A long way from home: Guam sentinels serve in Afghanistan

by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Gonsier
455th Air Expeditionary Wing

With their deployment almost over and anticipating going back home, the soldiers keep their rifle sights firmly focused on the mission.

U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers from the 368th Military Police Company have served in Afghanistan for the last nine months, supporting air operations and train, advise and assist missions in the region.

Home for these soldiers is seemingly worlds away from Afghanistan, on the small Pacific island of Guam. With a small population of more than 160,000, the island boasts by far the most personnel in the military per capita. It is home to the Chamorro people, who make up the indigenous majority of the population on the 210-square-mile island -- inhabitants rich in culture and the desire to serve.

The unit deployed two detachments, who are tasked in two completely different missions in the theater of operations.

The Customs Mission

One detachment of the 368th Military Police Company conducts the customs mission on Bagram and Kandahar Airfields. Just about everyone supporting the Resolute Support and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel mission in Afghanistan has passed the careful inspection of the vigilant team.

“The customs team is responsible for all pre-clearance operations of cargo, personnel and anything leaving the Central Command area of responsibility back to the United States or any military installation worldwide,” said Sgt. First Class Brandon Sana, the 368th Military Police Company, Detachment 3 first sergeant, who has deployed to Iraq and Kuwait during his almost two-decade long career. “We inspect everything going out … ensuring there are no violations or safety concerns.”

During their inspections, the customs team follows strict guidelines of multiple governmental agencies to include the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when searching through luggage.

Since their deployment, the soldiers have processed thousands of people, hundreds of flights and more than a billion dollars in cargo. Attention to detail is a must and the team cannot risk becoming complacent since their keen eyes guarantee the safety of Bagram Airfield and the other destinations personnel are traveling to.

“We’ve seen it all out here, and our biggest impact is prohibiting it from coming in and our contributions to the United States borders are prohibiting it from reaching there,” Sana said. “We are an equal piece of the pie, in enabling the mission and shortening the process of sending members back home. Multiple agencies have placed trust in us to clear service members here, to alleviate organizations back in the United States.”

To Serve and Protect

The other detachment staffs a prestigious protective detail to the commander of Resolute Support and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, the highest ranking U.S. military officer in the country.

“We are responsible for the safety and well-being of (the commander) by supporting all of his movements, both air and ground,” said Sgt. First Class William Sherrow, 368th Military Police Company, Detachment 5 first sergeant. “Prior to a site visit, we would send a team out to survey the area, and then send a team to go with him, providing support and protection.”

Just like the customs mission, attention to detail is essential to protecting the lives of Nicholson and his staff. Complacency could be fatal.

“Gen. Nicholson’s voice is far reaching and his messages are important to Afghan leaders, citizens and our coalition partners,” Sherrow said. “Doing our job well allows him to go place to place and deliver his message without having to worry about his well-being. Our mission is a no-fail task, which requires 100 percent effort and dedication. Hundreds of missions, dozens of air movements and thousands of miles of driving has all been done near flawlessly. The team has done an outstanding job, working tremendously long days in a high-stress environment.”

Performing a different mission

As military police, the 368th Military Police Company soldiers are trained to enforce military laws and regulations. In addition to military police training the soldiers also prepare for specific demands of high-risk hostile environments. Pacific island partners helped the team get ready efficiently, Sherrow said, enabling them to arrive in Afghanistan while avoiding excess travel.

“Our unit was put in a unique situation since most reserve soldiers go to Fort Bliss, [Texas], to receive training prior to deploying to a combat zone,” he said. “With the help of the 196th Infantry Brigade, out of Hawaii, and other reserve components, we were able to train and deploy from Guam, alleviating the stress of travelling all the way to Fort Bliss and back to either Guam or straight to Afghanistan.”

After nine months of service in Afghanistan, the training has proven to be valuable and is providing leaders more options when deploying troops from the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

“We’ve deployed straight from Guam before, but not to a theater like this, that requires extensive combat training” Sana said. “There is a huge footprint of service members in Guam that are willing to standup and fulfill their duties. We are capable and ready to rapidly deploy anywhere in the Asia-Pacific.”

A little bit of culture

While known for its beautiful beaches and ocean diving, Guam is also rich in culture and heritage. Even though Afghanistan is lacking many of the things common in Guam, the reservists bring a piece of home to Bagram, by celebrating fiestas sporting traditional Chamorro dishes.

“The closest way to a person’s heart is through their mouth and stomach,” Sana said. “Our culture is family oriented, so we have a lot of social outings, which usually involves food. Good food brings good people. It also serves as a way to get over homesickness, and helps us bond and be nostalgic.”

Through care packages from family and friends back home, the soldiers are able to acquire island must-haves, Sana said. Food staples such as red rice, kelaguen and barbeque are replicated to near perfection, with the aromas attracting people from all over.

As part of Chamorro culture, they extend their table to those who work around them or anyone who wants to experience a different culture.

“We use our culture, food, fellowship and traditions to bring people in” Sana said. “By bringing them in and sharing it with them, we share the professional things we all do, and it has helped us cope with being away from home.”

The military brings people from many backgrounds together, introducing them to different cuisines, traditions and ways of thinking. While the island may be small, the footprint Guam has made in Afghanistan is large.

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