2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley

Here is a link to the Vanity Fair article: “Into the Valley of Death” http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/01/afghanistan200801

I copied the article into the 5th comment following this post. The article and video sheds light on the 173rd and their realities of daily life-keep in mind this article was written during the hot summer-winter is FREEZING and snowy in those steep hostile mountains.



There is an address at the bottom of this post to send care-packages to the 2nd/503.

“Temps are warm now in the day, up to 60 but drop to teens at night, they have been very grateful for the blankets we sent earlier. At some remotes they exist on Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) packets and have no hot meals — try to include include hearty snacks for your soldier as well as baby wipes in each box now.

They have asked for sun glasses and knives. The glasses are the extremely dark lense, black framed style that wraps close to the head. Knives are a bit pricy but if you decide to get one, here are some links and advice from James dad….
“Any good knife is going to run around $30 or so. The cheap Chinese stuff isn’t worth the postage. They won’t hold an edge and they are junk. They will get more mileage out of a utility knife than some John Wayne straight edge Bowie type. That surplus USAF survival knife is pretty handy and it’s made of high quality steel. The Leatherman line of knives is also a handy knife.”
Beyond this, I’m not any help on knives and please don’t feel compelled to get one for your soldier, these are only suggestions from their requests. Green olives are also on the “want” list, pack carefully if you send them, be sure the jar is padded and in a secure zip lock bag in the middle of the box. I buy cheap wash cloths to use for padding. They toss everything for lack of laundry so it gives them a cleans wash cloth now and then rather than a baby wipe. Antibacterial liquid soap is good to send and cough drops are always needed. A cough can be deadly on patrol. Antibiotic ointment is good for chapped lips & raw faces from cold & wind.
By now I hope all our guys are well outfitted in their share of the 750 sets of long under wear and 5,000 pair of socks Carhartt Clothing sent to the 2/503rd Brigade. What a generous gift for these soldiers! On March 2nd I will have a few hundred pounds of donated Starbucks coffee to send. Then later in March the annual Girl Scout cookies will be ready to ship…by the ton!
The new larger flat rate boxes are available to order online at the USPS postal store and will be accepted at the post office on March 3rd. They are 12x12x5.5 and will ship to our APO addresses for $10.95. (All other domestic addresses will cost $12.95) We get a lot of extra space for $2. I don’t know when each PO will have the boxes in stock.
Thank you for your support of these brave young men.

Consider sending a card, a box full of some goodies- maybe even with a theme such as:

Salty Snack Box: Beef Jerky, nuts, potato chips, pretzels, Nacho chips, cheese doodles, pop corn, corn chips, Bugles, Salsa, cheese (Velveta) plain corn chips, crackers, summer sausage , pepperoni, saltines, peanut butter….tuna, salmon, sardines (bagged/canned)……

Coffee/Tea/Hot chocolate Box: Sealed can coffee, tea, hot chocolate, cookies, granola bars, biscotti, Little Debbie Snacks, soups…

Winter Warm Box: Flannel sheets or pillow case, gloves, face/head hat, Large, fleece blanket…..steel travel mug to keep beverage hot….

Everything is appreciated and the connection back to home is priceless.


Letters can be addressed to:


2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 2-503rd PIR
c/o SFC Patterson
Korengal Outpost
APO, AE 09354




Go to above link (Black Five)–they have organized another campaign to send email and letter support to the deployed troops-specifically those stationed in Afghanistan.  Their last effort brought in over 30,000 emails to send to the Marines.  OOOOH RAAAH!:)

 Those of you who can, please take a moment and send out words of thanks/gratitude, respect and American patriotic pride in letting these men know that we are thinking of them and with them in spirit 100% for success in all their missions and looking forward to their safe return.

Here is the last paragraph from Black five’s post for sending out support to these brave men who have been faithfully defending and protecting our country as we sleep soundly day in and day out.

Historically, spring is a time of heavy fighting in this region as the terrorists and insurgents emerge from their caves after the harsh winter temperatures and snows.  Let’s show these Soldiers how much support they have from home to help them through the spring and the remainder of this long and dangerous deployment.

Our paratroopers are in the fight of their lives and they need to hear that America loves them.

Please send an email of support to skysoldiers173rd@gmail.com

Or you can mail cards to:

    Leta Carruth
    P O Box 100
    Cordova, TN  38088

Due to security reasons in Afghanistan please do not put addresses or phone numbers on any correspondence.  All emails will be printed out here in the US and mailed to Afghanistan as they do not have the resources to receive a large number of emails.  All letters and emails will be vetted to make sure there are no negative comments.  These are letters of support, so please keep them positive and uplifting.


This post has been updated- 2/29/08


16 Responses to “2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley”

  1. Dave McLaughlin Says:

    Just wanted to say Thank You for answering the call when our country asked. My work puts me in a position to talk with many of you or your family members during the times of transition back to civilian lives in a multitude of professions.
    I love it when I can hear the pride in their voices about the many good things that are being done to provide hope in a corner of the world that has had precious little hope prior to American intervention. I think of you and your families everyday, and hope that both ends are united safely and permenately very soon.
    If you call and it sounds like my voice cracks when I say thank you, it is because when service members call it is more than just thank you for your business, but it also thank you for the freedom that lets me go to work everyday.

  2. CW3 Franklin A Eckrode Sr. US Army Retired Says:

    Thanks to the poster of this article, my son is in the 1st platoon SGT Brennan (kia) was his team leader and my son was on the evac with him. They all look forward to a hard winter so the Taliban hold up and they can perhaps get a small respite from the daily attacks.

  3. olotliny Says:

    A request from the deployed soldiers:

    “In addition to fighting Taliban, they’ve found time to do goodwill work in building a school for the village students. His request for computers is a worthy one. These students need to catch up with the modern world, but just as importantly, their trust in the American Soldier needs to be nurtured so they don’t become tomorrow’s Taliban, targeting our men.

    I’d like to ask each of you for your ideas on getting computers so the Airborne can place them in the classrooms…There must be local companies that upgrade computer equipment on a regular basis. Or has anyone worked with any charities that get computers to third world students? Please give this serious consideration and get back to me with your thoughts on making the Airborne school project a huge success.

    Thanks again for helping with a project for our fine men in harms way!”


  4. Jeff Chambers Says:

    The next thing we need to do after sending care packages is to contact our congresspersons and ask this:
    Why the hell don’t these men have plenty of socks?


  5. olotliny Says:

    Into the Valley of Death
    A strategic passage wanted by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley is among the deadliest pieces of terrain in the world for U.S. forces. One platoon is considered the tip of the American spear. Its men spend their days in a surreal combination of backbreaking labor—building outposts on rocky ridges—and deadly firefights, while they try to avoid the mistakes the Russians made. Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington join the platoon’s painfully slow advance, as its soldiers laugh, swear, and run for cover, never knowing which of them won’t make it home.
    by Sebastian Junger January 2008

    The 20 men of Second Platoon move through the village single file, keeping behind trees and stone houses and going down on one knee from time to time to cover the next man down the line. The locals know what is about to happen and are staying out of sight. We are in the village of Aliabad, in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, and the platoon radioman has received word that Taliban gunners are watching us and are about to open fire. Signals intelligence back at the company headquarters has been listening in on the Taliban field radios. They say the Taliban are waiting for us to leave the village before they shoot.

    Below us is the Korengal River and across the valley is the dark face of the Abas Ghar ridge. The Taliban essentially own the Abas Ghar. The valley is six miles long, and the Americans have pushed halfway down its length. In 2005, Taliban fighters cornered a four-man navy-seal team that had been dropped onto the Abas Ghar, and killed three of them, then shot down the Chinook helicopter that was sent in to save them. All 16 commandos on board died.

    Dusk is falling and the air has a kind of buzzing tension to it, as if it carries an electrical charge. We only have to cover 500 yards to get back to the safety of the firebase, but the route is wide open to Taliban positions across the valley, and the ground has to be crossed at a run. The soldiers have taken so much fire here that they named this stretch “the Aliabad 500.” Platoon leader Matt Piosa, a blond, soft-spoken 24-year-old lieutenant from Pennsylvania, makes it to a chest-high stone wall behind the village grade school, and the rest of the squad arrives behind him, laboring under the weight of their weapons and body armor. The summer air is thick and hot, and everyone is sweating like horses. Piosa and his men were here to talk to the local elder about a planned water-pipe project for the village, and I can’t help thinking that this is an awful lot of effort for a five-minute conversation.

    I’m carrying a video camera and running it continually so that I won’t have to think about turning it on when the shooting starts. It captures everything my memory doesn’t. Piosa is about to leave the cover of the stone wall and push to the next bit of cover when I hear a staccato popping sound in the distance. “Contact,” Piosa says into his radio and then, “I’m pushing up here,” but he never gets the chance. The next burst comes in even tighter and the video jerks and yaws and Piosa screams, “A tracer just went right by here!” Soldiers are popping up to empty ammo clips over the top of the wall and Piosa is shouting positions into the radio and tracers from our heavy machine guns are streaking overhead into the darkening valley and a man near me shouts for someone named Buno.

    Buno doesn’t answer. That’s all I remember for a while—that and being incredibly thirsty. It seems to go on for a long, long time.
    The Center Cannot Hold

    By many measures, Afghanistan is falling apart. The Afghan opium crop has flourished in the past two years and now represents 93 percent of the world’s supply, with an estimated street value of $38 billion in 2006. That money helps bankroll an insurgency that is now operating virtually within sight of the capital, Kabul. Suicide bombings have risen eightfold in the past two years, including several devastating attacks in Kabul, and as of October, coalition casualties had surpassed those of any previous year. The situation has gotten so bad, in fact, that ethnic and political factions in the northern part of the country have started stockpiling arms in preparation for when the international community decides to pull out. Afghans—who have seen two foreign powers on their soil in 20 years—are well aware of the limits of empire. They are well aware that everything has an end point, and that in their country end points are bloodier than most.

    The Korengal is widely considered to be the most dangerous valley in northeastern Afghanistan, and Second Platoon is considered the tip of the spear for the American forces there. Nearly one-fifth of all combat in Afghanistan occurs in this valley, and nearly three-quarters of all the bombs dropped by nato forces in Afghanistan are dropped in the surrounding area. The fighting is on foot and it is deadly, and the zone of American control moves hilltop by hilltop, ridge by ridge, a hundred yards at a time. There is literally no safe place in the Korengal Valley. Men have been shot while asleep in their barracks tents.

    Second Platoon is one of four in Battle Company, which covers the Korengal as part of the Second Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne). The only soldiers to have been deployed more times since the September 11 attacks are from the 10th Mountain Division, which handed the Korengal over last June. (Tenth Mountain had been slated to go home three months earlier, but its tour was extended while some of its units were already on their way back. They landed in the United States and almost immediately got back on their planes.) When Battle Company took over the Korengal, the entire southern half of the valley was controlled by the Taliban, and American patrols that pushed even a few hundred yards into that area got attacked.

    If there was one thing Battle Company knew how to do, though, it was fight. Its previous deployment had been in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province, and things were so bad there that half the company was on psychiatric meds by the time they got home. Korengal looked like it would be even worse. In Zabul, they had been arrayed against relatively inexperienced youths who were paid by Taliban commanders in Pakistan to fight—and die. In the Korengal, on the other hand, the fighting is funded by al-Qaeda cells who oversee extremely well-trained local militias. Battle Company took its first casualty within days, a 19-year-old private named Timothy Vimoto. Vimoto, the son of the brigade’s command sergeant major, was killed by the first volley from a Taliban machine gun positioned around half a mile away. He may well not have even heard the shots.

    I went to the Korengal Valley to follow Second Platoon throughout its 15-month deployment. To get into the valley, the American military flies helicopters to the Korengal Outpost—the kop, as it’s known—roughly halfway down the valley. The kop has a landing zone and a clutch of plywood hooches and barracks tents and perimeter walls made of dirt-filled hesco barriers, many now shredded by shrapnel. When I arrived, Second Platoon was stationed primarily at a timber-and-sandbag outpost named Firebase Phoenix. There was no running water or power, and the men took fire nearly every day from Taliban positions across the valley and from a ridgeline above them that they called Table Rock.

    I spent a couple of weeks with Second Platoon and left at the end of June, just before things got bad. The Taliban ambushed a patrol in Aliabad, mortally wounding the platoon medic, Private Juan Restrepo, and then hammered a column of Humvees that tore out of the kop to try to save him. Rounds rattled off the armor plating of the vehicles, and rocket-propelled grenades plowed into the hillsides around them. One day in July, Captain Daniel Kearney, the 27-year-old commanding officer of Battle Company, counted 13 firefights in a 24-hour period. A lot of the contact was coming from Table Rock, so Kearney decided to end that problem by putting a position on top of it. Elements of the Second and Third Platoons and several dozen local workers moved up the ridge after dark and hacked furiously at the shelf rock all night long so that they would have some minimal cover when dawn broke.

    A Black Hawk helicopter comes in to land on the roof of a village house in Yaka China to take out Captain Dan Kearney following a village meeting to discuss insurgent activity.

    Sure enough, daylight brought bursts of heavy-machine-gun fire that sent the men diving into the shallow trenches they had just dug. They fought until the shooting stopped and then they got back up and continued to work. There was no loose dirt up there to fill the sandbags, so they broke up the rock with pickaxes and then shoveled pieces into the bags, which they piled up to form crude bunkers. Someone pointed out that they were actually “rock bags,” not sandbags, and so “rock bags” became a platoon joke that helped them get through the next several weeks. They worked in 100-degree heat in full body armor and took their breaks during firefights, when they got to lie down and return fire. Sometimes they were so badly pinned down that they just lay there and threw rocks over their heads into the hescos.

    But rock bag by rock bag, hesco by hesco, the outpost got built. By the end of August the men had moved roughly 10 tons of dirt and rock by hand. They named the outpost Restrepo, after the medic who was killed, and succeeded in taking the pressure off Phoenix mainly by redirecting it onto themselves. Second Platoon began taking fire several times a day, sometimes from distances as close as a hundred yards. The terrain drops off so steeply from the position that their heavy machine guns couldn’t angle downward enough to cover the slopes below, so the Taliban could get very close without being exposed to fire. Lieutenant Piosa had his men lay coils of concertina wire around the position and rig claymore mines hardwired to triggers inside the bunkers. If the position were in danger of getting overrun, the men could detonate the claymores and kill everything within 50 yards.
    The Quiet Americans

    Sergeant Kevin Rice’s tattoo bears testimony to fallen friends from a previous deployment.

    I return to Second Platoon in early September, walking out to Restrepo with a squad who are going to evacuate a soldier who has broken his ankle. The hillsides are steep and covered with loose shale, and nearly every man in the company has taken a fall that could have killed him. When we arrive, the men of Second Platoon have finished work for the day and are sitting behind hescos, tearing open pouches of ready-to-eat meals (M.R.E.’s). They go to sleep almost as soon as it gets dark, but I stay up talking to the Weapons Squad sergeant, Kevin Rice. At 27, Rice is considered the “old man” of the platoon. He grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and says that nothing he has done building Restrepo was any harder than the work he did around the farm as a kid. He has a tattoo of dancing bears on his left arm—a tribute to the Grateful Dead—and the names of men who were lost in Zabul on his right. He keeps an expression of slight bemusement on his face except during firefights, when he simply looks annoyed. Rice is known for his weird calm under fire. He’s also known for fighting with the kind of slow, vengeful precision that most men can barely maintain on the pool table. I ask what he thinks about an all-out attack on Restrepo, and he just chuckles.

    “I’m kind of looking forward to it,” he says. “It would be very entertaining. It would be up close and personal.”

    With that, Sergeant Rice stretches out on his cot and goes to sleep.

    Dawn, the Abas Ghar curtained by mist. It will burn off by midmorning, leaving the men drenched in sweat when they work. A patrol comes in before sunrise, elements of the Second who had gone to the kop for a few days of cooked food and hot showers, maybe a phone call to their wives. Fully loaded with ammunition, weapons, and food, they can easily have 120 pounds on their backs. They dump their rucksacks in the dirt and several of them light up cigarettes. Some are still breathing hard from the climb. “Quitters never win,” Rice observes.

    A 22-year-old private named Misha Pemble-Belkin is sitting on the edge of a cot, cutting the pocket off his uniform. On his left forearm Pemble-Belkin has a tattoo of the Endurance, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship that became entrapped by sea ice in Antarctica in 1915. “It’s the greatest adventure story ever,” Pemble-Belkin says by way of explanation. He takes the pocket he has just liberated and sews it over a rip in the crotch of his pants, which he is still wearing. The men spend their days clambering around shale hillsides dotted with holly trees, and most of their uniforms are in shreds. Pemble-Belkin uses his free time back at the kop painting and playing guitar, and says that his father was a labor organizer who supports the troops absolutely, but has protested every war the United States has ever been in. His mother sends him letters written on paper she makes by hand.

    The workday hasn’t started yet, and the men sit around talking and watching Pemble-Belkin sew his pants. They talk about what kinds of bombs they’d like to drop on the valley. They talk about how the militants try to hit airplanes with R.P.G.’s—a mathematical near impossibility. They talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, which many of the men in the unit have to some degree. One man says he keeps waking up on his hands and knees, looking for a live grenade that he thinks someone has just thrown at him. He wants to throw it back.

    The sun pries itself over the eastern ridges and half the platoon gets to work filling hescos while the other half mans the heavy weapons. The men work around the outpost in teams of three or four, one man hacking at the rock shelf with a pickax while another shovels the loose dirt into sandbags and a third drops the biggest chunks into an ammo can, then walks over to a half-full hesco, muscles the can over his head, and dumps the contents in.

    “Prison labor is basically what I call it,” says a man I know only as Dave. Dave is a counter-insurgency specialist who spends his time at remote outposts, advising and trying to learn. He wears his hair longer than most soldiers, a blond tangle that after two weeks at Restrepo seems impressively styled with dirt. I ask him why the Korengal is so important.

    “It’s important because of accessibility to Pakistan,” he says. “Ultimately, everything is going to Kabul. The Korengal is keeping the Pech River Valley safe, the Pech is keeping Kunar Province stable, and hence what we are hoping is all that takes the pressure off Kabul.”

    While we are talking, some rounds come in, snapping over our heads and continuing on up the valley. They were aimed at a soldier who had exposed himself above a hesco. He drops back down, but otherwise, the men hardly seem to notice.

    “The enemy doesn’t have to be good,” Dave adds. “They just have to be lucky from time to time.”
    Rules of Engagement

    The Korengal is so desperately fought over because it is the first leg of a former mujahideen smuggling route that was used to bring in men and weapons from Pakistan during the 1980s. From the Korengal, the mujahideen were able to push west along the high ridges of the Hindu Kush to attack Soviet positions as far away as Kabul. It was called the Nuristan-Kunar corridor, and American military planners fear that al-Qaeda is trying to revive it. If the Americans simply seal off the valley and go around, Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters currently hiding near the Pakistani towns of Dir and Chitral could use the Korengal as a base of operations to strike deep into eastern Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is rumored to be in the Chitral area, as are his second in command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and a clutch of other foreign fighters. While thousands of poorly trained Taliban recruits martyr themselves in southern Afghanistan, bin Laden’s most highly trained fighters ready themselves for the next war, which will happen in the East.

    In addition to its strategic value, the Korengal also has the perfect population in which to root an insurgency. The Korengalis are clannish and violent and have successfully fought off every outside attempt to control them—including the Taliban’s in the 1990s. They practice the extremist Wahhabi version of Islam and speak a language that even people in the next valley over cannot understand. That makes it extremely difficult for the American forces to find reliable translators. The Korengalis have terraced the steep slopes of their valley into fertile wheat fields and built stone houses that can withstand earthquakes (and, as it turns out, air strikes), and have set about cutting down the enormous cedar trees that cover the upper elevations of the Abas Ghar. Without access to heavy machinery, they simply grease the mountainsides with cooking oil and let the trees rocket several thousand feet to the valley below.

    The timber industry has given the Korengalis a measure of wealth that has made them more or less autonomous in the country. Hamid Karzai’s government tried to force them into the fold by regulating the export of timber, but the Taliban quickly offered to help them smuggle it out to Pakistan in return for assistance fighting the Americans. The timber is moved past corrupt border guards or along a maze of mountain tracks and donkey trails that cross the border into Pakistan. The locals call these trails buzrao; some American soldiers refer to them as “rat lines.” The routes are almost impossible to monitor because they cross steep, forested mountainsides that provide cover from aircraft. After firefights, the Americans can listen in on Taliban radio communications calling for more ammunition to be brought by donkey along these lines.

    Insurgent operations in the valley are run by an Egyptian named Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, who married locally and has been fighting here since the jihad against the Soviets. Ikhlas is paid directly by al-Qaeda. He shares responsibility for the area with an Afghan named Ahmad Shah, whose forces in 2005 cornered the navy-seal team and shot down the Chinook helicopter. Competing with them for control of the area—and al-Qaeda financing—is an Arabist group called Jamiat-e Dawa el al Qurani Wasouna. The J.D.Q., as it is known by American intelligence, is suspected of having links to both the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments, as well as to Pakistan’s infamous intelligence services. Both groups are thought to pay and train local Afghan fighters to attack coalition forces in the area.

    The first firefight of the day happens around noon, when a Chinook comes in to drop a load of supplies. The men have lit a red-smoke stick, meaning that it’s a hot landing zone, and the Chinook starts taking fire as soon as it settles in low over the ridge. The pilot dumps his slingload and then bears off hard to the north while Restrepo’s heavy guns open up. Someone has spotted muzzle flashes at a house in the next valley down, and the men pepper it with machine-gun fire. The house is painted a distinctive white and sits at the edge of an insurgent-held village named Laui Kalay. Eventually the muzzle flashes stop.

    The men work until the next firefight, an hour later. A Black Hawk dropping off the battalion sergeant major takes fire at the kop, and its Apache escort cranks a high turn over the valley and drops down to investigate. It makes a low run to the south and takes fire from the same white house. The men shake their heads and mutter strange compliments about anyone who would shoot at an Apache. The helicopter banks so hard it nearly goes upside down, and it comes in like some huge, furious insect, unleashing a long burp of 30-mm.-cannon fire. The house undulates with impacts, and then whoever is inside shoots again.

    “Jesus,” someone says. “That takes balls.”

    The houses in the valley are constructed of shelf rock and massive cedar timbers, and they have withstood 500-pound bombs. The Apache tears into it a few more times and then loses interest and loops back up the valley. The smoke around the house gradually clears, and after a few minutes we can see people standing on the roof. The villages are built on such steep hillsides that it is possible to step off the road onto the rooftops, which is what these people have done. A woman appears with a child, and then another woman wanders up.

    “The women and children are there first, they’re on top of the roof,” says a private named Brendan O’Byrne, who is watching through a spotting scope. Standing next to him at the heavy machine gun is a soldier named Sterling Jones, busy working away on a lollipop. Jones has just pumped 150 rounds into the house. “They’re on top of the roof just so we can see them,” O’Byrne continues. “Now the men are arriving. We got one male, fighting age, on top of the roof He knows that we won’t shoot, because there are women and children there.”

    The American rules of engagement generally forbid soldiers to target a house unless someone is shooting from it, and discourage them from targeting anything if civilians are nearby. They can shoot people who are shooting at them and they can shoot people who are carrying a weapon or a handheld radio. The Taliban know this and leave weapons hidden in the hills. When they want to launch an attack they just walk out to their firing positions and pick up their weapons. Following a late-afternoon firefight, they can easily be home for dinner.

    The reason for all this caution—other than the obvious moral issues—is that killing civilians simply makes the war harder. With their superior weapons, the U.S. military can kill insurgents all day long, but the only possibility of a long-term victory lies in the civilian population’s denying aid and refuge to the insurgents. The Russian military, which invaded this country in 1979, most emphatically did not understand this. They came in with a massive, heavily armored force, moved about in huge convoys, and bombed everything that moved. It was a textbook demonstration of exactly how not to fight an insurgency. More than one million people died—7 percent of the pre-war civilian population—and a truly popular uprising eventually drove the Russians out.

    American forces are far more sensitive to humanitarian concerns than the Russians were—and far more welcomed—but they still make awful mistakes. In June, jumpy American soldiers in Korengal shot into a truck full of young men who had refused to stop at a local checkpoint, killing several. The soldiers said they thought they were about to be attacked; the survivors said they had been confused about what to do. Both sides were probably telling the truth.

    Faced with the prospect of losing the tenuous support that American forces had earned in the northern half of the valley, the battalion commander arranged to address community leaders in person after the accident. Standing in the shade of some trees by the banks of the Pech River last June, Colonel William Ostlund explained that the deaths were the result of a tragic mistake and that he would do everything in his power to make it right. That included financial compensation for the grieving families. After several indignant speeches by various elders, one very old man stood up and spoke to the villagers around him.

    “The Koran offers us two choices, revenge and forgiveness,” he said. “But the Koran says that forgiveness is better, so we will forgive. We understand that it was a mistake, so we will forgive. The Americans are building schools and roads, and because of this, we will forgive.”

    It was probably no coincidence that the site chosen for this meeting was the foot of a steel bridge that the Americans had just built over the fast, violent Pech. According to Colonel Ostlund, there was a possibility that the Taliban had paid the driver of the truck to not stop at the checkpoint when ordered to. By the colonel’s reasoning, the Taliban would win a strategic victory no matter what: either they would find out how close they could get a truck bomb to an American checkpoint, or there would be civilian casualties that they could exploit.

    Whatever the truth of that particular incident, the Taliban have certainly learned the value of American mistakes. Around the same time as the checkpoint shooting, coalition air strikes killed seven Afghan children at a mosque compound in the southeastern part of the country. Reaction was predictably outraged, but almost lost in the outcry was the testimony of survivors. They allegedly told coalition forces that before the air strike al-Qaeda fighters in the area—who undoubtedly knew they were going to be bombed—had beaten the children to prevent them from leaving.

    “We had surveillance on the compound all day,” a nato spokesman explained. “We saw no indication there were children inside.”

    The soldiers of Second Platoon lurch out of their cots and feel around for weapons in the electric-blue light before dawn. The dark shapes around them are the mountains from which they will get shot at when the sun rises. A local mosque injects the morning silence with a first call to prayer. Another day in the Korengal.

    The men assemble with their trousers untucked from their boots and their faces streaked with dirt and stubble. They wear flea collars around their waists and combat knives in the webbing of their body armor. Some have holes in their boots. Several have furrows in their uniforms from rounds that barely missed. They carry family photographs behind the bulletproof steel plates on their chests, and a few carry photographs of women in their helmets, or letters. Some have never had a girlfriend. Every single man seems to have a tattoo. They are mostly in their early 20s, and many of them have known nothing but war and life at home with their parents.

    In my time in the Korengal, only one soldier told me that he joined the army because of September 11. The rest are here because they were curious or bored or because their fathers had been in the army or because the courts had given them the choice of combat or jail. No one I talked to seemed to have regretted the choice. “I joined the infantry to get out of people work and shit,” one soldier told me. “My main thing was partying. What was I going to do, keep partying and living with my mom?”

    A short, brawny team leader named Aron Hijar said he enlisted because he understood a fundamental truth about a volunteer army: if people like him don’t sign up, everyone his age will be subject to a draft. When he told his family about his decision, to a person they urged him against it, but no one could say why. Hijar was a fitness trainer in California; he was bored, and his grandfather had fought in World War II, so he went down to the army recruiting office and signed the papers. He decided to keep a journal, though, so others could know what it was like. “When my children, if I have any, decide to go into the military, I’ll say, ‘You can do whatever you want, but you got to read this first,’ ” Hijar explains. “It has everything, the good times, the bad times, everything that ever meant anything to me.”

    The men start their day by moving the supplies that were slingloaded onto the ridgetop the day before. One man grumbles about having to do it so early in the morning, until someone else points out that they could always do it in broad daylight under fire. The supplies are mostly bottled water and M.R.E.’s, and it takes about half an hour for the men to skid them down into camp on a plastic evacuation sled and unload them. When they’re done, they sit on their cots and knife open the M.R.E.’s for breakfast while a specialist named Brian Underwood drops to the ground and starts doing push-ups in full body armor.

    Specialist Brian Underwood shouts out to his gunner while preparing grenades, during an insurgent assault on Restrepo.

    Underwood competes as a bodybuilder and is probably the strongest man in the platoon besides Carl Vandenberge, who stands six feet five and weighs 250. Specialist Vandenberge doesn’t say much but smiles a lot and is reputed to be a computer genius back home. In June, I saw him throw an injured man over his shoulder, ford a river, and then carry him up a hill. His hands are so big he can palm sandbags. He turned down a basketball scholarship to join the army. He says he has never lifted weights in his life.

    “Vandenberge, you big bastard,” I overheard someone say to him once. It was out of the blue and utterly affectionate. Vandenberge didn’t look up.

    “My bad,” he just said.

    “get his waist! get his waist!”

    Little gouts of dirt erupting from the ground. The workman-like hammering of a heavy machine gun. A soldier named Miguel Gutierrez is down.

    “up on the fuckin’ ridge!”

    “how many rounds you got?”

    “he’s in the draw!”

    Everyone is yelling, but I hear only the parts between the bursts of gunfire. The .50-caliber is laboring away inside the bunker and Angel Toves is taking fire from the east and trying to unjam his machine gun and spent shells are vomiting in a golden arc out of another machine gun to my left. We’re getting hit from the east and the south and the west, and the guy to our west is putting rounds straight into the compound. I duck into the bunker, where Sergeant Mark Patterson is calling grid points into the radio and the platoon medic—the one who replaced Restrepo—is hunched over Gutierrez. Gutierrez was on top of a hesco when we got hit and he jumped off and no one knows if he took a bullet or just broke his leg. Three men dragged him into the bunker under fire while Teodoro Buno hit the ridge with a shoulder-fired rocket and now he’s lying on a cot, groaning, with his pant leg slit up to his knee.

    “Guttie’s fuckin’ hit, dude,” I hear Mark Solowski say to Jones, deeper in the bunker. There’s a momentary pause in the firing so Rice can figure out what’s going on, and the men are talking low enough that Guttie can’t hear. I ask Jones what happened.

    “We just got fuckin’ rocked,” Jones says.

    The most immediate threat is a grenade attack from the draw, and someone has to make sure that whoever is down there is killed or pushed back before he gets any closer. That means leaving the cover of the outpost and shooting—completely exposed—from the lip of the draw. Rice moves to the gap in the hescos and steps into the open and unloads several long bursts of gunfire and then steps back and calls for 203s, which are grenades shot from an M16-attached launcher. Steve Kim sprints to the bunker and grabs a rack of 203s and a weapon and sprints back and hands them to Rice. Bravery comes in many forms, and in this case it’s a function of Rice’s concern for his men, who in turn act bravely out of concern for him and one another. It’s a self-sustaining loop that works so well that officers occasionally have to remind their men to take cover during firefights. The rounds snapping in over the sandbags can become an abstraction to men who have been too well drilled in the larger, violent choreography of a firefight.

    Rice was once reprimanded for smoking during a firefight. He’s not smoking now, but he might as well be. He walks into the open like he’s in his bathrobe going out to get the morning paper and pumps several rounds into the draw and then steps back to cover. He’s aiming close, the detonation coming almost immediately after the shot, and, after he’s finished, retreats to the bunker to check on Guttie.

    Guttie wasn’t hit, as it turns out, but he broke his tibia and fibula jumping off the hesco. The medic has given him a morphine stick to suck on and Guttie’s stretched out on a cot listening to his iPod and staring up at the plywood ceiling of the bunker. “I find it odd that an airborne-qualified soldier jumps five feet and breaks his ankle,” a soldier named Tanner Stichter comments.

    “And by the way, I ain’t wipin’ your ass,” adds Corporal Old, the medic.

    Guttie asks Hijar for a cigarette and lies there smoking and sucking on the morphine. Brendan Olson is asleep against some sandbags and Kim is reading a Harry Potter book and, next to Guttie, Underwood is lying with his tattooed arms folded over his chest. The men get hit one more time that afternoon, another 20-minute blur of gunfire and shouting and rounds slapping into dirt. Everything seems backward in a firefight: the snap of the bullets going by is the first sound you hear, and then—many seconds later—the far-off staccato of the machine gun that fired them. Men who get hit from a great distance don’t hear the gunshots until they’re down, and some men never get to hear the gunshots at all.

    The fighting is over by dusk, and the men gather again by the bunker in a weirdly lighthearted mood. O’Byrne once showed me footage shot by another soldier of him in a firefight. He’s in the bunker returning fire when a burst of rounds comes in that smacks the sandbags all around him and sends him to the floor. When he gets up, he’s laughing so hard he can barely work his weapon. Something like that is happening now, only it’s most of the platoon and it’s delayed by several hours. They’ve been hit hard today, a man’s broken his leg, and the enemy has figured out how to get within a hundred yards of us. In a situation like that, maybe finding something to laugh about is as crucial as food and sleep.

    The light mood ends abruptly when Sergeant Rice gets off the radio with the kop. The military eavesdropping operation, code-named Prophet, has been listening in on Taliban radio communications in the valley, and the news isn’t good. “Intel says they’ve just brought 20 hand grenades into the valley,” Rice says. “And 107-mm. rockets and three suicide vests. So get ready.”

    Ranch House, everyone is thinking, but no one says it. Ranch House was an American firebase in Nuristan that nearly got overrun last spring. Before it was finished, the Americans were throwing hand grenades out the bunker door and calling for aircraft to strafe their own base. They survived, but barely: 11 out of the 20 defenders were wounded.

    “You don’t get 20 hand grenades to throw from 300 meters,” Jones finally says to no one in particular. He’s smoking a cigarette and looking down at his feet. “They’re going to try to breach this motherfucker.”

    No one says much for a while, and eventually the men drift off toward their cots. As soon as it’s full dark the helicopters are going to come to lift Guttie out, and there’s not much to do until then. Jones is sitting on the cot next to me, smoking intently, and I ask what got him into the military in the first place. I’d heard he was a star athlete in high school and was supposed to go to the University of Colorado on an athletic scholarship. Now he’s on a hilltop in Afghanistan.

    “I pretty much prepped my whole life to play basketball,” Jones says. “I could run the 40 in 4.36 and bench-press 385 pounds. But I was making money the illegal way, and I got into the army because I needed a change. I pretty much went into the army for my mother and my wife. My mom raised me on her own, and she didn’t raise me to be selling drugs and shit.”

    The 120-mm.-mortar squad at the KOP base.

    That night I sleep in my boots with my gear close to me and a vague plan of trying to make it off the backside of the ridge if the unimaginable happens. It’s not realistic, but it allows me to fall asleep. The next morning comes clear and quiet, with a sharp little feeling of autumn in the air, and the men fall to working as soon as the sun is up. They stop only when a squad of Scouts shows up to deliver a hex wrench that Rice needs to fix one of the heavy weapons. After 20 minutes the Scouts shoulder their packs and head back toward the kop, and I grab my gear to join them. It’s a two-hour walk, and we take our time on the steep slopes in the heat of the day. The squad leader is a 25-year-old sniper from Utah named Larry Rougle, who has done six combat tours since September 11. His marriage has fallen apart, but he has a three-year-old daughter.

    “I usually vote Republican, but they’re all so divisive,” Rougle says on the way down. We are taking a rest break in the shade of some trees; Rougle is the only man who looks like he doesn’t need it. “Obama’s the only candidate on either side who’s actually talking about unity, not division. That’s what this country needs right now, so he’s got my vote.”

    Ten minutes later we’re moving again, and just outside the kop we take two bursts of machine-gun fire that stitch the ground behind us and make leaves twitch over our heads. We take cover until the kop’s mortars start hitting back, and then we count to three and run the last stretch of ground into the base. A soldier is watching all this from the entrance to his tent. There’s something strange about him, though.

    He’s laughing his ass off as we run by.

    Three weeks after I left the Korengal Valley, Battle Company and other units from the Second of the 503rd conducted a coordinated air assault on the Abas Ghar. They were searching for foreign fighters thought to be hiding on the upper ridges, including Abu Ikhlas, the locally renowned Egyptian commander. Several days into the operation, Taliban fighters crept to within 10 feet of Sergeant Rougle, Sergeant Rice, and Specialist Vandenberge and attacked. Rougle was hit in the head and killed instantly. Rice was shot in the stomach and Vandenberge was shot in the arm, but both survived. Nearby, a Scout position was overrun and the Scouts fled and then counterattacked with help from Hijar, Underwood, Buno, and Matthew Moreno. They retook the position and then helped evacuate the wounded. Rice and Vandenberge walked several hours down the mountain to safety.

    The following night, First Platoon walked into an ambush and lost two men, with four wounded. One of the dead, Specialist Hugo Mendoza, was killed trying to prevent Taliban fighters from dragging off a wounded sergeant named Josh Brennan. He succeeded, but Brennan died the following day at a U.S. military base in Asadabad. An estimated 40 or 50 Taliban were killed, most of them foreign fighters. Three Pakistani commanders were also killed, as well as a local commander named Mohammad Tali. Locals claim that five civilians also died when the U.S. military dropped a bomb on a house where two fighters were hiding.

    The incident caused village elders to declare jihad against the American forces in the valley.

    Sebastian Junger is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.

  6. Susan Locke Says:

    HI Mark,

    I came across this by looking for what the Rock stands for. I was asked that question by someone earlier.
    How are you? Did you get my package? I believe this is Mark Patterson, if it isn’t I am sorry.
    Would love to know how you are and if you liked your package.
    You take care, I am praying and thinking of you all daily.

  7. Melissa Says:

    Hey — I can’t remember now how I came across your page — but I’ve enjoyed reading it, and it has given me some good care package ideas. Most of all, I wanted to tell you about an organization called Soldiers’ Angels (http://www.soldiersangels.org) that really supports the military.. this is a really great place to go if you are looking for additional support for deployed soldiers .. the volunteers adopt soldiers and send letters and care packages on a regular basis, as well as providing “emergency assistance” if there are urgent needs on an individual or group basis. I hope you’ll check it out.. and please feel free to contact me if you’d like more information!! I would be so happy to help you out!! .. and also, thank you for all you’re doing for the American people and the Afghani people, bringing them safety and hope for a brighter future. You guys are the real American heroes!! =)

    ~Best wishes & God Bless,

  8. Bluestardad Says:

    HI Mark,

    Thank you for all your time and effort that you have put into this Blog. My son fights with the 2/503rd HHC Mortars. I will continue to watch this page for new updates. Again thanks for all you do.

    Larry Arnone
    San Francisco
    aka Bluestardad (and I want to keep it that way)

  9. olotliny Says:

    Dear Susan, Melissa and Larry, I’m not Mark-I’m Missy-a blue star mom, of this blog. Thank you Susan and Melissa for your personal dedication and support of the troops. Thank you Larry for your blog: http://173rdairbornebrigadedownrange.blogspot.com/ and the service of your son and his brothers deployed and serving our country in a most difficult place and time. God speed, protection and success in all their missions.
    Most Sincerely,

    • Bruce Christian Says:

      I have watched Restrepo so many times. I can only
      Cry when I watch the scene when Sgt Larry Rougal
      was killed and his men were in shock ! God bless our
      SOLDIERS and Larry ROUGAL family.

  10. olotliny Says:

    (Above link will take reader to a press briefing question/answer to international press with Secretary Rice and Afghanistan’s President KARZAI (His response to Afghanistan being forgotten): “On the first question ma’am, when we began six years ago, first of all, the defeat of the al-Qaida and terrorism that were around for so many years was achieved in less than a month and a half. For that itself alone, the Afghan people are extremely grateful. That for us brought a liberation that we much desired and much deserved.

    Second, since then Afghanistan has moved forward towards having completed almost the (inaudible) highways of the country, extended to the rest of the country with roads mowed, asphalted, paved and secondary roads. (Inaudible) healthcare for the whole country — I’m very, very happy to note that. Eighty-five thousand children being saved now in Afghanistan that we could not four years ago, a better economy and better wages, more business, a better life, and a constitution and democratic institutions and a free press and so on. I will not go on to talk about that. Afghanistan, if given more attention, will be very, very glad and thankful. But it is not right that Afghanistan was forgotten. Had Afghanistan been forgotten, we would not have been able to save thousands of children’s lives today. Had Afghanistan been forgotten, we would have not had the thousands of kilometers of roads and the improving, more capable administration every day.” ………

    February 08, 2008 Media Spins Success in Afghanistan as Failure
    By Ray Robison

    Al Qaeda Leader’s Diary Reveals Organization’s Decline

  11. Michelle Vipond Says:

    God Bless all our soldiers! These brave men fighting for our country time and time again. I pray nightly for your safety. I know how much your families miss you all. I know this because I am one of them.

  12. olotliny Says:

    The Soviet Experience in Afghanistan: Lessons Learned
    by Major James T. McGhee

    On 24 September 1979, lead elements of the Soviet 40th Army were ordered to cross the border into Afghanistan. Three days later, Soviet Airborne forces had seized the airfields in Kabul and Bagram, and the Afghan President H. Amin had been executed. This was the beginning of a political and military disaster for the Soviet Union that lasted for nine years with a cost of almost 15,000 troops reported killed or missing in action.[1] Thousands of additional Russian soldiers were wounded or died of disease, and millions of Afghanis were either killed, wounded or became refugees. The most important lesson that the Soviets learned from their experience in Afghanistan was, according to Cordesman and Wagner, “that it never should have been fought”.[2] There are however, a number of other political, strategic and tactical lessons that may be learned from the Soviet-Afghan conflict.

    Author Milan Hauner stated, “The immediate political aim of Soviet policy after the invasion was to salvage the Saur Revolution of April 1978 by installing a dependable leadership in Kabul.”[3] The political justification may be also be placed within the responsibility of the Soviet leadership to uphold the “Brezhnev Doctrine”, described as, “the Soviet view that if any of its client communist regimes is threatened, it has the right to intervene.”‘[4] The Soviets had successfully confronted this type of threat before, 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia. There was no reason to believe that the operation would cost them a great deal or not end with a swift Soviet victory. While they were correct in their assumption that the United States was unwilling to prevent the Soviet incursion, they made miscalculations at both the political and strategic levels regarding the responses of the United States, Pakistan, and the Afghan people.

    A significant political mistake was the Soviet misperception of the Carter administration and the belief that there would be only token objections to action in an area of traditional Soviet influence. The United States President Jimmy Carter took “serious” measures against the Soviets, canceling grain deliveries to the Soviets, prohibiting the sale of high-technology and boycotting the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.[5] He declared, “The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War. It’s a sharp escalation in the aggressive history of the Soviet Union.”[6]

    The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) received presidential approval to begin a covert weapons program to the Afghan resistance. This later included in 1986, under great pressure from members of the Departments of State and Defense, the delivery of the first 150 U.S. made Stinger Missiles to the Mujahideen. These new weapons in the hands of Mujahideen fighters with only limited training proved to be a most effective weapon against Soviet aircraft.[7]

    U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election, was a committed anticommunist who believed that Soviet gains in the third world had to be rolled back. His “Reagan Doctrine was an aggressive initiative designed to increase the cost of Soviet support for Third World socialist governments.”[8] He reversed U.S. policy towards Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan. The United States began shipping large quantities of supplies, weapons and munitions through Pakistan to the different Mujahideen factions fighting the Soviets. A huge six-year economic and military aid package to Pakistan elevated the country to the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.[9] This was a major change in U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. was now openly supporting a dictatorial Islamic regime that was aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

    Pakistan, like Cambodia during the U.S. war in Vietnam, was a Mujahideen sanctuary from Soviet forces that were unwilling to cross the international border into the country. These sanctuaries provided the Afghan resistance with a safe area to train recruits, plan combat operations, and build a logistics support structure. Arguably the most important factor in the overall failure of the Soviets to achieve a strategic victory in Afghanistan, Pakistan, according author and scholar Milan Hauner, “was vital for the continuation of the Mujahideen resistance.”[10] Military supplies and weapons were supplied from Egypt, China and the United States with additional funding coming from Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) coordinated with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to distribute aid to the resistance. Soviet style weapons such as AK-47 rifles and SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles were delivered, as these “Soviet” weapons were similar to those captured from the Russians and could not be directly traced back to the United States.[11] Eventually, more sophisticated weaponry and equipment such as Stinger missiles, advanced communications equipment, and heavy weapons were funneled through Pakistan to the Afghan resistance.

    Brutal Soviet “scorched earth” tactics drove thousands and eventually an estimated three million Afghans into makeshift tent villages in the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan in Pakistan. Pakistan “hosted” these large numbers of refugees, although this area was only moderately controlled by the Islamabad government. These refuges provided what Mark Urban called, “the vital human reservoir for the resistance.”[12] Located among these camps, the Mujahideen were able to recruit, arm and train new “holy warriors” to fight the Soviets. One firm, possibly funded by the CIA, even employed former British army soldiers who trained Mujahideen in Pakistan.[13]

    The refugee camps also provided the United States and other pro-Afghan resistance organizations with an opportunity to provide humanitarian assistance. The U.S funneled significant amounts of aid through Non-governmental organizations (NGO) to help the refugees in Pakistan. Much of this also went to aid and support the resistance groups. By sending large quantities of humanitarian assistance, the U.S. gained favorable press and alleviated some political and economic pressure on Islamabad.[14]

    In addition to the political miscalculations towards the United States and Pakistan, the Soviet leadership equally miscalculated the strength, motivations, and will of the Afghan resistance organizations. The Mujahideen were never a united force fighting for a common goal or centrally led. The resistance in Afghanistan consisted of a variety of ethnic groups who often had very different and conflicting political and military objectives. They were however united against a common enemy, the “Godless Communists”. The greatest strength of the Mujahideen and the Afghan people was their remarkable resilience. The resistance fighters and the Afghan people who supported them carried on the conflict despite heavy civilian casualties, millions of refugees, poor communications, weapons, and equipment, and the overwhelming technical superiority of the Soviet Army. Despite all their efforts, the Soviets, according to Lester Grau, “did not understand who they were fighting.”[15]

    The main forces of the Soviet 40th Army were positioned in Afghanistan by January 1980. They were completely unprepared for the kind of guerrilla war waged by the Mujahideen. “It was felt that the mere presence of Soviet forces would serve to ‘sober up’ the Mujahideen.”[16] The 40th Army was organized to fight using the traditional Soviet military doctrine of executing large-scale offensive operations followed by an exploitation and pursuit. Inherent in Soviet command structure was the attitude that, “the success of offensive combat is directly dependent on the level of training of commanders and staffs: the lower that level the greater must be the degree of centralized control.”[17]

    Early attempts by the Soviet leadership to deploy large, combined arms formations to conduct a classic offensive and pursuit against Mujahideen guerillas proved ineffective in a war that stressed the vital importance of small unit operations. Most engagements were fought at the tactical level where as the Soviet army was trained to operate at the operational level.[18] At the tactical level, battalion commanders needed instant support. Most Soviet combat support elements however, such as artillery, engineers, signals, and aviation, were organized at the divisional or higher levels. These lessons forced a major reorganization within the 40th Army.

    Perhaps the most significant consideration during the reorganization was the difficult Afghan terrain. Soviet General Yuri Maksimov provides a good insight into these considerations, “Combat operations in mountains are characterized by a number of features conditioned by the nature of mountainous terrain, such as its extremely rugged character, scarcity of roads with poor traffic ability, and a great number of natural obstacles. All of this forces troops to operate sometimes in comparatively small sub-units and in separate sectors. These peculiarities make it more difficult to coordinate, control, and maneuver the resources at hand. The lack of close cooperation among the motorized infantry, artillery, and aviation in mountainous areas may result in the failure to fulfill the combat mission assigned.”[19]

    The Soviets reorganized their forces from highly centralized armor-heavy elements into integrated combined arms battalions, brigades, and division task forces. Special emphasis was placed upon the need for reconnaissance, aviation, engineer, air assault, and special forces organizations. Soviet leadership also recognized the requirement for greater firepower for its infantry formations.

    The main battle tanks of the Soviet army were ineffective in the mountainous Afghan terrain due to the limited elevation capability of both the main tank gun and the coaxial machine gun. Used early as part of the large but unsuccessful sweeping operations. The Soviets learned quickly that, “the practice of massing a large number of regular forces against a small group of irregular forces to fight guerrilla war on rugged terrain was bankrupt.”[20] As a result, Soviet tanks often became stationary pillboxes positioned at Soviet base camps.[21]

    Greater emphasis was placed on the use of light armored, wheeled vehicles such as the Soviet family of BMDs. These vehicles proved to be well suited for Soviet operations in Afghanistan. They were twice as light, and shorter than the Soviet BMP. They were well armed with a 73mm cannon, a coaxial machine gun, and two bow-mount machine guns. They had a low silhouette, which enabled them to hide in terrain folds or behind rock formations. Their lightweight proved desirable in a war where there was a wide use of mines, and it allowed the vehicle to be air transportable by a variety of aircraft to include helicopters.

    Light infantry formations such as the elite Soviet air assault, airborne and special forces units proved to be the most effective against the guerrilla tactics of the Mujahideen operating in the rugged Afghan terrain. Typically, the tactical operations of these units were the raid, blocking positions and search, and ambush. Since these formations executed the bulk of Soviet offensive operations, these formations often received the best weapons, equipment and training.

    Soviet leadership placed a new emphasis on the firepower of their infantry formations. The older 7.62mm AK-47 rifle was replaced in many units by the new 5.44mm AK-74 rifle. The lighter weight of the new rifle and its ammunition proved to be better suited for operations in Afghanistan. Large numbers of light machine guns, AA guns, automatic grenade launchers, flamethrowers, sniper rifles, and mortars were also provided to the infantry units. The need for longer range, portable and lethal firepower was a key lesson learned by Soviet leadership.[22]

    The Soviets required a large number of helicopters for their light infantry formations such as the Soviet air assault or special forces to be effective. Helicopters were essential in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. They were used to attack enemy forces and equipment, gather intelligence, target artillery fire, insert assault troops, evacuate wounded, deliver supplies, and transfer weapons and equipment. Operating helicopter assets in Afghanistan however proved to be very difficult. Temperatures in Afghanistan can fluctuate from extremely hot in the summer to well below freezing in the winter and at high altitudes. Strong winds are often present, which can limit flying operations, and reduce visibility by creating dust storms. Combat operations were significantly effected at higher altitudes, where the lifting capacity of helicopters was reduced causing the aircraft requirements during an air assault in the mountains to double.[23] Although a recognized shortfall, “the Soviets never had enough helicopters in Afghanistan to meet their requirements.”[24]

    Surface to air missiles acquired by the Mujahideen from covert U.S. weapons programs proved problematic for Soviet aviation operations. The introduction of more effective surface to air missiles including the Stinger in 1986 significantly affected Soviet air operations in Afghanistan. The Stinger, a U.S. made man-portable system, weighs 34 pounds, is 5 feet long, and has a maximum range of 5,800 meters and maximum altitude of 3,500 meters. Their use forced the Soviets to greatly increase attack air speed and stop spending time over target. Fighters and bombers were forced to increase attack height from 2,000-4,000 feet to around 10,000 feet.[25] The Mujahideen, despite not having received a great deal of training on the missile, were able to hit Soviet aircraft out to a distance of 4,800 meters and up to 2,000 meters in elevation.[26] The greater altitudes forced upon Soviet close air support aircraft due to the effectiveness of the Stingers significantly reduced the accuracy of their bombing. The added danger of flying over target areas thought to have Stingers as part of their air defense arsenal increased the threat to Soviet pilots. As a result, “Soviet pilots proved far less willing to fly as many missions or as demanding high-risk sorties”.[27] The sharp decrease in the ability of fixed-wing aircraft to find and kill targets allowed the Mujahideen to move through the country far more easily and restore their supply lines.

    The main targets of the Mujahideen were Soviet helicopters, which also proved to be vulnerable to the Stingers. This meant according to author and historian Lester Grau, “The Soviet Command had to severely limit the employment of helicopters, especially during daylight”.[28] The forced changes in Soviet aviation tactics had profound effects on the battlefield. Helicopters were less effective in providing direct fire support as pilots reduced the amount of time over targets thought to have Stingers.

    More than just combat missions were affected. Casualty evacuation, once predominantly executed by helicopters, was significantly reduced. A Soviet combatant remembered, “Until 1987 all of our wounded were evacuated by helicopter to the hospital in Kabul. The arrival of Stinger missiles put an end to our massive use of choppers. We were forced to cram the injured into armored carriers-fifteen in each one-and send them down the local roads to Kabul.”[29] Certainly, the fear of being wounded and not having adequate casualty evacuation capability had a negative effect on the soldiers fighting on the ground.

    The rugged terrain combined with the guerrilla tactics of the Mujahideen called for the application of new methods of conducting offensive operations by the Soviets. “Combat showed that, as a rule, frontal attacks by Soviet and Afghan forces did not succeed.”[30] Mujahideen forces were able to retreat into the mountain passes when attacked. The Soviets were able to displace the Mujahideen but unable in most cases to inflict significant casualties on the elusive guerilla fighters. Among the new methods tried by the Soviets was the cordon and search. The cordon and search was designed to trap the Mujahideen in a valley between a main Soviet force and a tactical envelopment of the enemy by air assault forces. This combination action when conducted correctly prevented Mujahideen from maneuvering or escaping into the mountains.[31] These cordon and search operations were however routinely unsuccessful as they were often compromised by Mujahideen intelligence sources who warned of Soviet units departing base camps or the insertion of the blocking forces.[32]

    The lack of a professional NCO corps represented a critical problem in the 40th army; especially an army fighting counter insurgency operations.[33] Soviet sergeants were conscripts who had to attend a six-month NCO course and Lieutenants were inexperienced having been recently commissioned. Counter insurgency, defined by the British as, “an NCO war”, was directly opposed to the well know aspects of Soviet military doctrine, which discouraged independent action by junior officers.[34] At the tactical level, the Soviet small unit leaders were hard pressed to match the Mujahideen. Soviet experience showed that success at the tactical level often involved small unit maneuver at night with the use of night vision goggles and applying discipline to achieve surprise.

    Junior officers were in many cases negligent in maintaining discipline and morale within many of their units. Due to poor leadership, the 40th army suffered from a lack of discipline that resulted in low morale. Many soldiers suffered form depression and turned to abusing narcotics or alcohol. There was racism, theft and violent crime both within units and against the Afghan population. Many soldiers murdered civilians or destroyed villages in retaliation to an ambush or fallen comrade.

    Throughout the Soviet war in Afghanistan, up to 33% of the personnel in the Soviet 40th Army were affected by an infectious disease every year. Of the 620,000 Soviets deployed to Afghanistan during the conflict, 415,932 or 67% were hospitalized for some kind of serious illness or disease. These illnesses included infectious hepatitis, typhoid fever, plague, malaria, cholera, diphtheria, meningitis, dysentery, heat stroke, and pneumonia.[35] A great number of these casualties were directly related to poor hygiene, poor waste removal, or poor drinking water.

    Active leadership by a professional Non-commissioned officer corps could have prevented many of the sources of disease. For example: Soviet troops were often forced or chose to drink from natural water sources or local wells. The quality of these sources in many cases was very poor and contained high bacteria levels, typhus, and amoebic dysentery.[36] To combat the spread of illnesses caused from drinking from local sources, the Soviets issued a pantocide water-purification tablet. These tablets were effective when used properly. However, soldiers in many cases failed to wait the required 30 minutes for the tablet to purify the water while others simply found the taste of the treated water to be repulsive and refused to use them.[37] Many of these casualties may have been prevented if small unit leaders had enforced discipline in their soldiers regarding such disciplines as field sanitation and drinking from approved water sources.

    Providing adequate logistics support in Afghanistan was a constant problem for the 40th Army. The harsh climate and rugged terrain quickly wore out vehicles and equipment. Vehicle fuel systems, cooling systems, and road wheels were particularly susceptible to the harsh conditions. As a result, Soviet maintenance personnel were forced to accelerate scheduled maintenance and services on a variety of weapon systems and vehicles. Although the 40th Army had a Material support Brigade and separate tank, motor vehicle, and artillery repair battalions, it still “lacked sufficient maintenance personnel and facilities during the entire war.”[38] The inadequate support resulted in poor readiness, poor maintenance procedures, unsafe repairs, cannibalization of repair parts and a tendency not to conserve the use of vehicles.[39]

    Many Soviet units were stationed in remote locations or far from supply bases. Logistics units within the 40th Army were woefully lacking in their ability to supply the troops. As a result, combat units often had to endure significant supply shortages. In addition to fresh water, the most significant supply shortage was the shortage of fresh, perishable foods.[40]

    The hot climate made it extremely difficult to provide fresh foods such as meats and vegetables, which require a refrigeration capability for storage and transport. Units were routinely supplied with a mixture of canned goods and food concentrates. Dry rations consisted of 200 grams of rusks, 250 grams of canned meat, 250 grams of canned fish, 30 grams of sugar, and four grams of fruit extract.[41] Hot meals were provided by the unit cooks when available but were often according to Grau, “a mixed blessing, since a primary source of infection was the cooks.”[42]

    The mountainous terrain combined with the dry desert climate created special conditions for Soviet soldiers who had to endure both exhausting heat during the day in lower altitudes and freezing temperatures at night in higher altitudes. Special uniform requires were needed in order to protect soldiers from the extreme weather conditions. The standard Soviet issue of uniforms and equipment was designed for the European theater and proved inadequate for operations in Afghanistan.[43]

    The climate and terrain of Afghanistan demanded uniforms made from rugged, lightweight materials capable of protecting soldiers from the cold, wind, and moisture. The Soviets developed and issued special uniforms and accessories but the quantity and quality were insufficient. The Soviet issue sleeping bag for example did not provide enough warmth or protection from moisture. Pakistani or English sleeping bags were a highly prized find. As a result, Soviet soldiers were often exposed to the elements.

    One of the most notable shortfalls was the issue of an acceptable mountain boot. The mountainous terrain destroyed the standard issue boots in a short period of time. Soviet soldiers improvised, utilizing alternative sources to acquire acceptable footwear. “All of us walk in virtually indestructible sneakers. They are far more reliable than even the best Adidas. Soldiers pay for them out of their own pockets; a pair costs 24 rubles in the commissary.”[44]

    The major lessons the Soviets learned during the war in Afghanistan were according to Cordesman and Wagner that, “It is virtually impossible to defeat a popular guerrilla army with secure sources of supply and a recovery area; it is extremely difficult-if not impossible –to use modern weapons technology to cut off a guerrilla force from food and other basic supplies; and the success of pacification techniques depends on the existence of a popular local government, and the techniques must be seen as the actions of the local government and not of foreign military forces.“[45]

    The Soviet leadership completely miscalculated the political and military situation in Afghanistan. They were unable to anticipate the anti-Soviet reaction that was generated in the United States and around the world. They failed to understand their enemy and the power Islamic Nationalism had on the will of the Afghani people to endure extreme hardships. They were unable or unwilling to prevent the Mujahideen from operating from sanctuaries in Pakistan.

    The 40th Army itself deployed into a theater of operations woefully unprepared for the war they had to fight. Constantly short of the required number and trained personnel, and adequate equipment, the 40th Army was forced to fight a limited war with limited objectives against an extremely resilient and capable guerrilla force. Over the years however, the Soviets did improved their tactics in conducting counter insurgency operations. They were able to introduce and test new weapons and new combat formations, and record many lessons learned regarding Soviet doctrine and leadership. In the end however, the Soviets failed to reach their political or military objectives in Afghanistan.

    * * *
    Copyright © 2008 James T. McGhee.

    Written by James T. McGhee. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact James T. McGhee at: mcgheejt@rocketmail.com.

    About the author:
    Major James T. McGhee is a native of Dexter, Missouri, and now serves in the active Army as an Operations Officer assigned to the 101st Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Campbell, KY. He studied history at Southeast Missouri State University, is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College, and holds a Maters Degree in Military Studies from American Military University. In his spare time, Todd enjoys researching and writing military history with emphasis on World War II on the Eastern Front.

    Published online: 06/14/2008.

  13. olotliny Says:

    Everyone has been reading the news…. keep up the prayers/letters/support for the fine young men who lost 9 of their brothers while engaged in a battle, who kept their ground and repelled triple their number/ size of Taliban insurgents/militants…. addresses listed above

    some links: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2008/07/joint_al_qaeda_and_t.php

  14. olotliny Says:

    Top Medal Is Awarded To Honor Sergeant’s Bravery

    On a moonlit Afghan ridge in 2007, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta ran alone through a barrage of gunfire to rescue a friend being dragged off by insurgent fighters.
    On Friday, the White House said Sgt. Giunta will receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery, making him the first living serviceman from the Iraq or Afghan wars to receive the nation’s highest military award.
    “His courage and leadership while under extreme enemy fire were integral to his platoon’s ability defeat an enemy ambush and recover a fellow American paratrooper from enemy hands,” the White House said.
    President Barack Obama called Sgt. Giunta, a 25-year-old born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at his base in Italy on Thursday to tell him the news.
    The selection of a living Medal of Honor recipient comes as welcome news to the military. The seven medals from Iraq or Afghanistan announced until now had been for men killed performing the acts of courage for which they were being recognized.
    The medal is reserved for those who risk their lives beyond what duty requires.
    Sgt. Giunta’s action came on his second deployment to Afghanistan, when his unit—Co. B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne)—was operating in the Korengal Valley, at the time considered the most dangerous spot in the country for U.S. troops.
    On the night of Oct. 25, Sgt. Joshua Brennan led Sgt. Giunta’s squad single-file along the top of a rocky spur, according to Sebastian Junger’s 2010 book “War.” Sgt. Giunta, then holding the rank of specialist, was fourth in line when the patrol walked into an ambush, with 13 insurgents spraying them with rifle, machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire from as close as 15 to 20 feet.
    “Out of nothing—out of taking your next step—just rows of tracers, RPGs, everything happening out of nowhere with no real idea of how it just f— happened,” Sgt. Giunta told Mr. Junger.
    Sgt. Brennan was hit eight times. Sgt. Giunta, who had a Purple Heart from his first combat tour, was hit in the ceramic chest plate of his body armor. A rocket strapped to his back absorbed a second hit, according to the Army.
    Under fire, Sgt. Giunta first helped a staff sergeant who had been hit in the helmet. He and two other soldiers threw hand grenades to clear a path to two other men isolated ahead of them.
    After tossing his final grenade, Sgt. Giunta ran toward where he thought he would find Sgt. Brennan. Instead, he saw two insurgents dragging the sergeant away. Sgt. Giunta emptied his rifle at them, and then chased them down the hill.
    His shots killed one insurgent. Wounded, the other fighter released Sgt. Brennan and fled. Sgt. Giunta called for a medic and pulled his friend to cover.
    “I didn’t run through fire to save a buddy—I ran through fire to see what was going on with him and maybe we could hide behind the same rock and shoot together,” Sgt. Giunta said in the book. “I didn’t run through fire to do anything heroic or brave; I did what I believe anyone would have done.”
    Airstrikes ended the firefight. Sgt. Brennan, 22, from McFarland, Wisc., died in surgery at a nearby base. A medic, Spc. Hugh Mendoza, 29, of Glendale, Ariz., died after being shot through the femur. Five other paratroopers survived their wounds.

  15. olotliny Says:

    “Restrepo, One platoon, One Valley, One Year”

    National Geographic Entertainment movie. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, winner of 2010 Sundance Film Festival.




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