30 Hours in Grayling With Michigan National Guard 1-126th Cavalry Regiment

It was a deadly summer for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In July deaths climbed to a monthly record of 66; more than 40 U.S. soldiers died there in August. As the fighting continued in a war that celebrates its ninth anniversary on October 7, the Michigan National Guard's 1-126th Cavalry Regiment, headquartered in Dowagiac, trained at Camp Grayling to deploy to Afghanistan in early spring. Reporting for the following article occurred during a 30-hour period with Charlie Troop 1-126, August 9 and 10, 2010.

(Note: as of January 2012 Charlie Troop has deployed to Afghanistan. Please see the Facebook link at the bottom of this article to follow their progress.)

Lieutenant Mark Grant will have many missions when his Michigan National Guard unit deploys to Afghanistan early this coming spring. But there's one mission he'll live day in and day out: To bring all his troops home.

Beneath thick smears of green and black camo grease clinging to his morning subble. Lietuenant Mark Grant wears a slight smile. It’s not yet 7 a.m., and the soldiers he’s addressing are still bleary-eyed and already sticky-hot in humid air that makes their encampment feel like a terrarium, sprawled, as it is, down the bowl-shaped side of a glacial ridge deep in Camp Grayling’s 147,000 acres. Pelting rain last night made sleeping miserable for everyone, especially one Lieutenant Piper whose hooch (a makeshift tent strung between trees) flooded, making him the butt of good-natured razzing this morning.

Beyond the foul weather, some of the soldiers didn’t make it back to their hooches until after 1 a.m., following a successful raid on Charlie Troop’s fellow unit, Alpha Troop—the raid being the reason both for Grant’s leftover camo grease and his grin. Just after midnight Grant’s soldiers infi ltrated Alpha Troop’s circle of tents, lobbed simulated grenades and emptied 100 rounds of blanks from their M4 semiautomatic rifles, then melted into the dark woods to beat it back to their waiting truck.

Grant congratulates the soldiers, then slides quickly into a debriefing of the raid that is focused on a makeshift map set in the forest floor, called a sand table, where nylon cords stand in for roads, rocks symbolize the Alpha, Bravo and Charlie Troop encampments, and a faded, flattened Bud Lite can is nearby Bear Lake. Tall, soft-talking Private Miller details how Alpha Troop’s sloppiness made them easy to locate—generator running and lights in tents that, through night vision goggles, looked like strobes flashing in the wilderness. Grant nods, then prods the conversation toward the lesson of tactical patience:

“Time is what you have,” he says. “Don’t be in a rush. A rush means you get killed.”

If patience is his word of the day, Grant also knows that he is working against an impatient calendar. In March, following three months of full-time training at Fort Shelby in Mississippi and Fort Polk in Louisiana, the 1-126th will deploy to Afghanistan.

The military doesn’t want the precise location revealed, but the 1-126th is training to go to a Taliban stronghold set in a remote and fi ercely rugged terrain. A place where temperatures climb to 120 degrees during the day in summer, and plummet to below freezing at night in winter; where the elevation can rise to six times higher than Michigan’s, and where most of these soldiers won’t know more than a smattering of the language or the culture.

Their enemy will be a mix of Taliban, Al Qaeda and hostile tribes from the region. These citizen soldiers of our state’s National Guard—men from communities across Michigan who spend the bulk of their time in careers as pedestrian as nurse, computer programmer and security guard—might as well be dropped on the moon.

The men of Charlie Troop have signed on to endure all of the above and much more for many reasons. Around this camp there is the standard talk of duty and of protecting the Constitution, but also of free college education and the pay—about $15,000 a year for an active duty private in the National Guard. But the bottom line reason they’re pumped about this mission, they agree almost to a man, is the esprit de corps—a brotherhood that Grant says, “can be closer than family.”

Having each other’s backs after they deploy in Afghanistan will certainly take on a deeper meaning than most of these soldiers can yet understand. Charlie Troop is training for the especially dangerous work of infantry reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. The soldiers will be working on foot, usually in small groups, camouflaging themselves into a foreign landscape to gather intelligence. The “cool guy stuff” they like to call it, tossing around lines like, “These boots are made for walking” and, “Travel light, freeze at night.”

For all of their commendable bravado, many of the skills are new to most of these soldiers, and they have a lot to learn. Few in the unit have been to Afghanistan, and the 1-126th last deployed to Kuwait and Iraq as a convoy security unit in 2008. It was a thankfully uneventful assignment. As a result, says, Grant, “Some bad habits developed.”

The 126th’s regular National Guard weekend-warrior schedule has recently been upped from two days a month to three—and will climb to four days a month after this three-week training is complete and before they head to Fort Shelby. At Camp Grayling, the largest National Guard facility in the country, which sprawls over 230 square miles of Crawford, Kalkaska and Otsego counties, the soldiers engage in live-fire exercises, search a faux Middle Eastern village, complete with a mosque, work on nighttime surveillance techniques as they did last night, and much more.

That training schedule presents a crazy juggling act of jobs and family for these men. Regardless of the circumstances, it is Grant’s job, working with his counterpart, lanky, affable NCO (non-commissioned officer) Sergeant George Landry, to prepare these men for hell. It helps that Grant has seen a little hell himself.