When you're only the second National Guard field artillery unit to conduct a combat fire support mission in Afghanistan, you're in select company. That's where the Soldiers of Battery A, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery find themselves as they continue their deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Their only other companions in that select group are also Wisconsinites - and from the same battalion, no less - from Battery B. The unit has big shoes to fill as it continues to blaze a trail for the National Guard and Wisconsin, and by all accounts, the Sussex, Wisconsin-based unit is acquitting itself well.
"These guys are the most committed and hard working group of individuals I've worked with," said. Capt. Aaron Ammerman, Battery A's commander. "They certainly make my job easy with their motivation and their level of knowledge that they bring to the table every day."
The unit arrived in Afghanistan in the spring and has since been providing combat fire support with its high mobility artillery rocket systems to coalition troops on the ground. The unit's Soldiers have settled into a routine and have adjusted well to the rigors of deployment.
Sgt. Jason Kollmorgan said he has enjoyed seeing another culture, but Afghanistan's weather took him by surprise.
"The weather is hotter than you can prepare for," he said. "Temperatures nearing 120 degrees nearly every day during the day is something that takes time to get used to, however, we have gotten used to it."
Other Soldiers echoed the same sentiments, especially given that the snow in Wisconsin was just beginning to melt when the unit left the Badger State for pre-mobilization training at Fort Bliss, Texas.
"The deployment life is all about making a routine that fits the individual's schedule and keeping to it," Sgt. Matthew McIntyre said. "All of the Soldiers that are with us have adjusted to their hours and have a functional routine that keeps everyone busy."
And while the harsh wind and sandy conditions that define Afghanistan wear on many of the Soldiers, they have found many positives in their surroundings.
"The best part about Afghanistan would have to be the view," McIntyre said. "The horizon view of the mountains is picturesque, and with the sunrise or sunset looks like something out of a photo-shopped screen saver."
The unit's commander said his unit has grown a lot since the team was originally assembled.
"The most rewarding part has been the ability to watch Soldiers mature and develop," Ammerman said. "We were quite a young unit when we deployed, and to watch these guys grow as Soldiers and leaders has been nothing short of incredible."
Fifty-one of the unit's nearly 80 Soldiers are on their first deployment. For many, the hardest part has been the distance from home.
Spc. Shane Shuster said that adjusting to the daily routine was not difficult, but being separated from his family and missing his daughter's second birthday was hard.
"My family and friends have been supportive," he said. "They make sure I have everything I miss from back home."
The unit has been receiving care packages from family, friends, employers and community groups on an almost weekly basis, and the Soldiers have had access to Skype, computers and phones to help bridge the distance to loved ones back home.
Spc. Noah Kummrow said, "The most challenging part of this deployment has been being away from my family and friends. Being away from them for so long will only allow me to cherish the time I get with them when I get back home - more so than I already have."
In the meantime, the Soldiers will rely on the bonds of brotherhood they have forged with their fellow battery mates to get them through the rest of their tour in Afghanistan.
"I wouldn't change the fact that I am here for anything," said Spc. Jeremy Whiting. "I'm happy to be here with my military family."
The unit's deployment is its first to Afghanistan. It previously deployed to Iraq in 2006 and 2009.