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Guardsmen look back on their Afghanistan mission
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Sgt. Donald Hitchcock, left, a member of the Statesboro-based 48th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, turns in his M-4 rifle after arriving at the Truscott Departure and Arrival Terminal at Hunter Army Airfield. Hitchcock, who lives in Rincon, completed his overseas deployment and helped train Afghan soldiers in how to clear routes as combat engineers. - photo by Photo provided

Standing inside the air terminal, waiting to board the bus that will take him and his fellow soldiers on the last leg of their journey home, Georgia Army Guard Sgt. Donald Hitchcock talked about what he experienced in Afghanistan.

Hitchcock, who lives in Rincon, said he performed his share of “other duties” like any soldier. The one he’s proudest of, though, is the mission he and fellow combat engineer Staff Sgt. Nick Ives conducted as part of an embedded training team (ETT) teaching route-clearing techniques to more than 400 Afghan soldiers.

Before they finished, Hitchcock said, his team had “trained-up” six new Afghan combat engineer companies. Those units now have responsibility for keeping military and civilian personnel safe from IEDs planted by insurgents bent on keeping control of that country’s roadways.

“You gotta be proud of something like that,” Hitchcock said. “I mean, you take six soldiers and give them 400 guys who had no idea of how to go about doing one of the most dangerous jobs there is on a battlefield, and train them to do it right and do it as safe as you possibly can.

“I know I’m proud of that,” he said.

“Better believe it,” Ives added. “These guys couldn’t even perform the basic soldier skills like driving or hitting what they shot at. And now, well now they can not only do that, but they perform one of the most dangerous jobs on the battlefield...detecting and removing an IED.”

Hitchcock and Ives, both with Statesboro’s 48th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, are among the more than 2,000 members of Georgia’s 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team who deployed last June in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Their yearlong mission was to mentor and train members of the Afghan Army and National Police.

When they arrived in Afghanistan in May 2009, Hitchcock and Ives were not in country 24 hours before being assigned to the ETT team. Within the first three months, their team had established an academy to train their charges.

“Route-clearing is a defined art,” Hitchcock explained. “It’s slow going and every inch of ground has to be observed. One has to look for things such as a freshly repaired place in the road or shoulder, broken pavement where it wasn’t broken before and trash left along the highway.”

“You’re suspicious of anything and everything,” Ives said, “and that includes people standing near the road. The Afghans had to be taught how to be observant, how to employ mine sweepers and mine sweeping techniques, how to disarm the device, and how to dispose of it.”

As the Afghans gained more knowledge about route-clearing from the Georgia Guardsmen, the mutual respect between the two groups grew, Hitchcock said.

“By living with them, eating with them and working along side them, we came to know them better,” he added. “They’re no different than any other soldier. They have their complaints and they have their faults just as we all do, but at the end of the day, they’re no different than us — they’re soldiers doing a job: protecting each other, their families and their country.”

Now that they are home, Hitchcock, Ives and their fellow Guardsmen will spend about a week redeploying at the Georgia Guard Garrison Training Center next to Fort Stewart before returning to their traditional Guard status.

In his civilian job, Hitchcock works as a sales associate for Cricket Phone in Pooler.

With their deployment over, Hitchcock said he plans on returning to school to study economics. Ives, who lives in Statesboro, is doing the same, only he will be going after an accounting degree.