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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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54 Comments

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Mark

Iraq=OIL, Afghanistan=LITHIUM......The question is, where will our government send our military next (under the guise of spreading Democracy and stamping out terrorism)?

September 27 2010 at 1:29 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Linda & Billy

The bravery of these and all our troops must be rewarded with victory and the imaginary deadlines the president has set up to "keep the dems" together is impeachable. Politics is what lost the Vietnam conflict and some 60,000 lives. America hasn't learned much about winning in war. Just goes to show that a community organizer does not a commander in chief make.

September 22 2010 at 11:18 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
Jen

In my opinion (which may not count for much) I think the most important thing we need to do is pray. Pray for the president, for those in leadership...for the men and women in the midst of all of this ON BOTH SIDES. So many people are hurting all over the world. When will we learn that we cannot change the minds of those who are choosing to follow an ideal that they believe in. I pray for peace....yes, I am a bit of a pacifist...but what are we proving by continuing to occupy a country that we KNOW will revert to it's own ways again as soon as we leave....seems like such a waste of human time. Never mind the money...little bits of green paper...it's the PEOPLE who are ending up suffering. Please, Father God bring peace soon.

September 21 2010 at 10:31 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
Patricia

God Bless them all and keep them out of harms way. Mine is about to return home. For the loved ones at home...message: Send packages as often as you can. Anything from games to water flavors. Not much they wont use. We even sent a pool, but of course winter is coming now....hand warmers are great! Stay safe soldiers! You make America proud!!!!

September 21 2010 at 7:47 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
lucadevetta

Mules have been in use in the Italian Army, and specifically by the Mountain Troops, till the early 90s. As far as I know, they have always been reliable and strong partners of our soldiers throughout both world wars and through the cold war, too. As the Italian Army is pretty much engaged in Afghanistan, your soldiers may get in touch there and exchange experience on mules training and use in war.

September 21 2010 at 7:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
purpletwilite824

They push and push and push our guys to fight these wars, constantly, to the point that even when they are "home", they're still doing nothing but exercises for the war. The mental anguish and constant war mentality, whether home station or abroad is killing our service members at a far greater amount than any Taliban are. In January of this year, 16 military members were killed due to combat but 24 committed suicide. Last year, we lost 319 of our brothers, sons, mothers, daughters and children in this "operation" but 334 more committed suicide. This hits home to me because my husband is working 80 hours a week with barely a day off every other week, and all they do is play war. He comes home and tells me they had three suicide attempts in the squadron over the last 30 days. Our men and women may be "home" from the warfront, but their danger levels are still high. They aren't getting a chance to rest and relax because it's all war, war, war. They even have controlled explosions and sirens etc during these "exercises" and wow, isn't that wonderful for ptsd. I understand why they're doing these exercises, but my point is that our force is constantly in "deploy mode" even when they are home. This article is very accurate, and it goes on for months behind the scenes.

September 21 2010 at 7:18 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to purpletwilite824's comment
vicbar88

I do wory for our troops but just what do you think the military is all about anyway?? don't you want them to be ready and trained as much as possible when war happens? Also don't forget that we have a volunter force that knew what the possibilities were before volunteering. Granted they do need more and a lot better support but they are doing what they signed up for aren't they?

September 21 2010 at 7:42 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
jwsexton9

Reading all these comments is like repeating History,,,I read and heard all the same negative statements on WW2,KOREA and Nam. As for Muslins dieing for there God is no different than the Japs dieing for there beliefs and as well the suicide attacks. But we beat there ass any way ,,I suggest that those that put out all the negative talk is shades of the 1960'and 1970's and I was there in the Military and know first hand what effect it had or our military,,,Its a real ball buster to fight in any war with out all the team on your side,,,,If you dont like the Country at war for this cause then write your letters to those that count,,Not to the dam media.

September 21 2010 at 6:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
izjohnierock

support the troops even if they don't always understand why. stop from doing drugs and supporting the drug dealers. stop the hate and help a little. if everyone stop pointing the finger and started helping in one way or another with out the greed for them self it would be a start.build a relationship with a stranger who lives different than you! is it hard to not get in fights cuz your different? YES! but give some understanding ease down a little and start to work together and then you make a team, a friend, a memory a bond, don't be the problem, be the solution!

September 21 2010 at 1:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ddan8719

To win we must drop all uniforms..no more standing out as targets to these moronic muslims..dress exactly as they dress, grow beards, act look and dress like your enemy..When will the most powerful nation on earth start fighting a war on these terms..drastic less fatalities..Fight this conflict as your enemy.. then and only then will you see progress..

September 20 2010 at 11:12 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ddan8719's comment
striderryo

That would be madness to do that on a mass scale. lead to more civilian casualites, the Taliban don't really care who they hurt. I think blackops and other covert forces do that already, though, for assassination and reconnaissance . Also they are probably better at their way of fighting than we would be at it, not to say that their way, however honed, is at all superior or even on par with ours. You don't just put robes and turbans on our guys and send to fight, and what, bullets magically bounce of them? Their helmets and armor help protect them from shrapnel and even bullets and bring them home alive, not to mention everything else that goes with our gettups to integrate with technology that gives us an edge. And the millions that goes to training every individual to use THAT tech and not some dusty ak-47s (so they gonna walk around with g.i. assault rifles under these robes?) Why do people think Afghanistan is just a little dustbowl, its a big frekin place that has lots of unfavorable conditions and it's the enemy's turf, problem is logistics and then its getting whatever their. actual mission is done, with what they have (part of that has been in the hands of contractors who have not or cannot fulfill what they were asked to do..)

September 21 2010 at 1:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
angelo

The US will go down in history as the latest foreign occupier of Afghanistan....not much else.

September 20 2010 at 9:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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