Sgt. Pablo Cancel of San Juan, Puerto Rico, center, Sr. Airman Russell Ward of Nashville, Tenn., left, and Independent Duty Medical Technician Michael Newman of Pflugerville, Texas, get ready to do a training exercise demo at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga. on June 11, 2014. / Eileen Blass, USA TODAY
MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. - Air Force Staff Sgt. Pablo Cancel confers with an "Afghan village leader" in an exercise at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga. They introduce themselves, talk about supplies needed at the village school and insurgent activity in the area.
Suddenly, gunshots clatter from open windows overlooking the meeting place. The men and women of the squad return fire, covering each other as they scramble into their armored vehicles. Medics treat two "injured" airmen.
The exercise was a demonstration for members of the media in advance of the National Geographic Channel documentary Inside Combat Rescue: The Last Stand airing Sunday night. The film follows members of another Reaper team - an Air Force security team for hostile territories - as they engage in a series of meetings in villages outside Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in search of a Taliban leader suspected of attacks on coalition forces in July 2013.
Such meetings were a crucial element of the U.S. approach to improving security and chipping away at Taliban leadership. But they will soon end as U.S. combat forces plan to withdraw from Afghanistan over the next two years and turn their tasks over to the Afghan government. The war that began after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, has cost 3,450 American lives so far.
During the demonstration - as he did in similar cases in Afghanistan - Cancel confirmed the identity of the village leader, started building a rapport with him, and confirmed insurgents were active in the village. With more visits, troops would bring the village the assistance and security it needed.
Cancel hesitated when asked whether Afghan security forces will be able to carry on the role played by the Americans and complete the mission.
"They're fully capable, but they have a really long road ahead," Cancel said. "It's not impossible, but they need to get the ball rolling ‚?¶ They're capable of doing it. Are they going to do it - it's up to them."
Like other Reaper team members interviewed by USA TODAY, Cancel expressed mixed feelings about the Afghan mission coming to an end.
The 26-year-old father of two from San Juan, Puerto Rico, won't miss the stress or the danger of losing friends, but "besides my kids being born, it was probably the greatest experience of my life," Cancel said. "We had the best commander, top navigators and medics. It was like the A-team. It's a feeling we'll probably never have again."
Airman 1st Class Christopher Biel, 23, a turret gunner who was "injured" in the village ambush, said his feelings "are a little jumbled up" over the Afghanistan war coming to an end.
"I was excited to go on another mission, and at the same time I'm kind of relieved because I won't have to interact with any of the locals that aren't that friendly," Biel said.
Inside Combat Rescue: The Last Stand follows members of Reaper Team 5 as they track Sabanullah, a Taliban leader suspected of planning rocket and roadside bomb attacks on Bagram that killed and injured several Americans. The cameras traveled with the Air Force's elite airborne medics, known as PJs or parajumpers, in their Blackhawk helicopters as they collect victims of attacks attributed to Sabanullah.
The perpetrators of the attack "deserve to pay for what they've done," Staff Sgt. Justin Miller, a Reaper 5 squad leader, says in the film. "We've got to do everything in our power to get that guy before he hurts someone else."
The film shows Miller, 27, from Center Point, Texas, playing with his two young daughters while on leave in the USA. Later, it shows him in Afghanistan, commanding a column of four armored vehicles between high walls to the village of Qala-i-Nasro that Sabanullah calls home. At one point, the airmen are forced to leave their vehicles and enter the village on foot. They warn each other of unseen risks beyond the dirt walls, rock-throwing children and passing motorcyclists.
Back at Moody, Miller has mixed feelings. On one hand, he would like to go back to work with Afghan forces and local villagers, like those who cared enough to warn his team of roadside bombs they'd seen the Taliban prepare for the Americans.
"We formed some very strong bonds," Miller says.
It's a job he loves, Miller says, yet "like any job you do, there's always sacrifice."
His friend Staff Sgt. Todd "TJ" Lobraico was killed in a small arms attack, and for Miller and his family, being separated for months at a time has been hard, he said.
"We all kind of knew it would come to an end very soon - it is what it is," he said. "I think we did a lot of good there, even though people don't always see it. Hopefully, in the NatGeo special they kind of get an inside view of what we've done there and the relationships that we've built."
Read the original story: Airmen express mixed feelings on Afghan mission ending