Year-long duty puts strain on families, Oregonians serving in Afghanistan"Bunks, sir, bunks - tell your guys to clean up the bunks!"

Major Rob Fraser is trying his best to maintain his composure as he pressures Col. Mangul, chief of staff of the Afghan National Army's 2nd Brigade, to get his troops to tackle a simple task - picking up and assembling some metal-frame bunk beds for the unit's new barracks in Jalalabad.

The bunks were delivered to the compound several days ago, and have been lying in an unsightly heap since then. Fraser, an Oregon National Guard member from Salem and one of the brigade's American trainers, has been trying without success to get this seemingly simple task completed.

TOM BENNETT - The Daily Astorian

A soldier haggles with a merchant at a bazaar at Camp Phoenix. The camp outside Kabul is the headquarters for Task Force Phoenix, the National Guard-led mission charged with training the new Afghan National Army.Tonight, as he and some of his fellow American trainers share tea with Mangul in the colonel's office, he again brings up the bunks, warning that he won't go shopping for supplies for the base until the equipment is straightened up.

The colonel, however, makes excuses about the men being busy guarding visiting dignitaries, and will only give Fraser some vague promises to have the bunks cleared away.

Guerrilla attacks and Osama bin Laden sightings make the headlines out of Afghanistan, but for the 1,600 soldiers of Task Force Phoenix, challenges like the Battle of the Bunks are more common headaches.

Military stretched thinThe task force's members are among the 12,000 American military personnel serving in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. They are also almost exclusively drawn from the National Guard.

With the active-duty military stretched thin by America's missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the Pentagon is relying like never before on National Guard and reserve troops to handle a wide variety of tasks. In Afghanistan, it is the Guard, under Task Force Phoenix, that has the lead role in training the new 70,000-strong Afghan National Army.

Task Force members, including Astoria's Dean Perez, say they bring experience that younger active-duty soldiers often lack. But they also say the year-long mission can be a burden for men and women with careers and families back home.

TOM BENNETT - The Daily Astorian

Major Rob Fraser, Oregon National Guard member from Salem, counts money during payday for the local Afghan National Army unit in Jalalabad.They're bookkeepers, police officers, teachers and corporate executives. Some are former soldiers who've seen combat in Vietnam, the 1991 Iraq war or other conflicts - others have never been deployed overseas. They now serve in a war-torn nation where guerrilla fighters and left-over weapons pose a small but real threat every day.

Perez is among those new to combat zones. The human resources director for Clatsop County, he has spent 19 years in the Army National Guard, but aside from a two-week call-up during the Los Angeles riots of 1991, he had never been activated. Called up last year, he and 14 other Oregonians were assigned to the Indiana National Guard's 76th Infantry Brigade as part of Task Force Phoenix. Recently relocated to Jalalabad near the Pakistani border, he's teaching battle-planning and administrative responsibilities to the headquarters staff of the ANA's 2nd Brigade as an ETT (Embedded Training Team).

It's a job that can begin at 5:30 in the morning and go until midnight or beyond.

"Being a Guardsman, and not being used to doing this all the time, it takes some of us a few months to get into battle rhythm," he said. "Typically you will forget stuff, forget to call someone, but as long as no one is hurt or killed, you learn from your mistakes and you move on.

TOM BENNETT - The Daily Astorian

Dean Perez stands at attention while reveille is played at the American base in Jalalabad."The ETTs, their attitudes are pretty good, and the job satisfaction is pretty high."

Some of his fellow trainers bring some active-duty experience to the job. Sgt. First Class Scott Lucas of Portland served for eight years in the Army, including four years as a Ranger. He later joined the Army Reserve, but resisted the National Guard, turned off by the image of the casual "weekend warrior," until he gave the organization a second look.

"I was pleasantly surprised by how professional they are," he said.

Afghanistan isn't Lucas' first overseas deployment - he went to Saudi Arabia in 1999, where he was on alert as New Year's Eve 2000 rang in. But the worker for Portland General Electric didn't think he'd end up somewhere like Afghanistan.

"I thought I would be done with all this stuff, but they keep bringing me back," he said.

In Afghanistan, Lucas was stationed in the western city of Herat last September when rioters attacked coalition and ANA troops and trashed several United Nations buildings to protest the removal of a popular local ruler. Despite the violence and the continuing threat from insurgents and mines, he sees the ETTs making progress.

"I think all of us have done good - I like the mission," he said.

The mission ends this summer, but Lucas, Perez, Fraser and the other Oregonians are probably not finished in Afghanistan. Oregon takes over Task Force Phoenix in 2006, and they will likely be called back then.

Long tour of dutyThe prospect of another tour doesn't thrill Perez. He'll come if called, he says, but admits he's not enthusiastic about the prospect of another year away from home.

The consensus among most Guard members is that the task force's one-year deployment is too long for people who have fulltime jobs and families they must leave behind. Six or even eight months is doable, they say, but after that point homesickness and the dreary aspects of military camp life begin to take a toll.

"I don't see how the National Guard can keep up the tempo," Perez said. "The reason I joined the Guard was fires and floods, but when they need me for a mission like this, I have absolutely no problem. But the Army needs to rethink (the deployment schedule) - 12 months is brutal on families."

TOM BENNETT - The Daily Astorian

Perez walks with General Aminullah Patyanee, commander of the Afghan 2nd Brigade, following a speech by Vice President Ahmed Zia Massoud in Jalalabad.Perez tries to call his wife Andrea once a week, and e-mails her every day, even if it's simply to write "don't have time, love you." He saw her and his two sons during a two-week home leave in January, but the time apart only gets tougher as the months go by.

"Eight or nine months is about the time you start to get tired," he said.

Major Landry Foley, medical company commander at Camp Phoenix outside Kabul and a 13-year Indiana National Guard veteran, agreed the lengthy deployment is difficult.

"When we signed up a lot of people didn't expect to have something like this to go on," she said. "In my mind, I put the uniform on, and if that comes up then this is what I've gotta do - basically suck it up and drive on. It doesn't mean it's easy, though."

Landry said the mission has prompted some National Guard members to make plans to leave the service when their current contracts are up.

"This really has been a hard deployment, primarily because they have been away from their families, and that's been really difficult," she said. "When you're active duty, this is kind of what you're used to.

"This has been tremendously hard on all of us. I miss my two little guys back home," she added. "But all of us are in the same boat, and we have our own support system here."

Some Guard members haven't left all their family behind. Husband and wife Jack and Janet Martin, both Oregon Guard members, are currently deployed in Afghanistan - Jack with Task Force Phoenix and Janet, a native of Astoria who spent the first 10 years of her life here, with the Guard's headquarters staff at Bagram Airfield north of Kabul.

The two served in the active military - Jack with the Marines in Vietnam, and Janet for 22 years with the Army and Army Reserve. When Jack was deployed to Afghanistan, Janet, who was due to be sent overseas as well, requested to go there too. But while the two are stationed only an hour apart, the opportunities to get together are rare.

"I don't know which is worse - being 50 miles away and not seeing each other or being 10,000 miles away and not seeing each other," Janet Martin said.

Her job as property book officer for the Guard gives her the chance to travel all over Afghanistan to forward bases, as well as to hospitals, orphanages and refugee camps, where she gets to "play grandma" to local children, one of the more enjoyable parts of her job.

"My gas mask bag is full of toys and candy," she said.

Janet Martin's deployment is set to last only five months, but the hardships of the mission - Bagram is a prime target for rocket attacks by insurgents, for one thing - has her thinking about the advantages of civilian life and the chance to spend more time with her seven - soon to be eight - grandchildren, she said.

But despite the hardships and sacrifices, the men and women in Afghanistan feel they're part of an important mission.

Indiana Guardsman Sgt. Brian Alvey noted he's making one-quarter the salary he made in civilian life, and agreed the one-year deployment is too long.

"But at the same time, after 9/11 you knew it was coming," he said. "We volunteered to be here, I knew what I was getting into, I wouldn't have it any other way. Somebody's gotta do it, it needs to be done. I think we should be here."

Tags