Welcome home, 173rd Airborne: A different life near the border
May 2, 2006
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QALAT, Afghanistan — While their counterparts in the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment were often using other modes of transportation such as foot patrols and aircraft to get around, those in Company A relied on their Humvees.
"A lot more than the other two companies," said Capt. Dave Rowland, the company commander.
That's because the areas that Company A patrolled were sparse in terms of population and just about everything else. The population centers were spread out. With a largely flat, desertlike terrain, there generally weren't a lot of places for enemy forces to stage ambushes. And there never seemed to be very many of them grouped together anyway.
"The enemy for us was one that was not willing to stand and fight," Rowland said, so they resorted to other methods to harm U.S. troops.
"Our biggest threat was the [roadside bomb]," he said.
The company encountered dozens of the devices during the course of its year in southern Zabul province. Many were disarmed and didn't do any damage.
But that wasn't always the case. A soldier died in one explosion. Another was killed in one of the relatively rare firefights that did occur.
Because it didn't spend a lot of time fighting, the company was able to devote its resources to working with the fledgling Afghan security forces and sponsoring projects.
First Lt. Ari Martyn, leader of 3rd Platoon, said he'll remember helping to train the country's border police.
"Standing near the international border, knowing what we were doing was making a difference," he said. "I was talking to some of the guys and told them, 'Thirty years from now, you'll be looking at something about Afghanistan and you'll know that if it has solid borders, that'll be partially because of us.'"
The border in Zabul province is flat. And largely wide open. Martyn and his platoon didn't get close enough to meet anyone from the Pakistan side. But they could see them in the distance.
The troops got a lot closer to the Afghans who lived in southern Zabul, though.
"I've treated a ridiculous amount of Afghans," said Spc. Donald Gross, a medic with 2nd Platoon. He said some had illnesses beyond anything he could treat. But stab wounds, broken bones and minor illnesses that he could treat, he did.
"It was much more poor than I expected," he said of the living conditions in the province. "Iraq is leaps and bounds ahead of Afghanistan."
The company soon found that it could deliver something that just about every Afghan wanted.
"Everyone wanted a well," said Staff Sgt. Stephen Sokolowski. "Whether they really needed one or not, they wanted it right by their homes."
Sokolowski said the people who lived near the bases the company set up were friendly. Those who were farther away said they feared reprisals. They were willing to accept help, but not as willing to offer it.
Rowland said that gradually changed, though. Locals started to offer tips on suspected roadside bombs or on enemy activity. A few leaders of bomb-building cells even turned themselves in, seeking new starts with amnesty from the government.
"If you look at the stuff of nation-building, that's what we did in southern Zabul," Rowland said.