Correction: Spc. Peter Anderson’s name has been corrected.

 

DAND WA PATAN, Afghanistan – The donkey spoke with his feet. And they weren’t moving.

Three 20-liter containers filled with diesel fuel, each weighing at least 30 pounds, hung from the rope webbing draped over the pack animal’s back.

And with the morning sun already blazing and a 2,000-foot climb staring him in the face, the donkey looked up at the two dozen Maine Army National Guard soldiers as if to say, “Guys, you’ve got to be kidding.”

“He breaks a leg, he’s done,” said one voice in the crowd as Sgt. Jonathan Weeks of Ellsworth and Spc. Jeffrey Holmes of Houlton tried to coax the animal up the long, rocky trail.

Enter Bravo Company 1st Sgt. John Brooks of Glenburn, who ordered his men to remove one of the plastic jugs.

“I’ve got it,” said Brooks, 39, hoisting the container over his head and balancing it atop his rucksack. “Just let me know if it starts leaking.”

“Hard man, that first sergeant!” came a voice from the rear as Second Platoon, at long last, moved out.

Sunday was switch-out day at Observation Post 13, a ramshackle collection of sandbags, narrow passageways and just plain hardship high atop a ridge four miles from Combat Outpost Dand wa Patan.

For a week or two at a time, the three line platoons of Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry take turns manning what company commander Capt. Paul Bosse calls “our sun — because it’s the one spot everything else we do revolves around.”

Even from the combat outpost four miles away, the reason is obvious:

The tiny observation post, “O-P” in soldier speak, commands a view of the relatively friendly Shepulah Ghar valley, in which the COP Dand wa Patan sits, and the more restive Pesho Ghar valley to the south.

Both are but a portion of Bravo Company’s sprawling “battle area” on the often-porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As the Maine soldiers push forward with their mission to curtail insurgent traffic through the Pesho Ghar, they spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, deciphering the routes, travel patterns and safe houses that have long made the picturesque valley an attractive destination for incoming Taliban fighters and other insurgents.

“We’ve got it all catalogued and recorded,” said Sgt. Frederick Moody of Gorham, who works with Bravo Company’s intelligence unit and on this day was heading for the OP to oversee improvements to its communications system.

But first, Moody and his comrades had to get up there.

The day began before dawn, when a convoy of six armored vehicles pulled out of the combat outpost and traversed first a paved “hardball” roadway, then a series of bumpy dirt roads and finally a foot-deep river.

Finally, after 45 bumpy, lurching minutes, the trucks stopped in a field next to the Shepulah Fire Base, a fortified compound at the base of the mountains operated by the Afghan Border Police.

There, the platoon split up. Ten soldiers headed up a “wadi,” a dry riverbed, with a new diesel-powered generator that would be hauled first by hand and then lifted by a series of ropes to the observation post — at this point a mere speck on the distant ridge line.

The rest of Second Platoon hunkered down to wait for soldiers from Third Platoon to come down from the observation post and take control of the vehicles.

Even as they waited, there was plenty to do.

Staff Sgt. Joshua Holmes and Spc. Peter Donovan, both of Lisbon Falls, headed for a nearby cave to look for signs of insurgents’ activity.

Accompanied by a Bravo Company interpreter, who goes by the name “Johnny Pockets,” they approached the mouth of the cave cautiously, staying outside any potential lines of fire from within.

“If somebody’s in there, get out now!” Johnny called out in Pashto. “If you come out now, it’s fine. But if we come in and see movement, they will shoot!”

With that, the trio disappeared into the blackness. Moments later, they emerged, signaling that nothing had been found.

Brooks then summoned Johnny to interpret a chat with the commander of the nearby ABP firebase.

“Remember, if you see Taliban, or if you have any trouble and need help, you call us, OK?” Brooks told the man, who nodded vigorously in reply.

Walking away, Brooks looked back at a dozen or so Afghan laborers who had stopped all work on a stone wall around the firebase to stare impassively at the Americans.

“This place,” Brooks said, shaking his head and smiling. “It’s where the biblical meets the cell phone, the taxicab and the satellite dish. And they missed everything in between.”

Finally, a short distance up the wadi, the incoming and outgoing platoons rendezvoused — members of Third Platoon still buzzing about a successful mortar attack they’d launched against a group of Taliban fighters on the other side of the ridge.

“You called that one in like you were an expert,” Brooks praised a young soldier.

“(Expletive) yes, first sergeant!” the young soldier replied, dropping his heavy rucksack. “It landed right on the guy!”

A few cigarettes, Gatorades and good-natured insults later, the two platoons parted ways. Second Platoon, with the Bravo Company donkey now in tow, began its long ascent.

It’s a punishing climb — especially for soldiers weighed down by body armor, M-4 rifles or other weapons and rucksacks crammed with everything from underwear to extra ammunition.

Nobody had it worse than the strapping, 250-pound Spc. Jason McFarland of Chelsea, whose M240 machine gun, tripod, ammunition and other gear topped out around 150 pounds.

“You going to make it?” asked a passer-by as McFarland, his head draped with an Afghan scarf, took a brief water break.

“Have to,” he replied with a weary grin, the sweat pouring down his face.

Mercifully, after two hours of climbing and resting, climbing and resting, the platoon emerged into a windy clearing of sandbags, wire-bound, rock-filled “HESCO” barriers and rickety shelters that offer scant protection from the sun, rain and frequent hail, let alone an incoming mortar shell or rocket.

Even now, their work was far from finished. The advance team with the generator — it will be used primarily to recharge equipment batteries — had made it to the bottom of a near-vertical cliff leading up to the observation post.

Their rucksacks and the generator, all lashed to a pair of plastic medevac sleds, now had to be hauled the rest of the way via an elaborate system of ropes, pulleys and a heavy-timber A-frame perched at an angle off the top of the mountain.

“Pull! And stop! Slack!” hollered Staff Sgt. Jeremy Leicy, who designed the rope system, as the sweat-drenched soldiers raised the load 25 feet at a time. “All right! Pull! And stop! Slack!”

“This is what you call putting foot to ass,” said Pfc. Matthew Burnette of Brunswick with a smile, during a short break to adjust the ropes.

Burnette, who turned 19 only four days ago, is the youngest soldier in Bravo Company. A year ago this week, he was graduating from Brunswick High School and packing his bags for an Army joint readiness training center.

“It really puts into perspective what matters in life,” he said, noting that he’s had but five weeks of “personal life” since high school.

And what was the hardest part about heading for Afghanistan while most of his friends partied and went off to college?

“Saying goodbye,” Burnette replied.

late afternoon, the rope project had worked: The 150-pound generator arrived atop the mountain intact amid cheers and high-fives.

And still, there would be no rest for the weary.

As the sun fell and Second Platoon dug into a pre-packaged, self-heated dinner of pasta and sausage, carrots and sheet cake, an urgent radio call came from COP Dand wa Patan.

“They just got an intelligence report that a Taliban unit is crossing over or has crossed over (from Pakistan) and is planning on attacking the O-P around dinnertime,” said Brooks. “And it’s a reliable intelligence source.”

Swiftly and almost imperceptibly, word of the possible attack filtered from Brooks to the platoon sergeants to the squad leaders to the fire team leaders to the individual soldiers.

The mood shift was palpable. The salty banter from earlier in the day evaporated, replaced by quiet, two- and three-person conferences about who had what shift and who would be in what position. “It keeps the mind active,” mused Brooks as his men went about checking their weapons, loading their rifle clips and otherwise preparing for a long, anxious night.

“At night, it’s more difficult,” said Spc. Peter Anderson, 33, of Camden, who would spend the wee hours staring out from a sandbagged gun emplacement.

“Your mind starts to drift, but as long as you keep scanning back and forth, you’re OK,” Anderson said. “It’s just a matter of willpower.”

In the end, the attack never came. At least, not on this night.

But the soldiers of Bravo Company will tell you that just as they watch the insurgents, so do the insurgents watch them.

And just as they push to control the traffic through these often treacherous valleys in the coming months, so will the enemy inevitably push back.

Spreading out his sleeping bag on a rectangle of corrugated cardboard Sunday night as darkness fell and the temperature plummeted, interpreter Johnny Pockets spoke quietly about how he has known nothing but war since he was a boy growing up in Kabul, where his family still lives.

He said he learned English to find work and support his aging parents and siblings. But, he added, “it’s not just for money that I come here.”

He’s here on this mountaintop, squarely in harm’s way, because he has experienced the alternative — an Afghanistan ruled by Taliban fundamentalists who made life “terrible, just terrible” during their post-Soviet reign in the 1990s.

Hence Johnny Pockets will spend the next two weeks sleeping on the rocky ground atop Observation Post 13.

Without him, the platoon of American soldiers and handful of Afghan police would be unable to communicate, let alone work together.

As he spoke, a call to prayers echoed up through the dusk from a village far below in the Pesho Ghar valley. “My country, it needs peace,” Johnny said. “Someday, it is my hope and prayer, Afghanistan will know peace.”

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]