The Last Outpost
For the soldiers on Afghanistan's eastern frontier, life is filled with beauty, dust and danger.
PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Eastern- 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.
"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.
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.
"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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