By Staff Sgt. Whitney Hughes
Combined Joint Task Force - 82nd Public Affairs Office
True to their motto "Always a step ahead," the soldiers of the Ranger Battalion of the Macedonian army are forging new ground with their U.S. partners from the Vermont Army National Guard in the National Guard's State Partnership for Peace Program.
By being the first Guard unit in the PFP program to embed and conduct combat operations in Afghanistan, the soldiers of the Ranger platoon and the Vermont Guard are making history for the program.
The platoon of Macedonian Rangers are embedded with 4th Platoon, D Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry at the Sar Hawza district center, where they conduct daily combined operations with Afghan National Security Forces to provide security and help train and mentor them.
"We are always proud to be soldiers for our country. But now we are soldiers for other countries also," said Macedonian army Staff Sgt. 1st Class Sashko Gjorgjeav, the first sergeant of the Macedonian Ranger platoon.
"It is a great pleasure to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the Americans," said Macedonian army 1st Lt. Vlatko Karanfilov, a team commander from Skopje, Macedonia, with the Ranger platoon.
Three months into their mission, the combined team members have found their rhythm, conducting multiple patrols each day with their Afghan partners. Despite the triple language barrier, the Soldiers have been able to build a working relationship, not only with each other, but also with the Afghan National Police who also live on their joint combat outpost.
"We're pretty tight with them. We have passed a working relationship to a friendship. If we didn't like each other this wouldn't work," said U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Dan Silver from Dover, N.H., the platoon leader of the 4th Platoon, D Company.
Their living conditions at the district center have also played a large role in strengthening their bond. The Macedonian and U.S. Soldiers not only work together, but they eat, sleep and live together. In addition, their Afghan police partners live only a few feet away and host a tri-national dinner almost nightly.
The result of the bond they have built was evident during a recent escort patrol the U.S. and Macedonian team conducted with the ANP.
They told ANP Chief Zafar Khan they could continue without his team. After meeting up with the ANA further down the route, Silver turned around and saw Khan and his team had followed to ensure they made it safely.
"This is my second tour and he (Khan) is the best Afghan soldier or policeman I've ever worked with," said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Hill, the 4th Platoon, D Company platoon sergeant.
The combined team has five villages in its area of responsibility. In the villages, the mission is to support the ANSF in providing security and help develop the infrastructure and stability of the government.
"We are here to help the Afghan people by doing anything we can to help them build a better life," said Karanfilov.
This is what Silver calls full spectrum counter insurgency operations.
"Today, it is not just conventional armies fighting conventional armies. There is a lot more required of us. The mission involves security, development, information operations and agricultural development. All of those lines of effort have to be incorporated," Silver said.
Security, one of the most important facets of their mission has been a success as they have received no civilian or combined forces casualties in their operation so far, said Silver.
Scouting insurgents used to be a problem in the mountainous terrain, but due to the continuous patrols and intelligence operations with the National Directorate of Security, they have seen a significant decline in the insurgent activity, said Hill.
A recent convoy patrol showed the benefits of multi-national coordination in action. While returning on a convoy from Forward Operating Base Sharana to the Sar Hawza district center, a team of Macedonians, U.S., and NDS soldiers received information that there was a possible ambush with an improvised explosive device awaiting them on the road.
The Macedonian soldiers quickly took action by dismounting from their vehicles and searching the road on foot for IEDs to clear the route for the convoy. The team made it back to the district center without incident.
"We are the first unit to work embedded with another army; this is a big experience for us. This is something you can't learn in a book; it is something you have to learn in the terrain here," said Karanfilov.