A Memorial Day 2014 Tribute:
The Cambridge unit went into Afghanistan knowing it would face hostile situations.
“We trained for every scenario possible,” said Sgt. 1st Class Josh Manske.
While the soldiers didn’t experience much with small arms fire, they did take a few random rocket attacks that the Taliban would set up on crude timers. But the base at Bagram Air Field is spacious, so the indirect fire would rarely find a target.
Still, the blasts could be unnerving for the soldiers, most of whom were on their first deployment.
“When the sirens go off, you hit the deck,” Manske noted. “We knew to keep our body armor close. A few rockets landed close to us, within about 50 meters of our barracks the third or fourth night we were there. But everyone came home in one piece.”
Over time, he noted, the troops could almost predict the Taliban’s attacks.
Manske, 31, of Sunrise Township, just east of North Branch, was one of 140-plus soldiers with the Minnesota National Guard’s 850th Horizontal Engineer Company who were deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom last year in Afghanistan.
Soldiers from the unit, headquartered in Cambridge, left Minnesota on March 6 for training and travel to Fort Bliss, Texas, where they stayed through April before leaving for what had been planned as a full-year deployment. They came back ahead of schedule and just days before Christmas.
They eventually landed at Bagram Air Field, located about 40 miles north of the country’s capital city of Kabul, and were ultimately split up over seven or eight different bases.
As their company name suggests, the soldiers focused on all things horizontal. They used heavy equipment to repair and build roadways, replace culverts and haul and provide maintenance support for several forward operating bases throughout the country. They provided force protection and helped train the Afghan National Army.
The unit also cleared mine fields, repaired various road networks, improved drainage and flow control issues, deconstructed non-essential bases and built a resiliency center, a gym and multiple guard towers.
Manske was in charge of his platoon, which in part helped train the Afghan National Army on using engineering equipment so they could continue to use the machinery when the unit was gone.
“The locals loved us because we fixed their roads and culverts,” said Manske of the unit’s impact on the quality of life at many of the “little villages” around the base. “We were extremely busy. We did anything from building roads from scratch and helicopter landing zones to working on a prison on Bagram, which is run by the Afghan Army.
“We worked these guys (fellow soldiers) hard and with not a lot of time off. The projects were mission dependent, so (jobs) could be from sun up to sun down, 12-hour days or after sun down,” he added.
While his job could be compared to that of a foreman or manager of a 40-person outfit back home, there’s no mistaking the differences in Afghanistan and sacrifices that soldiers are willing to make in service to their country. Manske touched on some of the truths there that perhaps an everyday U.S. citizen may not realize.
“There’s still a lot of activity going on hostility-wise,” he said. “There are indirect fire attacks going on daily at some of these bases, though they may not always be reported on in the news. And we are making a difference by going out to these little villages and doing our engineering jobs. They (native Afghans) were very appreciative of it.
“We’re (U.S. military) still out there working and making a difference. It’s a country with a terrible infrastructure, and to be able to fix and build that and help train the Army there is a big deal. They have a start, and we gave them the tools and know-how.”
As a whole, the 850th did its job, and the soldiers’ work was even recognized before family and friends when they returned.
“I am extremely proud of these soldiers,” Army Capt. Michael Thompson, commander of the 850th Horizontal Engineer Company, said at the unit’s welcome home ceremony Dec. 22, 2013, at Cambridge-Isanti High School. “Our soldiers hit the ground running when we arrived in Afghanistan. One of our most notable achievements was the repair and improvement of an alternate supply route, which enabled us to divert convoys from a main supply route that routinely received enemy contact. The 850th executed this task with speed and precision despite the constant threat of enemy attacks.”
Soldiers from the 850th represent 100 communities throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, with one soldier living as far away as Texas. The youngest soldier was 18, and the oldest was 55.
The deployment marked the first for 110 of the soldiers, while 39 had previously deployed. For some, it had been their third or fourth deployment.
Entering the service
Manske grew up in Sunrise Township and schooled in North Branch, where he graduated from high school in 2001. He joined the National Guard the summer before his senior year at age 17.
“My brother-in-law also was in the Guard, and I didn’t know a career (to pursue) yet,” he said of why he enlisted. “I thought it was a good way to help pay for college.”
Starting out with monthly drills on the weekends in Cambridge, Manske went on to about 16 weeks of both basic and advanced individual training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
When asked about 9/11, he — as many Americans — can recall exactly where he was and what he was doing at the time.
“I was sitting in a fox hole on a (field training exercise) during basic training at Fort Sill,” said Manske. “The drill sergeants gathered all of us up and explained what had happened — two planes hit the World Trade Center. If anyone had family living in New York, they were allowed to go back to the barracks and call them.
“Later that day,” he added, “my drill sergeant said to us, ‘You better take this training seriously because you’re all going to Afghanistan.’ I remember feeling disbelief that somebody could kill so many people, disbelief in … is anyone safe anymore?”
Though it didn’t quite happen as his superior laid out, Manske would go on his first deployment overseas two years later.
Manske was 20 years old and single when his first deployment took him and the Cambridge unit, a field artillery company at the time, to Italy in 2003. The soldiers were called to help “beef up security” on an air base there, he said.
There was concern of possible repercussions due to the war in Iraq, so National Guard units were sent to European nations to cover for the active duty U.S. bases going to Iraq, explained Manske.
In 2005, the Cambridge unit switched to engineering duties as a horizontal engineer company due to a reorganization at the state level.
Following his initial tour, Manske continued where he left off in civilian life. He went back to Minneapolis Business College, where he majored in travel and hospitality and earned his associate degree.
He started a family and began working as a dispatcher for the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office, a job he enjoys to this day.
The Cambridge unit received word of its deployment to Afghanistan 18 months before its departure. Though the soldiers were not privy to the exact details or even location, the tough part was the wait for Manske and his wife, Lisa, with children Olivia, 3, and Henry, 18 months, back home in Sunrise Township.
“I didn’t like the time from finding out to the actual deployment,” he said. “But we (the family) didn’t worry about it until the date got closer. We really started training at Camp Ripley that summer and fall in preparation for Afghanistan.”
During the deployment, Manske said emotionally he was “fine” most of the time. He admitted the hardest part was knowing he had a wife and kids at home.
“My wife is very supportive of the military and respected my mindset serving overseas,” he said of the times they communicated over Skype or cellphone. “She handled the deployment great.”
When he did return home, Manske said it didn’t take him long to adjust to everyday life, though he did miss his daughter’s third birthday and wondered how she’d react to seeing him again.
“She understood I was gone and in this place called Afghanistan,” he said of his daughter, Olivia. “I guess she talked about me all of the time and wanted to wrestle with daddy and build forts with daddy when I get back. When I did come back, she had this huge smile on her face. She was so excited to see me, to say the least. She didn’t want to leave my sight.”
His return also made Christmas extra special for the family, and he used the holiday and a month to adjust to civilian life before he went back to work. In fact, after about three weeks, he confessed to feeling antsy to get back to work as a dispatcher for the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office.
“Afghanistan seems like a distant memory,” he said.
Legion Riders lend a helping hand
The Manske family was one of many local military families served by the North Branch American Legion Riders last year.
Formed in 2011, the North Branch program was originally charged by the National Commanders to fulfill a $20 million fund, called the Legacy Fund, which gives scholarships to children of service members who have lost their lives in the line of duty since Sept. 11, 2001.
The Legion Riders also supports other military organizations, children’s programs and community projects. Every rider is a member of the American Legion family — from the Legion to the Auxiliary to the Sons of American Legion — and either owns or rides their own motorcycle.
Hosting a Christmas party in December 2012, the North Branch group invited local military families whose spouses were deployed overseas or stateside. Santa arrived with Christmas presents for all of the kids and parents, and a dinner was provided for the evening.
“It was so well-received by the families that our group decided this would be our main focus for the year,” said Legion Riders member Ron Rollins.
From the evening, the group started a “Christmas in July” ride, which turned into the Legion Riders’ main fundraiser to provide funding and continue the program for the military community. This year’s ride is set for July 19 at the North Branch American Legion.
For more information, call 320-279-3783 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the Minnesota National Guard, click here.