Leaving Afghanistan: Our Longest War | Act 3: The Battle-Tested 276th

Posted at 11:00 AM, Oct 28, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-30 23:28:22-04

The soldiers of the 276th Engineering Company weren’t on a combat mission. Still, they wouldn’t escape the danger of battle during their deployment to Afghanistan.

Tasked with the crucial job of tearing down the buildings we built during the war, their job represented an end 13 years coming. It meant traveling to small forward operating bases throughout the country to take them back down to dirt. The Afghanistan National Army had no plans to keep those smaller bases open and coalition forces had no plans to leave their former strongholds abandoned and intact for someone else to use.

While tearing down Forward Operating Base Walton, these soldiers found the defining moment of their deployment on what started as any other July morning.

“It was about ten o'clock and out of nowhere we heard a giant boom, and the ground shook," said Sgt. Zac Hughes.

“There were just bullets flying everywhere,” said Staff Sgt. Cesar Martinez.

“There was an attack on our southwest wall,” said Lt. Adam Winters. “A vehicle-borne IED went off followed by a suicide vest explosion, small arms fire, rocket propelled grenades.”

Each soldier has their own vivid memories of the 4-hour battle when one of the entrances of the base came under attack.

These soldiers had trained for a moment just like this and when it came, they were ready. 

“It’s kind of weird,” said Hughes. “When you're going through it, you don't really think, you just act.”

Winters saw their training pay off. “They grabbed their body armor, they grabbed their weapons and they went from construction workers to soldiers. Like that.”

“We got attacked from a different position that we only practiced a few times, but thanks to all the training and all of us working together, we reacted properly,” said Martinez.

No American soldiers were hurt. The Taliban attackers were all either captured or killed.

NEXT: The continued training of soldiers and how past events of war still matter



When you ask these soldiers why they were ready for that moment, many will tell you it was Martinez who helped them get there. 

In a small metal room one September morning, soldiers sit on the floor lined with mats. It's early enough that the sun hasn’t completely risen over the mountains and there is still almost a chill in the desert air. Martinez bends down to correct a choke hold. He’s teaching a combatives classes to his fellow soldiers. He is teaching them to kill. He is teaching them to survive.

“We have to be realistic here,” he said. “Why we grapple. Why we do rear-naked chokes. Why we're trained to break hands. Why we're trained to then, kill. I've got to let them know that we are in the best military in the world, the best Army in the world and uh, we might not - and I hope they never have to come to that point, but if they do we need to be ready to close with the enemy and destroy him, end him.”

These are combat skills he has needed during his multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and as a member of the Army’s storied 101st Airborne division.

“I loved it. It was a job. I was good at it. I had good leaders and worked with a lot of good guys, I miss it a lot," he said.

Learn more about Staff Sgt. Cesar Martinez and how he plans to spends the rest of his life

He isn’t the only battle-tested soldier here.

Sgt. Keith Riggins transferred to the 276th from Kansas City just so he could deploy. His last deployment took him to Afghanistan in 2011. He worked the incredible dangerous job of Husky operator. That put him first in line ahead of convoys to find bombs on the roads before those bombs found our soldiers.

“You have a lot of people’s lives on your hands and it’s a lot of stress. I mean, you could have up to a hundred vehicles plus behind you and you’ve got to worry about their safety as well as yours,” he said.

One 80-pound bomb found him first and sent his Husky flying. The impact knocked Riggins out cold.

“I started feeling a warm feeling which I thought was sweat dripping down my face and I kept wiping it and I wasn’t thinking anything of it. I wasn’t thinking I got cut open because I didn’t know exactly what happened and I took my glove off and wiped my face and noticed that there was blood and I looked down and there was blood dripping down my face.”

But one bomb his Husky couldn’t find still haunts him. One day, with more than 100 vehicles behind him, his equipment that scanned for explosives simply failed. He couldn’t fix it and the convoy had to keep going. The remaining Husky Operator kept them moving but with a safe zone only half the size they needed. One of the vehicles behind them clipped an IED. Two soldiers died.

“It took a big hit on me because you know, I knew that if my Husky had been scanning that wide... that truck wouldn’t have hit that IED and those guys would have been still alive today,” he said. “I went through a lot of depression; I didn’t want to talk about it with anybody.”

Though there was nothing he could have done, the guilt over their deaths nearly drove Riggins to take his own life. He wouldn’t have been alone. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs released a report in 2013 that shows an estimated 22 veterans died from suicide every day in 2010. Without data from states with large veteran populations like California or Texas, the real number could be higher.

“It was close,” he said. “It was very close. I guess that’s what I should say. Obviously there’s not really pills that you can take that you can overdose on so obviously the other option was with a gun. So the amount of stress that I felt, that’s what I felt like I needed to do but my dad and my wife and my kids saved my life.”

NEXT: The families back home



The soldiers try not to dwell on what haunts them or burden their families with their stress.

Sgt. Brandon Lewis wears a bracelet for the fellow soldier he lost. Sgt. Robert Crow died July 2010 in Afghanistan, the victim of an IED. It isn’t a day he talks about very often. But he knows he could tell his wife if he needed to.

“It’s not a secret, It’s not something I’m gonna keep from her and she knows that but she’s just content not knowing,” he said.,

Instead, Brandon talks to his wife Keisha and their 9-year-old daughter, Keiren, to catch up on what he’s missing at home.

Learn more about Sgt. Lewis, his family ties and how he keeps close to home

“She’s got her first volleyball game Tuesday,” Keisha said. Brandon noticed how much Keiren has grown since he has been gone. “You’re still my turkey!” he joked. 

It’s a family sacrifice. Keisha knew this would be their life. Brandon has always wanted to be a soldier. He was already in boot camp when 9/11 rocked the country. Everyone in boot camp knew what that day would mean.

“No one had really seen war until that day.”

Thirteen years later, he and the other soldiers of the 276th are tearing down the infrastructure we used to fight and stay in Afghanistan. Our time is up. Destroying these monuments to battle, they’ll help turn out the lights on our country’s longest war.