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RELATED STORY:‘We know we’re in the right place because the enemy attacks us’

ON THE AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN BORDER — The battle had taken place several weeks before. But the soldiers knew their boots were dusty from the climb up a mountain that was stained with the blood of their enemies.

Sgt. 1st Class Chad Rickard stood on the mountain ridge and pointed down its eastern slope into Pakistan. That cluster of houses belongs to Aleesh, the area’s Taliban commander, he said. To the west is a clear shot to Spera, the combat outpost where this new contingent of soldiers from the Georgia National Guard was taking up post.

And right here on this mountain, called TRP Red, 100 Taliban stormed their way up on March 8, trying to overrun the handful of Afghan soldiers guarding the border observation post on the connecting peak. Had they succeeded, they would have been in position take out Spera.

A dot in a border valley surrounded by peaks and two Afghan observation posts, Spera is a single point of U.S military presence in the heart of Taliban terrain. Here, a dozen U.S. soldiers live in a tiny, rugged compound with 20 to 30 Afghan soldiers, with the primary mission of maintaining and defending their little thorn in the Taliban’s side.

It’s a full-time, multipronged mission to not only disrupt Taliban border crossings, but also to engage the villages and show them there is an alternative to the Taliban, while all the time training Afghan security forces to one day do all this on their own.

“You are sitting between two primary Taliban routes,” said Rickard, 37, of the Joint Headquarters of the California National Guard, who is completing his nine-month deployment with the Embedded Training Teams. “Two of the main Taliban routes into the whole theater are to the north and south of us. That’s why they want to get rid of us. They will try to overrun us. We are a big fat finger in the dam, just clogging their [infiltration] routes.”

In this part of the counterinsurgency war, soldiers draw and fight the enemy face-to-face.

“You are in the shooting part of the war right now,” Rickard told a new team of soldiers arriving at the outpost. “It’ll come in a flash.”

When there is no fighting, the compound is as peaceful as a hunting lodge, a remote mountain hideout draped in sandbags, barbed wire and camouflage netting. Then, suddenly, all hell can break loose.

“Your hard-core soldiers all love Spera COP,” said Lt. Col. Pete Molin, who, until last week, was training team commander at Camp Clark, which oversees Spera. “You’ve got to be level-headed and strong-willed to operate successfully on the edge of the universe.”

The new team arrived at Spera on June 24. A young infantry company from Georgia’s 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment, 48th Brigade Combat Team, thrust into training a fledgling Afghan army in unfamiliar enemy terrain. They are mostly privates and specialists, the Pentagon’s newest take on the mentoring teams, which until now were comprised of more senior soldiers and officers.

For veteran fighters Rickard and Maj. Nicholas Fleischmann, 44, from Fresno, Calif., this was a critical handoff. Both have rotated in and out of Spera since November.

Fleischmann, a father of nine, including five adopted siblings, oversaw maintenance of the outpost and led outreach efforts to surrounding villages.

Rickard supervised the Afghan National Army and Spera’s defense. His men fought in more than 30 firefights at Spera and killed upward of 75 Taliban.

Their replacements arrived in late June, rifles in one hand, cameras in the other. Some had deployments in Iraq behind them, though many, including their 23-year-old 1st Lt. Joel Moore, of Nashville, Tenn., were new to combat.

It would be nice if Rickard and Fleischmann could guide them through their first firefight, Moore said. But he wasn’t too concerned.

“They’d be shooting at us, but they have AKs (assault rifles) and rockets,” he said. “We have Mark 19s (grenade launchers), artillery, .50-cals (machine guns) and planes that drop bombs. I feel pretty safe in here.”

Their ANA company arrived in Spera at the same time, also new and inexperienced. The Afghan troops took to the steep terrain easily, romping in the bathing stream and roaming the mountains — sometimes in flip-flops — to chase monkeys. The crack of gunfire from hunters became so frequent as to dull the senses to possible dangers.

At night, the Americans had to be vigilant in making sure ANA guards didn’t leave their posts or fall asleep. Still, white lights glowed almost nightly from the ANA commander’s quarters on the north end of the tiny compound, visible on the dark hills for miles around.

But with the Pakistani military on the offensive to capture regional Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, the insurgents apparently had their hands full across the border and the valley was quiet.

Moore worried the ANA would grow complacent. Rickard eyed the Americans with similar concern.

“You can relax and enjoy it, but in a moment it’ll come on you quick,” he warned them.

“This place is 95 percent boredom and peaceful relaxation, and 5 percent sheer excitement and terror,” he said later. “I think that’s the juggling act both for us and the ANA. You have to keep the sword sharpened so when the attack does come, you are ready.”

The soldiers got to know their new surroundings, living in a stone compound layered with dirt and soot. Showers are scarce, with water dragged up from a well in the valley. Urination tubes run through the sand and rock-buffered walls to the mountain slope below. Electricity is delivered by a generator that needs regular refueling; human waste is burned daily.

They pushed out on patrols: up to the east, where Afghan guards eye their Pakistani counterparts warily across the border; to the west, past the spot where two ANA soldiers were killed recently in an ambush. They went north to Sra Khanda, the only village friendly to the Americans; and south, to where other villagers, presumably fearful of Taliban reprisals, said they didn’t want a new mosque or school and preferred to remain independent.

They tested the guns, checked the land mines that rim the compound and took inventory of their ammunition. Inevitably, the jobs of men grew tiresome and the soldiers reverted to the games of boys. They lined their computers up in the tactical operations center, or TOC, and watched movies or played computer games.

“I am afraid you guys are getting lulled into a sense of security,” Rickard lamented to Sgt. Nicholas Nigro, 25, originally of Woodstock, Ga., a few days later. “It comes in fast and vicious and violent. In the [operations center] today, one guy is buried in a movie, the other in a video game. They wouldn’t have a single clue what’s going on in the valley. That’s the problem I have with the new ETT structure. Too much immaturity.”

One day, Nigro led a small patrol to a mountainside cluster of buildings dubbed Taliban Hotel. Months ago, Rickard and crew found caches of food and weapons inside. Now it needs periodic sweeps.

Nigro, a veteran of roadside bombs in Iraq where he was in a route-clearance unit, grasped the challenges at hand. He saw the importance of a strong rapport with the ANA and the lack of strong focus on all sides. Still, he and the others were confident that soon enough they’d settle into a rhythm and their ANA counterparts would follow suit.

“It’s one of those infantry missions you hoped you’d get,” Nigro said. “I’d rather be doing this than dealing with [roadside bombs]. I’d take my chances with someone trying to shoot me and I see them first, rather than a piece of wire sticking out and someone’s hand on the kill switch. You don’t stand a chance like that.”

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