Andrew Gneist, a 2011 graduate of Iola-Scandinavia High School, recently returned home from an eight-month deployment in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.
Gneist, who serves in the Army National Guard, volunteered for the deployment, traveling with Unit 828 Vertical Engineer Company, out of Chippewa Falls.
“It is certainly a lot different from here,” he said. “One of the hardest parts is getting used to the climate. With the humidity, we had temperatures that were sometimes up to 138 degrees.”
In addition to their uniforms, soldiers wore bullet proof vests and helmets, while carrying 180 rounds of ammunition, an M4 Carbine Rifle, a whistle, reflective belt and tourniquet.
With that amount of equipment, soldiers had to drink six bottles of water per hour to stay hydrated.
“Later in the year, when the temperatures got down to 80-90 degrees, we start shivering,” he said.
Gneist was involved in on-base construction while serving.
“We had to build the pre-detonation roofs that were meant to keep soldiers safe while inside buildings,” he said. “People from the Afghan Army worked right along beside us.”
According to Gneist, the Afghans also assisted with laundry, cooking and providing security for the base.
His service did not come without some fears.
“There was always a fear of indirect fire or suicide bombings,” he said. “I think the biggest thing was that there were so many locals working with you. You never knew if they were there to help or waiting … to stab you in the back.”
Gneist feels good about the work he did while in Afghanistan.
“One of our biggest jobs was taking down an incinerator,” he said. “It was a lot of work, and no one really knew how to use a cutting torch. My shop teacher, Mr. Gagas, had taught us how to in class. I sent him an email to thank him for that.”
The biggest accomplishment for the unit was completing the mission and being back three months early.
“My contract was also up with the military, and I wanted at least one deployment under my belt,” he said. “I was not faced with any deaths. Sure, there were a few minor injuries, and a couple of guys got sent home with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but overall, it was a good experience.”
Gneist, who plans on re-enlisting, said he would go back if another opportunity became available.
This month, he travels to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, to do inventory of all the equipment used in Afghanistan.
He is the son of James and April Gneist, of Scandinavia, and Wally and Patty Tomczak, of Almond.