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Frank Piasta, a Yale University graduate and former Santa Rosa prep soccer star, made an unusual move two years ago.

"Time to jump in with both feet," he said, reflecting on his decision to enlist in the Army's Officer Candidate School in February 2011 and serve in the infantry.

Piasta, a proven leader on the soccer field and former student body president at Cardinal Newman High School, had set a new goal: leading American troops in combat.

"It was an honor that most people don't get," Piasta, 27, said this week on his way back to Fort Stewart, Ga., home of the Army's 4th Brigade, Third Infantry Division.

Surviving firefights and homemade bomb attacks, 1st Lt. Piasta commanded a 25-man platoon that spent the summer and fall defending a critical stretch of dusty, cracked asphalt in Afghanistan's high desert southwest of Kabul.

Highway 1, an indispensable artery for Afghan commerce and family travel, is also a main exit route for American soldiers and equipment leaving the landlocked nation as the U.S. withdraws from a 12-year war.

That makes the two-lane road, meager by American standards, a prime target for Taliban insurgents intent on harassing coalition forces and on asserting their presence in Wardak Province, a strategic 3,800-square-mile area -#8212; a bit larger than Mendocino County -#8212; flanking Kabul to the west.

Fire-blackened tanker trucks and fortifications along Highway 1 attest to the conflict over keeping Highway 1 open and maintaining security for the majority of Wardak's 540,000 residents who live close to the roadway.

When snows melted and the summer fighting season began in June, Wardak was deemed one of the "most kinetic" -#8212; meaning violent -#8212; places in Afghanistan.

"That's why we were sent out there," said Piasta, whose brigade had arrived in February.

Piasta's company was assigned to a "battle space" that covered about 19 miles of Highway 1 between Kabul and Ghazni, and a 1.5-mile "green zone" on either side of the road, where most villages are located in an arid landscape dotted by orchards and wheat fields.

Summer temperatures in the upper 90s scorched Piasta and his soldiers, who carried up to 150 pounds of equipment on missions out of Combat Outpost Soltan Kheyl.

"You get in good shape pretty quick," said Piasta, whose pack as an officer weighed 80 to 100 pounds.

His path to Wardak was unusual.

Born and raised in Santa Rosa, Piasta is the fifth of seven children of Joe and Kathy Piasta, all of them graduates of St. Eugene's Cathedral School and Cardinal Newman or the former Ursuline High School.

Frank's under-14 boys soccer team, the Santa Rosa United Magic, won a national tournament and was pictured on Kellogg's cereal boxes in 2001. He was co-captain on the Newman team that went undefeated in 24 games and ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2004.

At Yale, Frank played varsity soccer for four years, majored in history and met Christina Mendoza, a classmate from Seymour, a small town in north Texas. The couple visited the Piasta family home last week and are planning to marry in June at Savannah, Ga.

Like his older brother and sister, Edward and Theresa, Frank was student body president at Newman.

Edward, a military lawyer and major in the Georgia National Guard, served a tour in Iraq in 2007-08, immediately followed by Theresa, a Wellesley graduate who served as an artillery brigade officer and now works on Wall Street.

Their service inspired him to join the Army a year and a half after graduating from Yale in 2009, Frank said. All three Piastas were awarded bronze stars.

Arriving in Afghanistan as a freshly minted, 26-year-old second lieutenant, Piasta led a platoon that included soldiers with multiple combat tours, including a sergeant on his 10th deployment.

It was a challenge, he said, to gain the confidence of combat-seasoned men. A sergeant would say, "Sir, maybe you'd want to consider doing it this way," and his choice was to take the advice or stick to his own plan.

"There's a give and take, for sure," said Piasta, who was promoted to first lieutenant during his tour.

His greatest satisfaction, he said, was "watching everyone do their job because they're trained so well. I could see why we have the best military in the world."

The Taliban, who captured most of Wardak in 1995, lost control of Afghanistan in 2001 but began returning to the strategic province by 2005. By some accounts, the Islamic fundamentalist group has de facto control over much of Wardak, with footholds in the region's rugged mountains.

While the Taliban generally avoid direct engagement with U.S. forces, they are intent on reminding Afghans of the presence and power, Piasta said.

The U.S.-led coalition's goal was to "disrupt enemy operations," including the ability to stage attacks on Highway 1, he said.

As the U.S. winds down its involvement in a war that has cost 2,300 lives since 2001 -#8212; including four North Coast men -#8212; that mission increasingly rests with Afghan forces.

Watching Afghans handle security on Highway 1, Piasta said "they were better at finding IEDs (improvised explosive devices) than we were," given their dozen years of dodging the Taliban-planted bombs.

"I think they are making strides," he said, but stopped short of predicting success for the Afghan forces. Experts say the nation's military and police are handicapped by a high rate of illiteracy and infiltration by the insurgents.

"Can they hold? No one knows. The future will tell," Piasta said.

His personal mission, however, was simple and 100 percent successful.

"All my guys came back in one piece to their families," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)

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