Mideast edition, Sunday, July 8, 2007

FORWARD OPERATING BASE BLESSING, Afghanistan — The rumble of their howitzers shook the camp morning, noon and night for more than 36 hours.

And though the platoon’s targets were more than 10 miles away, reports received say they never missed.

“So far, we’ve hit our targets 10 times out of 10,” said Staff Sgt. Luis E. Gonzalez of Battery B, 4th Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment.

“We’ve had good [information], telling us our rounds helped, that our rounds have been on target.”

Soldiers from Company A of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment — which, like the 4-319th is part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team — were under heavy attack Thursday and Friday from enemy fighters in a nearby valley, and the Battery B platoon was doing what it gets paid for.

Its rules of engagement say it can’t fire on anything that can’t be seen.

“We can’t just light up the countryside,” Gonzalez said. Yet during those 36 hours, between his platoon and another at a fire base along the Pich River valley, more than 150 rounds were fired.

Gonzalez, a 27-year-old from Fayetteville, N.C., is a section chief in charge of nine men. He claims his gun is the fastest in the country.

From the time a “fire mission” comes over the radio, Gonzalez says he and his crew can have a round fired in less than 45 seconds — one of his soldiers said it’s closer to 30 — regardless of what they were doing before.

Since requests for their big guns come any time day or night, the men live within yards of them.

They’ve built themselves a plywood-lined home. Sheets and camouflage ponchos are hung to provide a little privacy, hiding walls littered with pictures of wives, kids, girlfriends and anything else that reminds the soldiers of home.

For Sgt. Clayton Williams, that includes pictures of his wife, Nicole, and 4-year-old stepdaughter, Adriana, and a giant black leather chair that someone from another unit left behind.

“I just pass out in it most nights,” he said. “Sometimes I make it to my bed.”

In the Army for almost six years, Williams previously deployed from Bamberg, Germany, — which the 4-319th calls home — to Iraq. But like many soldiers in the past few years, the Dunseith, N.D., native ended up doing everything but his job there, spending his whole tour working as an infantryman.

“I finally get to earn my money,” he said of now being able to fire artillery.

Gonzalez deployed with the 173rd when it last went to Afghanistan. “It’s about the same as last time,” he said of his first several weeks at Blessing. “Our whole purpose for being here is to bring the infantry guys back.”

Another soldier who previously deployed as an artilleryman but did something else is Sgt. Julius R. Key.

Also from Fayetteville, the 24-year-old Key said, “I think it’s better (to be firing artillery), especially when I’ve been on both sides of the house.

“Sometimes we fire at 2 or 3 a.m., sometimes at 12 in the afternoon when it’s hot as hell. It doesn’t matter. It’s about knowing why you’re here, about keeping guys alive downrange.”

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