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December 20, 2013

Nemitz: One small step

A foray to a village to search for Taliban weapons ends with an impressive parade of camouflage.

By Bill Nemitz

Originally published June 13, 2010

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Staff Sgt. Anthony Marson of Richmond waves to onlookers Saturday as the Maine Army Natonal Guard’s Bravo Company marches for the first time through the Afghan village of Chamkani.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn shakes hands with local boys.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram columnist Bill Nemitz is reporting from the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Nemitz left Memorial Day weekend to join the 152 Maine men who make up Maine Army National Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry. They are among the 94,000 troops currently in Afghanistan.

CHAMKANI, Afghanistan - It's 2:30 a.m. Saturday at Forward Operating Base Chamkani.

Overhead, the sky shimmers with endless starlight. The valley below is pitch-dark.

All of Afghanistan, or so it appears, is sleeping.

But here, on this mountainside base shared by the U.S. military and the Afghan Border Police, the day is already well under way.

Cigarettes glow like fireflies among the small knots of Maine Army National Guard soldiers still rubbing a half-night's sleep from their eyes.

Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn looks out at the silhouettes of First Platoon, Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry, his face etched with concentration.

"My biggest concern right now is keeping track of all these elements and making sure they do what they have to do," Bosse says. "Putting all of this together, making sure you don't lose somebody -- that's a real chore when you're operating at night."

A short distance away, laughter erupts among a group of young soldiers.

"They seem nervous, don't they?" asks Bosse, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Truth be told, no one would blame these soldiers if they had a few butterflies.

Over the next eight hours, First Platoon will become the Afghanistan war in microcosm -- a group of American soldiers working side by side with a patchwork of Afghan security forces to put a dent, however small, in the Taliban-driven insurgency.

It's called a "cordon-and-knock" operation.

The objective: First, move quietly on foot through the pre-dawn darkness to three targets -- two residential compounds and a nearby outdoor waste dump -- in the nearby village of Meydani, where long-standing intelligence reports indicate insurgent weapons and explosives might be stockpiled.

Then, just as the sun comes up, lock down the sites inside a tight perimeter and search them top to bottom.

And finally, keep an eye out for one or more "high-value targets" -- locals suspected of insurgent activity in this increasingly dangerous valley eight miles west of Bravo Company's home base at Combat Outpost Dand wa Patan.

First Platoon arrived here by convoy Friday afternoon to prepare for the operation, which also includes elements of the Army's Special Forces, the regional Afghanistan Border Police, the national Afghanistan Uniform Police and an Afghan special forces unit.

The complicated plan, laid out for all in a 40-minute PowerPoint presentation by Bosse on Friday afternoon, requires pinpoint timing, clear communications via interpreters (or "terps") across the English-Pashtu language divide and, to be sure, a little luck.

"It's like coaching a Little League team -- only with guns," says Bosse with a chuckle as the dozens of men in various uniforms prepare to march down the steep hill, out FOB Chamkani's main gate and into an area where Taliban insurgents roam freely. 

3:35 a.m.: With just a hint of morning light outlining the mountain peaks to the east, the long column moves out -- keeping to the outskirts of Chamkani's downtown area to avoid attracting attention.

But already, the element of surprise is in jeopardy.

First one dog barks at the sound of the soldiers' footsteps. Then another and another and another, until a symphony of barking, yelping and howling follows the soldiers wherever they go.

"There's no such thing as real surprise in Afghanistan," muses Bosse. "Unless you drop a helicopter right on top of them."

The barking mercifully fades as the soldiers leave Chamkani and head east toward Meydani.

The two-mile hike begins on a paved "hardball" road but quickly turns south into a maze of farm fields separated by sun-baked, earthen berms and irrigation ditches.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Soldiers from Bravo Company's First Platoon and a member of the Afghan Border Police cross a rickety bridge Saturday near the Afghan village of Meydani.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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A young Afghan boy shows off his slingshot while he and his friend visit with Bravo Company soldiers Saturday outside Meydani.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Bravo Company commander Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn chats with a local elder during Saturday's search operation. No weapons were found, but a man suspected of Taliban ties was detained.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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Photos by Bill Nemitz5 lines plz - Top photo: Staff Sgt. Anthony Marson of Richmond waves to onlookers Saturday as the Maine Army Natonal Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry marches for the first time through the Afghan villiage of Chamkani. Inset: Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn greets a group of young Afghan boys Saturday as Bravo Company enters the village of Chamkani.


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