27 May 2011

A Hard Turn at Najil

My reception at Bagram Airfield ("BAF") last week was warm, jovial, and downright overwhelming. Soon after my arrival, the deputy commanding officer snatched me out of the brigade public affairs office, and plunked me down in front of the commander of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT).

Jet-lagged and time-zoned as I was, I might've have been hallucinating a bit, but there may have even been hugs exchanged. Either way, it was a good vibe.

The brigade command sergeant major came into the office, and took a knee on the hard linoleum floor. Together with the brigade public affairs officer, we discussed my personal "rules of engagement" while traveling around Area of Operations ("A.O.") Red Bulls: Mostly Parwan, Panjshir, and Laghman provinces.

"You've made an investment getting here," says Col. Ben Corell, 2-34th BCT commander. "I think we're invested in getting you back."

That means no overnight stays at Combat Outpost ("COP") X, Y, or Z. That means movement by helicopter and not by ground. While Corell's guidance makes my wife very happy—and I make sure he knows it—I realize that it makes things here more difficult, both for his soldiers and for me.

Thinking back on it, my experience in the box National Training Center (N.T.C.) was ideal training—not only for the terrain and weather conditions, but for the administrative and logistical restrictions as well. Just because you see something nearby on a map, doesn't mean it's easy to get there.

Task Force Ironman—Iowa's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1-133rd Inf.)--is currently headquartered in Mehtar Lam, Laghman Province. I'd spent a memorable couple of days with Alpha Company at NTC last September, while the unit conducted a Combined Arms Live-fire Exercise ("CALFEX"). When Task Force Ironman asked what COP I wanted to see while here, I asked to visit Alpha Company again. That required a "hard-turn"—two helicopter flights in one day to the same remote site.

Bottom line: Task Force Ironman moved earth and sky to make it happen.

COP Najil sits at the crux of three valleys. Afghan Security Guards man some of the guard towers and the entry control point, and a company of Afghan National Army soldiers live in a compound adjacent to the Alpha Company quarters. "They are our brothers," says Capt. Matthew Parrino, acting Alpha Company commander. (Capt. Jason Merchant, the Alpha Company commander whom I'd met at NTC, is on a couple of weeks of leave.) Most every operation is conducted "shoulder-to-shoulder."

Bad guys regularly harass the COP from all directions. Attacks range from 4 or 5 shots from a Soviet-made machine gun in the middle of the night, to full-on complex and coordinated efforts. The Red Bull soldiers point out that the bad guys no longer come at them as directly as they did starting in November of last year, when the Iowa unit first moved into position.

The bad guys are now more likely to rely on Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D.) attacks , trying to stay out of the Red Bulls' reach. On the day that I am there, Parrino and I sit on the roof of the Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"), watching as a team of two Kiowa Warrior helicopters fly north to engage a reported Vehicle-Borne IED (V.B.I.E.D., also called a "VEE-bid").

Living conditions at COP Najil are Spartan, although the Red Bulls have made many improvements during the deployment. "I like to compare it to a camp up in Canada," says acting First Sergeant Tim Fiedler. "Except the fishing around here isn't as good." There's running water--the Red Bulls have increased the COP's water-tank capacity--and a brand-new shower tent. There's a kitchen-in-a-box the soldiers call the "Red Bull Grill," which is one of only two such systems in country.

Meeting up with soldiers and buddies, I keep re-telling the joke about Col. Corell telling me—way back at NTC—that I should look at Afghanistan as a potential article for Better Homes and Gardens magazine.

Latrines, however, are still a little rustic. Urinals are "piss-tubes"--PVC pipes stuck at an angle into the ground. Toilets are even more basic. As an entry-level job, local nationals are hired to burn the feces collected in cut-off 50-gal. drums; the smell over the COP is constant. Fiedler says that one of the Afghan youth working the latrine detail recently offered this observation:

"Americans sh-- too much."

The kid was promoted to a different job.

1 comment:

  1. "Americans sh-- too much."

    At least he didn't say..."Americans are full of sh--!"

    Take good care Sherpa, and please give our love to all of 'Our Guys and Gals'

    Ohh, and a big Thank you from me...


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