Story

Wisconsin Guard Unit Helping with Afghanistan Pullout

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Jeremiah Kroll, a member of the Wisconsin National Guard, recently became a father. Image by Meghan Dhaliwal. Afghanistan, 2014.

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Members of the Wisconsin National Guard 829th Engineer Co. dismantle a tent once used to house helicopters at Camp Marmal in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Image by Meghan Dhaliwal. Afghanistan, 2014.

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Members of the Wisconsin National Guard 829th Engineer Co. attend a platoon meeting at Camp Marmal in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Image by Meghan Dhaliwal. Afghanistan, 2014.

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Debris covers the ground at the worksite of the Wisconsin National Guard 829th Engineer Co. in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Image by Meghan Dhaliwal. Afghanistan, 2014.

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Jessica Burch, 1st Lt. platoon leader for the Wisconsin National Guard 829th Engineer Co., straightens out a Wisconsin state flag sent by family members at Camp Marmal in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Image by Meghan Dhaliwal. Afghanistan, 2014.

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Members of the Wisconsin National Guard 829th Engineer Co. dismantle a tent once used to house helicopters at Camp Marmal in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Image by Meghan Dhaliwal. Afghanistan, 2014.

CAMP MARMAL — This military facility near the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-i-Sharif is disappearing.

One bolt, one beam, one rivet at a time. Tents, buildings, maintenance facilities — all are vanishing as the landscape reverts back to the sand-swept terrain it looked like before coalition forces moved in to defeat the Taliban shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Among the 30,000 American troops in Afghanistan are those of the Wisconsin National Guard 829th Engineer Co., whose members are split into groups helping to shut down bases and pack up a war.

The unit, headquartered in Chippewa Falls, arrived in late spring. Many of the members are from northern Wisconsin because one of the company's detachments is based in Ashland. There's also a detachment from Richland Center, as well as volunteers from other Guard units.

The 829th Engineers is a vertical engineering unit, meaning soldiers construct buildings and structures. A horizontal engineering unit builds roads and bridges. But the 829th is not in Afghanistan to build anything; it's here to tear down, pack up and ship material back to the United States, give it to Afghan forces or destroy it.

About half the company has previously been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or both. Some who are on their first deployment have been waiting patiently for a couple years for their chance to go to Afghanistan.

Spec. Taylor Wahlberg, 21, a 2011 Superior High School graduate, tried volunteering three times for Afghanistan deployments with the Wisconsin National Guard. On her fourth try, she made it.

With combat troops pulling out by the end of the year and the American military presence dropping to 9,800 troops, Wahlberg worried she might miss her chance.

"I wanted the experience. I want to serve my country and do my part," Wahlberg said Friday afternoon as 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon dismantled what had been a helicopter maintenance hangar.

American troops serving 12-month deployments get 15-day R&R leaves. But because the 829th will be deployed less than a year, none of the members will get a chance to see their families before their hitch is done.

That meant Spec. Jeremiah Kroll, 28, met his new daughter via Facebook last week. With his wife Bridget 1-1/2 weeks overdue, Kroll was trying to Skype daily with her back home in the northwestern community of Maple.

"I wanted to be there. I didn't really push too hard to go home because I thought it'd be harder on my wife and my 4-year-old stepdaughter Cheyenne," Kroll said shortly after a ceremony for soldiers receiving promotions. "I was talking it over with my wife and she said 'it's up to you,' so I decided to stay."

A few others in the 829th also are expectant fathers. Kroll's daughter was the first of the babies to be born on this deployment.

Kroll and his wife discussed Skyping during the birth but decided it would be nerve-wracking if there were complications. "I'd be sitting there asking questions," he said.

Labor was induced on July 31 — in Afghanistan it was already Aug. 1 — at a Duluth, Minn., hospital. The anxious papa checked Facebook that morning before he left for his work site. No word.

When he returned to his living quarters eight hours later he turned on his laptop and saw a picture posted by his wife. He grinned as he gazed at his sleeping daughter and learned Athena Marie was 7 pounds, 5 ounces and 20 inches long.

He celebrated by sharing cigars with his team and by doing what fathers have done since the camera was invented — showing off his newborn's picture.

"I called everyone over to show them on my computer. I still do that every once in a while," said Kroll.