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'I was not prepared': Reinert describes wartime deployment

A grid of images shows images which have been posted by Lt. Cmdr. Roger Reinert, of Duluth, on his Instagram and other social media timelines during his time deployed in Kabul, Afghanistan. Reinert is a member of the Navy Reserve and expects to be home in May. Graphic illustration by Gary Meader

Ten months of war in Afghanistan behind him, Lt. Cmdr. Roger Reinert called last week from a military base in Qatar on the Persian Gulf.

A few days later the former Duluth city councilor and state legislator would tweet from Germany, where he'd arrived as part of a monthlong hopscotch toward Duluth and home.

"I landed in Germany around 0400CST," he tweeted. "As of today I am officially out of the combat theater."

It was the latest social media missive in a long series of communications Reinert, who serves in the U.S. Navy Reserve, has shared while experiencing his time away.

"When I found out about my deployment, I knew I was going to try to bring people along," Reinert said. "I knew then that the war in Afghanistan was not really front page news anymore."

In a phone call from Qatar with the News Tribune, Reinert, 48, described his view of a swimming pool and his relief to be clear from being a constant target working in one of three bases in and around the Afghan capital of Kabul.

"This was my first overseas combat deployment," Reinert said. "I would say I was not prepared. I don't know if you can be. But it was not what I was expecting and I was not prepared."

Reinert survived two rocket attacks, a ground attack and two vehicle-bed explosive devices detonated at the gates. Getting caught in traffic jams in the city of 4.6 million brought dread. He felt fortunate to be able to move between bases a lot of the time in a helicopter, taking more than 100 flights while he was there.

Some saw way more than he did, Reinert admitted, but he saw plenty.

"It was sobering," Reinert said. "There were 26 Americans that have been killed in just the time that I was in Afghanistan. Working in public affairs, I was one of the first people to see that information."

Last week, the day after he flew out of Afghanistan from Bagram Airfield, three Marines were killed in a roadside explosion outside its gates. Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, of Newark, Del.; Sgt. Benjamin Hines, 31, of York, Pa.; and Cpl. Robert Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, N.Y., died April 8. Their remains arrived in the U.S. later in the week.

It was the latest strike in what has continued to be a bloody and violent war in Afghanistan. The U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan to fight the Taliban in 2001 in response to 9/11. Since then, there have been more than 2,300 American military deaths in the country.

Reinert's direct boss was a three-star Army general in command of 1,100 U.S. and NATO coalition troops. As one of the few non-Army soldiers assigned to the command, Reinert, a Navy sailor, quickly became acquainted with the ways of the Army. He jokingly referred to his role as "Narmy."

As director of public affairs and strategic communications, Reinert woke early to mine news gathering from across the globe, and the latest from U.S. and foreign policy journals, in order to provide daily updates to his boss. Reinert also developed information papers about the mission for his boss, as well as Gen. Scott Miller, commander of the entire Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, for when visiting Congresspeople and Pentagon VIPs arrived for live updates.

And even as Reinert posted his own Instagram photos for consumption by those back home, he was helping to track the social media impacts of the enemy.

"The Taliban are incredibly talented at using social media," Reinert said. "They are way ahead of the curve in terms of using that tool versus the U.S. and coalition forces. By the end of my time there, I was working on that a lot."

Inevitably, following an airstrike, the Taliban will report civilian casualties — which happens, Reinert said, but not routinely and "coalition forces are extremely careful to prevent it." The Taliban will take a kernel of truth and exaggerate it into the sort of propaganda which can stir emotion and resent.

"One of the advantages they have is that they don't need to be truthful," Reinert said. "Unfortunately, we're seeing this a lot in our current environment back home."

The News Tribune asked Reinert about President Donald Trump's intent early last winter to cut U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"I think the president's announcement at the end of last year was challenging," Reinert said. "The announcement of a withdrawal of half the U.S. troops (about 7,000) was perceived by the Taliban as a victory. Like in many competitions, you don't step back at that point, you push harder — and that's definitely what happened. It was brutal. It was a high-tempo winter fighting season."

When he returns home in May, Rienert, a devoted runner, will continue to train for the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in June, and begin studying to take the bar exam. He earned his law degree in the time leading up to his deployment. But he'll need to kick off the rust. He confessed to not having had a legal thought this whole time.

Instead, his days have been filled with routine — 12-hour workdays, followed by running workouts and calls home to his wife, Layla. They married in 2015. She's a nurse at the VA Clinic in Superior.

"She's been a great Navy wife; she's been a rock star," Reinert said. "I won't sugar-coat it, there are days I was super low and so on top of everything else she's doing, including her full-time job, I'm asking for love."

Reinert's friends have appreciated his communications — filling the comment sections of his posts with well-wishes.

"I'm glad Roger provided insight into what he was doing," said Duluth City Council President Noah Hobbs, an avid commenter in Reinert's posts. "His deployment made me more aware that we are still very much in an active conflict over in Afghanistan."

Hobbs added that he got nervous whenever he heard or read bad news from Afghanistan. He would frequently check for a Reinert social media posting to learn if he was OK.

Having seen it all up close, Reinert knows there could be difficult times ahead from a mental health processing standpoint. He plans to get it out intentionally by talking and doing what he called self-care.

"I know, as an older adult, there's stuff I've got to work on when I get home that I really haven't started to process at all yet," he said. "The things I've seen and I've experienced, you sort of push that into some part of you, push it aside so you can get through the day, and the next day, and the day after that."

Now 14 years into his time with the Navy Reserve based in the Twin Cities, Reinert said he'll stay if they'll have him, and would never leave his 20-year retirement on the table.

Said Reinert, "Being deployed didn't dissuade me from serving."

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