Monday, May 28, 2007

My ten days with the Paratroopers of the 1/508th, 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan.

As most of you know I am a photo/journalist in a Public Affairs Office in the Army. This is some of my personal thoughts, experiences and first hand accounts of what I saw while with the 1/508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. This is my account and does not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Army, or the 82nd Airborne Division.

I have refrained from using names to tell this story as well.

I tried to upload some pictures and a video, but my internet connection is not capable of handling it right now. So I will have to try again later.

1/508th, 82nd Airborne continues to live up to WWII "all the way" motto in southern Afghanistan.

The roaring of the engines and chopping of the rotors from the British CH-47 Chinook pierced my ears as I flew with the 1/508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division on an air assault mission into the lower Sangin Valley of the Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

In approximately 5 minutes we would be landing under the cover of darkness in the heart of Taliban country. This would be my first combat air assault mission, but for the combat proven 1/508th it would be their 2nd or 3rd air assault mission since “Operation Achilles” kicked off on in the early part of March.

Most of these paratroopers spent more than 40 days in the first and second parts of “Operation Achilles” only to return to the battlefield after a six day regrouping period. This is just another day and another mission for the elite group of Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne. These Paratroopers have a rich history dating back to World War II and living up to their “all the way” motto by doing whatever it takes to accomplish what their country asks of them.

“Operation Achilles” is the largest coalition operation to date in Afghanistan involving more than 4,500 troops from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and up to 1,000 soldiers from the Afghan National Army. The 82nd Airborne Division continues to conduct the largest air assault missions of “Operation Enduring Freedom” into the region that has not seen military operations since the Soviet Union occupation in the 1980’s.

The Paratroopers first mission in the Ghorak Valley of the Helmand Province was to search for the Taliban and their weapons caches. It was a quiet mission, a little to quiet. Except for a few skirmishes, Taliban was no where to be found and after a while the Paratroopers would begin its second mission in Sangin.

One of the heaviest poppy producing regions in the world and a Taliban stronghold, Sangin proved to be a real test for the Paratroopers. Paratroopers began their assault, engaging the enemy, kicking in doors, and clearing buildings of Taliban and weapons caches. Much of the same can be expected on this mission.

I feel the British Chinook touch down and the back ramp swings down. It is time to go to work. Everyone makes their way off the helicopter. I forget about the 9-inch drop from the ramp to the ground and fall face first into a poppy field under the weight of my rucksack. A couple of fellow Paratroopers instantly grab me from the poppies and help me to my feet and, we make our way to pull security. The flight crew on the Chinook makes sure we made it out ok. Then the rotors from the Chinook begins to kick up and pelt our faces with dirt, poppies, and debris as it roars off into the darkness leaving us in the poppy fields of the Sangin Valley.

We are not taking fire in the poppy field and it is calm and quite. The only sound comes from the Apache attack helicopters flying overhead. We begin to move out to our objective. The company that I am with has an objective to secure a bridge and search and clear buildings of Taliban and weapons caches while in route. We should reach our objective by morning.

Unlike missions in Iraq and other parts of Afghanistan the terrain will not allow the luxury of a humvee and all of our traveling will be done on foot for the next week and a half. A lot of the time we will carry all our gear as we travel through the poppy fields, jump irrigation canals and search homes. We march through the night for what seems to be an eternity, and I begin to regret packing so much gear. It is too late for regrets I tell myself; I drink some water and drive on.
I can now here small arms fire and mortar rounds in the near distance as Paratroopers continue to engage the enemy all around us. We approach a large mud hut home and the Paratroopers move in to search it. With a shotgun one Paratrooper shoots the lock off the door and the other Paratroopers move in with guns at the ready kicking in doors as they move from room to room stacked in single file formation in search of the enemy and or a weapons cache. They find the building empty and we move on.

It is now getting closer to morning as the tired and exhausted Paratroopers from the 1/508th continue on to their objective clearing buildings in similar fashion. The fighting has seemed to become less intense as I now only here sporadic bursts of gunfire in the distance and the continuous humming of the Apache attack helicopters patrolling and standing by in case we need their fire power from close air support.

Everything seems to be going as planned, when enemy AK-47s opens up on a near by platoon of Paratroopers. Under heavy fire they take cover and concealment in a nearby tree line and return fire. Somewhere in the confusion, sometimes referred to the fog of war, the Apache attack helicopter confuses the already pinned down Paratroopers for the enemy.

Most of the time an Apache attack helicopter is an infantry man’s best friend providing close air support when needed, but tonight it becomes their worst nightmare as the Apache’s guns open up on the platoon. Shocked Paratroopers scrambled for their lives as the rounds split trees and explodes around them. Two paratroopers dive into an irrigation ditch as they are pelted by wood and pieces of debris. Two paratroopers are hit with shrapnel from the rounds and require
immediate medical attention. One of the two a squad leader is in bad shape and bleeding heavily from his leg.

The platoon is able to contact the pilot of the apache and informs him he is shooting at them in a not so calm or nice manner, but can you blame them. These Paratroopers have enough to worry about from the enemy on the ground, and do not need to worry about their own helicopters taking them out. However, sometimes things like this happen in the fog of war.

The platoon still under fire calls for a MEDEVAV helicopter as the combat medic works to stabilize the injured. One, the squad leader, is severely injured and has lost a lot of blood. He will die if the MEDEVAC does not get their in time.

As the platoon continues to hold off the enemy, the MEDEVAC helicopter arrives. It is being flown by the British and in a bold move they land in the hostile area to retrieve the injured. Under fire the injured are loaded on and the British fly away with bullets bouncing off the bird. The MEDEVAC arrived in time to save the lives of both Paratroopers.

Much credit and appreciation needs to be given to the British pilots for landing on a hot drop zone, they are definitely not required to do so. If they had never landed under fire at least one of the Paratroopers would probably not be alive today.

It is now the break of day and the firefight rages on. The Paratroopers still pinned down by gunfire rely on another platoon of Paratroopers who have made their way to a rooftop on a nearby building. They locate the enemy begin to call in mortar rounds on the enemies position and fire at the enemy with an M136 AT4. [Captured in this video]

The AT4 is a light weight weapon carried by infantry personnel and is usually used as an anti-tank weapon. It is fired from the right shoulder and has virtually no recoil making it relatively easy for large projectiles like an 84mm round to be fired from the weapon.

The disadvantage of the weapon is that it can only be used once and creates a large “back-blast” area behind the weapon which can cause severe burns to personnel in the vicinity and in some cases the user himself. This makes it extremely dangerous to use in confined or urban areas.
A rooftop is an ideal place to fire the AT4 because it is an open area. The Paratrooper with the weapon places it over his right shoulder, stands up, and takes aim at his target. Other Paratroopers lean forward as far as they can and cover their ears anticipating the “back blast.”

“BACK BLAST AREA CLEAR,” yells the Paratrooper. “ALL CLEAR,” is yelled back and he pulls the trigger. The 84 mm round goes screaming into the early morning air hitting its desired target as the smoke from the “back blast” engulfs the Paratroopers. “IS EVERYONE OK,” yells the trigger man. “ALL OK,” is replied back.

The smoke clears, some Paratroopers are happy with the results from the AT4 and yell in excitement and approval. Then immediately returns fire eliminating the threat of the enemy.

The fire fight has come to an end. Paratroopers search the area for any prisoners and or information that may be useful for intelligence and then continue on.

It is well into the morning now, and the heat from the sun is now starting to beat down on us as the Paratroopers reach their objective of securing a bridge near the rural town of Gereshk.

After securing the bridge the exhausted Paratroopers will finally get a chance to rest, but not before setting up a command post out of an Afghan farm house. They build up fighting and guard positions around the perimeter, make a one hour rotating guard shifts. Most on guard shift eat a MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) that taste like Meals Rejected by Ethiopians. A few not on guard shift eat as well, but most of them find a place to sleep.

Some find benches to sleep on; others sleep in the rooms of the building, most, like myself, just find a place on the rock-hard, uneven ground beneath us that will be our bed for the next week.

Even though we are extremely tired it is hard to sleep, because of the extreme heat and the annoying flies that keep buzzing around us. The average temperature was approximately 118 degrees reaching as high as 124 degrees during the course of the operation.

It is truly amazing the conditions that these Paratroopers are faced with while performing combat operations. Many of the service members who deploy to Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan live the good life. Although they do not have all the comforts of home, service members at KAF enjoy T-bone steak and Baskin Robbins ice cream every Friday night in the dining facility. There are coffee shops, a Burger King, Pizza Hut and Subway. There is a Morale Welfare and Recreation tent that shows movies every night, has pool tables and play stations among other things. Some of these service members will never leave KAF the whole time they are here.

Out here in the Sangin Valley these Paratroopers do not even get the luxury of indoor plumbing and in the last 2 months has spent 6 days at KAF. The rest of the time they have been out here, sucking it up. There is no electricity, no internet or phone call home, there is no dining facility or ice cream, but after a couple of days in temperatures over 100 degrees the thing you miss the most is a shower.

In the next couple days Paratroopers would sweep through the countryside with very little resistance as they continue to search buildings for Taliban and destroying all weapon caches they find. By the end of the third day enemy contact has become non-existent.

Paratroopers now continue to run patrols from the command post as they move into phase II of their mission, which consisted of providing security reaching out, meeting and helping the local citizens in the area with humanitarian assistance.

So when a father showed up with his sick eleven-month-old child at the Paratrooper’s Command a combat medic came out to meet the family and provided aide.
The father said his child had been vomiting on and off for about a month and he had diarrhea. The medic then checked out some of the common causes for the symptoms the child was showing such as ear infections, or possibly teething.

The father also told the medic that they were still feeding the child dry milk and that he was not eating a lot of solid foods.

So the medic told him his child needs to be coming off the milk and go on to solid food. Also, to make sure to keep him hydrated in case he is teething.

It is events like these that could win over support of the Afghan people and make it easier for the Paratroopers to accomplish their overall mission.

I am told by the battalion commander of the 1/508th that the measure of success is not about body counts of enemy Taliban combatants, but rather giving the people of Afghanistan a sense of security in their government so they can bring in the Afghan National Security Force for long term security and help them form a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Afghanistan.

One of the main efforts in doing this is to host local shuras, which is a meeting of local elders to discuss problems and concerns in their local area.

In the northern part of the Sangin valley the shuras was a successful. After the 1/508th organized and hosted the first couple of shuras the Afghans started running their own.

The 1/508th provided security for and hosted three shuras for the locals as well as a medical community action program to help Afghans who needed medical attention before turning the area over to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan National Security Forces.

The Paratroopers of the 1/508th are now heading back to KAF to get a chance to experience the good life.

Operation Achilles continues in the Heldmand province with no scheduled end date providing security for reconstruction and development objectives.


Vince said...

wow, thanks for sharing this...


former Paratrooper 82nd Airborne Infantry 1965-1971

mike said...

This is awsome...really made me feel it...and could actually see it... Should be required reading..

jill said...

thanks Country Boy for taking us where the mainstream media will not. This is truly Ernie Pyle type of stuff.

Anonymous said...

My husband is one of the 508th that you are talking about. There are things he dosen't tell me but now from what I have read here I can see why he dosen't. I am very proud of my husband and I am looking forward to his safe return.

Anonymous said...

God Bless the Airborne and all our troops.