Killings in Afghanistan raise risks for North Las Vegas-based reservists

It always has been a tough assignment. Now it’s even tougher.

Just as the Army Reserve’s Vegas Desert Rats are setting out to win the hearts and minds of Afghans, a regular Army soldier guns down women and children in villages near Kandahar.

"Soldiers soldier on. Absolutely. We’re going to proceed according to the mission," said Maj. Victor Ingram, commander of the two dozen citizen-soldiers from Delta Company, 405th Civil Affairs Battalion.

His comment came in reaction to this weekend’s predawn shooting spree by a U.S. soldier that left 16 Afghan civilians dead, including nine children.

U.S. defense officials and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force provided little information Monday about the Army staff sergeant from a Washington-based Stryker combat team.

The soldier is thought to have slipped away from his base at night and gunned down villagers in their homes and burned their bodies. The massacre occurred over the weekend after a spate of attacks that have left six U.S. personnel dead. The Taliban has claimed the attacks were in retaliation for the burning of Qurans, the Muslim holy book, at Bagram Air Base.

A unit of handpicked Army Reserve soldiers, known as the Vegas Desert Rats, based in North Las Vegas, left McCarran International Airport at the end of January for a six-week training stint in New Jersey. They are supposed to be in Afghanistan for nearly a year. Their tour will focus on the U.S. military’s exit strategy: to win the hearts and minds of Afghans by providing security, stability and essential needs such as clean water and sanitation as the presence of U.S. troops dwindles after a decade of war.

They will go into areas with a Taliban presence and interact with village leaders in four-man teams assisting special operations and infantry troops.

In an interview before he left for the mission, Sgt. 1st Class John Nichols, 41, said, "At the end of the day, we want them to decide who they want in their country. Our greatest goal is to work our way out of a job, to help them be an independent government."

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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