Vineyard soldiers took bit of home to Afghanistan, and back again

VFW Post 9261 quartermaster Peter Herrmann, left, and present commander Ronnie Klein display the flag brought home from Afghanistan and given to the post by Island soldiers Randy Dull and Whit Hyde. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Army Staff Sergeant Randy Dull of Edgartown and Army Specialist Whit Hyde of West Tisbury and their fellow platoon members carried a little bit of Martha’s Vineyard everywhere they went in Afghanistan.

Their combined unit of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel wore a special shoulder patch designed to symbolize their unity and camaraderie. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 9261 in Oak Bluffs paid for the manufacture and delivery of more than 200 patches.When the Island’s citizen soldiers returned to the Vineyard on March 28 they showed their appreciation to the VFW with a special gift of their own.

Staff Sergeant Dull and Specialist Hyde are members of the Massachusetts National Guard’s 182nd Infantry Battalion, Yankee Division, based out of Braintree. They were deployed in June 2011 for a nine-month tour to serve in the same platoon in Afghanistan, to provide security with a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) stationed in Ghazni Province. A Polish task force was in charge of overall operations of their combined services unit.

One team, one fight

Before they left Martha’s Vineyard, VFW member Jim Bishop told Staff Sergeant Dull to let him know if anyone in the two soldiers’ company needed anything while in Afghanistan. While training at Camp Atterbury in Indiana before heading overseas, Staff Sergeant Dull said his unit commanders came up with the idea of creating a shoulder patch to symbolize their mission as “one team, one fight.”

When he learned that the specialty patches would cost about $20 per person, Staff Sergeant Dull called Mr. Bishop and asked if the VFW might contribute towards the cost of the patches for enlisted personnel, since it would be a bigger bite out of pocket for them. The veterans did more than contribute. The VFW voted to pay the entire cost of $1,600 for patches for 98 platoon members.

It was a big chunk out of the small organization’s budget. Some planned fundraisers fell through when the ball was dropped. But the VFW membership made good on its promise.

Petty Officer Kenneth Kingslow, U.S. Navy, created the final drawing of the patch, to include elements suggested by both Army and Navy personnel. The patch’s design features a Spartan army helmet to represent the Army and the unit’s name, a Roman numeral two to represent the second platoon, and a Trident, a three-pronged spear, to represent the Navy.

We will treasure this

To acknowledge the Island VFW’s generosity, Staff Sergeant Dull and his fellow soldiers decided they would carry an American flag on every mission for presentation to the VFW Post at the end of their tour. They also flew the flag at Forward Operating Base Ghazni on July 4 and September 11. Most of the time Staff Sergeant Dull carried the flag on missions in his backpack. When he went on leave, another solider would carry on the tradition.

On March 28, Staff Sergeant Dull held on to the triangular-folded flag tightly as he and Specialist Hyde stepped off the 7 pm ferry in Vineyard Haven to a rousing welcome home celebration. An eager crowd of family members, friends, veterans, and first responders greeted them with salutes, hugs, applause, flashing blue lights, honking horns, and a few siren blasts.

After the initial chaos subsided, Staff Sergeant Dull searched the crowd for Mr. Bishop, who suggested he present the flag to Peter Herrmann, the VFW’s quartermaster and a past post commander.

Mr. Herrmann leaned in close as Staff Sergeant Dull told him about the flag’s significance, in combat missions and as the symbol of freedom at the soldiers’ base on America’s birthday and the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Although no one could hear their conversation, people around them grew silent as they saw tears well up in Mr. Herrmann’s eyes. “We will treasure this,” Mr. Herrmann said in a voice choked with emotion.

The patches are one of many projects the VFW has supported, which range from the Wounded Warriors Project to donations to local soldiers, veterans, and community members as needed, Mr. Herrmann told The Times in a phone call a few days later.

“The flag will certainly be appreciated,” he said. “We will put it in a special flag holder with a description of what it’s all about, including that it was carried on 260 missions.”

Life in Afghanistan

In separate phone conversations with The Times, Staff Sergeant Dull and Specialist Hyde described their experiences.

Staff Sergeant Dull, a PRT squad leader, was a truck commander. Specialist Hyde served as a gunner in a different squad, which was sent to another location halfway through their tour.

“The base we moved to took a lot of mortar and rocket fire, if not everyday, at least every other day for the first three months we were there,” Specialist Hyde said. “It was not safe at any point, even inside the base. In fact, we felt somewhat safer outside the base, and most of us found we would rather be out doing missions, than sitting around, which made everybody restless.”

Specialist Hyde said he and Staff Sergeant Dull are both infantrymen trained in combat tactics, which this mission did not require.

“This was more of a people mission, to be a presence for them, like sheriffs,” Specialist Hyde said. “We’d still have to be ready to make that switch to combat at a moment’s notice, but we couldn’t be so aggressive that people would not want us around. It was definitely a fine line and led to frustration, because we knew where the bad guys were nearby, but it wasn’t our mission to go get them, which is what we are trained for.”

Staff Sergeant Dull voiced similar thoughts, with the added perspective of a tour in Kosovo and two tours in Iraq during his eight years on active duty with the U.S. Army. He joined the National Guard two years ago while living and working on Martha’s Vineyard.

“In Iraq the threat was always there, but you could immediately deal with it,” Staff Sergeant Dull said. “The PRT’s primary mission in Afghanistan is not to deal with it. We received restraint training and operated under escalation of force protocols that use more non-lethal methods first.”

There were also cultural differences to learn. “In Iraq, both sides would talk through an interpreter,” Staff Sergeant Dull said. “In Afghanistan, you must maintain eye contact or it insults the person you’re talking to.”

Women soldiers had to wear headscarves, even when they were in uniform and wearing a helmet. They played an important role in reaching out to Afghani women, who were not allowed to speak or even make eye contact with male soldiers.

Staff Sergeant Dull said the threat level and tension in Afghanistan were more intense than in Iraq. “In Iraq, you’re afraid of coming across one type of device that is 100 percent lethal, an explosively formed penetrator,” he said. “But in Afghanistan, they use homemade explosives and you’re afraid of all of them.”

Despite the danger, Staff Sergeant Dull said, “My company and battalion did not lose anybody in combat, for the first time in any of my tours.”

Now that they are home, the two soldiers said they plan to take a little time off to relax and catch up with family and friends. Staff Sergeant Dull has three years left in his commitment to the National Guard and said he would like to stay in for 20. Specialist Hyde said his National Guard commitment ends in 2016. He plans to continue taking classes towards a degree at UMass Amherst next fall.