An Explanation - Fourth New York Times Entry
The content I wrote for the New York Times was proprietary and I agreed not to repost any of the material for a month following the date of publication. As they are now eligible to be reproduced, I offer them up now for your review. This entry and the following three were originally published on the New York Times subscription service "TimesSelect" and ran between 20 November and 15 December, 2006. There is a problem with posting some of the photos to these files due to some internet connection challenges, but I will update them with the pictures that were posted on the nytimes.com website as soon as I am able.
Shortly after I finished my contract with the New York Times, I was able to take a mid-tour leave at home with my family over the Christmas holiday. It was a wonderful release and I will offer a quick post in the near future about that. In the mean time, thanks for being patient friends and thanks for encouraging me to continue writing.
December 14, 2006, 8:58 pm
Not Your Typical Hero
By Arnold Strong
United States Army First Lt. Shawn Hammond is not your typical junior infantry officer. He is a big man, with a high forehead crowed with brown hair rapidly turning to salt and pepper. Having just turned 40, he has been a single father of three boys — aged 15, 14 and 8 — for years, although he remarried just before this deployment. He left active service over ten years ago, remaining in the Ready Reserve. After finishing his master’s degree in psychology, Hammond attended law school with the goal of coming back in as a JAG (judge advocate general). However, after setting up a practice he did not return to the active reserve because he felt his civilian role as sole attorney for a battered women shelter in Augusta, Ga., assumed greater importance.
Nothing would lead anyone to believe that his actions would be a key element of the defense of a forward operating base in the Pech River Valley, a combat infantry officer leading a dozen soldiers in an hour-long firefight.
In the summer of 2005, he got his letter in the mail, ordering him to active duty as an individual augmentee. After training at Fort Benning, Ga., and Camp Shelby, Miss., he joined the staff of the Training Assistance Group at Kabul Military Training Center. Assigned in early 2006, he has served as the deputy personnel officer, basically the military equivalent of an assistant human resources manager for our team. As an additional duty he has assisted with the security forces platoon in their routine patrols in and around our sector. Last weekend, he joined a platoon in inspecting their area of operations in the vicinity of Asadabad in the Pech River Valley in eastern Afghanistan.
As part of their tour, the security platoon stopped to bring much needed supply items and conduct basic presence patrols while inspecting the readiness and defensive perimeters of several remote F.O.B.’s. Each F.O.B. is manned by a team of U.S. soldier mentors that advise a platoon of Afghan National Army soldiers. After traveling down what is widely called “the eighth most dangerous road in the world,” Hammond’s team hunkered down for the night at one of the F.O.B.’s. He and a dozen troops that were preparing to rotate out of this area did one last security inspection before bedding down for a night that none of them will soon forget. In his own words, Hammond offered “Those taking a beating were getting one last beating before they left.”
At around 6:30 p.m. the soldiers discovered the first sign of what was to come. One of them found that the wire outside the major line of defense had been cut and a path cleared in order to crawl under the wire. The soldier alerted Hammond. He ordered the men to fix the wire without using any flashlights. “I thought that if we repaired (the enemy’s) entry point without their knowledge, we could fix them and destroy them … so we were waiting for them,” Hammond later said.
Later in the evening the security patrols saw lights on the mountain that surrounded their position. At 11 p.m., the team increased their security posture. Intelligence had informed the unit that there was a 30-man anti-coalition militia accompanied by a local Taliban leader, conducting cross border operations. Further, there had been a confirmed attack in the area just the previous day, where militia members had killed four teachers for daring to instruct girls in basic literacy. As terrible as this seems, it is one of the main tactics of terror used by the enemy we face every day here. In other words, it is an unfortunate factor of this war that many of us have gotten used to. The challenge for the platoon in this instance was that many of the Afghan soldiers normally based in the F.O.B. with their American counterparts had been sent away to hunt for the men who had murdered four teachers, leaving the F.O.B. with much less than its usual line of defense. But being in a reinforced F.O.B., surrounded by HESCO barriers (dirt filled four foot wide walls) the platoon thought we were safe.
It was about 2 a.m. when those not pulling security were brought to full alert with a startling alarm clock. Mortars were being walked into the F.O.B. The entire compound was manning security positions within five minutes. While the first two mortar rounds fell short of their target, it did not take long for the enemy to adjust his fires.
“I was just outside the tactical operations center when the third round came in about sixty meters from my location. The flash surprised me,” said Hammond. “The overpressure from the blast definitely impacted the first sergeant and I but no one was hurt,” he concluded.
But the men were ready for this attack and quickly moved to their designated positions. With five HMMWV’s (High Mobility, Multi-Wheeled Vehicle, commonly referred to as Humm-Vees) in position, the gunners rapidly got into position behind their crew served weapons., the M-240B and the “Ma Deuce,” .50 caliber machine guns.
Hammond, an expert marksman, moved to a position between two of the vehicles on the perimeter with an SVD Dragonov rifle. In hindsight, he said “it seemed like a good thing to bring.” His men were very glad for his foresight. The weapon, a Soviet-era sniper rifle is incredibly accurate once zeroed when wielded by a sharpshooter. Of his talent with a rifle, the 40-year-old lieutenant said plainly, “When you’re fat, you need to be a good shot, because ya’ ain’t going to be able to run away.”
He continued: “I went to the HESCO wall and started firing upon the Taliban positions based on the muzzle flashes that we could clearly see up on the mountainside. I had the 1SG right next to me. So I was spotting the positions with the tracer fire and enabling the SECFOR guys to direct their fire,” he said. The Dragonov was loaded with tracer rounds, thus enabling others to target their fires on where the “fireworks” are going.
The problem, which soon became evident, was that in helping to pinpoint the enemy positions, the Hammond also gave away his own location for the mortar men in the hills, “which really wasn’t a good feeling,” he said.
The only protection available for the lieutenant and his senior non-commissioned officer was the HESCO barrier to their immediate front. With enemy fire cracking over their heads and all alongside them, the gunners of the machine guns began to synchronize their fires, maintaining the rhythm and keeping the enemy’s heads down.
The enemy finally got a bead on the position of the de facto platoon leader’s position, and brought a mortar round six feet in front of his position. Violently thrown to the ground, the lieutenant and his first sergeant were temporarily deafened by the ringing in their ears and disoriented by the thunderous pounding in their heads. “I was trying my best not to vomit,” said Hammond, reflecting the common feeling soldiers experience when bombarded with “danger close” mortar fire. The disorientation is so strong that it makes you feel like an astronaut in training. It is an act of extreme will not to lose control. Had it not been for the four-foot thick protection of the HESCO, the two of them would likely have not lived to tell their story.
Hammond recovered to his fighting position. Not typically an ill-tempered or foul mouthed man, “I just started swearing at them with every curse in the book, as if they could hear me from 800 meter away,” he recalled.
Once Hammond had spent his ammo, he quickly became an ammo bearer for the other gunners. Over the course of an hour-long engagement, the soldiers defending the F.O.B. spent 4,000 rounds.
After almost exactly an hour, the fire stopped and the lights disappeared from the ridgeline. It seemed to the platoon that the threat had retreated east, in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They maintained their full security posture for about an hour, and conducted an AAR (After Action Review) of the activities, checking equipment and each other for potential injuries. Amazingly, no one was injured.
None of the platoon members slept after the engagement. After ensuring the security of the F.O.B., they headed back to Kabul via Jalalabad, leaving around 9 a.m. At around 4 in the afternoon, the group returned to Camp Alamo here in Kabul where we learned the story of the previous night’s activities.
The story of Shawn Hammond is an interesting one to me because it is an example of the stories that are rarely told. It is the story of those members of the Individual Ready Reserve, for all intents and purposes, members who are names in a database available for duty at the order of the President of the United States. These are men and women who had served in active or reserve forces, then returned to civilian life. There are many members of the I.R.R. active now, having been called to service in this conflict. Some have found loopholes to get out of returning to service or taken advantage of opportunities to resign. But the great majority of them have answered the nation’s call and mustered out for duty.
Lieutenant Hammond was not planning on valorous deeds when he answered the call. He initially tried to explain to the Army his extenuating circumstances. But when his orders came, he met the challenge and got to work.
His story is just one of many from this front, the place where the global war on terror began. Afghanistan is turning a page in its history and no matter how many naysayers or “realists” there are that call for more troops and more resources, I can tell you that this nation is already succeeding due in part to the efforts of citizen-soldiers answering the call of duty.