Monday, March 19, 2007

Support from Home Article in the Morning Call

Support from home helps guardsmen in Afghanistan
Pamela Varkony

The ground outside the guard station shook as the two giant vehicles rumbled through the gate. I'd been standing in a cold Afghan rain for what seemed like a long time, waiting for a representative of the Pennsylvania National Guard. Thanks to Lt. Col. Von George and the Adjutant General, Jessica Wright, I was to interview some of Pennsylvania's finest who are stationed just outside Kabul.

The armored Humvees stopped in front of me and I heard a voice say, ''Ma'am, your ride is here.'' Following the voice to the top of one of the gun towers, I found Sgt. Todd Walter displaying a mischievous grin. As I slipped on the Kevlar vest and heavily padded helmet that are mandatory, my escorts tried not to laugh. It took three of them to maneuver me in and out of the vehicle, leaving my journalistic dignity in the Afghan mud.

Rumbling through the streets of Kabul in these behemoths offered a new perspective on the city. The driver of my vehicle, 1st Sgt. Kendall Potter of Mountain View, Wyo., was the only non-Pennsylvanian in the group. He spoke into his headset with his gunner and the Humvee behind us. Passing a series of butcher stalls with carcasses of goats and sheep hung outside, Potter looked over and said, ''There's a sight that makes a man hungry. After a hard day of conquering the world, you just want to chew on some raw meat.'' You have to love that American sense of humor. It helped to break the tension.

As we left the center of Kabul behind, the speed and defensive maneuvering increased. Three men approaching on bicycles with saddlebags caused the most concern, guns in position, we watched them pass by. The road to Camp Durlaman wound by the King's Palace which had been destroyed in the civil war that followed the Russian occupation. Up the hill but not visible from the main road was the Queen's Palace, a magnificent structure reminiscent of the grandest French country palaces. Although badly damaged, pieces of soft pink stucco remain. Our translator told me a tunnel connects the two palaces. When summoned, the queen would ride a horse cart through the tunnel so she would not be on public view.

The terrain surrounding Camp Durlaman is brown and barren, the only point of interest being a round glass building jutting out over the top of the hill; the former officer's club for the Russian army. The camp has been rebuilt for the Afghan National Army; new barracks, recreation center, and mess hall, where the cooking is done on wood stoves. Modern stoves were refused because the Afghan cooks didn't want them.

The clean, brightly lighted American dining hall was welcome refuge from the cold, wet day. The conversation turned quickly to the mission; one month in with 11 to go, the focus is on preparing the Afghan army to be self-sustaining. Asked how it was going, the answer was ''hoobas''?good. ''The soldiers of the ANA are tactically competent,'' said Team Leader, Lt. Col. George Schwartz. ''As warriors, they know how to fight. We're here to train and mentor so they can sustain operations after we're gone.'' Sgt. Joel Kramer, added, ''I've done reconnaissance with their NCOs. From day one, they gave me a warm welcome and let me inside?we are brothers.''

Everyone had a story about coming under fire. ''We man three outposts outside of Kabul,'' said Schwartz. ''We all think it's going to be a bad spring.'' The brigade will be moving along the border with Pakistan, near Jalalabad, soon. That area is critical in the fight for Afghanistan's future.

That future depends on U.S. commitment and that of the world community. 1st Lt. Joe Mitchell said, ''The Afghans are nervous as to whether we'll stay committed. They need to trust us and to trust our system so they will implement what we tell them.''

Asked about home, the responses were unanimous; family, friends, employers have been there all the way. Every member of the team knew his or her job, from state trooper to truck driver, would be waiting when they return. Internet service keeps everyone connected, and mail arrives daily. The youngest member of the team, Spec. Michael Maritato comes in for heavy ribbing because his mother writes to him every day and sends care packages filled with goodies and toiletries.

As I prepared to ride back to my base, there was one message I was asked to carry: ''Tell our families not to worry. We're all looking out for each other.''

Message delivered, along with my gratitude and respect for service above and beyond to: Lt. Col. Schwartz, Lt. Col. Judah Whitney, Maj. Robert Jorgensen, Capt. Pat Pellegrino, Capt. Joe Junguzza, 1st Lt. Robert Gallagher, 1st Lt. Victor Yartz, 1st Lt. Michael Green, 1st Lt. Mitchell, 1st Sgt. Todd Walter, Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Bittenbender, Master Sgt. Scott Ball, Sgt. Jan Argonish, Sgt. Kramer, Spec. Robert Gerrity and Spec. Maritato.

Pamela Varkony is a writer and commentator living in Allentown. She is a former member of city council. Her blog, ''Perspectives ... public and private,'' can be found on-line at

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