Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Taliban Caves in the Peaks over Qalat

I slept for only four hours before we departed for Qalat. Up late emailing and talking on the MWR phone line with my wife back home. My alarm went off at 0400, got out of the room and cleared it with my two reporters in tow. I am traveling with David Zucchino and Rick Loomis of the Los Angeles Times. Both world class reporters, one the writer, the second the photographer. They have traveled together for much of the past five years. From reporting at 1 World Trade Center, NYC on Sept. 11th, 2001, to six trips in and out of Afghanistan and seven to Iraq, these two veterans have seen the battlefields of the Global War on Terrorism. Zucchino, a Pullitzer Prize winning reporter, was the foreign editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and is the author of Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad. He is a veteran of moe conflicts than any one I know. He won his Pullitzer while covering in South Africa.

We linked up with Sgt. Jeff Jeremiah, another Oregon Guardsman from the recently deactivated1-162 Infantry. Sgt. J is serving as our PSD or Personal Security Detachment. HE has been around the Army for a long while and knows his job well. Beside that, it was an opportunity to get him out of the FOB (Forward Operating Base) of Kandahar and into the field. We then had our convoy brief at 0500 and traveled as part of a five vehicle M114 convoy to. It is a two hour drive across the high desert from Kandahar. Our convoy commander was again the reliable Staff Sgt. Fish, whom I wrote about at Camp Shelby. We returned to Camp Apache where I was early last week with JJ. Only this time much better. As soon as we pulled in, we met Col. Marty Leppert AKA "Cowboy" He is the type of leader that is omnipresent. Better that kind than a weakling; his is a very strong leadership style. But nonetheless, as soon as we pulled in, he was pulling out. He said, "I only have room for one." I told him that that would not work, that these two reporters from one of the most influential papers in the nation had been contained for over a week between Kabul and Kandahar due to ineffective PAOs on the ground in the South of Afghanistan and that I needed another vehicle.

"Hey Chief," Leppert called to a Senior Navy NCO), can I use your rig?" "Just topped it off sir and the radio is programmed" "Got it. Strong you're driving and we're leaving right now." "Great sir, I'm right behind you and I'm driving, my call sign is Phoenix Five." Roger, I am Thunderbolt Six. Let's roll." We our and hit the road, like six minutes after arriving in this remote FOB outside the Castle. We went to link up wiht the other element, load Rick, the photographer into a different rig and were off to observe the first ever combined arms Afghan Battalion level operation. Over 100 ANA surrounding two villages that had Taliban activity last week... as in one of our NCOs was shot at last week while performing a "Meet and Greet" (His words) and returned fire with the M240 Bravo, killing two Taliban. We drove out into the hinterlands across precarious roads or lack thereof in the heart of the high desert of the Taliban controlled countryside.

It was the start of a very interesting morning. In our Observation POst, OP, I linked up with the ANA leaders, the staff officers led by the Bn XO. All of these men had had nothing before this, but were motivated to fight and to have their families thrive. I came over to the beautiful sounds of Afghan music piping thru their CD player in the non-armored Ford Rangers that are their only transport. I told them that I was a drummer back home and that I very much enjoyed the music...tablas and lutes and elegant male vocals filling the austere desert space. when they cranked up the volume, I told the interpretter that it was nice but that the Taliban can hear just as much as they can. The Sgt. Maj. heard this and leaned in and very sternly turned it down.

But we gabbed for about an hour as we sat in an overwatch position far removed from the two companies of Afghan soldiers did the search of two separate villages.

We later moved into position in the villages. Long drive across the country bump and grind staying in the exact tracks of the rig before you for avoidance of potential IEDs. We got there and hiked up the hill to meet Capt. Mike Olson, newly
arrived two days ago as an embedded trainer and a staff officer I suffered through
Shelby with for four months.

Nothing. No bad guys, no bomb making materials, no anything.

It was then we withdrew to a rally point at the foot of the mountain that oversees the entire valley.

The Bn chief mentor, Lt. Col. Harold Walker, an Active Guard officer from South Dakota (and briefly the State Public Affairs Officer) noticed a cave at the top of the mountain. "Let's go check it out. Hey, PAO want to come with your reporter?" We looked up to the top of the Mountain above us at the small cave at the peak. "Roger that, Coyote Six."

Well, let me tell you. Qalat is already at 6,000 ft. in the arrid high desert. The mountain was at least another 1,000 above us. The cave at the very top. Of five ascenders, I was the last to make it, carrying full body armor with basic load of ammo for two weapons, a rifle and pistol, loaded, helmet and a seven lb. camera around my neck. You take ten steps and are panting. But "Surrender" as I told Col. Leppert from about forty feet below him, "is not a Ranger word." "Don't worry, Ranger,' Lt. Col. Walker said, "You'll get used to the altitude. How long have you been here anyway, two months?" "Sixteen days, Sir." Sixteen days...wow!

I made it...Painfully, but I made it. Despite a good coat of 45 sunblock that I put on every morning as aftershave, I got burned as well, but not so bad. I commenced my walk down the mountain. We returned and linked up with Rick Loomis, the photographer (http://www.loomisphotography.com). Zucchino and I each separately and together told him of our climb, something that 24 hours later has become a bit of a joke..."I heard you guys climbed the foot of the Himalayas yesterday. Would you tell me about it?"

We returned through a very busy day of commerce in Qalat. I saw this woman in the traditional Burka, hidden from view from all, but yet a vision of this country. She contrasted so sharply with the brightly dressed Hazaras in the field.

When we got back we ate a great meal here at Camp Apache and I pulled off my soaked uniform (I drank 12 bottles of water throughout the day) and crashed hard for almost two hours. Woke up and showered, read an article about Lewis Millet
in the Army Times, the former Honorary Colonel of my Regiment, the 27th Infantry Wolfhounds, that brought a smile, as well as a comprehensive piece about a crushing Taliban victory from lat May. The result of the native force killed two French Special Forces trainers as well as 18 ANA. It also left some crushed pride and damaged relationships in this tortured land just west of here in Helmand Province.


Blogger Kat said...

Y'all are in my prayers... hang in there. We support y'all 100%.

5:47 PM  
Blogger Shawna Kennedy said...

I just have to say thanks, this is the best reading I have had in a long time. The job you all are doing is honorable and I'm proud of each and every one of you.

10:36 PM  
Blogger Polly said...

Hi Arnold, Polly Hodson here, formerly of Snap Names. Please get in touch if you get a chance. polly.hodson@hannaandersson.com.
Stay Safe!!!


5:52 AM  

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