Col. Alberto Gonzalez has developed a taste for lamb kabobs and other Afghan food. That's not surprising since the 42-year-old Phoenix resident just spent a year there with his Arizona National Guard unit.
Front-line duty in that counterinsurgency mission had Guard troops interacting on a near-daily basis with Afghans, Gonzalez said.
Whether it was the provincial governor, a police chief or village elders, "they're very gracious," Gonzalez told The Associated Press. "They always offer you food."
Gonzalez, who was promoted to full colonel last week and appointed to a senior staff job in the Arizona Army National Guard, commanded the Arizona Guard's only infantry battalion during a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
The Mesa-headquartered 1st Battalion of the 158th Infantry Regiment, which returned to Arizona in March and April, has companies based in Mesa, Tucson, Prescott and Yuma, with individual soldiers in dozens of communities.
Most of the battalion's nearly 700 soldiers were deployed in 42-man platoons to protect U.S. provincial reconstruction teams in locations around Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Gonzalez and the rest of the unit were assigned to oversee military activities in a province that was the site of frequent roadside bombings.
Gonzalez said he knew his troops would be performing security operations. But the amount of day-to-day contact with Afghan civilians and the emphasis on training Afghan security personnel to operate on their own were somewhat unexpected, he said.
By the end of the deployment, Afghan units in Laghman province were planning and conducting missions, only requiring U.S. forces as support, he said.
The biggest adjustment Gonzalez said his unit had to make was ensuring that small-unit leaders understood that success was built through contact between them and Afghan villagers.
While Gonzalez said he went in the field a lot, "it was my squad leaders doing the daily patrols. They're engaging people, establishing relationships with the people," he said.
Those relationships paid off with information about insurgents and roadside bombs, helping contribute to a reduction in attacks, Gonzalez said.
"We had walk-ins that wanted to see a certain sergeant or a certain lieutenant," he said.
With the emphasis on civil affairs, it helped to be able to tap the back-home work skills and backgrounds of the National Guard soldiers, Gonzalez said.
"I had police officers, I had firefighters, I had civil engineers, engineers, construction workers, guys that own homebuilding companies," Gonzalez said. "All these different trades that the National Guard has, unlike the active-duty army, really played out well for us because we used all those kind of skills to help the people of Afghanistan."
Two of the battalion's soldiers - Staff Sgt. Charles Browning of Florence and Pfc. Mykel Miller of Phoenix - were killed during the deployment, both by improvised explosive devices. An additional 24 soldiers were wounded, mostly by IEDs or shrapnel from rocket-propelled grenades. One lost his leg.
As battalion commander, Gonzalez wrote and telephoned families of each slain soldier.
"It's very tough to do, to write those letters, of course. What's even more tough is to make those phone calls and to hear the hurt and the anger on their side," Gonzalez said. "But I was really expecting to be cursed at over the phone and blamed, but no, both the mother of Pfc. Miller and Staff Sgt. Browning's wife said how proud (their loved ones were) of serving in the unit, serving in the military and serving in Afghanistan. There was no animosity."