By Sgt. Leeann Lloyd
22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
|Task Force Grizzly Commander Col. R. Stephen Williams, 207th Infantry Brigade commander, awards Task Force Grizzly service members for their outstanding contributions during their deployment to Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan. (Photo by: Sgt. Spaulding, Task Force Grizzly)|
When Soldiers of the headquarters elements of 207th Infantry Brigade and the 297th Brigade Support Battalion departed the lush coolness of Alaska on Memorial Day last year, they had no idea what memories they would make during their tour in Afghanistan. Humanitarian assistance projects, security missions, and supporting Coalition forces were in store for the troops. Here is a look at how Task Force Grizzly showed the warm heart of Alaskan compassion by helping rebuild a war-torn country.
The deployment of the Task Force Grizzly and Task Force Denali in support of Operation Enduring Freedom marked the biggest deployment of the state’s National Guard since World War II. The deployment has affected the state in more ways than just militarily, Maj. Jeff Roach, 207th operations officer said.
“This deployment has taken a large number of personnel who are involved not only in the National Guard in Alaska, but a lot of people who are involved in their communities in Alaska,” he said.
“It’s not only the Alaska Guard that’s feeling the impact of the deployment, it’s the communities that have lost a significant number of people involved in their commerce and their government, a lot of their employees. The whole state is feeling the impact, but it’s also a good one; Alaska feels like it is involved now in the War on Terror,” Roach said.
The Lay of the Land
When Grizzly troops arrived to the harsh desert terrain of Afghanistan, they thought their mission would cater more to that of a garrison-type of role. What they didn’t expect was the wide range of responsibility they would hold in a multinational environment. Their scope included many different facets, from serving as installation management and force protection to providing service and support for forward elements.
According to Roach, the estimated 140 TF Grizzly and TF Denali troops deployed from Alaska served as the U.S. National Command Element, the U.S. National Support Element, and the command and control of Kandahar Air Field. On top of all this, they still had a responsibility to employ 21 personnel within the Regional Command –South Headquarters in support of the NATO mission.
“We only had the capability of a very small force headquarters to run the base, run the force protection outside the base, keep the rocket attacks reduced, support all those forces out at the remote FOBs (forward operating bases) and then still conduct combat operations … So it was like a thin shoestring that we were conducting operations off of. But, we did it and were successful,” Col. R. Stephen Williams, TF Grizzly commander, said.
Making a Difference
TF Grizzly allocated nearly $4.5 million worth of U.S. Commander’s Emergency Relief Program funds to improve the quality of life for Afghans in the region through reconstruction. Projects included the repair, construction, and stocking of schools, orphanages, mosques, and medical and safety facilities. Agriculture was improved with the digging of more than 32 water wells, and the donation of more than 64 tractors for farming. Some projects, such as the cleaning of more than 200 kilometers of canals for irrigation water, provided jobs for the local populace.
That is just a glimpse into how TF Grizzly helped improve conditions for Afghans. According to Lt. Col. Curt Jones, who headed projects funded under CERP, more than 3 million pounds of humanitarian assistance items were also donated, to include food, flood relief, and cold weather clothing, as well as medical supplies for Village Medical Outreaches.
Williams and Soldiers from TF Grizzly spent many hours discussing security issues with key leaders both on and surrounding Kandahar Air Field. In a constantly changing environment, ensuring the security of troops and personnel remains at the heart of every mission. When the unit arrived last year, rocket attacks were occurring of a rate of about 27 each month; now the numbers have reduced to about three per month.
“We have had some significant casualties and damage caused by these rocket attacks,” Roach said. “So we instituted a series of operations with force protection elements…aimed at taking out the leadership of the cell that was operating in the Kandahar area.”
Another responsibility under the security umbrella was making sure locals who reside in the villages surrounding KAF felt safe. Many shuras (meetings with village elders and local government officials) were held to discuss security in the region. Shuras were a chance for Williams, along with the Afghan National Border Police and Afghan National Army, to discuss security and reconstruction concerns for the local area. Williams said he hopes future KAF commanders don’t underestimate the power of talking things out.
“Even for the base, you have to hold shuras with the villagers outside the wire,” Williams said. “If the leadership is not engaging with the locals then the problems are bound to arise. As we held shuras and engagements with the key leaders in our battlespace, we reduced the rocket attacks,” he said.
Without hesitation Williams declares his favorite mission was Operation Medusa, a 22-day operation for which his Soldiers had six hours notice to prepare – a mission to take an objective their coalition counterparts found they weren’t able to accomplish alone.
“NATO had just taken over operations in RC-South,” Williams recalled. “It was the first NATO fight as an operation force in theater. The Canadians tried to do it without U.S. support because they wanted to be able to say, ‘We can do this on our own.’” But they couldn’t, he said.
“They couldn’t cross the river; there were just too many Taliban in the area. So they came to us to develop our task force and to deploy out there and have a Canadian company, an Afghan battalion and our guys, and it was to fence the enemy in,” Williams said.
“With six hours notice we produced the order, rolled our task force out there. We had a convoy that was about 50 vehicles and we moved in there, secured Panjwayi and one side of the ridge, and were able to keep the Taliban fixed for a few days. Then we called in and said ‘Hey, we see a hole, we think we can cross.’ and they let us,” said Williams.
What came next was like a scene taken from any heroic wartime movie. “We crossed under fire, used smoke, CAS (Close Air Support), engaged in direct enemy fire, but we got the guys across, seized the area and the next day took an objective that nobody else could take. All summer, they couldn’t take it, so we did. We took it, under fire, fighting through trench lines and compounds,” Williams said. The success of Operation Medusa helped secure Panjway and Pashmul.
As Williams recalls, TF Grizzly troops were called upon more than once to help clear the way. In one such case, TF Grizzly troops set up a firebase on a road convoys had to travel down for resupply missions -- a road notorious for Improvised Explosive Devices. The presence of the Soldiers on the road reduced opportunity for the enemy to place IEDs, and allowed troops to safely reach their objectives.
Many operations conducted by TF Grizzly wouldn’t have been possible without the help of support elements like TF Denali, who conducted several combat logistics patrols to get much needed equipment to the troops. TF Denali directly orchestrated and carried out plans to reconstitute troops returning from the field; a process which includes the maintenance of equipment and personnel recovery.
Reconstitutions are a vital part of ensuring Soldiers are ready to go back out to the field and are able to perform missions with the best equipment the Army has to offer. The most recent refit was held for 1-508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, who returned from missions supporting Operation Achilles in Helmand Province.
Also of great assistance were the Afghan National Border Police and Afghan National Army, who worked closely with TF Grizzly on many operations.
Afghans conduct a yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, as part of their Islamic religious practices. Typically the three main places from which Afghans depart the country are Mazari Sharif, Kabul, and Kandahar International Airport.
“It was very much an international effort to get those Hajj participants through Kandahar on their pilgrimage,” Roach said. “We had over 2,700 participants travel out of Kandahar. We had to create a procedure that allowed participants to come to Kandahar, on the airfield to get them on a civilian aircraft, travel to Mecca and return home,” he said.
Everyone did their part to ensure the safety and comfort of the participants, as well as maintaining the security of KAF, Roach noted. The ANBP also made a notable capture during the Hajj. “We knew that one of the leaders of the local rocket indirect fire cell participated in the Hajj,” Roach said. “Upon his return we worked with the Afghan Border Police to identify him and have the Border Police arrest him and take him out of that leadership role.”
Another mission TF Grizzly is proud of is their part in the movement of a field hospital from Mazari Sharif in Northern Afghanistan, to Qalat in Zabul Province.
“The movement was of about 335 personnel … who were assisting with medical support in Mazari Sharif. They came to Kandahar and we assisted with the construction of their base at Qalat, at Fob Apache. We helped them relocate out there and assume the mission of mentoring Afghan medical personnel at the Qalat hospital,” Roach said.
Home Sweet Home
Williams hopes the impression left by his task force will be longstanding, and that coalition counterparts will think of the progress made during his time in command as enduring.
“Hopefully they will say that we defended the base well, and that we improved force protection within the base and implemented the right standards,” Williams said.
After a year of countering insurgents, helping locals, maintaining and protecting the installation, and improving the quality of life in Afghanistan, Soldiers are now ready to head home and refocus on what is important to them.
The Soldiers of TF Grizzly and TF Denali will reassume their various roles in strengthening their own communities through commerce and government, and most importantly, they will rekindle and strengthen their roles as family members and friends. Some will start with a clean slate and embrace new beginnings. Regardless of the path that awaits them, these Soldiers will continue to make Alaska even stronger as they carry with them the pride that comes with answering their state and country’s calls to duty.