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Soldiers from Company A, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment — based in Vicenza, Italy — stand guard after their convoy stopped for a moment on a morning patrol Thursday.
Soldiers from Company A, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment — based in Vicenza, Italy — stand guard after their convoy stopped for a moment on a morning patrol Thursday. (Jason Chudy / S&S)

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SWEENEY, Afghanistan — Soldiers from Company A, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, have their work cut out for them when they leave this dusty base on patrol.

They’re responsible for covering an area the size of Connecticut that’s nearly all mountains on a road network that really doesn’t qualify as a road network.

“We call them roads but they’re not roads, they’re trails,” explained Sgt. 1st Class Shane Sport, 3rd Platoon sergeant.

But in the rugged hunt for anti-coalition forces, whether they be al-Qaida, Taliban or even criminals, the soldiers of Able Company are hitting these trails and looking in all the nooks and crannies.

“We’ve met people [in villages] that have never seen coalition forces before,” explained the company executive officer, Capt. Justin Daubert.

The Vicenza, Italy-based company’s diamond-shaped patrol area is about 100 miles northeast of Kandahar and borders Pakistan on the area’s southeast side.

The sector’s rugged terrain and relative inaccessibility mean that the soldiers must spend a lot of time out patrolling, usually for a minimum of a week at a time.

The company also maintains a platoon-size base near Nawbahar in the northern part of its assigned sector. Patrols run in this area are usually shorter than a week, but no less demanding on the troops or their equipment.

Soldiers will begin their patrols with either intelligence in hand or will gather their own.

“We’ll sit down with village elders and pitch to them why we’re here,” Daubert said. “We tell them we’re here as guests of the Afghan government.”

“We usually have two goals,” explained Sport. “We’ll go to the provincial headquarters and find out how they’re doing, how the living conditions are in the province.”

The second mission is to gather intelligence. If they get usable information, the patrol can react accordingly.

“They get enough stuff that … there’s plenty to do,” said Daubert.

Soldiers say their area is relatively quiet compared to other sectors patrolled by their sister companies.

“Here, the population … wants peace,” said Sport.

The enemy’s out there, he said, but there may be only one or two in a certain village, and they’d rather place roadside bombs or mines than meet Able Company soldiers head-on.

“The only way we can get rid of those people is to do good things for the [rest of the] people,” said Sport, 29, of Fort Worth, Texas. “We’re pushing them out … more with ‘hearts and minds’ rather than in direct action.”

They have, however, seen some combat. They’ve fought with people who have placed roadside bombs or mines, and the company’s 1st Platoon even engaged in a daylong firefight.

And they’ve lost a soldier to enemy action. On May 21, Cpl. Steven Tucker, 19, of Grapevine, Texas, was killed by an anti-tank mine that exploded under his Humvee.

Though most patrols don’t involve fighting, just getting around is hard enough.

Able Company’s area is the kind of place where a simple trip from Sweeney to the Pakistan border, which one soldier said would take less than an hour by car on a well-maintained, paved road, becomes a full-day ordeal of bumping and bouncing down roads or trails that may or may not be on a map.

“Maybe they have a road on a map, but it doesn’t mean that it’s still on the ground,” said Daubert. “Or there are roads and trails that are actually present, but not reflected on the map.”

Putting vehicles on these trails take a toll on both men and machines.

Daubert said that because of this, the heroes of some of their patrols haven’t always been a rifleman or machine-gunner, but rather a mechanic.

Daubert gave a few examples of when the mechanics have saved the day, such as making nighttime repairs under the glow of a red-filtered flashlight, or shopping in an Afghan bazaar for nuts and bolts that gave enough of a quick fix to drive the vehicle back to Sweeney for more extensive maintenance.

And when the patrols do return to Sweeney, another patrol will typically head out, with the company attempting to maintain as much of a presence in the area as possible.

“We’re definitely patrolling our battle space, hitting the ground really hard,” Daubert said. “We get our feet on the ground and give [patrols] enough time to see a lot.”

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