Deployment was life-changing experience

By JARROD PLANT/Montana State News

Drew Irvine remembers vividly the first time he stepped off the airplane on Kandahar Airfield. He took a deep-breath lifting, for a brief moment, the hundred pounds of equipment to weightlessness before it nestled back onto his body. Sweat soaked through his uniform. Irvine had a year to get used to the feeling.

He looked out onto the landscape, an arid desert that housed the second largest airfield of Joint-Coalition forces. It served as the gateway in to the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan where thousands of insurgents lived, armed with AK-47’s and years of experience in war.

On his second day in country, Christmas Eve, the insurgents gift wrapped a present for the countries newest guests. Missiles rained indiscriminately down onto the base. Irvine and some of the other guys were smoking hookah outside of the transient tent.

Missiles flew over their heads. They were running to some bunkers. Veterans persuaded them to stay put.

The unit camped out at Kandahar for a week and half as they acclimated to the weather of Afghanistan. Afterwards, they mounted up and went to forward operating base (FOB) Apache. They grabbed the vehicles that they would be using for the entirety of the deployment. From there, in new vehicles, they traveled to FOB Sweeney, their new home.

Irvine and his unit lived near the Pakistan border in southern Afghanistan. It surprised him when he looked out onto the landscape and saw snow. The mountains vaguely reminded him of Belt, Montana, but they were host to dangers only a few are willing to face.

During the winter months, the unit would cruise along the dirt roads patrolling for danger. Irvine was equipped with an eighteen pound M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW). The larger guys, like Irvine, generally had the privilege of carrying the largest weapons.

In the opening months of the deployment, Irvine estimates that they ran into an improvised explosive device (IED) about three times a week. The unit seldom had to perform dismounted patrols in the winter months.

When they did they scaled the mountains, searching high and low for any threats on FOB Sweeney. Often times, the insurgents would attack the unit in the valley, then would retreat to the safety of the Pakistan border. They knew that American soldiers could not fight across the border.

Irvine’s unit supervised the Afghan National Army (ANA) as they patrolled missions. Navy Seals trained the ANA.

As the winter months passed by, the snow melted. The mountain passes were open. There was only one[?] way into FOB Sweeney, a mountain pass. They used to fly helicopters in, but a helicopter crashed a hundred yards outside of the FOB which later restricted the usage of helicopters in the region.

Irvine turned 19 while he was in Afghanistan, May 31. The unit went out on patrol and Irvine went with them. He tried to not let anyone know it was his birthday.

The summer months allowed the insurgents to become more active. There was on average two or three IED attacks a day. The unit also took increased indirect fire attacks.

One day in June, the company patrolled the hillsides. They rode in their Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. The day was like any other day, hot, and the soldiers sweated in the vehicles as they kept an eye out for IED’s.

The lead vehicle ran over a pressure plated explosive force projectile which detonated and shot the underbelly of the MRAP. The vehicle flew into the air, and rolled two and half times. Irvine’s friend, Michael Ristau passed away on impact. The driver broke both his legs and the passengers in the back were fine.

Irvine wears a bracelet that memorializes Ristau. Cold dark steel that never leaves his wrist. The bracelet says Michael Ristau, where he died and what he died for—Operation Enduring Freedom.

When Ramadan, a holy month for Islam, rolled by the soldiers were asked by high command to not drink or eat in front of the locals while they patrolled missions. The insurgents reduced their attacks during Ramadan. The holy month took place from late-July to Mid-August of 2012. The soldiers welcomed the small break in the fighting.

After the holy month passed, the fighting continued, almost immediately. Irvine’s company got lucky and for the next few months left on deployment, they managed to avoid any casualties, and major wounds. The rest of the battalion which served in a different area wasn’t so lucky.

Irvine returned home at the end of the year and in time for a new year to start. The military have instilled great programs for the soldiers returning from deployment. Over the next two years, Irvine and closer his friends from Afghanistan served the remainder of their time at FT. Lewis, currently known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Lakewood, Washington.

His friends from the unit left the unit around the time that he did. Two years after spending a year in Afghanistan, Irvine left the active army, a full-fledged civilian.

“I don’t think that every vet gets PTSD. I think there is such a thing as survivor’s guilt, like the guy in the backseat of the vehicle survived and (Michael) didn’t,” said Irvine.

Irvine is currently attending school at Montana State studying sociology with a concentration in criminology. He wants to continue to serve as a cop or an agent for the FBI or CIA.

Irvine watches the television and unwinds after a long day. He shifts the bracelet to a more comfortable position. He lets loose a wild laugh. As I watch, I can’t help but laugh, too.

– Edited by Natalie Walters

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