Soldiers in Afghanistan settle in at 6,000 feet
NURISTAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Building a combat outpost from scratch on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan means flying everything in by helicopter.
For the troops of Task Force Saber, here in northeastern Afghanistan, the process starts at night as two CH-47 Chinooks drop them and their equipment on a small knoll overlooking a thin, gray ribbon of a river 2,000 feet below.
A few dozen soldiers get off the birds. For the next three days or so, their job will be to carve a small fortress out of the hard-packed stony earth of the mountain, less than a kilometer from the border with Pakistan. The purpose of the outpost is to guard a key bridge and help Afghan security forces re-establish control of a border crossing.
Roughly half the troops remain with the supply pallet at the landing zone, while the rest begin trudging uphill to set up the command post, a listening station and the rear pickets.
It’s only a 200-meter climb, but the going is steep and rocky, and the soldiers resemble pack mules under the bright glare of the full moon. Many of them carry rucksacks that weigh 100 pounds or more, not including their body armor, helmets, weapons and ammunition, which easily add another 40 to 50 pounds.
The altitude is nearly 6,000 feet. The peaks of the high mountains in the distance are covered with snow. As Lt. Col. Chris Kolenda, commander of 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, also known as Task Force Saber, puts it, hiking up and down hill at that altitude, under that much weight, can be “a significant emotional experience.”
The colonel has a talent for understatement. The short trek uphill quickly turns into a slog. Most of these soldiers are infantry troops and are in top shape, but even the best can only take a few steps before they have to stop and catch their breath.
The column reaches a level spot. Capt. Jason Pieri, 30, of Buffalo, N.Y., Capt. Matthew Kikta, 27, of Lake Forest, Calif., and Command Sgt. Maj. Victor Pedraza, 44, of McAllen, Texas, set up their command post under a clump of trees.
The soldiers spend much of the next morning digging in. They blast bunkers for machine gun pits at various spots around the mountain and others to store food, water and ammunition. They break open big stacks of concertina wire, and loop poles through the coils, hauling the wire two men at a time out to the perimeter, where they string it. The explosions from the cratering charges that they use to blast out the bunkers reverberate through the valley in rolling, crashing waves.
Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Havens, 26, of Litchfield, Minn., and Airman 1st Class Daniel Gray, 22, of Pittsburgh are Air Force joint terminal attack controllers. Their job is to call in airstrikes at a moment’s notice. Around midday, they spot several gunmen down in the valley through their long-range scopes. The gunmen have set up what appears to be an illegal checkpoint, and are stopping vehicles at a bridge.
There are no Afghan government forces in this part of the valley. So Pieri and Kikta conclude that the gunmen are either insurgents or thugs who’ve set up the checkpoint to shake down local drivers. They want to take the gunmen out, but first they’ve got to make sure that what they’re doing is illegal.
The gunmen are more than two miles away, far out of the range of accurate fire, but not beyond the reach of a precision-guided bomb. A pair of F-15 fighter jets circle in the skies overhead, and occasionally, they swoop low over the valley. But their presence doesn’t deter the gunmen, who continue stopping vehicles throughout the afternoon. It’s never quite clear, however, who they are or if the checkpoint is illegal.
Over the next couple of days, it becomes clear that the insurgents have their own spotters in the mountains observing activity at the U.S. camp.
On the second day, an old man and a boy suddenly appear on a trail near one of the machine gun positions. The man has brought a handful of eggs as a gift, and he inquires about work, but it’s generally agreed later that he was probably conducting reconnaissance of the American positions.
An attack, the U.S. command concludes, is likely. But it’s unclear when it will come.
Because of the danger, the soldiers do a lot of digging. If they’re not digging in where they sleep, they’re digging out machine gun pits and bunkers. The holes get bigger and deeper as the days pass.
Spc. Steven Eddy, 22, of Rome, N.Y., and Spc. Matt Cannon, 20, of Sapulpa, Okla., are among a group of four soldiers who take turns with a pickax and a shovel in a pit that’s supposed to be for an M240G machine gun crew.
Once they get the hole dug, they’ll surround it with sandbags and cover it with beams, a thick metal plate and more sandbags. It’s hot, sweaty, exhausting work. They’ve hit solid rock only a few feet down.
“It’s painful,” Eddy says.
Eddy takes several futile swings at what appears to be a big chunk of solid granite. “That one ain’t going nowhere,” he says, climbing out of the hole. “I quit. I put in my two-week notice.”
Despite the drudgery of their days, few of the soldiers complain. Instead, they go about their jobs with a wry sense of humor.
On the second night, two helicopters dropped off more supplies. The next morning, soldiers were sorting through boxes of MREs, water, batteries and crates of ammunition. Some of it was distributed out to the various positions. They stacked the rest in open bunkers that had been blasted out of the mountain. Two soldiers carried barbed wire out to the perimeter.
Kikta was standing below the command post, as Pfc. Cory Cook, 22, of Chickasha, Okla., came slogging up the hill. He was covered in sweat and breathing heavily.
“I think I’m going to have a heart attack now,” he said, stopping to catch his breath.
“Are you all right?” Kikta asked.
“[Expletive], no,” Cook answered. “I’m in Afghanistan.”
The remark elicited a laugh from Kikta.
“It’s days like these I wish I wouldn’t have dropped out of college,” Cook continued. “I was passing.”
Another soldier walking past Cook overheard the remark.
“The only time you were passing college is when you were on your way to the beach,” he said, without breaking stride.