One day at a time for deployed Spartan brigade
KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Soldiers have different ways of marking away their deployment times. The paratroopers of 3rd Platoon, Troop A, 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment, Task Force Spartan, who are stationed at Camp Clark, tick it off by one perilous mission at a time. Here, in the rocky eastern interior of the country not far from the Pakistan border, days outside the wire are more common than days safely inside.
The unassuming settlements in the hills and valleys surrounding the base are known insurgent staging areas for trafficking supplies and gathering manpower, so the TF Spartan soldiers and their Afghan National Army partners make it a point to show up uninvited and often.
“The farther away we get from our gate, the more dangerous it gets,” said Sgt. Dennis Geary, of Newton, Mass., 3rd Platoon, team leader.
Snow-capped mountains ring the valley and a smooth, newly-paved road carries travelers up into the high country, past bustling markets, gurgling streams and scenic canyons.
But, according to Task Force Spartan soldiers, everything looks different through the small, thick windows of a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. The vehicles are monsters of armor and firepower, but they are also giant targets for improvised explosive devices.
“I wouldn’t say I get scared, but the adrenaline does get pumped,” said Pfc. Eric Barrale, from Arnold, Mo., a 3rd Platoon MRAP driver.
“Even when you go to the places that are supposed to be main bases for the Haqqani network or the Taliban, the people act nice,” said Geary. “They act fine when we’re there, helping them out, but on our way back [from one of these places] last time we found two artillery shells hidden off to the side of the road that they had prepped to hit us with on our return.”
Even with that kind of potential danger, paratroopers in Troop A make it a point to give every Afghan the benefit of the doubt.
“Every time you go [into one of the villages] you have to have an open mindset,” said 1st Lt. John Orendorff, from Bridgeport, Penn., Troop A, 3rd Platoon leader.
As the platoon leader, it is Orendorff’s duty to approach village elders, attempt to quell their misgivings and convince them to cooperate with coalition forces. In a war where one of the adversary’s main techniques is blending into the populace, reaching out to strangers can be daunting.
“Every time I go out, I feel like I could be shaking the hand of my enemy,” Orendorff said. “[But we] understand this is the kind of war we are in. It’s not all about the traditional conventional army, going out and looking for a fight. It’s more about seeing what the populace wants from us and what we can do for them.”
It’s an exhausting regimen in a rough and hostile land, but the soldiers of the 1st Sqdn., 40th Cav. Regt., take it in stride. This is, after all, exactly what they signed up for, and in the two months the unit has been in-country, they’ve thrown a lot of monkey wrenches into the enemy’s plans.
“We’ve stopped a lot of IED’s, found a lot of weapons caches and taken two detainees,” said McCracken. “Our biggest victory has been cutting off the [Haqqani network’s] supply flow.”
Another big success for the unit has been getting the ANA prepared to take over, said Orendorff.
“It’s always good to have the ANA out with us. I’ve been trying to push their leadership to take control of key leader engagements, where I can sit down and just have my interpreter whisper in my ear the whole time, and me not say a word. My goal is to get to where [the ANA] dominate the whole patrol from prepatrol brief to debrief,” he said. “We’re getting there.”
“We’re putting the ANA in the lead,” said Geary. “It’s what’s got to happen; they have to take that step and take over.”
One mission, one tick of the deployment clock, one village, one step at a time, Troop A, 1st Sqdn., 40th Cav. Regt., is making it happen. Even though it’s dangerous and stressful, there is a certain satisfaction in doing a job that is so important.
“Even when it seems like we’re not doing much, it’s all the stuff that’s unseen that we’re doing that’s making a difference. Our presence still causes that ripple effect,” said Geary. “We’re helping them take their country back.”