|101st Airborne division|
Posted : Monday Jan 3, 2011
Nine months into its deployment to Afghanistan, the 101st Airborne Division based at Fort Campbell, Ky., is enduring a steady rise in casualties as it continues to shoulder a large portion of America's combat surge in the insurgent-riddled country.
The division's deaths have nearly tripled since early summer, with 105 soldiers killed last year in Afghanistan, including six who died when a van packed with explosives detonated last month at an outpost in Kandahar province.
Most casualties have come in skirmishes and ambushes and from bombs buried under dirt roads and footpaths, 101st Airborne officials said.
“Counterinsurgency is a tough fight,” the division's commander, Maj. Gen. John Campbell, said in a recent e-mail to The Courier-Journal from Afghanistan. He said Afghanistan's complexities make it “much more difficult than what I faced in Baghdad during the surge.”
On Monday the Defense Department announced the death of Sgt. Michael J. Beckerman, 25, of Ste. Genevieve, Mo. Beckerman died Dec. 31 in Kandahar province of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device.
It's a sobering reminder of the difficulty the United States has faced in its attempts to achieve victory in what has become its longest war, stretching more than nine years.
A year after President Obama ordered 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, the White House has claimed some progress against the Taliban and in training the Afghan military.
But aid groups and other U.S. intelligence reports have painted a bleaker picture, saying the Taliban were still strong and citing insurgent havens in Pakistan. In 2010, U.S. forces saw their bloodiest year yet, with 498 American deaths.
The 101st Airborne has been at the forefront of that battle, fighting a strong insurgent network that has a sanctuary in Pakistan; training a fledgling Afghan police force; and helping residents govern towns where support for U.S. forces is unpredictable, Campbell said.
But the division's soldiers have also “removed” about 3,500 insurgents from the battlefield, he said, including many of its experienced fighters, while making it safer in some areas so that “there are more kids in school; there are more people with jobs; there are more people living without the threat of being terrorized.”
Most of 101st is operating within Afghanistan's Regional Command East, an area the size of Pennsylvania that is home to 400 tribes near the Hindu Kush mountains bordering Pakistan and its tribal regions, according to the U.S. Army.
'The whole community grieves'
More than 7,000 miles away at Fort Campbell, where most of the 101st Airborne and their families live, the steady trickle of casualties has remained a grim fact of life.
The post holds “Eagle Remembrance” ceremonies for its slain soldiers, and death notices have become a regular feature in the local papers, according to Fort Campbell officials. Yet each loss is like a fresh cut, and a reminder that danger and uncertainty are everywhere for the soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
Currently at Fort Campbell, about 2,500 soldiers with the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade are preparing to leave for Afghanistan, and once they arrive, almost all of the 101st Airborne's nearly 20,000 personnel will be deployed there.
“I don't think you can ever get used to casualties, and when we do get one, the whole community grieves,” said Suzy Yates, who heads Survivor Outreach Services, which has seen a rise in demand for services such as grief counseling and financial advising.
About half of the families who lose a spouse leave the post, opting to move home with relatives. But the rest stay around Fort Campbell, where they have friends and support, officials said.
“Around the holidays, it's a really hard time for families,” Yates said. “During that first year [after a loss], there's what many refer to as the ‘survivor fog.' They don't remember a lot of things.”
Earlier this month, Obama stuck with his pledge that some U.S. forces would return home in July. But the scope of that withdrawal is expected to be modest and its pace is unknown, since the transition to Afghan forces taking control of their nation is expected to last through 2014.
Already, the community of Fort Campbell is looking forward to the 101st's return: The 3rd Brigade Combat Team will start coming back later this month. The 1st and 2nd brigades, the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade and the 101st headquarters will come home in the spring, and the 4th Brigade Combat Team will return in the summer.
By early summer, about 15,000 division soldiers will be back on post, military officials said.
Once home, members of the 101st will have at least a year before they will be considered for another deployment, according to a Fort Campbell spokesman.
‘Can't think about' injuries
When deployed, Fort Campbell's 159th Combat Aviation Brigade will be based in Regional Command South, a desert area that is rife with insurgents. Soldiers will ferry troops, conduct combat raids and train the tiny Afghan air force.
To prepare, the soldiers have studied Afghan culture and language, learned about current events and spent 45 days training in deserts in the Southwest.
The unit also has worked to help families who are preparing to send loved ones into a war zone.
For some soldiers, it's the third or fourth time they've deployed since 2001, said Col. Todd Royar, the brigade's commander. “I've been in 24 years, and I don't think we've ever spent as much time to ensure soldiers and families are ready to deploy,” Royar said.
Debbie Bush, 42, is preparing to see her husband, Sgt. Michael Bush, begin a second tour to Afghanistan and third overall deployment. She and their two teenage daughters will lean on base get-together and support groups and keep up with news from Afghanistan, she said.
“It's always in the back of my mind that he could be hurt,” Bush said. “But you just can't think about it. … My girls, they have friends who had a parent hurt or lost a parent. We just keep the communication open.”
While some family members might normally take solace in the fact that the frigid Afghan winter usually means a lull in the fighting, this winter so far is different.
“We typically see a decrease in insurgent activity during the winter as most of them return to Pakistan or their homes in Afghanistan where they regroup, train and begin operations again in the early spring,” Campbell said. “[But] this year the winter so far has been mild and thus has lengthened the ‘typical' fighting season.”