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Amid Obama Surge, Troops Prepare for Afghanistan Perils, Hardships

4 years ago
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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
CAMP GUERNSEY, Wyo. -- Looking for a place to prepare for its yearlong combat tour in Afghanistan in September, the infantry battalion that calls itself "the Wild Boars'' settled on this remote patch of windswept high plains.

For a month, its soldiers battled blizzards and sub-zero temperatures, conditions that are common to Afghanistan's mountainous terrain. They practiced shooting almost straight up steep ridges, and straight down. They shot daytime and nighttime. They shot while running and they shot while running and wearing heavy packs. They practiced rappelling their wounded down mountainsides. They practiced calling in live artillery fire. The logistics guys practiced pushing hot meals, water and ammo out 15 miles to remote patrol bases. They ran night patrols and practiced chasing down insurgents who had set ambushes for them. In accordance with the Army's three imperatives, they moved, they shot, they communicated.

For the first frigid days they felt sorry for themselves, coming as they did out of the semi-tropical warmth of Fort Polk, La. Then they got down to business. They lived hard, waking with frost on their sleeping bags, shaving in ice water, eating with their gloves on. They knelt in quick huddles, hunched against a cutting wind, to game plan their maneuvers. And at month's end, they flew home, having first practiced how to gracefully reintegrate with their families at Fort Polk, a skill critical to keeping military families intact.

President Obama's "surge'' of 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan is well under way, with the final units arriving late this summer.

Less visible is the continuing rotation into and out of Afghanistan of the 83,000 U.S. troops already there on 12-month deployments. Combined with the 86,000 U.S. Army soldiers serving in and around Iraq, the war imposes an unrelenting schedule on troops and families. It means soldiers spend weeks away from home on field exercises, replicating the conditions under which they will operate in combat.

And the coming deployments are expected to be hard ones, despite the Obama surge. "We are not likely to see the dramatic decrease in violence [in Afghanistan] that we saw in the first six months [of the surge] in Iraq,'' Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the region, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week. "2010 will be a difficult year, a year that will see progress in reversal of Taliban gains, but also a year of tough fighting and periodic setbacks.''

So the Wild Boars' training here was intentionally tough.

"There's no better way to build a team than through shared hardship,'' Lt. Col. Chris Ramsey, commander of the Wild Boars (2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division), enthused one frigid evening.

The battalion got home from 14 months in Iraq a little more than a year ago. Like other returning units, it lost many soldiers who retired, were transferred to other units, or went off to leadership courses or other schools.

Thus the Wild Boars arrived in Wyoming short of lieutenants and senior noncommissioned officers, among others. Five of its nine platoons were led by a senior sergeant rather than a lieutenant, and platoon sergeant slots, usually filled by a sergeant first class, were instead taken by lower-ranking soldiers.

They did well, but the shortages put Command Sgt. Maj. Doug Maddi in a frenzy, desperately trying to hold on to experienced troopers, convincing soldiers to re-enlist when their term expires, or at least to extend their enlistment so they can deploy with the battalion to Afghanistan.

"I'm telling guys, sign up for the deployment and that gets you $500 a month extra pay,'' Maddi said. "I'm promising guys, you commit to the deployment and I'll get you Mountain Warfare Training'' or a coveted spot in Ranger or airborne school.

Despite such incentives, the soldiers who do re-enlist seem not to do it for the money.

"My buddy died in Iraq, and that's why I re-enlisted,'' said Staff Sgt. Justin Vance, a 25-year-old from Elkins, W.Va.

"It's kind of silly but I really looked up to him,'' Vance, an artillery section chief, told me one afternoon between fire missions. "I was going to get out, but it just seemed selfish to take all your knowledge and leave. He wanted to take care of soldiers. Now I am taking care of soldiers.''

New soldiers, pouring into the battalion prior to the deployment, need taking care of. "Probably half of my guys are new,'' said 1st Sgt. Michael Ward, a 44-year-old from Oakland, Calif. That's a particular problem when it comes to working with helicopters. Some of them get nervous.

"I've already identified four guys that, anytime we're up off the ground, we got to monitor them pretty closely,'' Ward said.

To assist in preparing his soldiers for Afghanistan, battalion commander Ramsey asked the Defense Department to send him an Afghan to serve as his cultural adviser, and for an Afghan army company to live with and train with the Wild Boars until they deploy to Afghanistan together. Neither of these unusual requests was granted.

Still, he pushed his guys hard to be ready for the unusual combat demands of Afghanistan.

"We are training for the enemy-initiated fight,'' said Ramsey, who spent four years in the 1st Ranger Battalion. In contrast to Iraq, where U.S. troops (and especially the Rangers) hunted down insurgents, Ramsey's troops in Afghanistan essentially will be fighting on the defensive, seeking to protect the Afghan population rather than setting out to kill insurgents.

"The key to success will be based on the lesson we've learned, that you can't kill 'em all,'' Ramsey said. "Somebody's going to have to push you -- and you'll have to respond. The fight has 100 percent changed.''

The troops absorbed all these hard lessons -- from the weather to the tactics -- with their usual easygoing banter. One morning's work was to practice transporting a wounded soldier down a mountain to where he could be evacuated by helicopter. Spec. James Hardin, 22, of Sussex N.J., volunteered to be the wounded man, strapped tightly into a plastic skid and wrapped with rope.

"Jeez, I'm freakin' claustrophobic in here,'' he cried as soldiers gently rappelled him down a cliff face. "Imagine if I'd just lost a leg!''

Said his buddy, Sgt. Aaron Bascom, 25, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa: "Then at least you'd have more room in there!''

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