They were deployed as part of President Obama's troop surge in the country. As the mission winds down, brigade commander Colonel Patrick Frank says his unit did a good job in a difficult setting. He spoke from Afghanistan with reporter Joanna Richards.
(CORRECTION: We originally reported that these troops were the first US soldiers in that region. Many comments on our story have challenged that assertion. We've contacted our sources at Ft. Drum for clarification and are still waiting for a reply. To the best of our understanding now, Col. Frank's unit was the first brigade level force to deploy there.)
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The area was the birthplace of the Taliban, and the home territory of Mullah Omar, the Taliban's spiritual leader. It's rural and known for growing marijuana and poppies for narcotics. It had been largely lawless, with poor infrastructure and little connection to the Afghan government.
"So we came in and they assigned us immediately to the Zhari and Maiwand districts. The Zahri district is Mullah Omar's home district, and we came in here to very high levels of violence last spring and throughout the summer. So it was a very tough fight during that period of time, and we've now moved into of course the winter months, where we've seen levels of violence be dramatically reduced from what we were facing."
The fighting has been tough. The unit conducted 60 air assaults in nine months, and it lost 36 of its soldiers.
"The leadership from the Taliban is from this area, so they have attempted to get back into this area throughout the fall and early winter months, to reestablish themselves on the terrain that they had held all the way until this year."
The infantrymen built roads, set up clinics, strengthened local government and worked to reduce infant mortality. Col. Frank says north country civilians sent many school supplies, and hospitals sent medical supplies. The soldiers also opened schools.
"On the first day of school this year, the sixth of September, we opened 14 schools, where last year only two schools were open. We now have 1,200 students in our two districts. Two-hundred and fifty of those students are girls."
But Frank acknowledges there’s still Taliban in the region. Which brings him to the closing piece of the mission.
"We are now developing, with our Afghan partners, a program called the Afghan Local Police, or ALP. These are essentially local guards, so it's men from their communities providing security. They're probably the best ones to provide that security. But these are men who can very easily recognize the Taliban when they're on their streets, when they're in their neighborhoods, and provide that first line of defense for Afghan communities."
Frank says the Afghan Local Police not only boost security, but they recruit from the same pool of young men that the Taliban pulls from:
"So encouraging young men, 18, 19, 20 years old, to join the Afghan Local Police will prevent them from joining the Taliban. We think that that is very important over the next several months."
The first group of 3rd Brigade soldiers arrived back at Fort Drum last week. In the coming weeks, the rest of the brigade will follow. The unit will be replaced by the 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division.
For North Country Public Radio, I'm Joanna Richards, in Watertown.