ASHOQUE, Afghanistan — As one group of U.S. soldiers from Company B, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry tried to grab a few hours of sleep, another prepared to conduct medical screenings in the village of Ashoque, just west of Kandahar city.

But shooting broke out just after 8 a.m., as Taliban fighters attacked the base. Many of the sleeping soldiers had come off a patrol hours earlier. They scrambled out of their sleeping bags and into their battle gear, wearing just shorts and T-shirts.

Soldiers from the 1-12 are in a tough situation, trying to help locals and fight the Taliban in the same place.

Company B moved into Ashoque in the Zhari district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan two weeks ago. A day before the firefight occurred, one old man told the troops that he was afraid to leave his compound at night. He had heard that coalition forces would shoot him.

“That’s not true at all,” said 1st Lt. Thomas Cayia, 24, of Niles, Mich., speaking through a translator. “He can go out at night. He just needs a lantern or a flashlight.”

The soldiers had plenty of free rice, beans and other staples waiting back at their base to distribute to the locals, but on that day they found few takers.

Villagers worry that accepting aid will make them targets of Taliban revenge.

A day later, it was the soldiers’ turn to be targets.

Most of the shots appeared to be coming from a structure Afghan farmers use to dry grapes that sat in a field about 200 yards to the west. Shots were also coming from elsewhere in the field, but they were impossible to pin down. Afghan grape fields are typically marked by parallel rows of deep irrigation ditches, which provide the Taliban fighters with the protective cover of a ready-made trench system.

Kiowa helicopter gunships swept in, blasting the grape hut with Hellfire rockets. But then the Taliban started shooting from an arid, unpopulated range of mountains about a half a mile to the south. Although the enemy fire was too far away to be effective, a soldier fired an anti-tank rocket.

The firing slackened off after about 45 minutes, as another convoy of Company B soldiers arrived. They said more U.S. forces had been attacked on the highway about 500 yards to the north. It seemed that the Taliban were trying to set up a potentially lethal exchange of fire between the soldiers on the highway and those barricaded in the small outpost.

Two F-16 fighters appeared 15 minutes later and dropped a pair of 500-pound bombs on a narrow ravine, in the mountain range to the south, the suspected infiltration route. The airstrike was followed by a barrage of 155 mm artillery.

Cayia told Capt. Mike Erlandson, the Company B commander, he thought there was no use in going ahead with the medical screening planned for that morning. Villagers were reportedly fleeing the area.

“This is a tough fight,” commented Erlandson, 32, of Philadelphia. “We’re trying to help people and fight the Taliban all in the same AO (area of operations).”

Cayia led a small patrol out to the grape hut from where the soldiers believed they had been taking fire. The mud structure was partially collapsed from the Hellfire strikes, but there was no sign that the Taliban had been there at all, not even a single spent shell casing. The Kiowas returned later in the afternoon and pounded the grape hut with more rockets, but as darkness fell, parts of the sturdy mud-walled structure was still standing.

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