In 2006, Army Sgt. Danny Affalter’s armored Humvee was hit 15 times by improvised explosive devices in Iraq.
Vehicles in his convoy were hit more than 30 times by IEDs.
“There were some roads we went on where we just knew it was going to happen,” said Affalter, a 2002 Free State High School graduate.
Affalter was once knocked unconscious by an explosion but never sought treatment beyond his unit’s medic. Most of the time he took a couple of Tylenol and went on.
Affalter, 25, is now on his second tour of duty in Iraq, and things have changed for the better. IED explosions are rare, and combat has declined dramatically in just a couple of years, he said.
“It’s 10 times quieter than when I was there in 2006. Quite a change,” he said.
Army Spec. Alex Benson, 21, also from Lawrence, is on his first tour in Iraq, as a combat medic. Nearly all of the wounds he’s treated were suffered by Iraqi civilians.
“A lot of it has been burns or accidents from their work or whatever they were doing. Some minor trauma stuff,” said Benson, a 2005 Free State graduate.
Affalter and Benson talked about their experiences while home visiting family and friends during a recent 18-day leave of absence from Iraq. They serve in separate units in the 4th Infantry Division.
Afghanistan more violent
Contrary to Iraq, the U.S. military says violence is increasing in Afghanistan. Army Staff Sgt. Mark Anderson of Lawrence saw a steady increase in violence when he was in that country in 2007 and 2008 with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team.
Before going to Afghanistan, Anderson had already served two tours in Iraq. The insurgent fighters in Iraq were no comparison with the Taliban in Afghanistan, he said. Iraqi insurgents didn’t like to confront U.S. soldiers, Anderson said during a recent phone interview from Fort Bragg, N.C. Not so the Taliban.
“They are well-organized. They know what they are doing,” said Anderson, 23, a 2003 Lawrence High School graduate. “They do not back down from American soldiers whatsoever.”
Afghans in rural areas fear the Taliban, Anderson said.
What would it take to reverse the situation in Afghanistan? Anderson isn’t sure. “The (troop) surge worked in Iraq. Possibly it would work in Afghanistan. I don’t know,” he said.
Progress in Iraq
American soldiers work closely with Iraqi army and police units now, Affalter and Benson said. Iraqis accompany Americans on patrols, searches and raids, they said.
“We try to let them do most of the work now,” Affalter said. “We stand back and help them when they need it and coach them along.”
Iraqi forces have improved, but Affalter and Benson don’t think they are ready to do it all themselves. Some Iraqi civilians privately tell Americans that they don’t want them to leave, Affalter and Benson said.
Civilians are able to pass on information to U.S. soldiers anonymously through tips phone hot lines similar to those police use in American cities. They also can send information by text message and e-mail.
“That’s where we get a lot of our intelligence,” Benson said.
Developing relationships with civilians and conducting civic operations also has helped win over Iraqi civilians, Affalter and Benson said. Thanks to Emprise Bank in Lawrence, Affalter has received hundreds of dollars in school supplies such as pens, paper and crayons, which he has passed on to schools or Iraqi children. The Kaw Valley Soccer Association donated 40 soccer balls to give children.
“If we can win the kids’ hearts and minds — they’re our biggest intel,” Affalter said. “When you were a kid you always knew what was going on on your block.”
Future tours of duty
Affalter recently signed up for another four years in the Army. When he returns from Iraq he will be trained as a recruiter. Eventually, Affalter said, he might leave the Army and follow in his father’s footsteps and become a police officer. Capt. Dan Affalter recently retired after a 32-year career with the Lawrence Police Department.
Benson has another two years in his enlistment and then he plans to return to civilian life. A former volunteer with the Wakarusa Township Fire Department, Benson wants to further his medical studies and become a nurse.
Anderson, who lives with his wife, Brittani, and their 3-year-old son, Aiden, at Fort Bragg, expects to return to Afghanistan, possibly this summer. It will be is fourth combat tour and he admits being weary of frequent deployments.
“I like what I do but I need a break,” he said. “I’d like to back off of deployments for a couple of years. It’s just really hard.”
A lot of experienced soldiers have left the Army, and Anderson said he also has considered leaving or transferring to another Army job.
“For me,” he said, “I’m having a hard time going and getting another job because I’ve got a lot of guys here and I don’t want to leave them hanging out.”