For U.S. troops in Afghanistan, home is where they make it

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 2, 2009 

COMBAT OUTPOST OUTLAW, Afghanistan — When Bravo Company's 1st Platoon arrived at this abandoned homestead in early September, the American soldiers faced plenty of aggravation: scorpions, mosquitoes, fleas and unusually aggressive mice that scurried across prone bodies and complicated efforts to sleep.

From early on, however, the platoon's soldiers, more than 30 strong when they arrived, thought the place had potential. They found a courtyard full of pomegranate trees that were filled with ripe fruit and a covered cement porch where they could take off their battle gear and relax in the shade.

"We think this is a great place to chill," said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Dimico, 29, who's from Yakima, Wash.

The Taliban here in the Arghandab Valley have inflicted many U.S casualties in the past two months. Bravo Company's1st Platoon, part of the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, has had numerous firefights with insurgent forces, though no one has been killed. One soldier sprained his ankle, and three others were injured by roadside bombs, which have been planted around this outpost.

At the ends of patrols into the hostile territory just east of here, the outpost has become a welcome retreat, and the platoon has worked hard on improvements.

It reluctantly cut down some of the pomegranate trees to dry up the courtyard ground, and ease the mosquito problem.

It banished three white dogs after half the soldiers came down with scabies. Then it got medicine to roust the scabies from the soldiers' skin.

It also spruced up the more than a dozen small rooms that serve as sleeping quarters. It cleared out beehives and removed books, bedding and other stuff left behind by the homestead's owner, who the platoon thinks was forced to flee as the Taliban asserted control over the area.

The soldiers learned from a caretaker that the owner now is living in the city of Kandahar. They've stowed the family's personal items in a shed. The soldiers have provided a contact telephone number for the owner to their higher-ups. The Army has a policy of compensating Afghans whose land or buildings have been appropriated for soldiers' use, according to 1st Lt. Ryan Fadden, 24, of Hyde Park, N.Y.

Living here also allows the platoon's soldiers the opportunity to put some physical space between themselves and the long chain of Army command. Their brigade has more than 3,800 soldiers spread out over southern Afghanistan with a whole hierarchy of commanders. At this outpost, Fadden is the most senior. In the heat of a slow afternoon, he often strips off his shirt, slips into shorts and relaxes with his soldiers.

"You don't have someone telling you to pick this up, wear these clothes, do this, do that," Dimico said. "It's like a little bit of freedom that you can have."'

Though the Army's official name for this combat outpost is "Brick Patrol Base One," the platoon decided that it wanted its own name, COP Outlaw, which it painted on a piece of plywood and hung over the front wall.

There's no set mealtime here. When a soldier feels that it's chow time, he heads into a room that has cartons full of meals ready to eat. These MREs offer beef enchiladas, chicken breasts, pot roast and a whole host of other entrees that can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

On some days, there's time for a game of bocce, played with ceramic balls in the courtyard, or Spades, the soldiers' favorite card game. At night, as the generator kicks in, they watch movies stored on their computers.

During the past several weeks, the outpost also began to attract villagers with medical problems. The platoon medic, 21-year-old Matthew Klein of Sublette, Ill., has treated more than 20 people, including one memorable patient with a flesh-eating skin disease who'd lost much of his face. Klein called up specialists for a consult, but they weren't much help.

"All I could really do is give this guy pain medicine," Klein said. "I'm more of a combat injury specialist."

There are Taliban fighters nearby. They, too, have made their outposts in abandoned compounds, farther to the east. Since early September, the platoon has taken incoming fire to the compound on at least three occasions, and engaged in several firefights on its daily patrols.

Recently, for a larger operation, several other platoons of Bravo Company soldiers as well as Afghan and Canadian soldiers spent a couple of nights at Camp Outlaw. It was a big crowd, with soldiers sprawled in sleeping bags all over the porch and courtyard.

Then they left, leaving 1st Platoon back in control. The platoon cleaned up the trash, swept the porch and settled back into folding chairs on the porch. The soldiers talked about how the past mission went and the best flavors of MREs, and then drifted off to bed.

"This is our favorite place to be. This is our home," Dimico said.

(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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