Story by Staff Sgt. Eric Burks, Air Forces Central Combat Camera
Airmen from the 455th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, aim to make the country safer – one patrol at a time.
“When you think of security forces, you think of gates and ID cards,” said Staff Sgt. Alexis Rice. “Well, we’re doing more than just that.”
Rice is part of a “Mike” team, a select group of Airmen who operate beyond the barbed wire and concrete barriers of the airfield.
Typically, security forces Airmen provide air base defense from within the perimeter, Rice said. But at Bagram, Mike teams are a constant presence outside the gates, patrolling day and night in the surrounding villages.
“Their job is not only to ensure base security,” he said, “but to protect area residents and perform counter-insurgency operations.”
Staff Sgt. Matthew Moneypenny, a 455th ESFS truck commander for a night-shift Mike team, said his unit conducts mounted and dismounted patrols, vehicle searches, and maintains a vigilant watch for suspicious activities. They also engage with the local community – greeting shop owners, communicating with Afghan National Police at checkpoints and extending an open hand to the many children they encounter.
The patrols provide Airmen an opportunity to build a rapport with local Afghans and break cultural stereotypes, he said.
“They have stereotypes about us just as we do about them sometimes,” Moneypenny said. “These kids will come out, and we’ll interact with them and give them food and water when we can. If we show that we care about them, and don’t act aggressively or indifferent, I believe that goes a long way.”
Rice said the importance of establishing a good rapport with the local population reflects how the mission is changing.
“It’s more than just dismounting, it’s about changing lives,” he said.
While the Mike teams patrol the local area day and night, 455th ESFS Reaper teams extend even further into the community.
“We provide a quick reaction response team for Bagram Airfield,” said Master Sgt. Richard Holder, with the 455th ESFS, “but our main purpose is to provide security outside the wire.
“We have a 200 square-mile zone we’re responsible for patrolling,” he said. Within that zone are about 93 villages.
When his Reaper team visits a village, Holder said, an important objective is often to conduct key leader engagements.
“When we go to these villages, we try to meet with the commanders – or ‘maliks’ – of these villages and talk about infrastructure, their people, jobs and security,” he said. “By getting out there and talking to the people in the villages, we hope to build rapport with them, and hopefully, they’ll understand the reason why we’re here.
“That reason,” he said, “is we’re here for their security, to help them keep the Taliban out of their area, so they can be prosperous and more secure when they carry on their daily lives.”
Lt. Col. Thomas Sherman, the 455th ESFS commander, said, “We’re very unique here at Bagram in the respect that we work from inside all the way out into the community itself.
“We’re living a tradition that goes all the way back to our time in Vietnam during Operation Safe Side,” the colonel said. “There, we realized Airmen are the greatest force enhancer to ensure proper security of airfields across an area of responsibility.”
Sherman said his squadron’s concept of operations is the modern-day actualization of having security forces Airmen focused on providing base defense, while also realizing the need to occupy, own and use the battle space exterior to the base.
Going outside of the wire and coordinating efforts with local nationals, Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army partners ensures the greatest security before threats reach the base perimeter, he said.
Ensuring protection, freedom and some level of quality of life for the Afghan people outside the wire, Sherman said, “is the greatest gift that we as defenders can give the people around Bagram Airfield.
“So what we see is this incredible balance between care, nurturing and assistance on one side, while we’re still providing an aggressive defense to protect the assets on Bagram,” he said. “I think that displays the incredible maturity that our defenders are exhibiting on a day-to-day basis.
“These Airmen – these defenders – are the face of America in the Bagram district,” he said. “They are the ones (who) are taking care to ensure that if we are going to have a successful transition to a stable Afghanistan, this face of America is interacting with everyone from the young to the old.”
Moneypenny said that interaction with local village youth was one of the most rewarding aspects of his job.
“Just seeing a smile on those kids’ faces, that’s good enough for me,” he said. “These kids basically live in poverty, but they’re tough. It’s a different world out here, so even little things can make a big difference.”
Holder said, “When I’m out there, ‘hopeful’ is a word that comes to mind.”
“I hope that the past 10 years we’ve spent in Afghanistan isn’t a waste,” the sergeant said. “I hope that what we’re doing here will make a change for Afghanistan.”