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On more than one occasion while riding in their Humvees along a primitive road in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province, some of the soldiers from 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment's Company A had one question on their minds: What are we doing here?

"A bad day here is still better than a good day in Afghanistan," Spc. Russ Ferguson said in an interview in the battalion's headquarters in Vicenza, Italy.

But Ferguson and Staff Sgt. James Christy, members of 1st Platoon, said they could usually answer that question when they thought about it objectively. There were the many projects the company sponsored. There were villages that seemed to be doing a little better than they had been when the company arrived. And there were historic events such as the country's first parliamentary elections in September.

"It was cool being there for that. I mean, that's history," Christy said.

Ferguson agreed with that assessment, citing a bit of history himself, such as the many foreign occupiers that have come into Afghanistan.

"We were the first to stay there and try to help them build a good government," he said.

Whether it was in the tiny mountain villages of Naka and Zeruk, where 1st Platoon operated, or the more volatile town of Bermel, where 2nd Platoon ventured, soldiers in the company had enough to do.

"We didn't have a chance to get complacent," said Sgt. William Keene, a member of 2nd Platoon. "We were so busy."

"We were spread thin, but competent the whole time," Ferguson added.

Ferguson is one of many soldiers in the battalion who expected to be using skills they trained for — fighting the enemy — more than skills they had to develop, such as training Afghan National Army troops.

"They put us in a place they expected the most fighting to happen," he said.

But that generally didn't happen. Some soldiers in the company were wounded, but none killed. Keene said it did get hairy at times around Bermel, where the small U.S. base came under attack.

Instead of fighting, soldiers spent more time interacting with the locals, trying to help build the country's security forces and government.

Christy said soldiers sometimes went to extremes just to try to make a small difference. He remembers a four-hour drive (each way) to a small village just to spend a few minutes checking in with local leaders.

There were some tangible improvements, though. Ferguson cites the first school built in Zeruk.

"There was a notable difference there from the first we arrived to the last week we were there," he said.

They'll also have more than a few stories to remember of their time in Afghanistan. Like climbing onto mountain ridges again and again.

Or getting vehicles stuck in the mud.

"It's funny now, but at the time it was really awful," Christy said.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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