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CAMP ZAMA, Japan - The new U.S. Army Japan and 1st Corps (Forward) commander is an experienced leader with three combat tours in his 29-year career.

Brig. Gen. Frank Wiercinski returned last December from a 15-month deployment to Iraq, where he was Multi-National Division North’s deputy commanding general for support. Based in Mosul, his area stretched from Baghdad to the Turkish border, and east and west to Iran and Syria.

In 1989, he served as a young Army Ranger company commander when U.S. forces went into Panama to overthrow military dictator Manuel Noriega.

But Wiercinski gained his warfighter reputation in Afghanistan a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Then a colonel, he led the Fort Campbell, Ky.-based 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) during Operation Anaconda, in which U.S. military, coalition special forces and allied Afghan troops rooted out al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists from the Shahi-Kot Valley of Paktia province.

"We were the first Army brigade deployed to Afghanistan," Wiercinski recounted. "We knew we’d be in for a long fight. Al-Qaida was quite entrenched in Afghanistan at the time. It was ‘terrorist university,’ as we called it."

Between March 1 and March 18, 2002, about 1,700 airlifted U.S. troops and 1,000 Afghan militia battled more than 1,000 al-Qaida and Taliban fighters — who were dug into caves and ridges along the rugged mountainous terrain.

Wiercinski’s brigade was to conduct air-assault operations and prevent al-Qaida’s escape through the mountain and rear areas, he said. But his unit, along with the 10th Mountain Division’s 1st Battalion, 87th Regiment, became major players when the landing zones contained a much larger enemy force than expected.

An "immediate firefight" broke out, he recalled, as the terrorists peppered his brigade with mortars and heavy machine-gun fire.

Wiercinski, visibly emotional as he recounted the fierce fight, said 21 of his 3rd Brigade soldiers were wounded in the first three minutes.

"We got banged up pretty good," he said. "Our medics and soldiers kept them alive. We could not get them out for 18 hours because of the firefight, but they made it."

The altitude, extreme cold and snow in higher elevations also challenged the U.S. soldiers.

By March 12, joint U.S. and Afghan forces swept through the area and cleared it of remaining terrorist fighters. Significant combat ended six days later.

Fifteen coalition soldiers were killed in the battle, and 82 were wounded. At least 500 al-Qaida and Taliban forces were killed, according to U.S. military estimates.

It’s unclear how many key insurgent leaders, perhaps even Osama bin Laden, might have escaped through the tough terrain. Wiercinski describes the rugged country as "one of the most difficult locations in the world," a landlocked nation with no coastline.

While the Taliban continue trying to push forward into Afghanistan today, Wiercinski said, al-Qaida never really regrouped in the region in the numbers it had before Operation Anaconda.

"The thing we’re most proud of is we took 1,411 soldiers in, and brought 1,411 soldiers out after an 18-day firefight," he said of his brigade. "It was tough, but that meant a lot to us."

After deployments to both Afghanistan and Iraq, Wiercinski said the two theaters are radically different fronts for the U.S. military in the war on terrorism.

"Afghanistan has nothing. In some parts, [living conditions] go back 2,000 years," Wiercinski said. "Iraq is a fully infrastructured country. It has great natural resources, fertile land and fresh water. There are universities and the people are educated. That makes it one of the most unique countries in the Middle East."

However, the one-star general said, the Afghans continue to build as the government holds on, and the progress is even more encouraging in Iraq.

"There was huge change from the time I arrived until the time I left," Wiercinski said. "I saw great growth by the Iraqi police, Iraqi government and Iraqi army during that small period of time."

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