Army reservists from an Encino-based battalion are deploying to tumultuous eastern Afghanistan to take on a task central to the U.S. counterinsurgency mission: persuading Afghans to turn away from the Taliban and support the nascent provincial and national governments.
Some 28 soldiers from Delta Company of the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion are assigned to Kunar province, a mountainous region near the Pakistan border that has seen some of the most intense combat between U.S.-led forces and Taliban fighters.
Other companies of the 425th will deploy to other regions in coming months as part of the battalion's first deployment to Afghanistan after repeated tours in Iraq. The experience of the 425th is proof anew of the key role that reservists, and reserve units, have played in both conflicts.
Lt. Col. Michele Haberlach, the 425th commander, is a West Point graduate and now a high school calculus teacher. Maj. Scott Ginsburg, the Delta Company commander, is in real estate with his brother.
Other soldiers with Delta Company include a UCLA student, a production supervisor at a Frito-Lay plant, a retail sales employee with Calvin Klein, an employee at an elevator company, a "loss-prevention" specialist with a grocery chain and several members of law enforcement.
All volunteered for the Afghanistan deployment, slated to last nine to 10 months. Each soldier gets a 15-day leave in the middle of the deployment.
Until recently, as Delta Company trained at a base in New Jersey, the deployment was slated for Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. Then it was switched to Kunar as the U.S. rearranges its forces amid an overall drawdown. The training is applicable to either location, Ginsburg said.
"We train as if we're going to the most dangerous, most demanding territory," Ginsburg said in a telephone interview.
Delta Company will work with Afghan officials, non-governmental agencies and U.S. government agencies on projects involving agriculture and economic development. Although the terrain and cultural customs are different, the commander says that lessons learned from Iraq will be useful.
"If you have good people skills, you're going to be good at civil affairs," Haberlach says.
Cpl. Luis Estrada was a Marine during the assault on Baghdad in 2003. He later left the Marine Corps but missed the military and so he enlisted in the Army Reserve.
He knows that the civil affairs mission is a world away from being part of an assault force. "It's a different war," said Estrada, who works at a plumbing, pipe-fitting and welding firm.
Spc. Nolan Mantle, a federal security guard in civilian life, is making his first war-zone deployment. He figures he and his comrades will learn a valuable lesson in Afghanistan.
"We're going to see how good we have it compared to other people," he said.