Dear Interested Reader,
COP Najil counts on the 'Death Star.' Learning the ropes as a Black Hawk Crew Chief. Valor awards go to MEDEVAC crew. Close call for Soldiers tracking bomb maker. ISAF Joint Command operational update, Nov. 14, 2011.
Iraq: Postal services stop as troops are heading home.
COP Najil Counts on the 'Death Star'
Story and photos by Spc. Leslie Goble
A soldier from Co A, 1st Bn, 179th Inf, 45th IBCT peeks out of the “Death Star,” Oct. 27. The outpost overlooks COP Najil, and is manned by soldiers 24 hours a day. Its name may have come from the tyrannical amount of weaponry it boasts, or the daunting hike it takes to get up to it.
LAGHMAN PROVINCE — Life is simple at the outpost: eat, sleep, and protect the COP. Below the Death Star, COP Najil is filled with fortified fighting positions and wooden buildings called B-huts. The only running water is in the shower area and the self service laundry. Resources are few and far between, but soldiers look to keep each other’s spirits up, despite their location. “We make do with what we got,” said Pfc. Charles Brake of Okla. “The gym is heavily used, especially since we got more cardio machines recently.”
The basic amenities at COP Najil define the soldier’s view of what “soldiering up” really means. They rely on supplies to be flown in. Soldiers from other bases collect items to send to those at places like COP Najil. Though they may feel separated from so much, soldiers are able to find ways to do one of Oklahoma’s favorite past times—watching football.
“We hook up the TV in the dining facility to the computer in the recreation tent, so we can watch OU and OSU games on TV,” said Brake. “That’s usually what I look forward to these days.” Life can almost seem like a fish bowl within the walls of the COP, but life gets very different as soldiers move outside the compound walls.
Brake described living on the COP as an ironic juxtaposition. “You look around and see nothing but beauty,” said Brake. “The mountains are breathtaking and the valleys are amazing. Yet mountains that should be used for hiking and sightseeing are filled with fighting positions.”
These fighting positions are commonly used to stage attacks on soldiers, when they're outside the compound walls, or to attack the COP with mortars and rifles to try to disrupt day-to-day life. “We don’t get attacked on the COP too much anymore, but we can go right outside the wire and get into fire fights,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Duff, from Okla. “I really think they're afraid of the Death Star.”
“It’s pretty secluded out here, reminding me of the wild, wild west of Afghanistan,” said Brake. “It’s like the rural areas of Oklahoma, just with mountains and mortars.” Combat patrols go outside the wire several times a week into the secluded valleys around the COP to hunt the insurgents. The enemy’s tactics rarely see results.
Pfc. Charles Brake gets a haircut at the secluded COP Najil, Oct. 27. Within the walls of COP Najil, soldiers still try maintain everyday life.
Staff Sgt. Michael Duff, from Okla., looks out of the “Death Star,” Oct. 27.
RC-East, Bagram Media Center
Learning the Ropes as a Black Hawk Crew Chief
Story and photos by Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon
Pfc. Craig Lewis (left), 19, and Spc. Jared Yoakam, 26, both with 82nd CAB, watch for signs of mechanical issues with the main rotor on their UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter, as it shuts down, Nov. 15.
JALALABAD — A Black Hawk crew chief is known to just about everyone as the Soldier in control of the helicopter. They’re so important that their names used to be stencilled in black paint on the side of the bird. The Army’s moved away from that tradition in the past few years, but the crew chief’s importance hasn’t diminished.
The Student: Landing a Black Hawk amidst trees, other helicopters and vehicles is a little like trying to parallel-park an 18-wheeler without rear-view mirrors in high winds. Pfc. Craig Lewis has to become the eyes and ears for the pilots, whose view is limited to what they can see out of the cockpit windows. That leaves 53 feet of helicopter they can’t see; about the same length as a large semi-trailer. Even though he’s got a teacher to guide him, Lewis, 19, has just found himself responsible for a machine where each of the 4 rotor blades costs more than $200,000.
The Teacher: “I try to make it fun,” said Spc. Jared Yoakam of Ohio. “You have to make it fun, so as he gets further along, and he’s required to know a lot more stuff, it all points back to being fun, which is the reason why it’s worthwhile to study and learn. Not everybody gets to do this, but there’s a lot to learn and do, and not much room for error.”
Becoming a fully qualified crew chief is a 3-step process. Lewis is “Readiness Level III,” or the most basic level. The relationship between him and Yoakam is similar to that of a student driver and instructor. And Yoakam is always there in the passenger seat ready to hit the brakes. That’s quite a change from the young man he was just 1-1/2 years ago when he joined the Army at 17, during his senior year of high school.
The End of Today's Lesson: In the air, Yoakam is still busy nudging Lewis. Two more passes through the valley, more expended belts of ammo, and then, rather suddenly, Lewis begins firing short, controlled bursts, and landing a majority of the rounds on target.
“There you go,” sounds Yoakam over the intercom. Lewis turns his head and smiles. A few more congratulatory words, and Yoakam asks the pilot to head back home. He and Lewis have achieved a victory for the day, and he ends the training on a high note.
Pfc. Craig Lewis (background), 19, fires his M-240B machine gun from a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter. Spc. Jared Yoakam, 26, is training Lewis to become a Black Hawk crew chief; a position that makes him responsible for the daily op and safety of the nearly $6 million machine and its passengers. Aerial marksmanship is just one of many tasks Lewis will have to master before he earns his qualification.
Spc. Jared Yoakam (left), teaches Pfc. Craig Lewis the skills necessary to become a Black Hawk crew chief, in the doorway of their UH-60M helicopter.
RC-East, Bagram Media Center
Valor Awards go to MEDEVAC Crew
Written by Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon
BAGRAM AIRFIELD — A French platoon-sized element was guarding a small compound Sep. 7, when an insurgent threw a grenade over the wall.
“Yesterday was hell,” said Maj. Cyrille, a French medical officer in an 8 Sept. letter. The explosion killed one, and injured one other. As insurgents continued to attack, another French Soldier was shot through the throat.
Since they were almost a mile from the main supply route and the only way to get there was a treacherous journey by foot over rocky terrain, they called in an American helicopter to carry the injured Soldiers out.
For their actions that day, 4 U.S. Soldiers received Army Commendation Medals for valor, Nov. 11, for saving the lives of the 2 critically-wounded French troops in the Tagab Valley, Kapisa prov.
The medical evacuation crew arrived overhead within minutes, only to find a battle still raging below. There was little hope the French Soldiers would survive without their help.
U.S. Army Maj. Graham Bundy and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher DeOliveira, both with C Co, 3rd Bn, 82nd CAB, made the decision to land. “The only thing running through your mind at that point is that there are people down there who need our help,” said Bundy, of N.C. “You have to get to them; you can’t fail.”
Sgt. Robert Wengeler, of Wash., provided security while Staff Sgt. Erin Gibson, a flight medic, climbed out of the helicopter and ran to the patients. “I didn’t even think about the danger at the time,” said Gibson, of Ohio. “I just knew there were 2 hurt guys out there that needed my help and I had to get them on my helicopter.”
Gibson triaged the patients, had them loaded, and had the pilots lifting the wheels of the helicopter off the ground in less than 4 minutes. “We witnessed the incredible courage of the U.S. Army as you made an air evacuation under fire only 200 meters from our position,” said Cyrille. “Because of your actions, our Soldiers are still alive.”
“When I heard what the crew did that night, I was in awe of their bravery and commitment to never leave a fallen comrade, whether it be American or not,” said Col. T.J. Jamison, cmdr., 82nd CAB. “These Soldiers truly exemplify the warrior ethos.”
Gibson has a much more modest view of what happened. “Really, I’m just doing my job like any Soldier,” said Gibson.
From left to right, Maj. Graham Bundy, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher DeOliveira, Staff Sgt. Erin Gibson, and Sgt. Robert Wengeler.
RC-East, Bagram Media Center
Close Call for Soldiers Tracking Bomb Maker
Written by Army Spc. Tanangachi Mfuni
U.S. Soldiers and Afghan Border Police (ABP) wait outside the Sheyk Amir Kaley Mosque, in eastern Afghanistan, Sept. 2, hoping to catch a known bomb-maker as he leaves midday prayers.
KHOWST PROVINCE — As the call to midday prayer echoed through the village of Sheyk Amir Kaley, Capt. Bernard Gardner and his troops knew they were close to catching their man. The cmdr. of Co C, 1st Bn, 26th Inf Regt, was hot on the trail of a bomb-maker, from his unit’s most wanted list.
That Sept. afternoon, Gardner and his Afghan partners set up shop opposite a green and white mosque, near the Gorbuz District Center, and waited. As prayers ended and men exited the mosque, the combined force began holding everyone outside.
"I had his photo," recalled Gardner, from Wyo.; combing the crowd for the bomb-maker as his Soldiers painstakingly started collecting each man’s biometric data. The biometric collection process snaps pictures, scans fingerprints and irises, while allowing for the input of basic biographical info, like name and birth date. Once gathered, the info is transmitted to a centralized database that instantly alerts Soldiers if an individual is on terrorist watch lists.
As afternoon gave way to early evening, curious children swarmed around Gardner and his Soldiers. Troops usually consider the presence of children in Afghanistan a good omen. When kids are around, it's less likely the bad guys will attack for fear of killing innocents, and thus facing the community's reprisal. This time, however, was different.
A group of children scuttled close to the Soldiers, kicking rocks as they ran. What looked like an older kid, pitched something in their direction. "Grenade!" yelled Sgt. 1st Class James Smith, who ducked as the pineapple grenade flew over his shoulder, landing ten feet away where he and 3 others stood.
"We were all within the kill radius of that grenade," said Smith, from Calif., who said the group collectively dove to the ground for cover. While that action saved their lives, it didn't spare them from injury. Smith suffered 4 shrapnel wounds; Gardner ten.
"My whole body went numb," remembered Gardner, a West Point graduate who once headed his alma mater's wrestling team. Though he made several attempts to get up and return fire after being hit, the most he could do was stagger to the side of the road. "My body went into shock. I passed out and hit the ground."
Meanwhile, pandemonium had broken out among the crowd. They took to running and cramming into nearby shops for cover. As they scattered, the bomb-maker got away. The Soldiers had no doubt the bomb maker and his supporters orchestrated the attack as a diversion to make his escape possible.
As the chaos continued, an insurgent climbed onto one of the company's trucks and lobbed a grenade inside the gunner's hatch. "He slam-dunked the grenade into the turret," said Smith, who, though hemorrhaging from the first attack, managed to shoot the grenade-wielding attacker.
Inside the truck, all that the turret gunner, Pfc. Darrick Jones, saw was a hand drop something near him. Hearing the telltale rattle of a grenade bouncing dangerously close to him, Jones frantically searched for it, but couldn't see where it had fallen.
Detonating inches away, blood streaked down Jones' right arm. He applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Amazingly, the grenade had gotten stuck on the turret's control box, and didn't enter the truck where it could have had lethal impact.
Instinctively, Jones had his back turned to the explosion and his body armor absorbed the brunt of the blast. The bleeding on his arm was the result of several small pieces of shrapnel. Jones, along with 5 other Soldiers wounded in the grenade attacks, have been nominated for Purple Hearts. The prestigious award recognizes service members injured during combat.
Though hospitalized with multiple shrapnel wounds, 3 days after the attack Gardner was back at work at COP Bowri Tana. "Where I belong is with my men," said Gardner, who keeps pieces of the shrapnel removed from his body in a plastic cup on his office shelf.
Gardner's office is telling of the things that matter the most to him. Above his head hangs a gold and black banner with the word "Ranger" in bold letters. Among the items on Gardner's shelf is the book, "They Fought for Each Other," an account of the unit’s 16-month 2007 deployment to Iraq.
Then, as if set apart from everything, is a gold framed photograph of his smiling wife and 3-year-old daughter. The picture is stuck to green construction paper with a handwritten note. "We love you daddy," it reads. "Come back home soon!"
Sgt. 1st Class James Smith, a plt. sgt. from Co C, holds a bandage on shrapnel wounds, Sept. 2. Smith was the first to identify the grenade that exploded feet away from him, and several members of his company.
Capt. Bernard Gardner, cmdr., lies on a stretcher, while being treated for shrapnel wounds suffered during an attack.
Pfc. Darrick Jones holds up the raincoat he was wearing during an attack. Jones’ body armor prevented a grenade from causing any serious injury despite detonating just feet from his position. (Photo by U.S. Army Spc. Tanangachi Mfuni, 7th MPAD)
ISAF Joint Command Operational Update, Nov. 14, 2011
By ISAF Joint Command
KANDAHAR PROVINCE — A combined Afghan and coalition SecFor captured a Taliban leader, during a security op in Maiwand district, yesterday. The leader coordinated ambush and roadside bomb attacks against Afghan forces and enforced Sharia law throughout the area. One additional suspected insurgent was detained.
HELMAND PROVINCE -- A combined Afghan and coalition SecFor discovered an IED and detained multiple suspected insurgents, during an op in Marjah district, yesterday. CF observed multiple males emplace a suspected IED and depart for a nearby compound, while conducting surveillance activities in the area. After confirming the location and securing the IED, the combined force proceeded to the compound, and detained multiple males for further questioning. An Afghan EOD team was dispatched to the scene and destroyed the IED on site.
----- In Garm Ser district, a Taliban facilitator was captured and 2 suspected insurgents were detained by a combined Afghan and coalition SecFor during an op, yesterday. The facilitator coordinated the movement of roadside bomb materials, weapons and suicide bombers for use in attacks against Afghan forces.
----- A combined Afghan and coalition security patrol killed several insurgents and wounded one other in Marjeh district, Nov. 13. The Afghan and the coalition patrol received small arms fire from insurgents in the area during the op. The patrol returned fire resulting in the deaths of the insurgents. The wounded insurgent was detained and taken for medical treatment and further questioning.
----- A combined Afghan and coalition security patrol killed 2 insurgents and seized a narcotics cache in Kajaki district, as part of an op that occurred throughout the week. Armed insurgents approached the Afghan and the coalition patrol on a motorcycle, while displaying hostile intent. The patrol fired, resulting in the deaths of the 2 insurgents. The op seized 6,600-lbs (3,000 kgs) of morphine base, a quantity of drug processing equipment, 2 AK-47’s and a quantity of ammo.
KABUL PROVINCE -- A Haqqani network cell leader was captured and multiple suspected insurgents were detained by a combined Afghan and coalition SecFor during, an op in Musahi district, yesterday. The leader coordinated and conducted attacks against Afghan govt officials. More than 100-lbs (45 kgs) of illegal narcotics were seized during the op.
WARDAK PROVINCE -- In Sayyidabad district, a coalition SecFor detained numerous suspected insurgents, during an op, yesterday. The insurgents were sought for questioning about their roles in recent insurgent IED attacks against Afghan and CF in the area.
LOGAR PROVINCE -- A combined Afghan and coalition SecFor detained multiple suspected insurgents, during an op in search of a Haqqani network leader in Pul-e ‘Alam district, yesterday. The network leader directs attacks against Afghan and CF.
GHAZNI PROVINCE -- In Deh Yak district, a combined Afghan and coalition SecFor killed an insurgent and detained multiple suspected insurgents, during an op in search of a Taliban leader, yesterday. The leader operates a roadside bomb attack cell, and is responsible for bomb attacks against convoys in Andar and Deh Yak districts. During the op, the SecFor was threatened by an armed individual. Responding to the threat, the security force fired, killing the insurgent. Multiple weapons were confiscated.
PAKTIYA PROVINCE -- A combined Afghan and coalition SecFor captured a Haqqani network leader and detained numerous suspected insurgents, during an op in Chamkani district, yesterday. The leader distributed rockets, firearms, and roadside bomb components, as well as coordinated attacks throughout Sabari district, Khost prov.
KHOST PROVINCE -- In Sabari district, a combined Afghan and coalition SecFor patrol discovered a weapons cache, while conducting an op to disrupt insurgent activities in the region. The weapons cache consisted of 3 RPGs, 2 82 mm mortars, 20 rocket boosters, 2 RPG tail fins, a rifle, an RPG launcher, an IED, and 750 rounds of 7.62 mm ammo.
KUNAR PROVINCE -- In Nurgal district, a weapons cache was turned over to CF by a local civilian. The cache consisted of 28 various types of rockets and 29 cases for RPG propellant.
Postal Services stop as Troops are Heading Home
Story and photos by Spc. Anthony Zane
A soldier carries a duffle bag to send home into the Army Post Office on COB Adder, Nov. 11.
COB ADDER – With the expectation that U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, the number of service members leaving the country continues to increase, while the volume of incoming mail has decreased. The Army Post Office stopped receiving incoming mail, and notified service members on base that Nov. 13 is the last day for postal services.
"We sent out notification 90 days before the deadline so soldiers could prepare and allow them time to send what they needed home," said Sgt. Christian Sanchez, contracting officer rep, Postal Plt, 1-502nd Human Resource Co, from Fla.
“We were expecting to be really busy, so we extended the hours,” said Sanchez. “The idea was to keep it open late so people who work a 12-hour shift would have a chance to get to the APO and mail their stuff home,” said Sanchez.
In the past, civilian contractors have operated the APO, but with the drawdown, all ops are in a transition phase. Right now the 1-502nd Postal Plt supervises and assists the civilian employees, but will take over full ops of the APO when they leave country.
“It’s been running smoothly,” said Spc. Rosemary Siatunuu, military postal mission NCO-in-charge, Postal Plt, 1-502nd HR Co, from Hawaii. “We put out a flyer of info to the units, telling them that the military people can come out to their location and service them,” said Siatunuu. “It’s to speed up the process. That way they’re not all coming into the post office at different times. They all do it as a unit.”
"The difference is that it's military personnel doing the mobile inspections, and not contracted civilians," said Siatunuu. Their success has exceeded their own expectations.
“Altogether, my platoon came into Iraq under the assumption that we would be working as a postal plt,” said 1st Lt. Carl Price, postal platoon leader, Postal Plt, 1-502nd HR Co, from Texas. “We didn’t really know what that entailed, but getting on the ground at our first location in Mosul (FOB) Marez, we were able to handle the postal mission there in conjunction with civilian personnel, as well as the 2nd location - Joint Base Balad.”
“It hasn’t been as difficult as I would have imagined, because we’ve already gone through this closure process in those other 2 locations,” said Price. "The difference between this location and our previous location is, instead of it being an APO closure, we’re actually doing a full transition over to the Dept of State," said Price.
Service members are grateful for the Postal Plt. “Customer service and helping out the soldiers is the best part of this job,” said Siatunuu. “It’s very helpful for the Soldiers, because a lot of them don’t have time to come to the post office, and they really appreciate when we come out and do these mobile missions.”
“All in all, it has been a pleasant experience,” said Price. “I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without the dedication of my NCOs and the motivation of my troops; I definitely thank the service of the civilian personnel that are here also.”
Sgt. Christian Sanchez moves a container filled with packages ready to mail back to the states.