‘This is what we signed up to do’: California guardsmen preparing for Afghanistan
MOURMELON-le-GRAND, France — For most of the 100 or so California National Guardsmen deploying to Afghanistan this summer, this is a return tour.
The deployment reflects the new normal for the National Guard, historically a strategic reserve that has been operationalized for foreign wars during the past 16 years.
Once a place where some citizens signed up to avoid the front lines, particularly during the Vietnam era, many of today’s guardsmen now expect to go to war and must manage the disruptions to civilian life that go with it.
“This is what we signed up to do,” said 1st Lt. Gabriela Ramirez, 24, who usually works at the Air Force base help desk in Los Angeles and is deploying to Afghanistan for the first time. “The way I see it is it’s my time to give back.”
There are only a handful of other soldiers deploying with her who haven’t been to Afghanistan, but they are eager to prove themselves, she said.
The guardsmen have been in Europe for more than three months, completing exercises in Poland, Germany and France, training with NATO allies on a variety of missions.
As many as 100 officers and senior enlisted soldiers will relieve guardsmen in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. They will train and advise the Afghanistan National Army and local police, in conjunction with NATO’s Resolute Support Mission.
The Afghan army will be “conducting their own operations, while we work in the background to coordinate enablers and support them,” said Col. Michael Leeney, the 40th Infantry Division’s chief of staff and a full-time guardsman based in Los Angeles.
Leeney said that because the U.S. greatly reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan beginning in 2014, it makes their mission now especially significant.
“At this point, I think it’s very important to continue to show the flag there and to remind our friends and coalition partners that we are not abandoning them, and we’re here to make sure that they’re successful,” Leeney said.
For many of the Sunburst Division soldiers, this will be a return to a familiar environment but in a different role.
First Sgt. Kirk Smith, a guardsman who usually works as a sanitation equipment operator in Torrance, Calif., previously deployed to Afghanistan as a sergeant first class. He helped train Afghanistan military police, which is what many of his fellow Californians will be doing. This time he’ll be deploying to the post’s mayor cell, a billet which facilitates the day-to-day workings of life on base.
“I’m looking forward to going back,” Smith said. “I think taking care of all the soldiers on base and doing everything to fulfill that role will be a good experience.”
During this deployment, U.S. troops do not expect to be out on patrol themselves, though safety is always a concern, especially for their friends and family back home.
“I think that’s always in the back of everyone’s head, that there are some safety concerns, but I’m not too worried about the mission that we’re going to be involved in,” said intelligence officer Lt. Col. James Lamb, who primarily works as a self-employed hedge fund manager in El Dorado, Calif.
Lamb said he is more concerned about his family.
“Separation from the family is always difficult, but I’m keeping a positive attitude,” Lamb said. “It’s a bit of an adventure.”