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Home from Afghanistan

Major Kyle Holt reflects on duty and wars real heroes

Posted: April 30, 2011 - 11:17pm
Alaska Army National Guard Major Kyle Holt is greeted by  wife Tiffany and members of the Guard at the Juneau International Airport upon his return from duty in Afghanistan Friday night.   Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Alaska Army National Guard Major Kyle Holt is greeted by wife Tiffany and members of the Guard at the Juneau International Airport upon his return from duty in Afghanistan Friday night.

Alaska National Guard Major Kyle Holt describes his experience as a liaison officer with homeland defense to the Mongolian Army while in Afghanistan as one of “schona ba schona,” Mongolian for “shoulder to shoulder.”

“One common thread between the Mongolians and Afghanis was the importance of family,” Holt said. “Families stay together, two to three generations living in one home. Many young men want to get a job just to support their parents.”

Holt, from ANG 761st Military Police Battalion, returned to Juneau Friday from six months in Kabul, Afghanistan as an advisor/liaison officer to the Mongolian Armed Forces, embedded with approximately 130 Mongolian soldiers.

Holt’s duty, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, was to support the Mongolians primary mission of providing base security for the NATO Training Mission at Afghanistan’s Camp Eggers. The camp was named after fallen US soldier Daniel Eggers.

The camp had approximately 2,500 United States and coalition soldiers as part of the International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan.

“It really hit home when flying into Bagram,” Holt said of arriving from stateside into the mountainous, yet brown, treeless landscape near the capital of Kabul. “It was a wake up call inside the C17 when they told us to put our body armor in, we were entering the war zone.”

When they deplaned they walked past the solemn funeral procession of a fallen hero being loaded onto another plane.

“That image is burned in my mind,” Holt said. “The sacrifices of the men and women over there, they are the heroes.”

Holt was deployed with his Sgt Major, Jeffrey Coker, of Joint Forces Headquarters, Alaska National Guard. The two developed a strong trust working together at Fort Greely. They would use that strong bond to aid a unit providing security at checkpoints, traffic control points and overall base security in Afghanistan.

As part of the Mongolian Expedition Task Force 3, both had to learn the Mongolian and Afghanistan cultures, the differences and animosities of which go back 1000’s of years to Genghis Khan. Remnants of the Khan line still reside in Afghanistan.

Working as tactical advisors, they provided consulting on base security operations and served indirectly as mentors, offering insight to the U.S. command structure and operational tempo.

They oversaw the primary goal of the Mongolians and Afghans for security in the Forward Operating Bases (FOB). The Mongolians were well versed in all things Russian and the Afghanis had a lot of Soviet weaponry.

Holt and Coker had to smooth the relationships; all in an area the size relatable to the Anchorage Bowl in Alaska, and within each FOB were coalition forces providing security for locals trying to build their societies.

After daily briefings on the security issues and dangers of the day Holt would drive between FOB’s in an armored SUV equipped with radios and jammers. They would have to file a travel plan that included their blood type.

The drive from point A to point B was through the combat zone, but it was also where the Afghanistan citizens were going through their daily routines.

The markets were busy, adults would tend their shops and children would give them excited thumbs up and ask for bottled water. Holt was not authorized to stop.

“You can’t allow yourself to be comfortable because that leads to complacency,” Holt said. “The Taliban try to catch you at that moment of complacency.”

Holt said they had to be wary of every vehicle, crowd, rock or rubbish pile. A solemn reminder was an incident days before his arrival of a disgruntled Afghani colonel living inside the FOB killing coalition soldiers.

Another incident before his arrival involved two soldiers leaving in an SUV but not filing their daily route plan. They were abducted at a market and killed.

Holt did have some days of charity in the Green Zone, distributing boxes of toiletries and school supplies sent from Juneau’s Rotary Club members.

“I cherish life a lot more than I did before,” Holt said. “To see how much they appreciated these small gifts. The real heroes are the people back home, the people that support us.”

Holt was also responsible for constructing and developing a plan for heightened security in the FOB’s. The plan involved the local hire of construction teams to add to the metal walls with earth between that were blast resistant. These walls had sniper proof mesh on top except for the construction area Holt had to secure.

Holt and his charges also watched for signs of human trafficking and slave labor.

“The city was built for one million people,” Holt said. “It has over three million.”

Holt said air pollution was bad, as locals would burn whatever they could for cooking and heat, and water was disinfected non-potable.

The Mongolian foods of Gurilatai Shul (a soup), Huushuur (meat patty), Bulz (dumpling), and Afghani dishes of beef, lamb, and chicken kabob were delicious.

Holt said the Mongolian army and soldiers had his explicit trust.

“They are dedicated and well trained,” Holt said. “Unlike many of us they volunteer to serve.

Holt said Mongolian soldiers compete at the Five Hills Training Area in their capital city Ulaanbaatar and a select number are chosen to enter the military.

“Clearly their president and general staff have showed a vested interest to provide international security and fight international terrorism,” Holt said. “I have seen the level of commitment to the point that it was humbling. Many go home briefly and then redeploy back here.”

Holt said he read the book “Three Cups of Tea” and heeded the advice of those who served there before to help understand the culture.

“Theirs is not a hurry up society,” Holt said. “In order to develop a bond it takes a long time. You visit and talk about things that are important to them, their jobs and their health, being there and sharing tea with them. I could speak enough of Dari to get into trouble (the major dialect is Pashto). I learned how to break the ice, learned to ask about their families. Somehow we were able to communicate.”

Opposite of US uniforms the Mongolians had their first name as the major reference. Their names at birth were selected as to something important on that day and usually associated with strength.

Mongolian colonel Batjargal became a close friend. Both saw the bad moments, the suffering and death of local nationals, people just trying to live and build a common future. The Mongolian soldiers said the Taliban had no honor by killing woman and children.

Holt said he saw the hope for peace in the faces of the little boys and girls, the wariness in the men and the stifling of female roles.

“I understand that is their culture,” Holt said. “We respect the culture, the change will come from honor and from within them. Clearly our mission statement is to help the country to provide its own security and self governance, not to dictate them.”

Holt saw much Western influence in the dress, music, and vehicles in the general populations. Yet alcohol is taboo and the military was required to live a moral life, to not fraternize with local females.

“We had to walk a very fine line,” Holt said. “We are guests in their country. Obviously our men and women living in the same close quarters were not flaunted.”

Holt also got to participate in November’s Mongolian Independence day from China and the Lunar New Year Tsaagan Sar.

A special day was March 15. The Mongolian army held off a live-fire of their six-foot SPG9 recoilless rifle with RPG rounds until “Birthday boy” Holt arrived. They took him out to the range and fired salutes.

“Being a former artillery officer,” Holt said. “That was worth all of it.”

Holt began his military career in the US Marine Corps (1980-89), became a Missouri Highway State Patrolman (1989), joined the Missouri National Guard (1991), gradated officer candidate school (1996), led field artillery units until mobilized to Fort Bragg (2002) for 15 months on Military Police duty, and then accepted a missile control position at Fort Greely, Alaska. In 2008 he became operations officer in Juneau and now is assuming command as battalion executive officer.

Holt said that leaving Afghanistan was bittersweet. He left behind Ulu knives for the soldiers that were under his command and specially minted coins for the officers.

He was given a Mongolian white silk shirt and the blue ceremonial silk sash used in the ceremony of transfer when security units are replaced; the sash is given from the outgoing commander by relief-in-place/transfer-of-authority (RIP/TOA) forces to the incoming commander and his forces.

Holt was also given a “Horse fiddle” in a glass case. Holt’s new and close Mongolian and Afghani friends were happy he was going to be with his family again.

“But to them I was also a man of honor and integrity,” Holt said. “To them I was a friend.

What they saw of Americans was what my friends saw of me, commitment to helping them get on their feet. I felt that what I did there meant a lot. I felt an enormous amount of accomplishment every day, no matter how small, an Afghani boy getting to go to school or a woman to market. In time I would like to go back.”

Holt volunteered to go to Afghanistan and received a Bronze Star for missions there but brushes past any conversations of it, stating “there are many more men and women serving that do much more than I ever will.”

Holt praised the families and the public that supports the U.S. Military and praised his wife Tiffany, “forever 25,” his son PVC Cameron, 18, a military intelligence trainee headed to ROTC at University of Alaska Fairbanks where sister Chelsea, 20, is studying history.

Cameron wrote his first FRAGO, or fragmented order to the mission operating order, in the current Juneau guard exercise Operation Overwatch, that allowed three humvees to escort his father’s vehicle from the airport to his home.

“They are my heroes,” Holt said. “I was adamant about going. I have been in the military 25-plus years. I have been the benefactor of many things from. It was time to give back, it was my turn.”

When Major Kyle Holt returned to Juneau signs welcomed him, a bottle of Alaskan Amber was given by friends, soldiers pressed his hand, travelers stopped and applauded, his wife and son embraced him, he was “schona ba schona,” again, Mongolian for “shoulder to shoulder.”

• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.

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