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As Afghan War Lengthens, Fresh Troops Deploy

4 years ago
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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
FORT POLK, Louisiana -- In the dwindling days before it deploys to combat in Afghanistan, these things are occupying the minds of 2-30 Infantry: the beer-can grip, the care and feeding of mules, and the eye shield.

Since the men of the 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment got home from Iraq 19 months ago to steamy Fort Polk, it's been a constant push of training, including a month of mock combat in the bitter February cold of Wyoming to prepare them for the Afghan winter. They've done battle drills day and night, in small groups and large; sharpened their skills at compass navigation through wilderness, and calling in medevac choppers. They can disassemble and assemble the M240 Bravo machine gun blindfolded, and they can recite the rules of engagement as laid down by their commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus. They've filled out wills, gotten their teeth checked. Some have gotten married. Now the sergeants are piling on more training to keep their minds occupied until it's time to go.

Everybody's a little fidgety and tense.

It's well known that President Barack Obama has ordered a "surge'' of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan -- bringing the total American force there to 100,000 -- and that he's promised to begin withdrawing troops next summer.

Less obvious is the work of the units on the move to replace those currently in Afghanistan on staggered one-year tours. To meet the complex manpower-demand schedule (which includes replacing the 50,000 troops in Iraq and thousands more deployed elsewhere), the Army and Marines move battalions and brigades around like chess pieces. Thus within a few weeks, the 4th Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division of Fort Polk -- including its 2nd Battalion 30th Infantry -- will climb aboard military jetliners and depart for a year in Afghanistan. The brigade's heavy weapons and other equipment has already shipped. Four other brigades may be in the rotation this fall as well, hoping to be home for Christmas 2011.

For the 2-30 infantry battalion, as for the others, the final days are a frenzy of last-minute training, getting name tags sewn on rucksacks, shopping for gear (knives; combat gloves), finishing paperwork and wishing the whole dang parade would just get going. "Aaaarrrgggh!'' said a young officer, brandishing a thick sheaf of personnel forms, "I'm never going to get out of here!''

The Beer-Can Grip Out on the rifle range, the battalion's Charlie Company is practicing marksmanship for the umpteenth time, shooting its M-4 rifles and M240 Bravo machine guns at paper picnic plates stapled to metal forms at distances of two football fields away to five football fields away across rolling meadows. Sergeants are watching with binoculars, yelling out, "Too far left ... right ... just short ... Pretty good shot!''

The beer-can grip, explains Staff Sgt. Kevin Sawyer, a squad leader, is what you use to cushion the gun barrel if you're shooting from a concrete window sill, for instance. You curl your fingers around in imaginary beer can and rest the barrel on your hand, and shoot. Otherwise, says Sawyer, if you rest the gun barrel directly on the concrete, "the harmonics will cause the barrel to waver, and you will miss.

"Really,'' he insists, as a reporter and a private look skeptical. "Beer can grip.''

Mules A problem confronting combat commanders in Afghanistan is mobility. The Pentagon has shipped over thousands of heavy armored vehicles to protect troops from roadside bombs. The MATV is a fine vehicle, less prone to rollover than the larger versions used in Iraq, but is still cumbersome.

The problem is, if you have to send troops across ravines and up hills along goat trails to get to the Taliban, you have to walk, and if you have to carry a lot of gear, the answer is mules. The Army has mules in Afghanistan. But how do you use and take care of the things?

"We sent 30 guys off to mule packer's school,'' said Lt. Col. Chris Ramsey, commander of 2-30. "I'll have at least four donkeys,'' he says, perhaps meaning mules (mules are the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse). "They'll extend our range, we can get people further out.''

Mule packer's school, a two-week course, is run by the Marines at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California. Textbook is the manual published 10 years ago by the Army's Special Warfare Center and School. The Army discharged its last mules in 1956, but recently has found them indispensable. Mules and other pack animals can climb anywhere a person can and continue "indefinitely,'' the manual says, as long as soldiers bring along the 10 pounds of grain and 14 pounds of hay a mule needs every day.

Mules are useful for carrying out wounded as well. But the battalion's newly trained mule drivers are learning not to do what they've seen in the movies. "Do not drape a wounded man head-down across a saddle,'' the manual advises.

The Eye Shield In dappled sunlight under tall pines, Spec. Steven Zimmerman, a medic, is reviewing combat first-aid techniques with soldiers of 2nd platoon, Charlie Co. This is a class that normally commands fitful attention; today the men of 2nd platoon, who will shortly be on the battlefield, are rapt.

"OK, gunshot wound to the chest, you want to seal that off, tape down all four sides,'' Zimmerman reminds them. He is a slight young man and earnest, talking quickly. "Always check for the exit wound. Don't try to clean'em up, just get 'em on the chopper. The heat from an explosion will cauterize a wound, and it'll fuse clothing to the skin. Don't try to peel it off, that IS his skin now, just get 'em on the chopper.

"OK, if you have something where the eye is hanging out, you want to cover up both eyes, moisten up that gauze, put that eye in the eye shield and tape it up; they're gonna have to do surgery on that one."

What if somebody bites off his tongue, a trooper inquires. "Put it on the bird with him,'' Zimmerman says without hesitation, "and tell him to calm down.''

"OK, abdominal wounds, evisceration, his bowels are hanging out. You never want to push 'em back in, OK? Get him on the stretcher and pile them on his stomach, wetten it to keep it moist and cover it up. Take away everything he could eat or drink because that would kill him. When you get him on the stretcher, bend his knees up to lessen the pressure on his abdomen.

You don't want to put pressure on his abdomen, you want to keep the dressing tight enough to keep his intestines in.''

At this a sergeant jumps up. He'd had enough of the gore. "Hey look y'all, he says. "We're gonna be chill. We got God's blessing. Ain't nothing gonna happen to us. All of us are going out, and all of us are coming back.''

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