29th ID Soldiers' resilience proves useful in escort mission
29th Infantry Division Soldiers who escorted vulnerable Afghans during Operation Allies Refuge pose for a photo shortly after the mission ended. The team drove more than 7,500 miles in 160 trips in support of the mission. (Photo Credit: Sgt. Marc Loi) VIEW ORIGINAL

CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait – With just a bit more information than the fictitious Rangers who boarded a plane with "mission undetermined, destination unknown," a handful of Soldiers from Task Force Freedom and 29th Infantry Division showed the same grit and determination when they accepted their mission during Operation Allies Refuge.

As the U.S. military began its Afghanistan retrograde operations, the Soldiers first received warning orders to support American service members on their way back to the United States. That mission quickly changed when the Department of State announced it would transport hundreds of thousands of Afghans out of the country. Of those, about 5,000 came through Kuwait.

"The initial mission was supposed to be supporting and transporting American service members, feeding and housing them, and then getting them back to America," said Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Laurion, Task Force Spartan chemical noncommissioned officer. "That all changed as we met up with our counterparts."

While they had mentally prepared for one mission and received their new mission in the middle of the night, Capt. Nicholas Rivera, a Task Force Spartan intelligence officer, said the team did not find its new mission daunting.

"It wasn't really all that hard," Rivera said. "We had eight people and split them up on night and day shift. Because of the change in mission, it helped us stay awake and motivated."

Although one enduring characteristic of the Army is its ability to adapt to different situations, Rivera said being National Guard Soldiers was an added benefit to the team's ability to remain flexible.

"Flexibility was key being National Guardsmen," Rivera said. "We're used to being told to do different jobs."

In just this year, for example, in addition to being deployed in support of Operation Spartan Shield, 29th Infantry Division Soldiers also mobilized during the COVID-19 pandemic and provided security in the days leading up to and after the presidential inauguration.

In their role as security escorts, the team accompanied buses transporting Afghan evacuees from the airbase to the housing area before driving back to the airbase to repeat the process. Although they were running around-the-clock operations, sometimes so many planes arrived that the runway was filled with aircraft.

Rivera said the team accomplished its missions despite the long hours and multiple trips to and from the airbase. What was difficult was seeing displaced Afghans as they got off the plane and onto buses.

"The evacuees would come in mass amounts. There were children with no shoes. They barely had any clothes," Rivera said. "They all just looked so tired. I wasn't expecting the children to be that small, walking around with no shoes on the gravel and the hard rocks. It was a blow to the gut."

Laurion, who spent time in Afghanistan in a combat role more than a decade ago, said seeing Afghans this time around, especially in such a vulnerable position, was a different experience.

"Seeing them 15 years later, leaving their country after they were all about fighting for it back then was more than what I had imagined. It was surreal," he said. "Most families had one bag. That was hard to watch."

For Spc. Elliot Matteson, a human resource specialist on his first deployment, being a part of Operation Allies Refuge brought special meaning.

"It was great to help out, even for just a little bit," Matteson said. "It's hard to say what was most memorable about this mission, but it's something that will stay with me years from now."

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