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The danger is real as 2,100 48th Brigade soldiers deploy to Afghanistan, commander says

Deployment to Afghanistan is dangerous mission, commander says

Georgia National Guard 48th Brigade Commander Col. Matthew Smith talks about their deployment to Afghanistan.
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Georgia National Guard 48th Brigade Commander Col. Matthew Smith talks about their deployment to Afghanistan.

When Col. Matthew Smith, commander of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team based in Macon, began telling some of his civilian friends about the unit’s upcoming deployment to Afghanistan, he would often get an unexpected question.

Some asked if Smith’s wife would be able to visit him there. His answer, of course, was no. It’s a combat zone.

“Would you ask your loved ones to come visit you if you were in a combat zone?” he said during an interview at the brigade’s headquarters on Shurling Drive. “It’s just inherently dangerous. It’s a tough environment even without all of the enemy.”

He wants families of the 2,100 civilian soldiers deploying with the Georgia Army National Guard unit to know that the risk is still real, even as U.S. operations in the troubled country have scaled back significantly.

The active-duty unit that the brigade is replacing lost one soldier in a combat-related casualty in its nine-month deployment, Smith said, while others suffered combat injuries.

Members of the brigade, which has components in armories around the state, will go to Fort Stewart for training starting Oct. 20. In January, the soldiers will head to Afghanistan for a nine-month tour. They will be scattered across the country, primarily in an advise and assist role to civilian police and Afghan soldiers.

The biggest threat they will face, Smith said, will be from insider attacks. As a result, special brigade troops with a mission dubbed “Guardian Angel” will be assigned to protecting their fellow soldiers from those kinds of attacks.

Brigade soldiers will be going out into the field with Afghan troops on combat patrols, but the Afghan troops will be taking the lead. 48th troops also will be providing perimeter patrols to a variety of fixed installations.

The brigade will make up a significant portion of the 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Smith said the 48th, and its soldiers, have known for about a year that it will be deploying. As a guard unit made up of civilian soldiers, he said the brigade is uniquely suited for the mission. He estimated about a third of the brigade’s troops are employed in law enforcement.

“Missions that are similar to what we are going to do in Afghanistan is a better use of our force and the experience within our ranks than using an active component unit,” he said. “When you consider that we are going to mentor police, that becomes a significant advantage that one of our soldiers has that his or her peers in the active component doesn’t have.”

Soldiers are expected to return home for Christmas after their training at Fort Stewart, then will leave for Afghanistan, Smith said. So there won’t be a community sendoff at the headquarters on Oct. 20. There will be a sendoff ceremony at Fort Stewart when the troops depart in January.

It will be the first major deployment of the brigade since a tour in Afghanistan in 2009-10.

Sgt. First Class Ricardo Hueso, who lives near Athens, is at the brigade headquarters now helping prepare for the deployment. He is a communications specialist for the brigade, and that’s also what he does in his full-time job with the Fulton County school system. Hueso deployed with the brigade to Afghanistan in 2009, and it was the first time he was out of the country.

Although deployment is obviously a strain on soldiers and their families, Smith said he believes the majority of those deploying want to go.

“Afghanistan is a great country, and we are doing great things over there,” he said. “I’m very grateful to go back and help people.”