WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan - U.S. Army Lt. Eric Schwirian stood amid the jagged, weathered headstones of a small cemetery on a bald hill in the Nerkh Valley of Wardak Province. Schwirian, a Collegeville native and recent Drexel University graduate, was about to lead a mission through the valley to find and question suspected Taliban associates.
But first, he had to corral his men - no easy task given that Schwirian, 24, would be commanding more than his usual platoon of about two dozen U.S. grunts. He also was responsible for leading a group of about 30 Afghan National Army soldiers and a dozen French commandos.
Before this disparate group could even begin the mission, the ANA soldiers had to wait for breakfast - on its way in the back of a taxicab being held up at a U.S. checkpoint - and then for the French soldiers to receive radio approval from their command center, miles away.
"Working with two different commanders who don't even speak the same language is definitely a challenge," said Schwirian, who can speak only a few words in the local language, Pashto. "But getting the ANA to take charge is the only way we'll ever be able to leave Afghanistan."
Joint missions between coalition forces and the Afghan army are a key part of the Obama administration's troop surge in Afghanistan. U.S. military leaders are betting that training and professionalizing this group of fighters will one day allow the NATO coalition to withdraw its own forces from the country.
Earlier this year, Wardak Province - a region that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week was "critical for the security of Kabul," the Afghan capital - was one of the first in Afghanistan to receive a surge in U.S. forces. The increase has gone a long way toward quelling the once-violent region, roughly the size of Connecticut. Missions such as those led by Schwirian - who arrived in Afghanistan less than three months ago - reflect both the increased U.S. troop presence and a growing partnership with Afghan security forces.
His platoon has trudged through 19 villages in four weeks, engaging Taliban fighters while taking no casualties. Partnering with the ANA poses a host of logistical challenges, but Schwirian keeps his men motivated through an unrelenting positive outlook.
On this April day, Schwirian and his platoon set out through the Nerkh Valley for the first time, looking for two suspected Taliban associates while walking village to village, to display invigorated U.S. presence in the area.
The valley, just west of Kabul, is a lush area of apple orchards, bracketed by imposing, snowcapped peaks. The men walked through miles of plowed fields, bare trees, and a river swollen by spring rain.
Eventually the soldiers reached the large, walled compound of Mullah Mateen, a man suspected by U.S. intelligence sources of conspiring with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Rather than storming the compound, Schwirian's U.S. soldiers formed a perimeter around the building, kneeling behind a rock wall with weapons at the ready in case whoever was inside decided to start shooting.
The ANA contingent approached the front of the compound, and one of its officers knocked on the door.
As the Afghan soldiers began to talk to the teenage boy who answered the door, Schwirian said that they had volunteered for the most dangerous part of the mission.
"The ANA commander, right from the beginning, said: 'Hey, let me go talk to them first,' " Schwirian said. "I like that. . . . It's really putting an Afghan face in this. We're just sitting back and letting them handle it. They're much better at interacting with their own people than we are."
The teenager and his brother were brought out of the compound and placed in plastic flex-cuffs. Both Schwirian, through an interpreter, and an ANA officer questioned the youths about the whereabouts of Mateen, and it soon became clear they were lying to protect him. That is not a detainable offense. The most Schwirian and his men could do was record the pair's personal information and photographs for entry into a military database.
Some of his men grumbled at the slow pace of questioning and expressed frustration at having to release the brothers. Schwirian counteracted the negativity with buoyant optimism.
"There's nothing fast about war," he reminded them. "We're doing our jobs; this is supposed to be fun."
Their next stop was another compound a few miles away that yielded similar results. Still, Schwirian judged the mission a success. "This is the first time we've come through this valley," he said. "If we can show the average Afghan that the ANA, with our help, is looking out for them, we've done our job."
Back in the town of Mayden Shahr at Forward Operating Base Airborne - main headquarters for the 10th Mountain Division, where Schwirian's platoon is based - the lieutenant reflected on the work ahead of him in Wardak, where he and his men will be stationed until at least January.
"We're here to keep [the Afghan people] safe," he said. "We have to show them through action that we're here for good reasons and that the Taliban is here to make their lives worse."
Schwirian said he decided to join the military in his junior year at Spring Ford High School, after 9/11. He said the 2001 attacks "kick-started a thought process within me. How can I serve my country? How can I go to school? How can I make a difference in the world?"
The Army was his answer. After graduating from Drexel in June 2007 with a finance degree, he began officer candidate school. He still has family in Collegeville and until recently was a Phillies Sunday season-ticket holder.
"When you go home and can watch the Phillies, you can sometimes forget about what's going on over here," he said.
Schwirian already has led his men in combat, just outside Dehayat village, which some U.S. soldiers refer to as "the village of the damned" because its residents have been hostile to Americans.
His men took fire from a nearby ridge as they helped another platoon free a vehicle stuck in the mud and snow.
"Little did [the insurgents] know that we had a machine gun in place, pointed right at their position," he said. The shootout ended shortly thereafter; he did not know whether there were any insurgent casualties.
Schwirian described leading men in combat as "the greatest feeling in the world." That also helps keep a complex mission in perspective.