Editor's note: Capt. Kyle Petkovsek is a Marine fighter jet pilot and a Lady's Island resident. In early April, he returned home from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan. He agreed to share with readers of The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet portions of the journals he kept there. They have been edited slightly in some instances for clarity, but an effort was made to retain most of their original words. This is the first in a series of five installments, which will appear weekly in Duty & Honor.
This is the story of three Marines and an Air Force pilot traveling around southern Afghanistan to mentor and train -- and sometimes to chase -- the Afghan National Army Air Corps.
Whenever I meet reporters, the most popular question I am asked is, "When do you think the Afghans will be capable of operating on their own?" I will tell my story of supporting operational missions of the Afghan Air Corps during a 10-day period, part of a recent six-month deployment, and you can form your own opinion.
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The Combined Air Power Transition Force is the organization that trains and mentors the Afghan Air Corps, and it sought experienced folks to mentor the Afghan Mi-35 pilots and forward observers during what we call "close air support tactics." This is important stuff -- air action by fixed- or rotary-winged aircraft against enemy targets that are near friendly forces. This requires detailed integration of each air mission with fire and movement of ground forces. Without that integration, calamity or downright disaster awaits troops on the ground and in the air.
The Mi-35 flown by the Afghans is a Cold War-era, Russian-built attack helicopter, also known by the NATO code name "hind."
When I was first told me and my boys would be going down south to get in the fight and mentor the Afghan forward observer, some graphic thoughts ran through my mind. The first was, "There's no way in hell the Afghans are capable of executing this type of mission." I wondered what kind of training they have, if they're familiar with the rules of engagement, if their Mi-35 pilots are proficient -- the list goes on.
I linked up with the senior trainer at CAPTF, who had just completed training with the first Afghan forward observer during a one-month period, and I quickly got a slap-in-the-face reality check. He told me a detachment of two Mi-17s and two Mi-35s were headed to Kandahar in support of the 205th Corps units engaged with operation Mostarak. We had a laundry list of questions and asked to meet with the Afghan aircrews and this newly trained forward observer before flying down south.
The only guidance I received from the senior trainer was, "do the right thing and make it happen," "be the voice of common sense" and "don't get shot."
I knew very well that I had no authority over the Afghan units and that I was there merely to offer suggestions. Thoughts raced through my mind of my team embedded with an Afghan infantry unit communicating through my interpreter, Siear Rashik, to this Afghan forward observer. What were the conditions of the battle space? Was I going to be able to abort the attack helicopters if need be? The wrong answer to any of these questions could be a complete "showstopper" to this operation -- to prevent civilian casualties and fires on friendly forces.
Nonetheless, my team pressed on with the trip down south to get a better idea of the operations of the 205th Corps and the four helicopters. We were going to make an impact in some form -- we just didn't know how it would unfold.
The team consisted of Capt. Johan Bleker, a Dutch Marine joint terminal attack controller; Capt. Pat Killingsworth, an Air Force F-22 pilot; Staff Sgt. Christopher Thomas, a Marine aviation logistician; and me, a Marine FA-18 pilot.
Nothing about this trip would go as anticipated.