Part 5 – Reflection and Implications
“Trust yourself and each other. Trust your training. We will do amazing things.”
Those were the confident words of our commander, Lt. Col. Jake Helgestad, as he jumped on a chair in the Ali al Salem airbase passenger terminal and stood before the task force as we prepared to board C-17 Globemasters en route to Kabul via Qatar. Getting there was a feat in itself. He was concerned with understanding our command relationship and mission on the ground. He had been woken up late on August 12th with the news the Bastards were going to Afghanistan.
“No one could’ve predicted how this unfolded. The entire situation was surreal.”
That continued once the task force was on the ground, but his battalion was ready.
“Given the past two years, and now with our time here, I would argue we are the best trained, most ready mechanized armor unit in the entire Army.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration.
That applied not only to the companies but the staff as well. Lt. Col. Helgestad got our combat power into the fight and did so in a way that anticipated a sustained operation.
“NTC taught us this – you can’t stay awake forever. You have to sustain indefinitely.”
The Bastards performed as trained.
“We were never shaky. We arrived confident and solidified within 48 hours.”
He underscored the life skills the National Guard brought to the 82nd Airborne. “We provided capabilities to the fight beyond trigger-pullers that 1/82 never would’ve been able to — engineers, plumbers, electricians, welders, mechanics, heavy machinery operators – we enabled advanced operations that directly impacted the military’s ability to get people out.”
He was impressed by the resilience of the Afghan people.
“Some have never known anything but war. All they want is to find work and provide for their families. They’ve been fighting for decades, but not just for themselves – always for their families. They deserve peace.”
When asked to reflect on the totality of the mission and what he was most proud of, he had this to say:
“We brought every one of our soldiers back. In a situation no one could perceive during a once-in-a-lifetime military event, we defended the last stronghold during a difficult and dangerous noncombatant evacuation while displaying courage, dignity, and respect. We can hold our heads high.”
The Bastards were among the last units out of Kabul, with the exception of the 82nd Airborne’s three remaining Parachute Infantry Regiments conducting the tactical exfiltration. It befits our history. We had been left behind in 1941 as the Japanese closed in on Manila. What better unit could the Army send to make sure others wouldn’t face the same fate?
Our formations began to collapse for redeployment to Kuwait on August 30. We boarded C-17s and left HKIA as ISIS-K launched rockets that failed to find their mark. I chatted with the flight crew on the way out.
“Can you get us to Kuwait? I know we’re scheduled to land in Qatar, but is there any chance of diverting?” The guys were tired, hungry, and odiferous.
“I’ll see what I can do,” replied the airman.
As the engines roared and we gained altitude, I looked around to see a lot of solemn faces filled with relief. ‘Some of these kids grew up over the past two weeks,’ I thought to myself. As if to drive the point home, I looked to my left at a young infantryman sprawled out on the deck. He was looking at photos of Afghan children he had met on his phone.
A short time later an announcement from the flight deck: “Hey Guys. We just got permission – we’re landing in Kuwait!” Roars of approval.
Moose 79, whose home base is at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, was refueled in-flight. We were escorted by F-15s. I looked out the port window. The pilot was so close I could see him wave. Our aircrew treated us to a hard descent to Ali al-Salem. It was a rollercoaster ride meant to welcome us back, a thank you from the aircrew. Our Air Force is something else. Over half of the total C-17 fleet was mobilized for the airlift. They flew mission after mission safely, and without them, the entire operation was in vain.
As the ramp lowered and we deplaned, I walked out into the bright Kuwaiti sun and onto a hot tarmac. I saw Maj. Gen. John Rhodes, the commanding general of the 29th Infantry Division and Task Force Spartan, walking briskly towards me. I rendered a hand salute. He gave me a bear hug.
As the XO, I assisted Lt. Col. Helgestad with syncing the efforts of the staff and line companies. My job was to conduct current operations so that he could focus on the future fight. Sharing daily updates from the battlefield with our rear XO, Maj. Phil Wong, and my intelligence counterparts in Kuwait were part of my battle rhythm. I sat down with Maj. Puri and the Task Force Spartan G2 intelligence chief, Lt. Col. Joseph Pieper, upon my return.
“Charlie, the updates you shared with us as a combat XO and S2 along with the products that your team put together traveled all the way through the defense intelligence enterprise. The atmospherics you provided helped us confirm or deny the veracity of multiple sources of reporting. Our collection capabilities were severely degraded – you helped us build real tactical awareness. It was good to have you there, and it’s good to have you back.”
It is good to be back in Kuwait, and that’s something I thought I’d never say.
The experience of 1-194 AR at HKIA demonstrates the importance, and viability, of the Army’s Total Force Policy, an ongoing effort to transition reserve components into an operational force. The intent is to create a seamless and holistic “total force” governed by the same interchangeable policies and procedures. Few could have imagined a decade or two ago that a National Guard combat unit would be ready — and able — to deploy with such short notice and perform so effectively in such trying circumstances. We did just that, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with top-tier conventional and special operations forces. Considering Covid response, civil unrest, and noncombatant evacuation operations, 2020-2021 was truly the year of the National Guard, and Minnesota stands as its paragon.
The support for our task force, and our families, has been overwhelming. I believe many of our young Soldiers will not realize or fully appreciate the magnitude of this moment or the second- and third-order effects that their actions contributed to for many years. Many of our soldiers had never been to Afghanistan before, and the two weeks there seemed a pittance compared to our fellow soldiers and veterans that had given so much, some of them all, to the cause of freedom at the request of our nation.
I was fortunate to be a part of this, and I will be forever grateful. The Bastards carry with us the weight of the dead and wounded servicemen and women at Abbey Gate and the suffering and desperation of the Afghan people. We did everything — everything — we could to hold the line at the airport and get U.S. citizens and allies evacuated.
Following the conclusion of our mission, our task force will reset and be postured to respond in the region for any further missions. We’ll continue to train and engage our multinational partners to promote peace and stability.
As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in one of his stories about a dangerous and uncertain journey, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” America’s soldiers, especially the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” of Task Force 1-194 AR, Minnesota National Guard, helped keep the promise of hope alive for over 120,000 people.
Our only regret is that we couldn’t help more.
Capt. Charlie Anderson is the S2 for 1-194 AR (TF Bastard), and served as the XO Forward at HKIA. He is currently deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Spartan Shield. From 1998-2006 he served as a military policeman, completing a combat tour in Iraq 2003-2004. After a 7-year break-in-service, he re-enlisted and completed State officer candidate school, branching military intelligence (MI). As a member of the Minnesota National Guard, his previous assignments include 2-147 Assault Helicopter Battalion (AS2) and 334 BEB MICO (XO). In his civilian life, he is a Commander with the Saint Paul Police Department and a local elected official. He resides in Marine on St Croix, Minnesota with his wife (Betsy) and four children (Thorin, Ingrid, Kjersten and Leif).