COMBAT OUTPOST MICHIGAN, Afghanistan — The crash of the first incoming rounds sent soldiers scurrying for cover.
Six weeks into their deployment at this besieged outpost, soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment were used to the barrage of fire from high ridges surrounding their fishbowl outpost, here at the mouth of the Korengal Valley.
Most ran through the protective maze of narrow tunnels formed by Hesco security barriers and concrete T-walls and into their bunkered buildings.
But Sgt. Terry Puffenbarger ran the other way, into the exposed area of the motor pool, where his mechanics were working under a tent. And there, in that one vulnerable position on July 10, he found his worst nightmare.
Spc. Carlos Negron, who always had laughter and candy to help lift the spirits of those around him, was lying in wreckage and smoke. He died a short time later.
“We would joke about it when the rounds would land close,” said Puffenbarger, 25, of Harrisonburg, Va. “You could hear the bullets fly by and [gravel would kick up.] But now, I don’t have any joke left in me.”
A tiny base under camouflage netting and surrounded by mountain walls, Combat Outpost Michigan sits in the center of the Pech River Valley, and at the mouth of the Korengal Valley, which U.S. forces abandoned in April. Once just another outpost, Michigan now takes the brunt of battle.
For years, U.S. forces struggled in vain to win over the Korengal, so insular and violent that its people defeated an entire Russian division.
Finally, on April 14, the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division packed up their items and pulled the U.S. presence back to COP Michigan.
The 327’s 1st Battalion took over six weeks later.
“When they were back in the Korengal, [U.S. forces] took lots of hits in the Korengal,” said Staff Sgt. Thomas Musgrave, 25, of Columbus, Ohio. “Now, we take hits. It’s really where the buffer is, whether it’s here or in the Korengal.”
Michigan is attacked so frequently now that soldiers at the other three Pech River Valley bases, who all have heavy fights on their hands, grimace when they hear that Michigan is a visitor’s destination.
In most places in Afghanistan, soldiers who stay inside the wire, meaning behind the base walls, are usually considered on safer ground. At Michigan, “sometimes guys feel like they are safer outside the wire,” said Capt. Dakota Steedsman, commander of Company D.
Soldiers spend 80 percent of their time just defending the base or reacting to attacks from the surrounding mountain walls, a far cry from the focus on counterinsurgency and governance in other parts of the country.
Many of the buildings have the scars of recent repairs after taking direct hits from incoming fire, among them the brand new shower building with a gaping hole in its ceiling. Its 14 showers will remain unused until they can reinforce it.
If it weren’t for the reinforced construction on most buildings, Michigan would have many more casualties than the death of Negron and the injury of a mortar sergeant who was shot when a bullet came through the dining facility where he was sitting.
Soldiers at the outpost are disarmingly pragmatic about the danger. They laugh at near misses, tease each other about moments of fear and emphasize just keeping their wits about them.
When a recent 82 mm anti-tank round hit the hooch right near the picnic table — the base’s one outdoor seating area tucked between structures, Hescoes and a ceiling of camouflage netting — the building quickly filled with smoke.
One soldier, who’d been burned in an explosion in Iraq, came running out screaming “I got burned again,” said Pvt. Rich Bennett, 29, of Chicago.
“Then he looked around on himself and said, ‘No, I’m OK,’ ” Bennett said, laughing.
A video camera attached to the helmet of one of the mortarmen recently captured them laughing helplessly as incoming fire crashed too close for comfort, sending shrapnel and loose stones flying around them. Because they are out in the open during attack, the mortarmen say they are frequently targeted.
“You are not thinking about the rounds coming in,” said Cpl. Billy Rose, a 27-year-old squad leader from Saginaw, Mich, acting fire direct commander. “You are thinking about the faster we get these rounds out, the faster they’ll stop.”
In the video, Spc. Matthew Perez, 25, of Stonewall, Texas, is seen hopping for a moment after shrapnel sent a rock smacking into his leg and Spc. Michael Harper, 23, of Redlands, Calif., dropped his clipboard when a piece of shrapnel flew right by him.
“I am not going to lie,” said Harper. “That day I was scared.”
“The laughter comes after the round hits,” added Pfc. Joshua Hulburt, 23, of Grand Ledge, Mich.
Soldiers have many coping mechanisms, said Capt. Joey Odell, 36, the battalion chaplain from New Rochelle, N.Y. One day, Odell came across two guys standing in the open area, pointing at the mountain.
Odell asked what they were doing.
“They said, ‘Taunting the Taliban, sir,’ ” Odell recounted, shaking his head.
“How they cope is by dismissing the danger,” he said. “They can’t live walking around saying, ‘I can catch a PKM (machine gun) round in the mouth.’ ”
Spc. Robert Hamilton, who is responsible for maintenance and repair of structures, said this is the most difficult — as well as the most exciting — of his three deployments, the other two in Iraq.
“At times, it’s the most helpless,” said Hamilton, 24, of Pittsburgh. Insurgents “can see everything we do and we can’t see, for the life of us, where they are at.”
Steedsman said he sees coordination among different groups of fighters. Some battalion officers say that is a direct result of the pullout from the Korengal, because it gave the Taliban a free safe haven to set up a command center where there once was an American post.
Still, the acute peaks and dips help maintain a natural isolation of the valleys and their villages. There is so little cooperation that of the nine villages in Steedsman’s area, there are six local tribal governing councils, or shuras.
People are hostile to the Americans.
“The Shuryak don’t talk to us at all,” Steedsman said. “I can’t get in there to talk to them without a major operation.”
When Steedsman’s men first arrived, the villagers from Korengal valley came out and talked to them.
“I think they were trying to figure out how easy it would be to get money from us,” Steedsman said. “I guess they figured out not too much because they haven’t come out to talk to me since.”
Another patrol climbed up a nearby mountainside at night in mid-July to ambush fighters using the ridge to fire on the base. But they ran into the enemy on the way, said 2nd Platoon Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Shriver, 33, of Grand Terrace, Calif.
They fought at close proximity until the insurgents fled.
“We killed two enemy fighters and let them know that we will go to the mountains at night to persuade them to stop using the areas around our COP,” Shriver said. “We’ll see how long it lasts.”
Puffenbarger said he still walks into the mechanics tent expecting to see Negron. He has two new mechanics, and they pass the days best they can.
“You crack jokes with each other,” Puffenbarger said. “It’s about the only way you can deal with it.”