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Canisius College ROTC graduate helps Afghans in fight against Taliban

Mark J. Smerka, 25

Hometown: Lake View

U.S. base: Fort Drum

Branch: Army

Rank: First lieutenant

War zone: Afghanistan (current)

Years of service: May 2012-present

Most prominent honors: Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, NATO Medal

Specialty: Field artillery

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

The Taliban started taking pot shots at Afghan soldiers in a remote valley back in August 2013, about 100 kilometers from Afghanistan’s southern border with Pakistan.

But in a matter of minutes, the Afghans triumphed, taking out the Taliban before they had a chance to unleash their mortars.

That’s because the Afghans had a secret weapon – Army 1st Lt. Mark J. Smerka, an ROTC graduate of Canisius College and a Lake View native.

“I was in a forward operating patrol and listening on the radio to what the Taliban were saying, and I was able to provide their location and the Afghans eliminated the threat,” Smerka recalled of his first deployment during a telephone interview with The Buffalo News from Kabul last week.

Smerka spoke calmly, never offering a clue of what a dangerous neighborhood he now calls home.

Speaking from inside a fortified area just across the street from the U.S. Embassy – a high-value target for terrorists – he described his first tour and how late one night, two Taliban fighters hurled grenades at an Afghan police station. Inside the station, Smerka and other soldiers were in a break room watching Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” a movie that Smerka found weird.

“The Taliban drove by and threw the grenades at Afghan police who were just outside the station,” he said.

Two Afghan police officers were killed.

“But other Afghan police chased them and were able to eliminate one of the attackers and capture the other,” Smerka said. “It was really nice. The police took care of business. They tracked them down to a house, and we shot up flares to provide light as the police cleared the house.”

After seven months, his first deployment ended and he returned to the United States on Dec. 16, 2013, coincidentally his 24th birthday. The heavens must have been smiling upon him and his wife, the former Emily Drower, a Long Island native whom he had met at Canisius. They were expecting their first child.

“I was home in time to be there when my daughter was born at 10:18 p.m. Jan. 1,” he said of the New Year’s birth in a hospital near Fort Knox, Ky., where he was stationed.

When the 1st Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade at Fort Knox was deactivated, Smerka seized the opportunity to volunteer for a division closer to home.

“Not many volunteer to go up to Fort Drum in Watertown, but that would put me closer to my family in Buffalo,” he said of securing the assignment, not to mention a doable drive down to Long Island.

But Smerka wasn’t given much time to settle down in the North Country. He is back in Afghanistan leading a 32-member platoon responsible for protecting U.S. State Department employees and civilian contractors as they travel around Kabul.

“We are like their guardian angels. They meet with all echelons of the Afghan security forces to advise them in how to conduct security operations, as well as manage logistics, supplying weapons, food, uniforms, vehicles,” Smerka said.

“It’s Afghans supplying Afghans.”

And while he frames the mission in constructive terms, there is no getting around the dangers. At about 1 a.m. Aug. 7, Smerka was sleeping inside the New Kabul Compound when he was shaken from his sleep.

“I woke up but didn’t know why I was awake. I wasn’t sure what woke me up. I fell back asleep and later learned that the Taliban had detonated a 2,000-pound bomb that killed 56 people and wounded 400,” Smerka said.

“It happened in the Sia Sang district of Kabul, and I had been there at 2 p.m. the day before.”

When he later inspected the bombing site, less than 2 kilometers away, he felt an eerie sensation.

“We went to that site two or three times a week for months,” he said. “It was an Afghan intelligence-gathering facility, and the security was always heavy during the day when Americans were there. The Taliban struck at night, when security was at its lowest.”

And while the attack was costly, particularly on civilians living nearby, Smerka said that it highlighted the diminished capacity of the enemy.

“During my first deployment, the Taliban were able to hold entire villages, but now they can’t hold on to a location for more than 24 hours, even in areas where they have been traditionally strong. They cannot sustain any sort of battle,” he said. “What they do now is resort to hit-and-run tactics, trying to strike targets of opportunity and oftentimes, like at Sia Sang, civilians are paying the price.”

The latest tactics backfired, he said.

Afghans are more emboldened to live freely and send children to school, especially daughters – which upsets the radical Taliban. In fact, the number of girls attending school continues to steadily increase, Smerka said.

As for the Afghan forces, he said, they are more determined than ever to protect their country.

“The Afghan army still has a bit to go toward self-sufficiency but has greatly improved and is taking the fight to the Taliban,” he said. “Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job.”

But when exactly the job of Americans leading the NATO coalition forces will be completed is unknown. On. Oct. 15, President Obama announced that 9,800 U.S. troops will remain at least until 2017, a reversal of his previous plans to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan that began 14 years ago.

As for Smerka, who is in line for a promotion to captain next spring, he is eager to return home in January to see his wife and daughter.

“I’m also looking forward to getting to a Sabres game,” he said.

And while he is an avid Sabres fan and can hardly wait to cheer in person for his team, Smerka chose to end his interview on a serious note:

“We should never allow Afghanistan to become a staging area to plan terrorist attacks like the ones on Sept. 11, 2001. The reason we haven’t had another attack like that is we are here in Afghanistan.”