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Airman shares Afghanistan experience

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii (AFPN) -- Staff Sgt. Matt never expected to live in a mud hut in the middle of Afghanistan, but that is exactly what he did for nearly 140 days

Matt is a terminal attack controller with the 25th Air Support Operations Squadron at Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii. When he deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the area of operations reminded him of where he grew up in New Mexico -- hot, dry, dusty and surrounded by mountains.

Matt was excited about going to Afghanistan.

"After 11 years as a terminal attack controller, I was finally going to get to do my job in a combat ... target-rich environment," he said.

While there, Matt was part of a 12-man special forces A-team in which his mission was to provide close-air support, communications and all aspects of fire support including artillery, air drops and other air support.

Although he was the only active-duty Air Force member on the team, he said the experience level was incredible. "Some of the guys fought in Vietnam and the Gulf War," he said.

"Expect the unexpected" was one of the lessons he learned.

"Most of my training has been to support a large conventional force like the 25th Infantry Division," Matt said. "In Afghanistan, we were performing unconventional warfare."

During conventional operations Matt would be working with a large Army unit but during OEF operations he worked with special forces and indigenous forces.

Life in this deployed environment was nothing less than austere. The mud hut was their "safe house" and home base was an old Afghan house in the Hindu Kush mountains. Even though it did have electricity provided by a generator, there was no running water. Everyone would take turns going out to get water for washing up and doing the dishes.

"It was one of three houses in the area that had electricity," said Matt.

In preparation for his deployment, Matt concentrated on running extra miles and performing additional ruck marches to condition himself for conducting foot patrols at 12,000 feet above sea level. A ruck march usually includes carrying more than 60 pounds of equipment in a backpack.

"Usually at the ASOS we do physical training five days a week," said Matt. "We must adhere to the physical fitness standards of both the Army and the Air Force."

A typical week of physical training would include running at least three miles a day and one ruck march of six to 10 miles.

When not at the safe house or meeting with the locals, a team of eight would go on patrol and usually be gone for five to six days.

"In that amount of time we would cover approximately 500 miles," said Matt.

Two different types of patrols were conducted, according to Matt, who took part in more than 80 combat patrols. One type was a presence patrol - a show of force where a team would drive through and let the Taliban see them.

"It was sort of like we were saying 'Hey, don't start your stuff again or we can respond,'" he said.

Other patrols were part of recovering equipment and capturing people. It also included the clearing of more than 300 caves in their area of operations.

Besides aiding in the capture and extraction of 44 Taliban and al-Qaida forces, he was also responsible for recovering and destroying more than 10 tons of weapons and munitions from Taliban caches.

He described the caches as rather shallow caves, their purpose for storing ammunition and weapons.

"We'd have to be careful because sometimes there were mines or trip wires in the entrance," he said.

The sergeant said he thinks Afghanistan is a place where things have not changed much in the past 1,000 years. Many things taken for granted in the United States are unknown to the Afghan people. They still farm by hand, harvest wheat with a sickle, herd goats and sheep and draw water by hand.

A popular toy with the children is a stick with a ring on the end. They also make toys from old military trash and weaponry.

"The kids put wheels on ammunition boxes left by the Russians," said Matt. He added that many times the children think an unexploded ordnance is a toy and blow themselves up.

For Matt, fitting in with the locals was part of his mission.

"We need to blend in with their culture and adhere to their customs," he said.

That meant eating native cuisine which sometimes took its toll.

"After eating the local food, we'd sometimes be sick for a week," said Matt.

While on presence patrols, tribal elders would feed the team. The usual meal consisted of goat, rice, fresh yogurt made from goat's milk, onions and potatoes.

Although Matt was glad to be in the comfort of home again, he said he appreciated the experience.

"It's good to see (Afghan) kids going to school now," the terminal attack controller said. "We've made a difference over there." (Courtesy of Pacific Air Forces News Service)

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