By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
Lt. Col. Peter Andrysiak won't sugarcoat the situation.
His soldiers, who make up the 20th Engineer Battalion, deployed to Afghanistan a little more than two months after four were killed and 11 injured during the Nov. 5 shooting at Fort Hood.
Of those 11, two deployed in January with their company, three others eventually joined their companies, too. Six moved to companies within the battalion's higher headquarters - the 36th Engineer Brigade - to recover at Fort Hood from their wounds. Of the 21 others in the battalion who were at the Soldier Readiness Processing Center that day, 18 deployed.
"It has been a challenge as none of us have ever been through something like this before a deployment," Andrysiak said this week in an e-mail from Afghanistan.
The battalion deployed in mid-January to lead Task Force Lumberjack, a more than 1,000-soldier group that took over Afghanistan's route clearance operations in February,
according to information from the battalion. It became the large task force of its kind in Afghanistan, operating across 148,000 square kilometers in the south.
Soldiers from Fort Hood; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Drum, N.Y.; Baumholder, Germany; and the Arkansas Reserves make up the task force, which has found 222 roadside bombs as of Wednesday. Thirteen of its soldiers - three from Fort Hood, five from Fort Bragg, four from Fort Lewis and one from Fort Drum - have died in action. As of Wednesday, 39 have earned Purple Hearts, according to information from the battalion.
Andrysiak said he wondered what would happen as the fi ght in Afghanistan intensified and "we started to take casualties."
"How would they react and what latent issues would arise," he said. "What I found in time is the event and the help they got following the event only made these soldiers stronger." It's something the battalion had worked at over time, he went on to say, by tracking high-risk soldiers, getting them care from combat stress specialists and "ensuring everyone knew that getting help was a good thing and not something to be ashamed of."
He and other senior leaders learned that the soldiers most affected wanted to stop talking about the event and move on, he said. The soldiers who chose to deploy wanted to stay with their brothers, Andrysiak said.
"You hear it all the time," he said. "Sure they want to fight for their country, but it's really about their buddies - they fight for one another." Still, there were those who struggled with the incident and there was no pressure for them to deploy, Andrysiak said.
The commander praised the companies most affected by the shooting, the 510th Clearance and Forward Support. The 510th's 2nd Platoon lost Spc. Frederick Greene, Pfc. Aaron Nemelka and Pfc. Michael Pearson. The tragic event only made the company stronger, Andrysiak said.
The soldiers find 77 percent of roadside bombs they come across, which is more than 100 as of Wednesday. The company experienced more misfortune in June when a bomb blast severely injured two noncommissioned officers and they were evacuated to the United States for care.
No platoon has gone through more or met more challenges yet they kept it together, Andrysiak said.
"They held it together and just got stronger," he said. "They fed off other members of their company and continued to deliver phenomenal results."
Pfc. Kham Xiong, one of the 13 victims, was assigned to the Forward Support Company. Among their duties, the company's soldiers keep the route clearance companies on the road by keeping them stocked with parts and supplies. Mechanics travel constantly to keep their fellow soldiers on the road and they do it in Xiong's memory, Andrysiak said.
"Every three months they have a competition where they bring in the best mechanics from every unit in the task force and put them through a rigorous board," he said. "The winner gets the prestigious Pfc. Xiong award." Of the 11 injured Nov. 5, seven were assigned to the Forward Support Company.
They, too, pulled together to get one another through the challenges, Andrysiak said.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. visited with soldiers of the 20th Engineer Battalion and 467th Medical Detachment, which lost three soldiers, April 28 at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. He wanted to see how the wounded and witnesses at the processing center Nov. 5 were coping, according to a release from Joint Sustainment Command-Afghanistan. Soldiers talked about their psychological recovery.
"We still think about it a lot," said Staff Sgt. Dawn Brewer, a counselor with the detachment. "It has helped us understand what others go through. We are able to better empathize with what soldiers are going through."
The 20th Engineer's Sgt. Fernando Perez told Casey the healing process continued.
"We won't ever forget it," Perez said in April. "We felt like we were in the safest place on earth when that happened. Eventually, you have to face it. Slowly, we are moving on."
Welcoming them home Soldiers from the 1908th and 467th Medical Detachments were welcomed home from Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, in October.
Both combat stress control units fall under the 807th Medical Command, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City. The units specialize in treating soldiers suffering from combat stress.
They are a collection of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and occupational and mental health specialists who care for men and women who undergo the stresses of a deployment, whether they are induced by combat, family separation or work relationships.
Five of the 13 killed and 19 of the wounded were assigned to the detachments. Eight of those 19 deployed with their units, according to information provided by the medical command.
The command also supplied three behavioral health support teams to Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center through January to provide care to victims and their families.
The Topeka, Kan.-based 1908th sent 42 soldiers to Camp Liberty, Iraq, a month after two of its own, Lt. Col. Juanita Warman and Capt. John Gaffaney, were killed Nov. 5. Five were wounded and did not deploy with the detachment. Seven to replace the dead and wounded were identified in the week following the shooting, according to information from the medical command.
Soldiers of the Madison, Wis.-based 467th departed Fort Hood in early December, the memory of three of their fallen - Maj. Libardo Caraveo, Capt. Russell Seager and Staff Sgt. Amy Krueger - with them. The Madison, Wis.-based unit was made of more than 40 soldiers.
Six of the detachment's soldiers were wounded and did not deploy. The nine fallen and wounded had to be replaced before the unit could deploy and Army officials said in December that soldiers with the needed military occupational specialties from around the country volunteered to fill the slots.
Lt. Col. Daniel Lonowski, of Joint Sustainment Command- Afghanistan, contributed to this report.