Sep 9, 2009

From Richard Engel; embedded outside of Kandahar

With the Stryker Brigade:

KABUL, Afghanistan – It is a brutal first impression. The moment my feet touch the sand as I step out of a Stryker armored vehicle, I hear an explosion. It’s far away; about half a mile. I hear a big deep thud and look over my shoulder. I see a cloud of brown dust expanding in an Afghan village.

The village walls and houses are all made of mud. One of the houses has just exploded into a brown cloud. American soldiers were inside the booby-trapped structure. Within seconds, we hear radio traffic.

One American is dead. Others are wounded. The radio calls are urgent, but formal. No names. They don’t use names so soldiers who listen to the radio don’t become upset in the midst of what is now a rescue operation to save the wounded soldiers.

I’ve been here for less than five minutes.

The Medevac helicopters fly in. They take away the wounded first. Nothing more can be done for the dead. The wounded are the priority.

Part of the surge in Afghanistan

In my blue spiral notebook I start to take notes to figure out where I am, and what’s going on.

The notes are short:
* I’m in the Arghandab valley, just outside Kandahar.
* It’s a Taliban stronghold.
* It’s mostly desert with a few green orchards around the mud-walled villages.
* I’m with the Army’s Stryker brigade. These soldiers were supposed to go to Iraq. Some learned Arabic before they were diverted to Afghanistan in February.One soldier is dead. He’s the seventh soldier the Stryker brigade has lost in three weeks.

I write a number 7 in my notebook and circle it.

A few minutes later I meet the unit that’s hosting me on this mission. The troops I’m joining, Alpha Company, are led by Capt. Mike Kovalsky. He’s 26 and from New Jersey. He talks fast and is a fan of Frank Sinatra and martinis. He likes to quote famous historians and music. He has a fantastic memory for quotes.

But Kovalsky wasn’t supposed to be the company commander. He was a staff officer, working back on base. He’s replaced another commander who was killed along with three other soldiers. They were on a mission to deliver medical assistance to a village when their vehicle was destroyed by an improvised explosive device. Kovalsky was asked to fill in.

He’s still trying to gain the respect of the men, but has confidence beyond his age. They seem to respect him. He was part of the surge in Iraq. Now he’s part of the surge here.

Kovalsky tells me the mission they have is to enter a village near the one where I’d just watched a soldier lose his life and search for Taliban fighters and weapons. We’ll leave at first light. It’s already starting to get dark. We eat Army rations out of plastic bags and drink as much as possible. It’ll be hot in the morning: 110 degrees Fahrenheit or more. We’ll be out all day.

The men huddle in the desert before bedding down in the sand. The chaplain says a prayer for the soldier lost this afternoon. He asks the Lord to protect the men and grant them success on the mission tomorrow morning. We sleep in the desert.

It’s cold at night in the sand. For a pillow, I use a use a tourniquet, a strap soldiers carry to cut off the flow of blood if they’re blown up. The soldiers all carry them in their pockets. I carry one, too. If you’re blown up, the medics use your tourniquet. They keep theirs for even worse emergencies.

Before going to sleep I’m told one of the wounded soldiers from this afternoon died while being evacuated. In my notebook I cross off the 7 and write an 8.

Eight soldiers killed from just this brigade in three weeks. Eight families back home who have lost their sons and fathers.

Looking for IEDS

In the morning, we’re joined by a few Afghan soldiers. They seem professional. All are wearing clean uniforms. They seem well trained and carry their weapons well. But I’m shocked at how few they are. There are just 20 or 30. There are more than 100 Americans.

We’re warned about IEDs – improvised explosive devices – a somewhat desensitized way of saying bombs that can blow you to pieces and throw your body 75 feet in the air. The entire area is seeded with IEDs. They’re around all the villages and by every entrance. They’re hidden in the orchards. The place is like a minefield.

Some of the Strykers, the soldiers’ armored vehicles, are fitted with giant rollers. They stick out in front of the big armored trucks, making the Strykers look like the machines that pick up golf balls at a driving range. The Strykers push the heavy wheels of the rollers over the sand. If the wheels hit an IED, the device will blow up. If not, the ground is safe.

We walk in a double-file line in the tracks left by the rollers. I try to walk in the footsteps of the soldier in front of me. I notice an Afghan soldier is two feet behind me. He’s walking in my tracks.

We walk slowly and gingerly. Time goes slowly too. So far, no IEDs. The Afghan soldiers search houses while the Americans guard the perimeter. Americans aren’t allowed in the houses. It’s considered culturally insensitive.

The Americans comb the public areas of the village. They look around the houses and search doors for booby-traps. They search the walls. Many of the IEDs are homemade fertilizer bombs like the one used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing, only smaller. Most of fertilizer bombs weigh 20 to 30 pounds and are packed into plastic water bottles and then buried in the ground or into the walls of structures. That’s what killed the soldiers the other day. The houses can explode.

It’s around 4 p.m. and 115 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m out of water. I never remember to bring enough. I’ve already drank two liters. The soldiers plan to search until dark. They want to finish sweeping through the village and the adjoining orchards. But they’re nervous about the orchards.

At least in the open ground they can look for wires or "pressure plates" that trigger the IEDs. Most of the IEDs are detonated by pressure plates. They’re primitive triggers, two pieces of metal attached to wires with sand, paper or wood typically used to keep them apart. If a soldier steps on the top of a pressure plate, he pushes the two pieces of metal together completing an electrical circuit and detonating the bomb. A soldier tells me he’s seen a pressure plate made out of a candy bar wrapper with paper stuffed inside to keep the two metallic sides apart. They’re that easy to make.

In the orchards the soldiers can’t see much. A tripwire could be under any branch or in the grass. The Afghan soldiers refuse to go in the orchards. It’s too dangerous.

But the orchards are clear. The day’s mission is complete. The men walk back to their Strykers for another night in the sand.

As we get ready for bed, word comes over the radio that another soldier, part of the same brigade, was killed nearby. Another IED. I scratch out the 8 in my notebook and make it a 9.

We never saw a single Taliban fighter.

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