Christmas I remember best: An Afghanistan Christmas I will cherish forever

By Gary Wallin

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Dec. 20 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

My story takes place in Afghanistan during Christmas 2004. I had been in country almost 9 months and our Unit was proving to the 25th Infantry Division that we were far from the normal military National Guard Unit.

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My story takes place in Afghanistan during Christmas 2004.

I had been in country almost nine months and our unit was proving to the 25th Infantry Division that we were far from the normal military National Guard unit. We Utahns are a different bunch to begin with and to have our unit composed of more than 75 percent LDS men and women certainly added to that perception.

We were Mormons in a Muslim country and deep down we knew that we wanted to do something other than fly and hunt down the bad guy Taliban. Generally, our people worked shifts 24/7.

There was no vacation and our time off was limited to just the local area inside Bagram Air Base. They would not let us venture outside of the base fence because it was just too dangerous. Even though we were on a secure coalition base, we wore our weapons everywhere we went. We were armed to the teeth. When we flew anywhere, our helicopters were armed to the max, too, and we were always looking for the bad guys.

Our mission was to support the ground soldiers and hunt out the Taliban, escort coalition helicopters all over the country, and protect our VIPs who were always coming to visit the war effort. That was a pretty demanding mission in and of itself, but being who we were we knew there was more things we could and should be doing as an organization.

On a daily basis we noticed the hundreds and hundreds of local nationals coming to the fence needing medical attention. As we inquired about the situation, we found out that our friends — the Egyptians and the South Koreans — had medical clinics to help these needy people. We made friends with them and they let us begin to hand out humanitarian aid to them.

Back in the States, our wives, friends, and just plain good people collected and sent us boxes and boxes of stuff. This stuff consisted of school supplies, clothes, shoes, blankets, food, books, etc. Everything you could imagine.

The project started small and soon it got bigger and bigger. The generous people of Utah, Hawaii, and other places in the U.S. sent us so much stuff we couldn’t pass it out fast enough. We decided to go bigger so we talked to our commanders and through much persuasion we convinced them to let us adopt two orphanages and outlying villages to donate our humanitarian aid.

We were an attack helicopter outfit and had access to other helicopter assets located on the base. As it turned out we used Army helicopters, National Guard helicopters, and Marine helicopters to transport all this stuff to our villages.

We made contact with the orphanages and village elders to let them know of our plans. It took us months to get it all approved, organized, and all safety concerns worked out.

We took our stuff to the two orphanages with the help of some active Army engineer ground units and our own unit grown soldiers. Every time we delivered the stuff we made great friends and helped hundreds of children. But getting to the villages took more effort.

We got to the village of Jedgalek in the early fall of 2004. Jedgalek was about 150 miles southwest of Bagram Air Base near the Pakistan border in an area known to have lots of bad guys. We used Army Chinook helicopters to haul the goods and soldiers and used Apache helicopters and Air Force A-10 aircraft to give us air protection.

Needless to say our first visit was a bit nerve-wracking because we didn’t know what to expect and what dangers were there. But the village elders and the mullahs (religious clerics) seemed to like what we did for them and invited us back. We ended up taking missions to them almost 15 more times during the rest of the year.

It was getting close to Christmas 2004. We had been to Jedgalek many times and had made lots of friends, but we wanted to do more. We decided to orchestrate the largest military air assault up to that point in the war and to not fire one shot.

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