Saturday, July 5, 2008
One Unit’s Last Mission in Afghanistan
The following article from the Wall Street Journal is an excellent “war correspondent’s” story about what it was like to accompany a group of soldiers on their last patrol before returning to the States. (The above photo shows other soldiers in Afghanistan.):
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Wall Street Journal
July 5, 2008
The Last Patrol
U.S. Troops in Afghanistan, Set to Leave, Are Called Back For One More Mission. Will Their Luck Run Out?
By Michael M. Phillips
NARAY, Afghanistan -- It's 4 a.m., and a slender crescent moon casts a pale light over Spc. Sean Geer. He has nine bottles of water and 10 loaded rifle magazines strapped to his body armor. He has a bandana tied under his helmet to soak up the sweat. He has removed the pointer and middle fingers from his glove to give him a better feel for the trigger.
"Ready for a fun one?" Spc. Geer radios in hushed tones to a buddy. It's another patrol, and one of the other cavalry scouts jokes that this war feels like a barroom fight where you can't cry uncle.
"Enjoy your cigarettes," says a lieutenant. "Then we'll go."
Sean Geer's war is supposed to be over. But it's going to be a long, hot day.
Few war stories disturb soldiers more than the one about the man who gets hit just before he's due to go home. Not far from here, an Army medic was killed by a hidden bomb days before he was to leave. An officer in Spc. Geer's squadron, 1-91 Cavalry, stepped on a land mine within weeks of the end of his combat tour, shattering his foot.
On Sunday, Spc. Geer and his fellow scouts thought such worries were behind them. They were back in camp cleaning their gear. Sergeants were collecting night-vision goggles, ammunition and the grenade launcher. They were waiting for the helicopter ride that would start them on their journey home.
Then this comes along: The colonel needs someone to do a mission. He hands it to the captain and the captain calls the lieutenant. The lieutenant tells the sergeants and before long, the scouts know their war is on again.
They all know it stinks, but what can they do? What began as an effort to topple the Taliban government has become a drawn-out guerrilla war, and there's always another patrol -- another insurgent to be killed or another heart to be won.
The seven-year conflict has become a growing concern to Pentagon brass, rivaling the war in Iraq. Taliban insurgents have intensified attacks in the east and the south, making June the deadliest month so far for the U.S.-led coalition. The government of Hamid Karzai still struggles to exert its authority, and the lawless tribal areas bordering Pakistan have become a haven for militants. The Pentagon said this week that it is extending the tour by an extra month of 2,200 Marines sent to Afghanistan this spring to bolster coalition forces.
Spc. Geer's new orders come at a moment when he's rethinking the war. Right after he arrived in the country, he thought constantly about being shot. His mother died when he was 10 years old. When the fighting gets crazy, he drops to his knee, drinks some water and asks her to look out for him: "Tell the people who don't know I love them that I do."
At 16 years old, he dropped out of high school in Ventura, Calif., worked in a coffee shop, fixed hot rods and ran with the drug crowd. By 19 he had had enough. He got his diploma and joined the Army. Now 22 and just over a year away from the end of his enlistment, he's planning a career as an entrepreneur. He and another scout are in the middle of starting an online clothing company with T-shirts that reflect their combat experience. One shows the outline of a soldier scaling a mountain in front of a faded American flag.
"There's got to be more out there," Spc. Geer says. "We've got to be able to do more with our lives than fight this war."
When he gets word the platoon has one more patrol, he trusts his buddies to cover his back. First Platoon, Bulldog Troop hasn't lost a man during 14 months in combat, 14 months of humping heavy gear up and down steep mountains, 14 months of firefights with an enemy who's never quite in view.
That evening, First Lt. Henry "Hank" Hughes IV, the platoon leader, briefs the men. The 24-year-old comes from a long military line. One ancestor was a captain in the Philadelphia militia in the Revolutionary War. His great grandfather served in World War I, his grandfather in World War II and his father in Bosnia. His mother was a captain in the signal corps.
The lieutenant studied English and film at Boston University, where he developed a fondness for French films. He used to think of himself as something of a pacifist, but joined the Army knowing full well he'd end up at war. Now he commands 26 men, most of them not much younger than himself. Only one of his scouts has been wounded in action; Spc. Thomas Alford was shot through the jaw and neck. At his insistence, he was back with the platoon three months later.
On a white board, the lieutenant sketches the snaking curves of the Kunar River, which runs close to the Pakistan border, and draws the contours of the ridge that overlooks the village of Nangal, a couple of miles south of the Army base. In June, insurgents left the villagers an anonymous note warning them against educating women. Shortly afterwards, someone set fire to the girls' school there. When the villagers rushed to put it out, they were shot at from the ridges above town.
The Afghan government, wanting to cement its ties in the village, has dispatched the Afghan National Army to drive to Nangal, chat with local elders and hand out pens, paper and other school supplies. Lt. Hughes's platoon is going along to help protect against insurgent attacks; the Americans have heavier weapons and can call in air and artillery support, if needed.
With half of his men, Lt. Hughes will leave at dawn and go on foot to the ridge overlooking the town. The other half, in heavily armed Humvees, will escort the Afghan troops and stay outside the village to maintain security.
After the scouts leave the briefing, Lt. Hughes turns to his platoon sergeant. "Too easy," he says.
"Every plan is easy until the first shot is fired," replies Sgt. First Class Michael Burns, 38, of Fort Wayne, Ind. "Then it all goes to hell."
In Monday's pre-dawn light, Lt. Hughes, Spc. Geer and the other scouts set out past the razor wire. The lieutenant cheerfully greets the Afghan security guards at the front gate, and in a loud, clear voice says the name of a town far down the valley, well beyond Nangal, in case they're working for the other side, too.
The troops walk down the dirt road in a staggered column, leaving enough room between men so a hidden bomb or lucky mortar shot would kill only one of them. They move silently, except for the crunch of boots on rock. They pass a few bearded herders hissing at their goats.
At a quarter to five the scouts turn right up the steep hillside. Generations of farmers have built waist-high stone walls on the slope, turning it into a giant staircase of narrow terraces for planting crops. The men zigzag arduously up the terraces, reaching down to hoist each other up when the walls get higher and the rocks looser.
As they climb, a single gunshot sounds in the distance.
"You hear that?" asks Spc. Justin Jones, 24, of Jasper, Ala. It's his job to call in artillery fire if the scouts get into trouble.
"Yeah -- probably over the ridge," Spc. Geer says. It's impossible to tell where it came from, where it went or if it had anything to do with them. They trudge on.
The men have spent months carrying heavy loads in the high Hindu Kush mountains. But in recent weeks they've spent more time at the main squadron base and have lost some of their edge. As they walk, Lt. Hughes notices a young girl bounding up the terraces with her goats.
"There's the embarrassing part," he says. "An 11-year-old girl is going to pass us."
At 5:30 a.m., the sun emerges over the mountain peaks. Spc. Matthew Short, a 21-year-old from Winter Haven, Fla., reaches the top of the 900-foot ridge. He looks over, expecting to see Nangal below. It isn't there.
"We're on the wrong spur," he yells to the lieutenant.
Hundreds of yards of open ground lie between this ridge and the next. Lt. Hughes leaves half the patrol to provide cover while he, Spc. Geer, Spc. Short and two others press ahead.
Twenty-five minutes later, the men reach the top. The village still isn't in sight. The lieutenant orders the men on the first ridge to join them.
"Whose idea was it to walk anyway?" Lt. Hughes asks Spc. Geer.
"Word on the street is that it was yours, sir," the specialist answers.
Spc. Geer finishes a bottle of water, takes out his knife and slices it up. He has heard around camp that the insurgents are short of canteens and he doesn't want to help them out by leaving plastic bottles around.
Spc. Short and the lieutenant pull out their maps to figure out what has gone wrong. As best they can make out, either the maps are wrong or the satellite coordinates they were given are wrong. In any case, they have no other choice than to keep climbing.
"It never ends," gasps Spc. Short, as he tops the third ridge and sees two more ahead, like pleats in a skirt.
"It's alright," says Spc. Austin Nenneman, a 21-year-old radio operator from Sacramento, Calif. "We're almost out of this place."
A goat trail cuts steeply across the front of the fifth ridge. The lieutenant reaches the top first, and finds a sweeping view of Nangal and, sprouting from the hard, brown soil, wild marijuana. "There's weed all over here," he says when Spc. Short reaches the crest.
"Weed and surfboards?" Spc. Short asks hopefully.
The hilltop is fortified with stone trenches and bunkers, apparently built when Afghan guerillas fought the Soviets decades ago. The lieutenant puts a machine gunner on either end of his position. Riflemen overlook the village, which consists of a dozen of so flat houses.
Sgt. Michael Harrington, 28, from Muskegon, Mich., jokingly asks the lieutenant for permission to fire his grenade launcher. "It's the last mission," he pleads.
"Stop saying it's the last mission," Spc. Geer snaps.
At 7:30 a.m., the soldiers watch the Humvees carrying the other half of the platoon alongside the Kunar River road, spouting plumes of dust. The Afghan soldiers arrive soon after in tan pickup trucks.
Lt. Hughes and his men are watching the ridgelines for attackers when the river valley fills with a deep, thudding boom. Moments later there's a loud whiz from above. The big guns back at the base are firing artillery rounds into the mountains to the north. The shells can travel almost 19 miles, too far for the scouts to hear them crash back to earth.
Spc. Geer takes up a position behind a tumbledown rock wall, looking towards the river. His arms are a canvas of tattoos. His mother's death date is tattooed onto his neck with a winged heart and a cross. "Mom," it says.
Under the left sleeve of his camouflage fatigues, from shoulder to elbow, is a blue Virgin Mary, surrounded by roses and $100 bills. "Forgive me Father, for blood will spill," it says.
Spc. Geer says the tattoo symbolizes his guilt and his aspirations. "I'm sorry for what I've done here, and I'd like to be a business professional once I get out," he says.
After a few hours, the lieutenant receives word that the Afghan soldiers and their Humvee escort have safely returned to base. Just before 11 a.m., the scouts start back down the hill. As he jumps down the dried terraces, Spc. Geer thinks about the price of war; the killing bothers him as much as the dying.
"I wish there were another way to do this, but there's not," he says. "Death is the only language they understand."
The troops head for the road this time, making their way past stone houses and surprised farmers. A one-eyed man with a thick white beard walks by. "Salaam aleikum," Spc. Geer says, the traditional Arabic phrase meaning "'peace be with you." The man smiles and waves.
At noon, after eight hours and 3,000 feet of climbing, the scouts return to base. They drop in the shade, most of them too tired to strip off their sweat-soaked body armor.
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We must never forget that the War on Terror is being fought on multiple fronts throughout the world. Keep our troops in your prayers.
Charles M. Grist