KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - November mornings cast a chilly spell on the sprawling military installation. The roar of a huge jet taking off from the nearby runway drowns out the daily call to early-morning prayer, while gentle breezes from the north push the dirt like a dancer across the narrow roads crisscrossing the base.
This is Kandahar Airfield, a main NATO base in Afghanistan that has become a launching pad for the Global War on Terror in this landlocked Muslim country that is slightly smaller than Texas with about the same number of inhabitants - 30 million - as California.
Since 2003, Nevada National Guard units have rotated into Afghanistan, some serving as far north at Bagram Airfield north of Kabul to Kandahar in the southeast, 240 highway miles from the capital city. The 422nd Expeditionary Signal Battalion (ESB), with headquarters in Reno and three National Guard companies from Reno, Las Vegas and Casa Grande, Ariz., and two active-duty companies under its wing, became one of the largest Nevada Army National Guard units to deploy to Afghanistan when soldiers arrived in the country in March.
The battalion's mission
Battalion commander Lt. Col. Jeffrey Hansen of Dayton described the 422nd's mission as providing communications to many units in southern Afghanistan, or as he calls it, becoming the AT&T of the battlefield. "There are a couple main parts to our mission," explained Hansen, a father of two who has been with the Guard for more than 20 years. "The ESB provides up to 30 command control nodes (connection points) organically based on the number of people and equipment within our area. Down here we're doing that through Regional Command (RC) South and several sites in RC West and one in RC East."
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has established five Regional Commands throughout Afghanistan to facilitate operations in each area.
Hansen, a father of two who has been with the Guard for more than 20 years, said the signal operations provide a new phase on the battlefield, something shared with the ESBs that either precede or follow the 422nd. An ESB offers a wide spectrum of communication tools to the units and soldiers in the field, said Hansen, to include Internet, video, data, teleconferencing and secure and nonsecure communications. Hansen said the 422nd supports a plethora of organizations in several regional commands.
Additionally, the 422nd provides tactical satellite dishes and switching, something that also exists in every company. Although each company differs somewhat in the scope of its mission, Hansen said each unit provides similar services.
"The 422nd is the largest individual signal unit in Afghanistan right now, and we make up most of the 228th Theater Signal Brigade (headquartered at Bagram)," Hansen said. "We work with the J6 (Communications-Electronics Directorate) and take care of the communications within the needs of the 82nd Airborne's area of responsibility. That means providing base communications in a base like Kandahar and also providing communications and signal support to multi-national units, joint service military, civilians and contractors." Hansen said the feedback from the brigade staff has been positive.
"Their support has been great," Hansen said of the Greenville, S.C.-based National Guard brigade. "This is a Guard brigade that understands the challenges we go through and our capabilities."
Furthermore, Hansen said, the battalion's signal capabilities reach outside Kandahar to many FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) scattered throughout the province and accessible only by helicopter or well-planned convoy. Hansen said the talent within the battalion is making the mission succeed.
Hansen, who conducted this interview from a small office with bare plywood walls and no windows, extols the work done by the soldiers in the battalion.
"A lot of our guys do a lot of this work in the civilian word and that gave them the incentive to make it better (here) than when they found it. It has been a challenge to us," Hansen added.
The Nevada battalion's reputation grew in recent months with its ability to provide communication services to both units inside and outside the Kandahar fenceline. Hansen - along with others in the unit - swells with pride when others compliment them for their work in a war zone.
"Customer service travels through southeast Afghanistan," Hansen said, looking at his Nevada arm patch and pointing toward it. "People know this. They see the patch and say you are the signal guys who work the help desk on FOBs. Because of this relationship, we have built soldier-provided support. This patch has a great reputation."
After leaving Nevada in January for additional training at Fort Lewis, Wash., and arriving in country in March, Hansen said the unit is beginning to wind down for its re-deployment to Nevada next month. The days and hours have been long for the Wooster High School grad, but he feels a strong sense of accomplishment.
Hansen and his command staff call this a truly "Nevada" unit. Soldiers represent almost every community in Nevada. Like many soldiers in the battalion, Hansen has kept in touch with his children and friends through Facebook, email and Skype.
"I talk with the kids at least once week," said Hansen, his eyes tearing. The time and distance have been an obstacle, but Hansen said he saw them during a morale flight to Nevada during the summer. "They're doing well. We're all looking forward to doing all the things we like to do when I return.
"I stay in touch with people via email. It's not like it used to be. Letters take several weeks to receive. In a month, you'd receive a letter and send one off back home."
Hansen's executive officer, Lt. Col. Michael S. Peyerl, spent 10 years on active duty before he left the Army and joined the Nevada Army National Guard in 2005. The 1991 Churchill County High School graduate from Fallon comes from a military family in which his father served a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy.
Peyerl has worked for Hansen for more than two years as his XO and has been a big drive behind the deployment half-way around the world.
Preparing for two years
"We've been prepping the battalion for over two years," Peyerl explained of the impending deployment, first beginning in 2009 when both the Nevada and Arizona companies worked together at Camp Navajo, Ariz., near Flagstaff and in 2010 at the Hawthorne Army Depot.
The battalion fielded new equipment and needed the best and brightest to operate it.
"We had a challenge. We built the entire team over a one-year span, and the team here now was built then," he added. "We got the best individuals, the best team members. No matter what we would face, we had the best people."
The battalion, with all of its communication equipment and personnel, became the largest unit to deploy from the Silver State to either Iraq or Afghanistan. Peyerl said it was a challenge moving equipment and soldiers from not just one state but two.
Another challenge faced the signal battalion once in country.
"We had two additional active-duty companies (which have already left for the states) and assumed two more. We built team competence and expertise," Peyerl boasts. "Challenging? Yes, but we took every mission we were asked to do here and figured out what needed to be done and went ahead and did it."
Peyerl attributes the battalion's success to soldiers who perform similar functions with civilian companies.
"We have electrical engineers who deal with power and signal needs, and a lot of guys work for cable companies. Many know how to install high-speed fiber - both aerial and ground fiber throughout RC-S and in the West (RC-W). This gives us faster connection," Peyerl explained.
"The overall mission far exceeded expectations because we installed the high-speed fiber throughout KAF."
Peyerl said the battalion not only maintained and redesigned the network but also nurtured credibility for its service.
With the days and weeks counting down before the battalion returns home, Peyerl said he is anxious to see his 7-year-old son, wife Andrea and the extended family. Peyerl said he talks to his family at least once a week, but he emails and uses Facebook more often than that.
As for the deployment itself, Peyerl said it can be difficult for families, but serving in the military comes with a price.
While Hansen and Peyerl keep an eye on the overall operation of the signal battalion and its companies, it's the command sergeant major who keeps a pulse on the soldiers.
Jose A. Aragon, a mainstay with the 422nd for a generation, he doesn't hold back his praise for the battalion's men and women.
"Overall, it's been great. Everywhere I go, people make comments about our great soldiers," said Aragon, the longtime command sergeant major, the unit's top enlisted soldier. "We had some issues, but overall the customer provided support and the unit worked with us. That's the great thing about our soldiers."
The New Mexico native regularly meets with each unit's first sergeant to discuss his expectations and inform them of current or changing policies.
From the feedback offered by his first sergeants, Aragon, in turn, notifies the command and gives them advice in handling certain situations.
His communication doesn't stop with the first sergeants. During the past nine months, Aragon has spoken to scores of soldiers who feel comfortable in telling him of their concerns.
"The biggest fear is going home to the unknown. A year ago it was leaving and going to the unknown," Aragon revealed. "When we first got here, people were wondering, and then they got comfortable."