So I wind up where I am now: sitting in the fuzzy-sandy black darkness on the steps of my hooch at Forward Operating Base Gamberi trying to gather my thoughts from the last couple days. There is a diesel generator growling in the background. It powers a single floodlight, which shines outside of the razor wire. Around the lamps gather tens of thousands of insects and moths, and flying in and out through them are hundreds of feeding bats. Back and forth and back and forth they go.
Where do I go with this? To the highlights.
Yesterday, or maybe it was the day before, I hitched a ride with Colonel Peter Benchoff, the commander of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), when he dropped in on tiny Combat Outpost Koh-e-Safi in Southeastern Parvan Province. There was only enough room for one Blackhawk on the sloping hillside gravel helipad at a time. Then there was a quick dust-off of personnel so the next bird could get in. The base was shared between U.S. Special Forces, Afghan Special forces and a smattering of U.S. Third Cavalry troops.
In the almost screamingly bright sun the COP looked rough, but it also looked like it wasn’t going to be here much longer. It was a hive of activity with equipment moving around and areas being flattened, even as the new Afghan president prepared to sign a pact that allows up to 10,000 troops to remain in the country ever international combat forces leave.
A couple of the American SF guys asked me to keep the camera pointed away from them in a nice, kind, over-muscled but not-too-threatening way. I took the opportunity to ask about the situation there on the ground.
“Anywhere you can see around you is Afghan government-controlled, but anything beyond the mountain tops is bad guy country,” said Sgt. Green. “For the most part this whole area is secured; no one really has any issues. The villages are good. It is just once you start getting out to the fringe areas.”
We talked on about the challenging terrain in the district.
“The hardest part is getting there and getting back … they know we are coming, and we break trucks all the time … but once we get to the fight we are fine … But we are not just here to get the bad guys, we are also here to help the people,” he said.
Then we were off to Forward Operating Base Fenti near Jalalabad. There, I sat on an odd inflatable couch and sketched an Afghan National Directorate of Security meeting, where local and national counter-terrorism chiefs, their juniors, and First Lt. Daniel Tuthill, a battalion intelligence officer, shared intel on various Taliban characters’ levels of deceit and involvement.
The NDS is the intelligence arm of the Afghan government, explained Tuthill. “Think of them like the FBI meets the CIA. They are hands-down furthest along out of all the Afghan pillars.”
At one point in the interpreted conversation, the local district NDS chief got a phone call that alerted him to an imminent attack.
Getting the tip is “par for the course,” said Tuthill, and the NDS has shared that information with U.S. forces. “What is new is that these guys are now willing to share information across the board (with other Afghan agencies).”
Sitting on my strange settee I felt like I had been given a rare opportunity to see the inner workings of an intelligence agency. It is all absolutely fascinating stuff.
“The NDS chief has been around forever,” Tuthill said. “He was trained by the Russians, and he also speaks pretty good English regardless of the interpreter telling him things.”
I often feel like I disappoint upper-echelon military by ignoring the big picture and instead focusing on the details. Many would like me to be able to tell the whole story of their deployment for readers, cataloguing their successes and losses. This NDS brief was one of those cases.
Instead of sitting at the terminal waiting for a plane, I tumbled into Guard Tower 10, manned by Specialists Jeffrey Millar from Brockton Mass. and Aaron Whipple from Gales Ferry, Conn., both in their very early twenties. Their tower overlooked open fields filled with long grass. Two or three cows were wandering and lowing. There were farmers and children in the distance, and burka-clad women carrying bundles, all of them casting long shadows in the golden light.
Just shooting the breeze with someone other than your regular battle buddy can make an eight-hour guard shift move a little faster. I hoped to help them with that, but also help myself kill the six hours I had to wait till my flight back to Gamberi. I planned to do my usual thing and sketch and talk to them as they stood on post.
I had just put pen to paper on Spec. Millar when the staccato sound of machine gun fire echoed across the fields. “That was shots fired, definitely a machine gun, a 240. It was very sporadic fire,” said Spec Millar laconically looking towards the next guard tower along. An Apache Gunship helicopter skimmed low overhead along the edge of the base. “They normally never fly that close. I told you they took fire,” Miller said again.
Spec. Millar and Spec Whipple are true battle buddies. They room together and share sentry duty. They know one another’s stories inside out and finish one another’s punch lines. We chatted about everything, and they were funny and open and willing to share their experiences here. They both come by their good-humored nonchalance honestly, having done their fare share of what the Army calls ‘kinetic’ operations outside the wire. Meaning they have been shot at quite a bit — and done some shooting back.
Spec. Millar had come close to being killed by a rocket-propelled grenade during a firefight, on one particular patrol. “Me and my lieutenant were running towards the sound of gunfire … and we ran through this doorway. As soon as we passed through it an RPG passed about four feet above our heads. I had time to think ‘nope I’m done.’”
The perception back in the U.S. is that operations outside of the wire have now ceased. This is far from the case. Aside from Special Operations and partnered mentoring operations with the Afghan National Army and Police, U.S. forces continue a chess game with the Taliban around their bases all over Afghanistan. Staying on base with weapons pointing outwards when the insurgency can lob rockets and mortars inside from potentially tens of miles away is not a viable option – like standing with your arms by your sides while someone repeatedly punches you in the gut. So presence operations continue to put U.S. troops in the sights of their enemies.
“It was a quick fast pace for the first five months,” said Spec. Miller.
By the time I was done with Spec. Miller it was almost full dark and before long I had to use my red headlight to sketch Whipple. This is another situation where drawing gives me the ability to continue to collect imagery even in the pitch dark, when using a camera flash would be ill advised. You can tell how dark it was by the fact that he is wearing his Night Observation Device. He never takes his eyes away from outside the wire.
“It is funny you know when we do get take contact, as serious a situation as it is, even while it is happening we kind of make light of it … it is lucky that they don’t know how to shoot very well,” said Whipple.
But the Blackhearts have not come through all their firefights unscathed.
“We already had a guy from our brigade die when he was shot with an RPG. He died instantly,” said Whipple, “which was a good thing I guess.”
His name was Matthew H. Walker, assigned to B Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky. He was posthumously promoted to Specialist, the same rank as Miller and Whipple.
Next: A visit to the local police station.
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