason Chudy

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