Lewis-McChord soldiers in Afghanistan see sudden action

The (Tacoma) News TribuneApril 4, 2012 

The insurgents didn’t have a chance. Helicopter surveillance spotted them moving to a weapons cache and preparing to bury a powerful homemade bomb. It weighed 45 pounds, and they took turns carrying it.

From the air, Apache helicopters laced into the insurgents with automatic cannons. On the ground, an infantry platoon from Joint Base Lewis-McChord marched to find the explosive and complete the job.

The Stryker soldiers looked to have won the opening round in the Taliban’s annual spring offensive, and it was a fight the enemy picked.

But they still had a long night ahead with unknown dangers in the dark. They had to find out whether the insurgents had laid other bombs before they’d been spotted. And they had to secure the weapons cache.

“There’s still a mine out there,” said the mission planner, Capt. Brian Rieser of Lacey.

Spc. Eric Pollack of Puyallup treaded lightly as the platoon approached the scene, looking for mines, sticking in tight single-file formation.

Pfc. Uriel Velazquez, a medic, made it to a wounded insurgent and tried to give aid, but the man was near death.

Another soldier noticed wires and batteries protruding from an enemy’s body.

“S-vest!” he shouted, signaling that the body was wearing a suicide vest.

The platoon scattered.

Then Pvt. Harry Tevis saw the insurgent move.

• • • • •

Until last week, the Lewis-McChord cavalry troop here had a seemingly slow time of it since deploying to southern Afghanistan in December.

The C Troop of the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment is based at Forward Operating Base Wolverine, which sits about 6,000 feet above sea level. Snow covered the area for months this winter, and enemy activity was limited.

Some soldiers said they regretted not being assigned to the war’s front lines in Kandahar Province with comrades from their Stryker brigade – the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

That feeling was especially strong among one infantry platoon that had been attached to Rieser’s cavalry troop.

“I’d rather be (in Kandahar) with the rest of the battalion,” said Pollack, 36, who belongs to the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.

Then suddenly, the soldiers here found themselves leaving the base for planned and spontaneous missions two to three times a day.

They met Afghan elders who refused to choose sides in the war, fearing Taliban retribution for helping Americans or the power vacuum NATO could leave when the fighting ends.

Fazel Mohammed, an elder who lives north of Wolverine, told a Lewis-McChord soldier on a patrol Saturday that the Taliban “will ruin my life – they will kill me.”

Soldiers were patrolling a town after midnight last week when they heard of a vehicle equipped with an improvised explosive. A similar threat arose the next day. Soldiers and civilians at Wolverine wore Kevlar vests to dinner because commanders were concerned the base could be attacked.

Also last week, the cavalry soldiers captured their first detainee: an insurgent spotter who was tracking their movements from about 1,400 meters outside the base. Soldiers sprinted to him wearing their full battle gear to apprehend him before he could flee.

“Fighting season has started all over the country, but not here,” Sgt. 1st Class Eric Jackson said as he prepared to take a cavalry platoon out on a patrol.

• • • • •

Rieser kept Jackson and the infantry platoon close at hand Saturday. Intelligence mounted during the evening suggesting insurgents had built a weapons cache near Omar Zai, a village generally hostile to U.S. soldiers. Children throw rocks at Americans there, soldiers said.

At 8 p.m., Rieser sent the soldiers out of his headquarters for a few hours of sleep or a meal before a planned midnight mission.

Around 9 p.m., surveillance showed insurgents going to the cache and preparing to plant a bomb.

Jackson and a platoon led by Lt. Jeremy Wisniewski set out on foot to find them.

• • • • •

No one told the foot patrol to expect an Apache attack as they walked in the dark searching for the enemy. Then heavy guns from the helicopters tore through the night at about 10:20 p.m.

“They scared the living crap out of me,” said Tevis, 20, who lives at Lewis-McChord when he’s stationed stateside.

The 40 soldiers on the patrol hit the ground until they realized the Apache fire was on their side

“It was very chaotic,” Tevis said.

The Apache strike came together at the last minute partly because the attack needed permission from Rieser’s brigade-level commanders. The rules here generally require U.S. soldiers to collaborate closely with their Afghan counterparts. Rieser was able to act without Afghan consultation this time because his soldiers were not entering a populated village; also, they had evidence of an imminent threat.

With the insurgents apparently wiped out from the air, the soldiers on the ground had a new mission: They’d find the insurgents and flag the bomb so a disposal crew could destroy it.

• • • • •

The news from the patrol seemed to keep getting worse as the soldiers made slow progress getting to the fallen enemy fighters.

They saw signs suggesting the insurgents had planted four bombs near the orchard where they were killed.

The soldiers walked in single-file lines as they tried to avoid hidden explosives in the dark.

“It was nerve-wracking,” Pollack said. “I was walking real light-footed. I was conscious of every step, trying to keep right behind the person in front of me.”

When they arrived at the bodies and found one possibly booby-trapped with a suicide vest, the infantrymen sprinted away in all directions.

Tevis saw the wired insurgent lurch. Other soldiers didn’t believe him until they saw it, too.

They kept their distance and shared concerns that the man was “playing possum.”

• • • • •

Rieser took another cavalry platoon and a group of Afghan soldiers to the scene about 2 a.m.

By that point, a helicopter had dropped a “speed ball” to refuel the Lewis-McChord soldiers with water and packaged Meals Ready to Eat. They knew they’d be at the site well past sunrise.

The threat of a suicide vest also appeared less likely at that hour. Soldiers kept an eye on the wounded fighter and determined the exposed wires were bomb-making components, not an assembled device.

Rieser was pumped as he left headquarters with news that the threat likely had dissipated.

The insurgents “got licked on their first time out,” the 33-year-old captain said. “What we proved tonight is that we own the night. It’s a huge advantage for us.”

The Afghan and American reinforcements reached the site of the helicopter attack to clear the area and take the insurgents’ bodies from the field.

The wounded fighter with the bomb-making materials died on his way to a military hospital in Kandahar.

A total of three insurgents were killed in the Apache strike.

• • • • •

A megaphone sounded at Wolverine at 7 a.m. Sunday telling soldiers and civilians here that a controlled detonation would soon take place.

A team from Lewis-McChord’s 787th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company destroyed the homemade bomb, and the blast was audible at the base less than 3 kilometers away.

Soldiers found two more improvised explosives in the vicinity of the first one and took care of those, too.

• • • • •

At 9:30 a.m., tired soldiers trickled into their barracks, 12 hours after they’d left the base on foot.

They stripped from their sweaty and sometimes bloody clothes and headed for the showers. Some ate, and junior soldiers talked about the night they shared in their first combat experience.

“This is what we signed up to do,” said Pvt. Mitchell Dobry, 20, who lives in the barracks at Lewis-McChord when not deployed.

Jackson, the platoon sergeant whose soldiers call him “Daddy,” messed with his guys.

“Red com 1. Everybody get your gear on. There’s an IED en route,” he said as his soldiers undressed in their tent.

They groaned. They’d moved on two all-night missions in the previous five days.

“April Fools’!” Jackson laughed.

Veterans savored the victory while keeping their minds on how the insurgents might respond to their overnight losses.

“This is going to be a long deployment,” said Lt. Joseph Fontana, 28, the troop’s executive officer. “This is a great victory for us.”

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