For 'The Rock,' a long year ends
QALAT, Afghanistan — When the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment first entered Zabul Province, they didn’t know what to expect.
No other American battalion had been deployed to the province for a full year before the soldiers from Vicenza, Italy, arrived in April 2005.
“I don’t know if I had any expectations on what a whole year was going to be like here,” Lt. Col. Mark Stammer, the battalion commander, said.
Now that year is coming to an end. By Wednesday afternoon, all but a handful of the 2-503 soldiers had left the 10 forward operating bases they’d called home for the past year.
Even now, Stammer and the battalion’s top enlisted soldier, Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Meyers, aren’t sure of the scope of “The Rock’s” accomplishments. Stammer said he can point to a number of victories on the battlefield, a new road and a series of projects for local people. But there’s still a lot of work to do.
“We scored a lot,” Stammer said, using football terminology. “But I don’t know what the score is. We moved the ball a lot, but I don’t know where we are on the field.”
More than 250 enemy combatants were confirmed killed, with another half that many likely killed, Stammer said.
Gallantry and casualties
Episodes of gallantry weren’t rare. Five soldiers from the battalion were honored with the Silver Star. Others have been nominated.
Eight soldiers were killed in combat — five from roadside bombs and three in firefights.
“None of those guys died in vain,” Stammer said. “They were doing their jobs. They each made a difference. Every single one of them.”
More than 50 others were wounded.
“It is a heavy loss,” Meyers said. “But it brought us all together, if you can take a positive out of that.”
The memories will linger for a while.
“We thought we would be doing a lot more humanitarian work,” said Sgt. 1st Class David Cavalaio, the top enlisted solider in Company C’s 1st Platoon. “But, after a few weeks, we were in our first firefight.”
That firefight, on May 3, is one that many soldiers list as the single most memorable moment of the year. After a scout element exchanged fire with about 40 Taliban fighters in the north of the province, it called for help. Elements from the battalion’s command and two platoons from Company C flew in on Chinooks.
Staff Sgt. Clint Mack, of 3rd Platoon, said it was his first action on such a scale.
“[The Chinooks] put us in right in the firefight,” Mack said.
Sgt. Conrad Begaye said a friend almost got to the battlefield too quickly. Begaye had to grab him to keep him from falling out of the helicopter. That was just the first of a bunch of close calls, though.
“It was quite an experience,” Begaye said.
Another battle on June 21 resulted in 76 confirmed enemy deaths.
“They all stand out for different reasons,” Stammer said.
“We didn’t always fire first,” he said. “But we initiated a lot … because we moved into their homes. They had to fight. They had to fight to maintain their support base. They had to fight for ego and esteem.”
90 percent diplomacy
Stammer said soldiers spent about 90 percent of their time engaging in diplomacy, disseminating information to the people and supporting projects.
Between the battalion and the Qalat Provincial Reconstruction Team, Stammer estimates the U.S. put more than $17 million into the province. Together with engineers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s Combat Support Company, the battalion built a road from Qalat to Shinkay. Stammer said he was told by a truck driver that the new road and the absence of robbers reduced the price of a sack of flour from 4,000 afghani to 2,800 in Shinkay.
The battalion inherited four bases in the province. It left with 10. New schools, clinics and facilities for the local police were built.
The Afghan National Army and police now have bases in Qalat and throughout the province.
“We came over here to empower the government, extend its reach to all the people, provide a safer environment for the people to live in, and we did all of that,” Stammer said.