Minnesota National Guard Commander Details Afghan Refugee Evacuation Mission

National Guard soldiers from the Minnesota-based 34th Infantry Division board a US Air Force-operated C-17 in August after completing their mission in Kabul, Afghanistan. Deployed in support of Operation Spartan Shield, approximately 400 soldiers of the 34th ID were temporarily transferred to Kabul, Afghanistan, and have since arrived unharmed in Kuwait, where they are posted. (Bridget Haugh / US Army)

(Tribune News Service) – Lt. Col. Jake Helgestad has awoken from a dead sleep. It was 11:17 p.m. on August 12, and someone was knocking on the door of his trailer in Camp Buehring, Kuwait.

“Sir, we have to be in Afghanistan in 24 hours,” a soldier told the commander of the Minnesota National Guard Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armored Regiment, based in Brainerd.

Helgestad wiped the sleep from his eyes: “What?”

For weeks, its soldiers monitored the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan as Taliban fighters moved closer to Kabul with the US evacuation looming. He didn’t expect his unit to head for that tense place – theirs is a unit with tanks and huge Bradley fighting vehicles, and Afghanistan is a mountainous country.

But their mission was to be ready. For nothing.

“Then it was zero to 1,000: ‘Hey, you gotta go, and you gotta go now,’” Helgestad said from Kuwait last week in his first media interview since the evacuation of Afghanistan. “What I always tell my staff is that no one is ever going to have to wait for us. They tell us they need us to be there, we will be there.”

The military machine set in motion. The 425 Minnesota troops leaving Kuwait for Afghanistan were to provide security to ensure the safe evacuation of tens of thousands of people. They packed – equipment, ammunition, food – then went to the nearby US air base and waited for planes to transport them into the chaos. They slept in a gravel parking lot. Helgestad stood in a chair and addressed his troops: “We have spent the last two years training for this very event. You have to trust yourself.

Early in the morning of August 18 – less than 48 hours after the terrifying scene of fleeing Afghans clinging to a US military plane caught the world’s attention – a C-17 filled with Minnesota National Guard soldiers plunged in the darkness of Kabul on a hard landing in combat.

“Holy shit,” Helgestad remembers thinking. “It’s happening.”

– – –

The next 12 days at Kabul airport were a sleepless period for Helgestad and his soldiers, never knowing if, or when, their security mission could turn deadly.

The area the Minnesotans were in charge of was a section of the airport, perhaps four blocks wide, just north of the tarmac. Together with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, they provided security at the airport so that a successful evacuation could take place. Minnesota National Guard snipers held five security towers alongside Afghan soldiers. They guarded two entry checkpoints and made sure people did not jump over the two walls, including a 15-foot concrete wall, which separated the airport from public streets. Their greatest fear was an ISIS-K rocket propelled grenade attack on a security tower. Or a suicide bomber sneaking up alongside fleeing refugees.

During those two weeks, Helgestad estimates that some 40,000 Afghans passed through their part of the airport. Most of the Afghans he saw were “the lucky ones” who had been allowed to enter the airport walls and were leaving the country. He could see tense families breathe a sigh of relief once it looked like they had secured seats on the flights. He warned his soldiers to remain emotionally detached; they had a mission to do and they couldn’t help everyone.

Yet it was impossible not to be touched by humanity and despair. Helgestad will always remember the Afghan refugee children inside the walls of the airport, about to start a new life, making office chairs the funniest toy in the world. The 48-year-old father-of-two couldn’t help but think of his own kids, now in high school in the southern suburbs of Twin Cities, amid college visits and high school football season.

His wife and children endured many long deployments.

Helgestad joined the Guard in 1991 to help pay for his education. He was selling insurance in Rochester, fresh off a deployment to Saudi Arabia and graduating from Officer Candidate School, when 9/11 happened. He embarked on military life. He deployed to Kosovo as part of a peacekeeping mission and then to Iraq for a nearly two-year tour during the push. Since then he has worked full time for the National Guard.

He landed in Kuwait in June with 10 companies and 1,100 troops under his command, the vast majority of whom had never been deployed.

After the landing of the 425 soldiers in Kabul, they improvised. The soldiers were carried around the airport on luggage racks with their feet dangling to the side. The soldiers who knew how to weld helped plug the holes in the perimeter. One of Helgestad’s administrative soldiers could light vehicles, so the soldier requisitioned a giant street sweeper and cleared the tarmac so the C-17s could take off without debris being sucked into the engines. The cooks had evacuated the cafeteria, so the soldiers cooked thousands of chicken fingers. Helgestad procured an armored Mercedes-Benz to transport him around the airport; the car had Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” on the stereo.

“It was surreal,” Helgestad said.

On August 26, a week after the Minnesotans landed, a suicide bombing at Abbey Gate Airport was followed by an attack by gunmen, killing 13 U.S. servicemen and dozens of Afghans.

Abbey Gate was across the airport from where the Minnesota National Guard soldiers were located. They didn’t even hear the explosion, but a surgeon and a Guard medical assistant witnessed the chaotic triage afterward.

During those two weeks, a soldier from Minnesota was shot in the head by a stray bullet; he was wearing his helmet, however, and the bullet only broke the frame of his night vision goggles. Another bullet pierced the leg of a soldier.

Miraculously, by the time all of the Minnesota National Guard soldiers left Kabul at the end of August and returned to the desert of Kuwait, there were no casualties.

– – –

How does a soldier manage these two weeks spent perpetually on edge?

Do you place it in the sweep of history? Do you point out how you helped evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans from one of the largest airlifts in history? Or do you focus on those who remain?

Helgestad did none of the above. As its 425 troops in Kabul neared the withdrawal deadline, its soldiers in Kuwait were treating and carrying out medical examinations of the 5,000 Afghan refugees temporarily housed at Camp Buehring. Nearly 200 of its troops were about to travel to Egypt for a week-long multinational training exercise. The Iraqi elections were approaching and his unit had to keep an eye on it. Their deployment won’t end until January or February, and no one could guess what might follow.

“We participated in a generational event,” he said.

History, he knows, will judge of its meaning. They did their job. Emotions can be dealt with later; it is a memory he knows will never be erased. Helgestad is still a soldier, always with a battalion under his command, always deployed in a region of explosive uncertainty.

Their last night in Kabul, the soldiers did not sleep. Desperate Afghans, who knew the Americans would be gone soon and their fate would fall into the hands of the Taliban, scurried over the walls of the airport to flee their country. But American soldiers had to maintain an orderly operation, not just allow anyone to evacuate. Whereas last night, they arrested several dozen of these Afghans and brought them back to the other side of the walls.

Early in the morning of August 30, the last Minnesotans plane left. Helgestad was standing on the runway, next to the C-17 ramp. Eight of his snipers sprinted across the tarmac and into the plane. Helgestad followed and the ramp closed.

Only three units of the 82nd Airborne remained and all three will leave Kabul before midnight.

As the plane took off over the mountains near Kabul, Helgestad knelt by the sealed ramp, pulled out his poncho liner, curled up on the metal floor, and fell sound asleep.

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