In support or in combat, S.C. guardsmen 'all trigger-pullers'

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- With wrench in hand, Spc. Kendrick Singleton reached into the engine compartment of the Humvee and began replacing its power steering.

Spc. Thomas Sharp crawled under the Humvee to lend a hand from below, and Sgt. Carroll Rawl plugged a new pair of headlights into the vehicle's bumper.

In a matter of minutes, the Humvee was ready to roll again.

The behind-the-scenes work may not be glamorous but it is vital to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.

"We're all trigger-pullers in a way," said Sgt. Jim Qualls, a Guard mechanic. "We're here to support and keep (the combat troops) rolling."

About 100 soldiers from the S.C. National Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team are based in Kandahar. Twenty serve in support roles, including mechanics, computer technicians and medics.

The rest either are security forces or training the Afghan army and police.

The support soldiers work at the Shir Zah Naval Station, a Navy-run garrison about two miles from the main air base. But the S.C. troops, nonetheless, live on the air base. That means they have to commute back and forth over a dusty, deeply rutted road, traveling back to the air base for meals and to sleep.

The S.C. troops say they did not know what to expect when they headed to the Kandahar area, a longtime Taliban stronghold.

"After getting here, it's been a good deal," said Singleton, of Orangeburg. "You're more focused on your job, and you feel like you're making a difference."

Sgt. 1st Class E.J. Walsh is one of the technicians who keeps the unit's communications networks running. He, too, wasn't sure what he'd find in Kandahar.

"It's supposed to be a more intense place," said Walsh, of Dillon. "But you make it what you want."

Qualls, of Irmo, transferred from another Guard unit so he could serve in Afghanistan.

Two months into the Guard's 12-month deployment to Afghanistan, Qualls said Kandahar has been a good experience. "There are a lot more places that are worse than where we are."

Sharp, of Allendale, said living conditions for soldiers have improved since his last deployment, in 1998, to Kuwait.

Sharp spent six months in Kuwait as a member of the active-duty Army. The troops lived in dusty tents, and there were few recreation facilities or things to do, Sharp added.

At Kandahar, troops live in modern, steel-framed modular housing, built on concrete slabs. The rooms are air-conditioned, a must with daytime temperatures routinely reaching 120 degrees. Cable TV and Internet connections are available.

A gym, basketball court, recreation building, computer lab and phone center also are within walking distance.

One benefit of being stationed at Kandahar, Singleton said, is serving with troops from more than a dozen other countries.

There are many differences, including the languages spoken. But, Singleton added, "People are much the same. They all like to eat doughnuts and drink coffee."

Walsh said the work he is doing is no different from what he would be doing if he were stationed at the brigade's Camp Phoenix headquarters, in Kabul. "But, down here, you're closer to the soldiers."

The troops also believe they're helping make Afghanistan more secure.

"It's important for us to be here so that the Afghan people can build a better life," said Rawl of Wagener. "Maybe we can make a big difference."