COMBAT OUTPOST DAND WA PATAN, Afghanistan – Capt. Paul Bosse stood atop a guard tower at this tiny outpost Friday afternoon and pointed to a small flag fluttering in the hot, arid breeze a mere 600 yards away.
“See that flag over there? That’s Pakistan,” Bosse said. “We’re that close.”
And at the same time, he’s so far from the rocky coastline, lush forests and infinitely more peaceful landscape of his home state of Maine.
In military parlance, they call places like this dry, dusty, 10-acre combat outpost the “tip of the spear.”
It sits hard on the eastern edge of a mountainous region where Taliban fighters from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, tribal warlords from centuries-old villages and al-Qaida operatives from who knows where come and go with their ever-shifting alliances, criss-crossing agendas and deep-rooted defiance of all things American.
It’s also where some 150 soldiers from the Maine Army National Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry, find themselves entrenched in perhaps the most challenging mission in recent Maine military history:
First, they must try to control the flow of insurgents who regularly move — sometimes by road, other times by mountain trail — across the treacherous border between eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s near-autonomous western tribal region.
Second, they must nurture local Afghan Border Police, as well as the national Afghan Uniform Police, from fledgling and sometimes corrupt collections of rag-tag recruits into security forces who might someday defend Afghanistan from its myriad of insurgencies without the heavy helping hand of the U.S. military.
“Securing the border and mentoring are not mutually exclusive,” noted Bosse, who spent Saturday afternoon drinking chai with a local ABP intelligence officer.
Finally, soldiers from Bravo Company take every opportunity they can get to connect with the local population and persuade them that their ever-shifting loyalties do not a stable country make.
All told, it’s a tall order for a company of soldiers from Maine with a median age somewhere in the mid-20s.
But 2nd Lt. Kyle McCrum of Winterport, who served with Bravo Company during its deployment to Iraq in 2005-06, says even the youngest Mainers are by no means in over their heads.
“They say you can’t compare Guard with active duty, but if you put us up against any active duty unit, we’d probably hold our own,” said McCrum, 29.
“These guys are all totally competent,” he continued. “They train hard. They stay in shape. You’ve got a lot of very intelligent guys here.”
They need to be. From the nearby towering, 10,000-foot peaks still capped with snow to the valleys where the mid-day temperatures already push past 100 degrees, the Dand wa Patan District of Paktya Province, like much of Afghanistan, is bracing itself for the summer fighting season.
“This is no place for sissies,” said Bosse, 37, who lives in Auburn and commanded a platoon during Bravo Company’s deployment to Iraq. Bravo spent that year providing security for convoys south of Baghdad and living on sprawling military bases that would dwarf this postage-stamp combat outpost, or COP.
“Even when you’re not taking fire, this is a true infantry mission,” Bosse said. “It’s not people driving around in vehicles or working behind an air-conditioned desk in Kabul. It’s hard living.”
Formerly an Afghan Border Police compound — a company-size detachment of so-called “ABPs” still shares the post with the Americans — COP Dand wa Patan had been occupied by a National Guard company from Georgia for just four months before Bravo Company took over in late March.
In early February, less than two months before the Mainers arrived, a suicide bomber disguised as an ABP officer infiltrated the walled compound and self-detonated just inside one of the barracks — injuring five Georgians but killing only himself.
The pockmarked concrete still blemishes the building’s entryway, a silent reminder to all that anything can happen at any time.
Beyond the battle scars, COP Dand wa Patan remains very much a work in progress.
When not out on patrol or manning an observation post barely visible on a high ridge some four miles away, Bravo Company’s soldiers have built sturdy tables and benches inside a small mess hall — the meals still come from a nearby food trailer.
Where once there was just hard-packed, dusty soil, clearly defined stone walkways now lead from one building to the next.
The ever-popular gym sits in a small tent, but just last week it received a much-needed supply of new free-weights, dumbbells, benches, a squat rack and other equipment.
But the latrines — well, they still need some work.
With no females serving in the infantry unit, soldiers openly urinate into 4-inch-wide plastic tubes protruding at 45-degree angles from the ground.
And while primitive plywood shacks provide some modicum of privacy for soldiers to relieve their bowels into open metal drums, the waste is then dragged a few yards away to the perimeter of the outpost, mixed with diesel fuel and torched.
“It’s kind of like sitting around the campfire,” explained Sgt. Roscoe Driscoll of South China, who occasionally pulls the incineration duty just like everyone else. “You laugh, but when you see it burning and it’s cold at night, there will be guys out there shooting the (whatever) and watching it burn. It just smells like diesel to me — you get used to it.”
As demanding as life might be inside COP Dand wa Patan, however, the world outside the wire is where the real challenges await.
Just two weeks ago, Sgt. Eric Christie, 23, of Richmond was the truck commander aboard an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) leading a convoy back from the city of Gardez, about 35 miles west of here.
Suddenly, insurgents attacked the lead truck with three rocket-propelled grenades.
One hit the rear right side of the vehicle, while another came through the front windshield and exploded directly behind Christie — peppering his back with dozens of small shrapnel wounds.
“There was just a big flash and a loud BANG,” recalled Christie. “And then it felt like someone was hitting me in the back with a hot poker.”
Wounded worse than Christie was the truck’s gunner, Pfc. Andrew Chic, 23, of Hampden. Christie crawled out the back of the truck’s cab and tended to Chic until a medic came forward.
Meanwhile, the also-wounded driver, Spc. Ryan Curley, 24, of Bangor wrestled the vehicle two kilometers beyond the “kill zone” on flattened tires.
According to Bosse, Chic is now recovering from his wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Christie and Curley, meanwhile, are already back on duty after being treated for several days at a combat support hospital at Forward Operating Base Salerno.
“It’s still sore and stuff,” said Christie, who’s actually been back out on the road since his return. “But it’s not horrible.”
That kind of stoicism, even among the youngest soldiers of Bravo Company, is not hard to find.
Sitting on a cot inside his crowded enlisted-men barracks late last week, Spc. Matt Chaisson, 21, of Richmond laughed about rappelling down a sheer cliff a few days earlier while rotating out two weeks at the remote observation post.
“It started hailing while we were going down. The hail was this big,” he said, making a circle the size of a golf ball with his thumb and index finger. “All I had was an MRE (meals ready to eat) bag. I was holding it over my head.”
Chaisson, a mortar specialist, did a tour in Iraq with the 169th Military Police shortly after graduating from Richmond High School in 2006.
He said he understands the theory behind the U.S. military’s current counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan — a delicate balance between thwarting the insurgents while cultivating trust with the rest of the populace.
Still, like many soldiers here, he can’t help but wonder who the good guys are and who the bad guys are whenever he heads out on a mission.
“COIN (counterinsurgency) is nice and all — before they start blowing you up,” Chaisson said. The challenge for the Afghans, he added, is “to do the right thing when nobody’s looking.”
Spc. Peter Donovan of Lisbon, also 21, is one of Chaisson’s 11 bunkmates. He begged the Guard to send him here after his originally planned deployment to Iraq with the 133rd Engineer Battalion was scrapped at the last minute in December.
Why the burning desire to deploy to a war zone — and an increasingly dangerous one at that?
First, Donovan said, “I more or less thought that when I’m 80 years old, I’d really regret not going. I didn’t want to say, ‘I could have gone, I should have gone, but I didn’t.’“
Second, Donovan, whose parents both served in the Maine Guard, said he truly believes he and his fellow soldiers can do some good before they head home — probably in mid-November.
“It’s not just about coming out here and killing as many people as you can,” Donovan said. “It’s about leaving something behind when we go, something better than when we came.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be reached at 791-6323 or at: