Afghanistan, 2011: In a war lasting more than 10 years, troops of Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry Brigade, the successors to the storied World War II unit and now a brigade numbering about 3,000, deployed into combat. By their return in March of this year, 14 had died and nearly 1,000 were injured.
“The fact is, the soldiers and airmen on this rotation served in a much more intense environment [than they did in Iraq],” said Oklahoma Adjutant Gen. Myles Deering.
“They were doing what they were trained to do — which is what they wanted to do in the first place. They wanted to be infantry. So they found themselves doing one of the more dangerous jobs in the Army. It was a tough environment. We paid a price for it.”
According to recent figures from the Oklahoma National Guard, 395 soldiers were still in various kinds of medical treatment, a process called “Warrior Transition,” as of early June. Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Max Moss said Warrior Transition has been ongoing for some since the 45th’s 2008 deployment to Iraq, a noncombat assignment. However, he said, most participants are from this deployment to Afghanistan.
“Those soldiers still haven’t returned to Oklahoma. They are members of Warrior Transition units that are on military installations around the country, based on need — whether it’s a mental health issue or a physical issue — recovering from wounds,” Moss said.
And upon returning home, 33 percent of the “less-than-1-percenters,” as Deering calls his troops, had no job: a Great Depression-era unemployment rate.
Less than 1 percent? Oklahoma National Guard members are fewer than 1 percent of the population they are sworn to protect, Deering said.
Guard officials gave two reasons for the high number of Afghanistan war casualties: the environment and the enemy.
Afghanistan is a harsh land. It is not unusual for summertime temperatures to reach 120 degrees during the day, with human water loss at a liter an hour during physical activity. In addition to getting shot at or bombed in the course of a mission, other hazards abound. Soldiers being transported are exposed to collisions with various native vehicles, from donkey carts to the painted-up semis called “jingle trucks,” driven without the benefit of driver education in a country that hasn’t had civil education for 30 years. Roads are pockmarked with shell holes and debris.
“If you send a population of individuals over to do a job, whatever it is, you’re going to have a statistical number of injuries. The injuries are different, depending on what mission it is,” said Maj. Carl Bennett, deputy state surgeon for the state National Guard.
Bennett said that out of 2,200 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan (800 in the deployment remained on standby in Kuwait), the Oklahoma Guard suffered 632 noncombat injuries “by virtue of doing whatever job they had over there.”
Not all of the injuries were life-threatening, said Lt. Col. Kris Evans, director of the state Guard’s family programs.
“The preponderance of them will be ‘twisted my arm, out for a couple of days, then return to duty,’” he said.
At Anzio in World War II, 37,000 of the injuries sustained by the troops were noncombat casualties, according to U.S. Army historians. This means Oklahomans suffered a greater percentage of combat casualties in Afghanistan.
In its two previous deployments to a combat theater since 9/11, the Thunderbirds were under fire and sustained casualties. There were injuries, but no deaths, when the unit deployed to Afghanistan in 2004, which started out as a training mission to stand up the Afghan National Army.
In those days, the intense fighting was in Iraq. In 2008, by the time the 45th arrived in Iraq, the original “surge” had quieted down much of the intense fighting. The infantry brigade ended up primarily with the task of guarding prisoners, a mission that more found monotonous — not what infantry is supposed to be engaged in.
By the time of the Afghanistan surge, many in the unit got their wish, Deering said.
“Not saying it wasn’t dangerous in Iraq — it’s never fun when somebody fires missiles at you — but it wasn’t the same direct contact that these kids engaged in this time,” Deering said. “They were put out on forward operating bases, many on the Pakistan border. They were in areas that no friendly forces had been in since the beginning of the war. We went into places that had not had a coalition force for years.”
Bennett said about 1,500 troops of the 2,200 deployed in Afghanistan were engaged in direct combat operations. Some support personnel also sustained combat injuries.
“Just because you weren’t infantry doesn’t mean you didn’t encounter situations involving [improvised explosive devices],” he said.
Out of that, 290 sustained injuries “during or because of battle conditions,” Bennett said.
The Army’s reliance on transportation to project force over a large area creates additional exposure to casualties, Deering said. With fewer soldiers to cover missions over a vast area, roadside bombs are especially useful for an enemy intent on increasing casualties.
“Anytime you send 3,000 troops and put them on roads in an environment where they are planting IEDs under these roads, the numbers are gonna come up,” Deering said.
The road home
The Oklahoma Guard just finished conducting its second “Yellow Ribbon Event,” an assessment program for returning soldiers and their families, in which they are paired with medical officials, counselors and other resources to identify problems and help the guard member reintegrate to home and family.
“A soldier may not realize or may not disclose that he has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder when he comes back, but he may notice them, or the family may notice them when he’s trying to adjust. That’s why we have the events separated at 30, 60, 90 days,” said Evans.
Bennett said he did not yet have firm figures on the numbers of returning soldiers with PTSD, but that the diagnosis is rising — perhaps because army medical staff is doing a better job identifying it.
“Because we are looking at them and identifying them early, we mitigate future problems,” he said.
Meanwhile, jobs are an issue.
Moss said reintegration includes a jobs program in cooperation with Oklahoma businesses to hire returning vets.
did a survey when they came back through — the hard number was over
1,000, about 33-34 percent of the brigade listed themselves as
unemployed or underemployed,” Moss said.
“We got the word out in the media … and my phone rang off the hook with Oklahoma employers saying, ‘I’d like to hire some guardsmen.’” In the end, the good news is that 3,000 Oklahoma guardsmen and women who deployed in 2011 are home.
The sobering news is that many will almost certainly deploy again. They are seasoned troops.
“I’m continually impressed by these young men and women, knowing that the likelihood of combat is significant,” Deering said. “We have a generation of lessthan-1-percenters, and they still step up. You don’t get into a profession like this and not expect to be challenged to use your skills.”
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