By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 6, 2008 - The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visited with soldiers serving at the leading edge of the counterinsurgency fight in Afghanistan on March 4. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen visited 173rd Airborne Brigade soldiers serving in the Korengal Valley. The unit – part of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry – is part of NATO's Regional Command East, and the troopers at the Korengal outpost are in daily contact with the enemy, brigade officials said.
"I wanted to visit with the troops who are very much in the fight," Mullen said upon his return to Washington.
The outpost is a 45-minute helicopter flight away from the brigade headquarters on a ridgeline above an area riddled with cave complexes. Troops at the outpost routinely take small-arms and mortar fire and have faced some coordinated attacks from Taliban extremists.
The morale of the soldiers was good, the chairman said. "They depend on each other, and they have done exceptionally well," Mullen said. "At the same time, they have lost seven teammates, and that weighs heavily on their minds, but they know they are making a difference."
The Korengal Valley is isolated even by Afghanistan's standards. The natives speak their own dialect, and people in the next valley have a tough time understanding them. There are no roads in the valley -- just footpaths. The people make a living smuggling timber and drugs.
The American forces are blocking the valley and are working to put in place projects that will help all the people. The troops in the valley have good leadership and are very confident, Mullen said.
"They are sort of on the leading edge of engaging the enemy in Afghanistan," he said. "They know what they have to do from a security standpoint." He said the troops also know how important development is to breed security in the valley.
Mullen said the base is stark. "It's on the top of a high ridge," he told reporters traveling with him. "A young first lieutenant pointed to one of the outposts of the (forward operating base) and said it was an hour and a half walk over this ridge to get there. It's tough living conditions and tough fighting conditions, but they are confident."
The soldiers told the chairman they could use additional ground sensors, and they want close-air support faster, the admiral told reporters.
"They are in a fight, and they want all the support they can possibly get," he said. Back at the base in Jalalabad, he told brigade officials to do what they needed to do to get air support to the soldiers faster.