173rd Airborne Brigade Leaves Afghanistan
4th Bn., 319th Field Artillery Reg.: Battalion’s success grew through diplomacy before firepower
By DAN BLOTTENBERGER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 10, 2010
BAMBERG, Germany — The artillerymen of 4th Battalion, 319th Field Artillery Regiment did much more than send steel downrange during their latest deployment to Afghanistan.
While the unit did conduct countless fire missions on enemy positions while supporting some 5,000 Task Force Bayonet soldiers in Wardak and Logar provinces, 4-319 soldiers also spent time developing an Afghan police force that the people in the region could trust.
When the unit arrived in the area — roughly the size of Connecticut — the police were viewed as criminals for such acts as shaking down people at checkpoints, said Maj. Carl Poppe, the battalion operations officer.
Members of the police force rarely showed up to work in uniform, often could not account for their weapons, and had a fleet of pickup trucks of which half were inoperable, said Poppe, a Kansas City, Mo., native.
Afghan residents told the unit that the police force wasn’t doing its job, Poppe said. “They didn’t trust (the police),” he said.
By the end of the deployment, unit leaders said they felt the Afghan police had made vast improvements. Instead of broken trucks, police were riding around in up-armored Humvees. They were wearing uniforms, and they had learned to account for their weapons.
The 4-319th also set up an emergency telephone system, like the U.S. 9-1-1 system, called Community Safety Phone Number. Civilians began to use the phone service often and even began to report the placements of roadside bombs, Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Woods said.
And they set up a program where the Afghan police visited local schools to talk to children. The program was set up to influence younger generations, who are primary targets for the Taliban, said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. David Sink.
The differences could be seen by the end of the yearlong deployment, Woods said.
It went from “you go there you are going to get shot,” to “Hey! Come on down and do business in Wardak,” he said.
But training a competent police force was not the only mission for the artillerymen.
The 4-319 had artillery units — using M777A2 and M119A2 artillery cannons — located on six command outposts providing fire support for the two provinces, Poppe said.
Concerns over civilian casualties and collateral damage forced the battalion to come up with ways to avoid these unwanted results.
“Our mission is to destroy the enemy, and unfortunately, sometimes you are destroying property and [have] civilian casualties,” said Sink, of Raleigh, N.C.
There were reports of battles where the enemy would hide among the civilian populace or in mosques to avoid artillery rounds, according to documentation provided from the unit. So, Woods came up with the idea of firing non-exploding blue training rounds, known as “Smurfs,” while the artillerymen adjusted their fire on an enemy position. Once they honed in on the enemy’s position, they would switch to lethal rounds. It worked, Sink said. “We did not kill any civilians while we were down there.”
And for the second-straight deployment, the unit returned home without losing a soldier. In all, seven soldiers were wounded, by roadside bombs, small-arms attacks, rocket-propelled grenades or other indirect-fire attacks.