VERGENNES — Christmas will be an even warmer occasion than usual in the Genau household in Vergennes, and indeed throughout Addison County this year.
Vermont National Guard Staff Sgt. Eric Genau and around 40 of his colleagues from the Vergennes armory are finally back, safe and sound, from an almost year-long deployment to Afghanistan.
“Only three individuals (in the Vermont National Guard) won’t make it home for Christmas,” said Col. Brian Carpenter of Middlebury, who is the assistant adjutant general for the Vermont Army National Guard. “They are escorting materials back on a flight … I think they will be in Indiana late on Christmas Eve.”
It was the second overseas deployment for Genau, 29, who serves as the Readiness NCO at the Guard Armory in Vergennes. He previously served a tour in Iraq spanning 2004-2005. Having served with the Guard for a decade, he has grown accustomed to the prospect of being deployed to one of the world’s hotspots at any time.
“I don’t really mind it,” Genau said. “It’s like a fresh (career) start every few years.”
He got that latest fresh start this past January, when he and other members of his unit mobilized. After some training and registration at Fort Polk, Louisiana, Genau and his fellow soldiers arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Feb. 28.
Upon arrival, he recognized climate that was similar to Iraq’s, but he was pleasantly surprised by the living conditions at what would be his home for the next nine months: Camp Phoenix, Kabul.
“It was the same atmosphere, really, but this time the accommodations for us were a lot better,” Genau said.
Soldiers were placed into “B huts,” makeshift buildings that were divided into separate rooms by barriers made of metal containers. Genau estimated there were around 2,500 to 3,000 soldiers from throughout the world at Camp Phoenix during his stay. The camp is an International Security Assistance Force base that features U.S., French, Bulgarian and other multi-national forces who are helping to train the Afghan national army and police force.
Genau was part of a group that helped mentor Afghan police officers in all phases of law enforcement, from ordering supplies to full-fledged investigations.
“We were mostly dealing with the people there that were established, as far as police chiefs, senior police officials at the different stations,” Genau said.
The Afghan police forces were friendly, but many seemed to be looking out for themselves, according to Genau.
“A lot of it was they wanted hand-outs (of equipment) — ‘gimmee, gimmee,’ and our job was to say, ‘You need to use your supply channels to get the stuff that you need,’” Genau said.
Once they got the supplies they needed, the Afghan police were taught how to keep track of the material and how to account for it through the chain of command. The material in question ranged from paper and pens to clothing and weapons.
It became relatively easy to tell the difference between corrupt and trustworthy Afghan forces, according to Genau.
“People who want to make a difference, they share viable information that would catch caches of weapons or stolen equipment. The ones that don’t want to make a difference, you really don’t see any positive stuff coming out of their police district areas,” Genau said.
Part of the tutelage process involved U.S. and Afghan police forces sitting in on joint training sessions, then observing how the Afghan officials would implement that training in the field — including at security checkpoints.
“We would try to give them pointers on better ways to do things, share things we were taught,” Genau said.
Fortunately, Genau and his colleagues weren’t exposed to a lot of hostile fire in a country that saw a spike in violence this year.
“Our police mentor groups went out daily and the insurgents, I don’t believe, are in the city of Kabul,” said Genau, who nonetheless occasionally heard the detonation of a car bomb or suicide bomber. “We made no contact (with the enemy) in the city of Kabul at all. I think it is more of ‘They’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone’ type of thing.”
Genau’s activities were somewhat limited during the first few months by an injury he sustained when someone closed a humvee door on one of his fingers. He nonetheless got out into the field and spent the final few months doing administrative chores to ready the troops for their trip back home. They arrived back in Vermont on Dec. 13.
Genau developed a fairly regular daily routine, which began each morning at 4 a.m. in the gym for workouts. He was pleased with the food at Camp Phoenix and was able to communicate each day with his family back home. All soldiers’ rooms had a cable television feed and the option of wireless Internet connections. Many soldiers shared a video hookup with their families via Skype. The base also has an Internet café with free Web access.
“We could communicate back and forth pretty easily,” Genau said. “I got to communicate with my wife (Sarah) pretty much every day.”
During down-time, many soldiers — including Genau — would participate in Xbox video gaming, ironically competing against each other in fictional war zones.
“We’d have 10 to 15 guys playing the same game at once,” Genau said.
Carpenter, who himself saw duty overseas in the 1989 war in Panama, said today’s soldiers do a good job keeping themselves occupied while serving extended deployments away from family.
“You find things to keep you busy so your mind doesn’t dwell on being way away from home,” he said. “I’ve been impressed how much they achieved personal fitness goals.”
Genau said he believes his time in Afghanistan was well-spent, in terms of helping that nation get back on its feet.
“I would definitely say we made a difference,” Genau said, noting a relatively smooth nine months that he believes helped the overall counter-insurgency effort in Kabul.
Genau is now very happy to be back, and is looking forward to a great Christmas celebration with his wife Sarah and their respective families.
“It is kind of tough on a relationship, but it rekindles when you get back,” he said of military deployments.
Genau noted he and his fellow soldiers and their families must always anticipate the prospect of being deployed again.
“If it doesn’t happen, fine and dandy, but I will always be ready if it does happen,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.