After nearly a dozen years of war and scores of deployments, the Maryland National Guard is sending its last soldiers to Afghanistan — even as the killing of a U.S. general this week underscores the continuing volatility of the country and the NATO mission there.
More than 100 members of the Maryland Guard's 1100th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group landed in Kuwait on Wednesday, the day after Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene was shot to death at Afghanistan's national military academy in Kabul. Greene worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground from 2009 to 2012.
Several of the Marylanders are to go on to Afghanistan. They are the last members of the Maryland National Guard scheduled to deploy there; the United States and other NATO members are planning to withdraw most of their forces by the end of the year.
Brig. Gen. Linda Singh, commander of the Maryland Army National Guard, said Greene's killing "tells us that we still have a lot of work to do."
"We can't assume that just because we're doing transition, that gets rid of all the risk," Singh said. "We still have to be very cognizant of all of our folks who are still at war. Yes, they're getting ready to transition and come home, but they're still in a very volatile environment."
Maryland National Guard Maj. Cara J. Kupcho, whose husband landed in Kuwait on Wednesday, said soldiers and their families know the risks of deploying overseas.
"I'm very proud that he's serving his country. On top of that, there's always a little bit of worry there," Kupcho said. She served in Afghanistan with Capt. John Reinhart before they were married but is not scheduled to join him on the current deployment.
"It's always in the back of your mind," she said. "Being prepared as a soldier, watching your left and your right."
Greene, who served at Aberdeen Proving Ground from 2009 to 2012, was visiting the Marshal Fahim National Defense University in Kabul on Tuesday when a man in an Afghan uniform opened fire on his group. More than a dozen people, including a German brigadier general, were wounded in the attack.
Greene became the highest-ranking Army officer killed in a conflict since the Vietnam War. The so-called insider attack reminded Maryland Guard members of the killing in 2012 of Maj. Robert L. Marchanti II, a schoolteacher and comrade from Baltimore County who was shot to death inside the supposedly secure Interior Ministry in Kabul.
That incident — another officer also was killed — and others like it led commanders to strengthen the vetting of recruits for the Afghan National Security Forces and to limit their contact with U.S. and other NATO personnel, and the number of insider attacks had seemed to be declining.
But the day after Greene was killed, authorities reported a pair of incidents that left 11 Afghan police officers dead.
In one, The New York Times reported, a police officer secretly working for the Taliban poisoned five colleagues at a compound in southern Afghanistan, then invited insurgents inside to shoot the stricken officers and steal their weapons.
In the other, Taliban fighters killed the guard on duty at a police checkpoint in Uruzgan province, executed five others as they slept, and then fled with an officer believed to be a collaborator.
Most of the members of the 1100th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group will remain in Kuwait, but some are to work in Afghanistan. Their job will be to track the flight hours, fuel usage and maintenance schedules of all Army helicopters in the region.
"Our troops that are going, they still have a very viable mission," Singh said. "Their role is extremely important to us being able to continue moving forward with the transition."
The commander of the Maryland Army National Guard said she has told her troops to remain vigilant.
"There's no environment, whether it's going into a combat environment, or even a training environment, that's totally and 100 percent safe," Singh said. "When you think of the things that we do, the equipment that we work with, anything can really happen. ... They really do need to be aware of their surroundings and thinking about making sure that they're taking care of one another."
Singh said the death of Greene "threw me back to when we lost our major, Major Marchanti." She was in Kabul at the time.
"I know exactly the long hours working in terms of getting information and trying to understand the situation and then trying to deal with the loss all at the same time," she said. "It's not an easy process."
More than 5,000 members of the Maryland Guard have deployed to Afghanistan since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Marylanders have served in the infantry, special forces and the military police, flown close-air support for ground troops, detained enemy fighters, mentored Afghan army and police officers, provided security, transported personnel and equipment, and performed maintenance. Four have been killed in action.
Singh said the Maryland troops now in Kuwait are "very well prepared."
"They're still at the highest readiness level," she said. "They're very high-spirited; they're training very hard. I know for a fact that our folks that are heading there are trained and ready, and they're the best at what they do."