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Modern 'Band of Brothers' unit draws on historic bonds while forging their own

Sgt. Joshua Sutherland, left, helps 2nd Lt. George Fletcher up a waterfall as Sgt. Damon Miers looks on. The members of Easy Company were assisting Afghan security forces in searching a remote village in Khost province.

JOSH SMITH/STARS AND STRIPES

By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 31, 2013

CAMP CLARK, Afghanistan — “One more ridge line.” Strung out along a steep, rocky canyon in rural Khost province, the men in 1st Platoon had been hearing that all morning from the Afghan police lieutenant. And they would hear it many more times before the day was over.

“ 'One more ridge line.’ You should make that the title of your article,” platoon leader 1st Lt. James Kromhout said as the troops sat to catch their breath.

For nearly two hours they had been scrambling up waterfalls and steep, grassy rock faces. The beautiful view did little to make the hike easier for the soldiers carrying as much as 100 pounds of body armor, ammunition, weapons and electronic equipment.

Currently assigned to the 4th Combat Brigade Team, 101st Airborne Division, the men of 1st Platoon are members of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, one of the most famed units in the U.S. Army thanks to the book, later made into an HBO miniseries, “Band of Brothers.”

The sun-baked mountains of Afghanistan are far removed from the hedgerows of Normandy and the frozen forests of Belgium where Easy Company first made a name for itself during World War II, but the soldiers today are keen to live up to that heritage.

A Modern Band of Brothers

The convoy had left Camp Clark in the pre-dawn darkness, at 4:30 a.m.

Sitting in the cramped seats of an MATV armored vehicle the soldiers reflected on what it meant to be a member of a modern band of brothers.

“I love the idea of it,” said Pfc. Andrew Martin, 26, as he guided the 14-ton vehicle down the narrow Afghan roads.

“The more you’re challenged, the more you feel like brothers.”

Sitting in the passenger seat surrounded by glowing communications gear, Kromhout agreed.

“Whether it’s World War II, Vietnam, or now, it’s hardship that forms a bond,” he said. “The more challenges you face, the more you draw on that brotherhood. The only social net you have is the platoon. You can’t go to a bar to drown your troubles.”

In Afghanistan, soldiers are unlikely to face hardships like those suffered by the defenders of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. But Kromhout, who was sitting in a remote mountain-top outpost in July when he was told of his first child’s birth, noted that modern challenges — or “The Suck,” in Martin’s military-speak — help forge relationships in their own way.

As soldiers, having Easy Company’s well-known heritage is “a huge leg up” in overcoming those challenges together, said Kromhout, 28, a native of St. Paul, Minn. “It’s great for morale. Plus, it’s just badass.”

Keeping up

The morning sun was just coming up over the barren hills when 1st Platoon and the security force assistance team it was escorting met up with a combined force of Afghan police, army and intelligence officers.

When Martin talked about how it was “The Suck” that brought the members of his platoon together, he had no idea how much that day was going to test his theory. “I expect it to get weird today,” he said in the truck. “It’s just a matter of how weird it gets.”

The plan was pretty basic. The Afghan security forces were wrapping up a three-day operation to search and clear a series of villages not far from the border with Pakistan. First Platoon’s job was simply to provide security for the American advisers and act as a backup for the Afghans.

The men were debating whether they would be back at Camp Clark in time for the weekly grilled hamburger lunch.

It was not to be.

The first sign that the day was not going to turn out as planned came when the Afghans drove several kilometers past the area where Kromhout expected the target village to be.

The five American vehicles staged in a dry river bed, or wadi. Drivers and gunners would man the trucks while the rest of the force dismounted and followed the Afghan forces.

Within an hour, the main force of lightly armed Afghans was far out of sight among the rocky mountain canyons. They were very much in the lead on this mission, and that left the more heavily laden and planning-focused Americans scrambling to keep up.

Kromhout was making up things as he went along.

Defensive positions were established, only to be dismantled and moved as the Afghans led the patrol deeper into the mountains, promising just “one more ridge.” Hours later, the small force finally crested a hill overlooking a small handful of rock-and-stick huts.

The soldiers scanned the hills anxiously after a local villager said Taliban insurgents were in a nearby valley. But the morning calm remained unbroken as the Afghan soldiers and police officers searched the buildings and enjoyed a drink of sour cream mixed with water that was shared by a hospitable villager.

For members of the 506th Infantry Regiment, whose motto “Currahee” means “stands alone” in Cherokee, having to operate on the Afghans’ schedule and sit by while knowing their enemy could be near can be a grating experience.

But the troops took it in stride as part of the transition before NATO combat forces withdraw from the country next year.

“It can suck for us, but it’s the right way,” Kromhout said. “By following the Afghans, who know these hills, we definitely surprised these villagers.”

The Suck

Nothing suspicious was found in the village, and another hour and one hot, rocky canyon later the platoon was back in their armored vehicles. They had hiked more than four miles, an unusually long maneuver for soldiers on foot in unknown territory.

After a debrief with the local Afghan district police commander, Kromhout returned to the trucks to discover that the off-road driving in the wadi had caused the unit’s mine-roller to catch fire. Attached to the front of the lead vehicle, the multi-ton piece of equipment is designed to set off IEDs before they hit a vehicle.

It took nearly three hours for Easy Company’s 3rd Platoon to escort a wrecker and a flatbed tractor trailer from Forward Operating Base Salerno out to rescue 1st Platoon’s disabled mine-roller. By the time the device had been detached and loaded on the trailer, it was nearly dark.

An Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt swooped in low over their heads as the convoy — now double in size — moved out.

Recent rain had flooded the two wadis the convoy had to cross. Halfway through the first riverbed, the call came over the radio: 3rd Platoon’s lead vehicle, which pushed its own mine-roller, had become stuck in the mud.

“Afghanistan’s wadis, two … mine-rollers, zero,” the crew in Kromhout’s truck laughed almost in unison.

In the darkness, local Afghans bumped through the ankle-deep water on motorcycles and trucks, gawking at the spectacle of the long line of American trucks and the helicopter gunships dropping flares overhead.

Forty-five minutes later, the wrecker and the tractor trailer finally pulled the truck free. It was 9:45 p.m.

“Gunners, look alive,” Kromhout warned over the radio as the trucks began moving again. “The gunships have seen some suspicious activity in the area.”

The convoy picked its way through the dark holes and mud of the second wadi, only to halt again when one of 1st Platoon’s massive MaxxPro armored trucks — designed initially to operate on Iraq’s wide, IED-riddled highways — became bogged down. “I think the original Band of Brothers would be disappointed to know we’re driving around in MaxxPros,” Kromhout sighed. Half an hour later that truck was pulled free.

What had been planned as a five-hour patrol had turned into a nearly 20-hour mission that forced the soldiers to improvise almost constantly.

Future changes

Driving the final miles to Camp Clark, once again in darkness, the soldiers talked about the future. They are expected to be among the last combat troops in Khost province, infamous as the homeland of the Haqqani network of insurgents and terrorists, and the 4th Brigade Combat Team is slated to be inactivated upon its return to the United States early next year.

Second Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment will live on in another brigade, thanks to an effort to preserve its lineage. But as young, individual soldiers, the men in Easy Company will also be confronting changes as they transition home and a military that is reducing its presence in many places around the world.

“Even now, I think about it: How am I going to get this feeling when I get home?” Martin said. “Even when we don’t face contact, it’s a rush every time we leave the wire.”

Back at the headquarters at FOB Salerno, Easy Company commander Capt. Louis Cascino, 29, said he has worked to instill in his soldiers an appreciation for the “Band of Brothers” heritage that will outlast their deployment.

“It is an enormous honor above all else,” he said. “We try to make sure we know our history and honor it in everything we do. If that’s not motivating for you, there’s not much else that can.”

And for the soldiers of Easy Company, the spirit of their band of brothers from across the years will follow them on many more dawn patrols.

“Deep down inside, everyone compares themselves to the past,” Kromhout said. “Even if you try to pretend you’re too cool for it, you need it.”

smith.josh@stripes.com
Twitter: @joshjonsmith

 

Members of Easy Company and a security advising team climb up a canyon on a patrol to support Afghan security forces during a mission in Khost province, Afghanistan.
JOSH SMITH/STARS AND STRIPES