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AFGHANISTAN ARCHIVE: March 13 - April 3, 2006

The Last Outpost

For the soldiers on Afghanistan's eastern frontier, life is filled with beauty, dust and danger.

By Kevin Sites, Mon Mar 13, 7:22 PM ET


Afghanistan - Tell the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, Alpha Company, that the war in Afghanistan ended four years ago and they might be apt to clear up some of your misperceptions.

Early this month, 21-year-old Sgt. Rick Zamora of Del Rio, Texas, was on Observation Post 4 near the Pakistani border when he heard shots being fired.

Sgt. Rick Zamora (front)

"It's not unusual around here," he says. "We thought it was just the ANA (Afghan National Army). They're always firing their weapons. But when the machine guns started opening up on us we knew something was going on."

Zamora and other members of 1st Platoon say they came under attack by assailants using small arms, machine guns and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) from ridge lines about 500 meters away.

For much of the American public, the war in Afghanistan began to fade from memory soon after the Taliban was toppled from power in the late fall of 2001.

But four years later, over 17,000 U.S. troops, as well as thousands of other multinational forces, remain to provide stability for a fledgling Afghan national government yet to assert any real authority beyond the boundaries of the capital city, Kabul.

And in some sectors of the country, violence from Taliban remnants, believed to be operating from safe havens inside Pakistan, is a regular occurrence — like on Observation Post 4.

"We knew it was real when we started to heard the zips and cracks," says Pfc. John O'Brien, 27, from Boston. "We started running for cover and I turned around to see the tracer rounds flying over the sergeant's head."

Members of the platoon returned fire with their own 240 light machine guns and then called in for artillery support.

Sgt. James Duke, 26, of Milburn, Okla., was the forward observer on Observation Post 4 that day.

"It seemed like all they were firing were tracers [illuminated rounds]," says Duke, "so it was easy to see what direction they were firing from. I shot a compass reading to the northwest and called into the TOC [tactical operations center]."

Within minutes from the start of the attack, five 105mm artillery rounds were arcing overhead in the direction of what the acronym-obsessed U.S. military, perhaps aptly, terms the "POO." It stands for the "point of origin" of the hostile fire.

"It was just perfect," Duke says. "The rounds landed exactly where they were supposed to and the firing stopped immediately. The whole fight was over within 15 minutes."

"We found one body," says Capt. Chris Nunn of Texas, commanding officer of Alpha Company. "But their guys are very adept at recovering their own dead and wounded."

In a place where friends, foes and criminals often wear the same color camouflage, it's often tough to tell exactly whom you're fighting. But the Army command in the region thinks it has a pretty good idea that the Taliban or their supporters were behind the assault.

"We can track these kind of attacks directly to the Pakistani madrassas' [Islamic fundamentalist schools] graduating classes and the good weather," says the 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Battalion, 87 Infantry Commander, Lt. Col. Chris Toner.

It's the kind of incident that, despite the bucolic mountain vistas surrounding them, serves as a constant reminder to Alpha Company that Afghanistan is still a very dangerous place.

"These kinds of things happen here enough," says Capt. Nunn, who possesses that enviable trait of seeming very relaxed while also being very much in command. "But we don't like to talk about them too much because we don't want our families to worry."

While the soldiers rotate between shifts on several outlying observation posts, their main staging area is Forward Operating Base Tillman. (It was named after pro footballer and Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2004. The Army recently opened a criminal probe into his death.) A small piece of real estate surrounded by concertina wire and Hesco barriers filled with sand and rock, FOB Tillman sits on a plateau above the village of Lawara, only a few kilometers from the Pakistani border.

On a map, Lawara lies within a finger-poke of territory into Pakistan, making FOB Tillman America's last official outpost on the eastern border of Afghanistan.

For the 10th Mountain soldiers here, who just replaced a unit of the 82nd Airborne in February, the isolation is psychological as much as physical.

On patrol in eastern Afghanistan

Soldiers riding out in humvees on patrol feel as if they've been transported back into biblical times, passing a boy herding sheep with nothing more than a staff and a slingshot; women scrubbing clothes against rocks in a stream bed; and village elders squatting in a circle deciding a legal or business matter for their community.

If they begin to wonder why they're here, their commanding officer likes to keep the objective simple and clear.

"We're here to provide support for the Afghan forces," says Capt. Nunn, "until they can do this job on their own. More specifically, we want to help them bring the village of Guyan (considered lawless territory) back into the fold."

It's a task that, given the tribal nature of the area and a historical existence as a kind of nationless border region, will be difficult in both the short and the long run.

Even inside the walls of their base, life can be difficult. Compared to their lives back home, or even on larger bases, conditions are primitive. But while they live in proximity to the Afghan villagers, they don't necessarily live like them.

Instead of huts made of sun-dried brick, the men sleep in buildings made from poured concrete. They have showers and even a few washing machines, but still use outhouse toilets.

There is a recreation room with a large screen television, Internet access, two computers and two drop lines for laptops. The men at FOB Tillman get two hot meals a day at breakfast and dinner with a prepackaged MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) for lunch.

But perhaps the most surprising feature in this remote place is a fully stocked — although very dusty — fitness center with benches, free weights, exercise machines and even a treadmill.

1st Lt. Rich Holguin

"It's where our guys spend most of their free time," says 1st Lt. Rich Holguin, Alpha Company's artillery officer from Woodlake, Calif. "There's really not much else to do when they're not on duty."

But today the soldiers are busy, occupied with the tasks of trying to ensure their own survival: filling sandbags and building up bunkers along the base's perimeter walls.

On top of the wall others test-fire their weapons — called "zeroing out" — on a silhouette target 300 meters away and a painted rock 350 meters away at the base of a foothill.

Pvt. Pedro Quezada's M4 rifle is firing high and to the right until Sgt. Todd Bailey pulls out his Leatherman tool and adjusts the scope for him. Pvt. Quezada fires again.

"Holy cow," Sgt. Bailey exclaims, as the round hits the target, kicking up a small cloud of dirty smoke on impact against the rock.

Inside their "hooches," other soldiers read paperback novels, watch movies on personal DVD players or just talk. They are enjoying the chance to be out of their body armor and Kevlar helmets, but know that it will be just a matter of time before they are back on the front line, in the last outpost of America's forgotten war.


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Join the discussion. Here you'll see the comments in the order they were posted.

Iraq's still the hotbed... Signed~ A TPT Guy
Posted by psyguy318 on Mon, Mar 13, 2006 7:51 PM ET
I support our troops, but I HATE THAT @#$% BUSH.
Posted by pineridgeal on Mon, Mar 13, 2006 8:54 PM ET
Hi guy I really apprecitae what your doing for our country. Be well and come home soon!
Posted by on Mon, Mar 13, 2006 8:56 PM ET
I feel sorry for these guys, in particular those who "wonder why they're there [in Afghanistan]", and all their commanding officer can tell them is, "We're here to provide support for the Afghan forces." The history of Afghanistan proves that while it has had many occuping powers over the centuries, it is pretty nigh on to impossible to truly conquer.
Posted by grantmont on Mon, Mar 13, 2006 9:04 PM ET
Why do we have all of these anti-war protestors? Troops are dieing daily and our own beloved Americans are cheering. Is this relevant in any way? If we had a country that backed our service men and women and supported them completely, this thing would have been over already.
Posted by ernie.mccormick on Mon, Mar 13, 2006 9:35 PM ET
Hey guys you are doing a great job out there. Please keep your heads high and our prayers are with you all:)
Posted by pdaddy41998 on Mon, Mar 13, 2006 9:37 PM ET
I know those guys would rather be freezin their asses off in the back woods of Drum on an FTX, but they are doin what they're trained to do, and have the basics needed to survive in a very harsh place. All things considered, most would probably say the situation was ok, but then again, if GI ain't complainin, he aint happy!! Good luck men, I am proud of you! 'ol crow SFC,IN, USA (ret)
Posted by tomcrow on Mon, Mar 13, 2006 9:48 PM ET
..victory will go to the Muslim, always! no matter how big of an infidel force is at hand, the Army of Allah, insha'Allah; will always prevail! khalas.. subhanuhu wa ta 'Ala says in the Qur'an: "If there is 20 amongst you, they will vanquish 100, and if there is 100, verily they will vanquish 1000.." Allahu Akbar!
Posted by rusnemg on Mon, Mar 13, 2006 10:01 PM ET
8- dude...BREATHE...think about who the real enemy is here. its not everyone.
Posted by farhatixox22 on Mon, Mar 13, 2006 10:05 PM ET
i heard were pulling out 3 thousand troops with nato pulling in and that there is 18,000 american troops there not 17k
Posted by on Mon, Mar 13, 2006 10:17 PM ET


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in memoriam

The Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone team dedicates this site to Marla Ruzicka, a fearless voice of compassion, who was killed in Iraq on April 16, 2005, while trying to lessen the suffering of others. For more information, see Civic Worldwide.

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