By Spc. Jon H. Arguello, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 9, 2007 – It's been almost 18 months since 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Task Force Rock, left Afghanistan after proving its capabilities against insurgents throughout operations in the southern part of the country. The battalion's success was notable as it established relationships with the population helping Afghan authorities develop a respectable fighting force, all while intensely finding, fixing and destroying large numbers of enemy on several occasions.
More than a month after replacing 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, Task Force Rock has once again been charged with completing the task of taming the area between the Pech and Korengal valleys called the "Valley of Fire" by soldiers who patrol it because of the frequency of fire fights.
"We are to conduct counterinsurgency operations in (Regional Command) East to destroy and defeat the insurgents and build the capability of Afghan National Security Forces to enable the (Islamic Republic) of Afghanistan (to) provide a secure and stable environment that deters the re-emergence of terrorism in the region," said Army 1st Sgt. LaMonta Caldwell, of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment.
"The troopers of Battle Company, 2-503rd, understand our task at hand: first, to finish what 1-32 has already started -- working with locals to establish a sound-living environment, to help train and work side -by side with (Afghan National Army), and second, to eliminate forces that cause disruption to the process of a good, trustworthy government in our area of responsibility," he said.
Already the "Sky Soldiers" placed along the triangular-shaped intersection of the two valleys have been in several fire fights and repelled various ambushes. But attempts to challenge the Rock's Paratroopers are a waste of the insurgents' time, Caldwell said.
"The insurgents, as you may want to call them, will never match up with any troopers from Battle Company or Rock Battalion," Caldwell said. "This is not our first rodeo. We just left Afghanistan 16 months ago. A lot of those veterans are still around like me. We have been shot at before, mortared before, and we know what to do. Taking care of your buddy to your left and right is the key to our success, and getting after (terrorists) when they try to attack us is our motto. And that comes from the heart of these troopers in Battle Company, and no insurgent can match that."
The soldiers based in and around the dangerous valleys have proven they have heart and much more in the short time since their arrival. As their war stories accumulate, their vested interest in the progress of the Afghan authorities becomes a personal matter.
"We have fought with these guys," said Army Sgt. Raul Padilla, a Battle Company team leader at Firebase Phoenix, in the Korengal Valley. "This has become personal to us. The people, not just the soldiers and policemen, of Afghanistan are depending on us to help them get control of their country."
Personal is the only way these hardened paratroopers can take the death of one soldier and several combat injuries in their battalion. But not even the death of their fellow soldiers will deter them, Padilla said.
"We won't leave this valley until the insurgents leave, and if they won't leave we'll make it personal for them too," said Padilla, a veteran of Task Force Rock's last deployment to Afghanistan. "This area is now under the control of Afghan and coalition forces. The Taliban is going to have to go away or go around us because they aren't welcome here anymore."
The sense of purpose these troops have gained goes beyond their specific jobs and ranks at this point, Army Spc. Jason Mace explained.
"Slowly, we are accomplishing things here," Mace explained. "We've already done things we were told were impossible. They said we couldn't go to this area or pass that line, but we have. It's taking time, but it's not going to stop until we do something about it, and we are."
The soldiers know their role in Afghanistan is important, said a platoon sergeant from Company A who lives at Firebase California, in the Pech Valley. His platoon's job is to secure an area that includes a road project, seven villages and an unknown number of enemies.
"I hope they know by now why they are here," Army Sgt. 1st Class Jose MagaÃ±a said of his soldiers. "To look out outside the base and see people doing things, selling things, kids going to schools, even girls, that's why we're here, so that the Afghan people can do things many take for granted. It's not easy to bear all the sacrifices these soldiers are making, but their role is historic in granting people the same freedoms we have at home."
One of the platoon's specific tasks is focused around a road project linking several population hubs through three districts.
"Our job is to secure an area of the Pech River road," said Maga, also a veteran of the battalion's last rotation to Afghanistan. "The strategic location and purpose of this road make it very valuable. We need to ensure the road's progress moves forward. This road will improve the lives of the people who live here, enhance the Afghan security forces' ability to control the area and stimulate economic and social development."
Just hours after Maga's interview, Firebase California fended off an insurgent attack. Despite persistent but apparently futile attempts to disrupt Task Force Rock's work, the battalion continues to push economic and social development. A good relationship with the local populace is a goal the battalion is working hard to achieve.
"It's important to concentrate on both lethal and non-lethal aspects," said Army Maj. Scott Himes, Task Force Rock's plans and operations officer. "Historically this has been an area of safe haven for the insurgents. If we don't have a lot of positive interaction with the people, they will be susceptible to the Taliban's leverage. We have to rely on a partnership with the people."
"We have to prove to them that there is a positive alternative," Himes said. "As we build trust with the people and the people trust more in the capacity of the Afghan governmental agencies, we can build long-term partnerships. They'll know we are going to stay and provide security."
A recent flooding of the Pech River, which killed three people and destroyed one home and nine bridges, may have demonstrated the local government's commitment. As coalition forces came to offer aid, they were already in full swing planning repairs. The Pech district's sub-governor not only planned, but also with coalition help repaired the only road leading to the victims of the flood and delivered emergency relief.