A cavalry troop discovers a different war than the one it trained for
By STEVEN BEARDSLEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 29, 2013
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Traveling through this dusty city inside the windowless belly of an armored vehicle, Pfc. Mike Forgach opened his eyes, shifted in his seat and turned to the sergeant standing through the ceiling hatch.
“Want some downtime, sergeant?” the young mortarman asked. “I’m getting bored.”
The sergeant declined, saying he needed to monitor the radio, and Forgach, with hours to go in a routine convoy and little chance of dismount, closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep, his mortar tube stowed in a nearby rack.
If the front lines in Afghanistan are often elusive, they’ve felt especially distant for L Troop, 3rd Squadron. In the three months since being posted to Kandahar Airfield, one of the largest military installations in the country and a hub of the coalition’s approaching combat withdrawal, its soldiers have rarely set foot outside their base and have yet to see much of the enemy.
The war grinds on around them. Reports about it reach the troop like dispatches from a distant front. Insurgents attack police checkpoints, trade gunfire with Afghan soldiers and plant bombs outside their compounds.
Older soldiers marvel at how much has changed since their last deployment. Younger soldiers wonder what happened to the war they trained for in the spring.
“I think they feel like maybe this was misrepresented to them,” Capt. Craig Nelson, L Troop commander, said of his soldiers. “But I won’t apologize.”
A West Point graduate and former Ranger from Minnesota, Nelson had selected his troop’s mission. While other units would spend the deployment tearing down American bases or working alongside Afghans, his men would form the regimental reserve, a quick-response force to be dispatched across the province as needed.
The unit would have no base to operate, no Afghans to partner with, and no advising teams to shuttle around. Its role was to be ready when called upon, whether to strengthen another unit as it closed a base or to respond to an emergency, such as a unit under fire.
Nelson stressed tactical planning to his leaders. During a regiment-wide exercise in March, he gathered his lieutenants and their sergeants around a map of the training area and had them imagine possible missions. How would they convoy? Where would they place mortars? How would they leave?
He focused on infantry basics with his younger guys. In April, he brought them to the field to drill against a dummy machine gun bunker, each squad breaking into its rifle teams to practice maneuvering against the target. The drills, run day and night, culminated in a run with live ammunition and a real hand grenade.
It was a level of training that could seem disproportionate to the threat. Afghans were doing much of the fighting in Kandahar, with the U.S. focused on its own withdrawal. Insurgents rarely held fixed points, and they typically melted away at the sight of U.S. units. Even Nelson expected his troop would be used only to fill in gaps in the regiment’s routine operations.
“I don’t mind failing at (partnering with Afghans) one or two times,” he said of. “Guys won’t get killed. It’s this stuff I want (them) to know.”
Soldiers with prior deployments, many of them near the end of operations in Iraq, knew the pace in Afghanistan would likely be slower than the training. But the deployment grew large in the eyes of Nelson’s younger soldiers, who were often making their first tours.
“It’s really exciting,” said Ethan Strouse, a team leader with 2nd platoon, in June. “You fly up on a helicopter, you do all the stuff you see in a movie. I mean, I’d like that more than sitting around in a truck waiting to get blown up or something.”
Several days after Forgach’s convoy, 1st platoon rolled out of base gates on a scheduled patrol around the city and to its north.
From the ceiling hatch of one of the Strykers, the eight-wheeled armored vehicles used by the regiment, the base faded away, and the city unfolded in a combination of dust, exhaust and people. Cars and motorcycles dodged between the vehicles, impatient to pass. Children waved or gave a thumbs up. Others threw rocks.
The dismounts waited in the belly of the Stryker, talking, sleeping and occasionally readjusting in their cramped seats.
The patrols and their discomforts were becoming routine for L Troop. Assigned to the regiment’s supply squadron days after their arrival in Kandahar, the unit was tasked with providing security for a unit of engineers sweeping nearby roads for bombs.
Route security had become a focus in the region as the U.S. closed down bases and outposts, sending truckloads of materiel to larger installations like Kandahar Airfield. At a time when U.S. units were doing fewer patrols in local villages and Afghans most of the fighting, the roads remained an area of exposure.
Yet the routes around Kandahar city were largely quiet. In nearly three months, the engineers had yet to find a bomb. No one had taken gunfire. The patrols were often numbing, typically lasting at least six hours, often longer, without a stop or dismount.
The 1st Platoon patrol on this day was just as uneventful. Hours passed and day gave way to night, the city to its outskirts. The convoy eventually turned around and headed back.
When they arrived at the base hours later, soldiers had little to offer at a post-mission brief. Someone noted that rocks were thrown at one of the trucks.
“Really nothing happened on this one,” said 1st Lt. Stuart Vaughn, the platoon leader.
Members of his platoon headed back to their barracks. They would work out or talk to family, and then they would sleep, wake up and prepare for the next convoy. Vehicle commanders would clean out the Strykers and check equipment. Radio operators would dust the sand from hand-held units and adjust frequencies. Sergeants would work with their soldiers to keep skills fresh.
Platoon leaders like Vaughn would return to the drawing board for the next mission, looking at routes, contingencies and turnaround points. The routine could become maddening, he said, the payoff often indiscernible.
“You’ve got a vision in your head of what you think the enemy’s going to do,” he said. “And you want them to do that, because you’re prepared for it.”
But if everything was quiet, his unit would return safely, he said.
The deployment looked little like what he imagined coming out of high school in 2007 and entering West Point. Iraq was at a fever pitch then and Afghanistan souring. By the time he graduated, joined the regiment and finally deployed, the war had changed substantially. So had Vaughn’s responsibilities.
“Honestly, at this point in the war, is anything really worth someone’s legs or their life or something like that?” Vaughn said. “I’d argue no. We’re not here to conquer or gain more ground. We’re trying to leave.”
The fighting now belonged to Afghan forces, as did the casualties. U.S. helicopters ferried the most critically wounded to aid stations, many of them suffering amputations and shrapnel from roadside bombs.
Nelson encouraged his men to embrace their mission without becoming complacent. Yet a routine had settled in for some. Forgach departed base on patrol about once a week, typically as a dismount. He worked out in the gym daily, sometimes worked on the trucks and hung out with buddies in the evening, occasionally smoking hookahs purchased at a shop on base.
He understood the mission, he said, and didn’t mind being posted to a massive base like Kandahar Airfield. But he also wanted something outside the routine of past weeks. In about 10 missions over nearly three months, he counted only three or four actual dismounts onto Afghan ground.
“If anything, maybe we want to see a little more,” he said. “We want to have that ‘one day.’ It’s like you want it to happen but you don’t at the same time.”
One afternoon, Forgach was invited on a rare flight outside the base. His sergeant, Staff Sgt. James Calfa, was to take his oath of re-enlistment on a Black Hawk ride with Nelson and the troop’s executive officer. Calfa asked Forgach to hold the flag.
They traveled by Stryker to the helicopter ramps on the airfield, thanked the pilot and strapped into their seats. The helicopter lifted and banked east, and the base quickly gave way to a bird’s-eye view of Afghanistan. Sheep and camels scattered. Dry stream beds, carved out each rainy season, snaked across the sunbaked earth.
The Registan Desert emerged, its red sand dunes elevated high above the surrounding landscape and running to the southern horizon. Insurgents and drug traffickers from Pakistan still come north into Afghanistan via the desert, working their way to Helmand province.
Against the rush of the wind, Nelson and Calfa performed the oath, the American flag fixed to the back wall and flapping furiously. Calfa pressed his headset and microphone to his mouth to stop the wind.
The helicopter turned back, the Registan disappeared and the base approached. Nelson pointed to a series of large, bored well holes in the earth. Known as qanats, the traditional irrigation wells were also used to hold insurgent caches.
The Black Hawk passed back over the sheep herds and passed the line of yellow pylons marking KAF’s outer limits. It was a small boundary that could feel like a gulf to those posted on the large base.
“It’s amazing how close we are to Afghanistan,” Nelson said. “Sometimes we think we’re layers and layers apart.”
Not long after the flight, L Troop’s 3rd Platoon geared up for convoy, meeting the engineer platoon at the motor pool about midnight.
Both platoons briefed the routes and protocols, and soldiers entered their vehicles.
Earlier that day, Vaughn’s platoon had been pushed out the gate after the discovery of insurgent rocket sites outside KAF. They pulled security for the explosive ordinance technicians who destroyed them, a rare bit of excitement in recent weeks.
The night’s patrol got underway. It moved north for several hours before skirting the city to its east. As it approached the halfway point, Calfa dropped from the ceiling hatch of his Stryker and asked his mortarman, Pfc. Neil Corcoran, to prepare an illumination round for firing.
Corcoran grabbed his tube, Calfa a mortar round. He handed it to Corcoran, who hunched over and twisted with his full strength to set the fuse. When it gave way, he handed it back to Calfa and started up from his seat.
The sergeant stopped him—the patrol needed to move on and had canceled the firing mission. Corcoran sat back down.
“I was so close,” he said.
Capt. Craig Nelson, L Troop commander, and 2nd Lt. Charles Rapp, a Joint Fires Observer, rush out of their unit's Tactical Operation Center on Kandahar Airfield before a mission to provide security for a unit of engineers sweeping nearby roads for bombs on Oct. 10, 2013.
JOSHUA L. DEMOTTS/STARS AND STRIPES