The men of Alpha Company, 1-36 Infantry load their weapons, standing in a bleak patch of desert beside a range of rocky hills. Nestled among the hills, at the end of a single dirt road, is a small village called Waigali.
It’s a training exercise. Today, the rounds are blanks. Waigali is mockup village just a few miles from downtown El Paso. But this moonscape is about as close to that of southern Afghanistan as you’ll find in the United States.
First Lieutenant Frank Komadina commands Alpha Company’s First Platoon.
“My squad’s moving through this, they’re moving to secure this village. So, in order to — they’re trying to turn over control, gain legitimacy for Government of Afghanistan forces. So we’re going through and we’re clearing it out, so that those forces can move in and start to get a better influence in the village.”
“Up and over, meet up with the minehounds up there. Let’s go.”
The exercise is fairly basic. Two groups of soldiers peel off and take the high ground on either side of Waigali. A third approaches the village from the front.
“There they are!”
It turns out there are snipers on the hill behind the village. Eventually, a few of the soldiers are told they’ve been hit. The shooting continues while the group withdraws to a landing zone. If this were real, a helicopter would be on the way to evacuate the wounded.
The men are near the end of two years of training. It’s all building up to deployment to what NATO has designated Regional Command — South, a group of four provinces along Afghanistan’s southeastern border with Pakistan. The largest of the four is Kandahar, former heartland of the Taliban.
Again, First Lieutenant Komadina.
“My squad leaders and my platoon sergeant's not here right now — they all have multiple deployments. Not many to Afghanistan, but all of them have at least two or three deployments. My new privates haven’t deployed yet.”
“My name’s Jason Lee Boe. I’m from Anchorage, Alaska, and I’m a staff sergeant.”
Sergeant Boe is one of Alpha Company’s veterans. This will be his third wartime deployment.
“In Iraq, I was in Samarra, and in Afghanistan, I was in the Argandab Valley.”
The men of Alpha Company came to Fort Bliss from all over the country. Sergeant Joshua Ochoa — a Bronx, New York native — has also served two combat tours, both in Iraq, around southeastern Baghdad. I asked Ochoa what made him decide to enlist.
“My older brother’s been in the Army for like 16 years, so I followed in his footsteps. And then my, a sister of mine, half-sister of mine is in the Marine Corps. So, it kind of runs in the family.”
I found that was a fairly common reason for joining up. Private First Class Kyle Phillips is from Tomball.
“Most of my family was in the Army, so, kind of just in the blood.”
“Anything you’d like to say to the folks back home?”
PFC Phillips and his comrades are heading to Afghanistan at a time when NATO is winding up its combat mission. When the 1-36 Infantry returns to Fort Bliss, the Afghans will have to handle their own security, ready or not.
Andrew Schneider will be embedded with Alpha Company and other units in southern Afghanistan over the next four weeks. He’ll be posting reports regularly from the field.