FORWARD OPERATING BASE SWEENEY, Afghanistan — The rugged peaks and green scrub grass surrounding this small camp seem almost idyllic, especially when the sun starts setting and the mountains take on various shades of gray and purple.
The scenic valley is the temporary home for most of Company A, 2nd Battalion (Airborne) of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, based in Vicenza, Italy. At the end of March, the soldiers moved into Forward Operating Base Sweeney, set up last year as a special operations camp, replacing troops from the 25th Infantry Division.
“We had hot water and chow was good,” Spc. John Catlett, 25, of Valdosta, Ga., said of their arrival. “But once we saw the mountains and we got going up and down them, [we found] there’s really rough terrain around here.”
Sweeney is about 6,500 feet above sea level, near the village of Shinkay and about halfway between Qalat and the Pakistan border. Its scenic beauty is easily offset by its relative inaccessibility.
Camp supplies have to be flown in or trucked in through the mountains over roads that wouldn’t earn that distinction in the United States.
“It’s such a different world here,” said Spc. Mel Fegely, 29, of Reading, Pa. “[Even] Iraq has paved roads.”
But life at this off-the-beaten-track camp does have some comforts. While the temperature gets hot under the nearly cloudless sky, it’s nowhere as hot as the scorching heat of Kandahar, 80 miles or so to the southwest, or even FOB Lagman at Qalat, just over the mountains to the west. A cooling breeze blows through Sweeney most of the day and night.
Internet access is available, as is a bank of phones for soldiers to call home when they’re not patrolling or standing guard shifts around the perimeter.
A small gym with weights and aerobic equipment also helps pass the time and keeps the soldiers fit.
Most soldiers sleep in air-conditioned comfort, with company offices, maintenance facilities and its medical aid station located in mud-and-straw buildings built over packed dirt floors and topped with thatched wooden roofs.
The Afghan buildings used by local farmers and can be seen from the base are similarly constructed.
Some of those buildings, soldiers found this spring, were being used to hold crops that supply the world’s drug users.
“What surprised me [about the area] was the amount of [opium poppies] they grow here,” said Fegely. “It’s blatant — that’s what baffles me, knowing that the money funds what we’re here fighting.”
Sweeney has a few similarities with an Afghan farm, albeit with well-tended almond trees rather than poppies. But it also carries a strong combat presence. Mortar tubes are placed around the compound, and the perimeter is surrounded by dirt-filled collapsible HESCO (Hercules Engineering Solutions Consortium) barriers and sandbags.
It’s a defense that the troops hope never to use, but it’s one they’re glad they have. The enemy, they know, is in the area.
“They’re out there,” Catlett said.
On May 21, Cpl. Steven Tucker, 19, of Grapevine, Texas, was killed by an anti-tank mine that exploded under his Humvee. Then, late last week a convoy of “jingle trucks” — large, four-wheeled cargo haulers that are ornately painted and in many cases hung with dozens or hundreds of small metal chains that cause them to “jingle” — was ambushed by enemy forces firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades on the road between Qalat and Sweeney.
But the enemy hasn’t attacked the camp directly.
“The FOB is in the middle of nowhere,” Catlett said. “We could see the enemy coming 10 [kilometers] out.”
“Somebody was thinking when they set it up,” added Fegely. “We’ve got a good setup here.”
Soldiers manning perimeter bunkers still must remain alert. On Sunday night, they heard sounds coming from the short, thorny grass.
But they were met not by Taliban fighters, but by a herd of grazing camels.
Memorial honors namesake, others
Despite Forward Operating Base Sweeney’s seemingly peaceful setting, nestled in a mountain valley that always seems to have a cooling breeze, at times things have been hot for U.S. forces in the area.
The camp was named by special operations troops in April 2004 for one of their own: Staff Sgt. Paul Sweeney, who was killed in Musa Qalax, Afghanistan, on Oct. 30, 2003.
Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 326 and 311 operated from the area, with members of the 25th Infantry Division eventually joining them.
On May 29, 2004, four special operations members — Capt. Daniel W. Eggers, 28, of Cape Coral, Fla.; Staff Sgt. Robert J. Mogensen, 26, of Leesville, La.; Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Ouellette, 37, of Needham, Mass.; and Pfc. Joseph A. Jeffries, 21, of Beaverton, Ore. — were killed nearby while driving in a Humvee.
A cement memorial was erected near the camp helicopter landing area with the words “All Gave Some, Some Gave All” bronze plaques honoring Sweeney and the four special operations members.
Just about one year after the four were killed, Company A, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, lost one of its own, Cpl. Steven Tucker, 19, of Grapevine, Texas. Tucker was killed by an anti-tank mine that exploded under his Humvee on May 21.
Company officials say that a plaque honoring Tucker will be added to the memorial.
— Jason Chudy