By Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty
Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 5, 2010 - The tired, frazzled and hungry soldiers of the Missouri Army National Guard's 3rd Platoon, 1141st Engineer Company, rolled into their combat outpost here well after dark, worn out and in desperate need of a break.
The day's journey from Forward Operating Base Salerno had been fraught with challenges and no small amount of danger. The soldiers had encountered a series of improvised explosive devices, the last of which exploded near one of the convoy's RG-31 mine-resistant, armor-protected vehicles, as well as small-arms and mortar fire from insurgents.
As the crews staged their vehicles behind the cover of blast barriers, they secured weapons and powered down electronics suites while gathering personal gear before they finally wandered slowly in small groups in search of something to eat.
A tiny, dimly lit chow hall situated between tents, shipping containers and wooden outhouses awaited the crews, where a single cook stood patiently, ready to offer warmed-over packaged food served to the base's regular garrison hours earlier. That didn't matter to the "Houn' Dawgs." The meal of tacos, burritos, Spanish rice and mixed fruit cups seemed as good as any five-star restaurant would offer back home.
Crews filled cardboard trays, grabbed drink boxes and found an empty space to sit. When the few tables inside the small dining facility were filled, soldiers drifted outside to sit at homemade picnic tables underneath camouflage netting. Talk and laughter about the day's events filled the air, and the cool night breeze blew softly under a starry night sky.
No Room at the Inn
Army 1st Lt. Ronnie Mayfield, the route-clearance patrol commander, had been told there was no room at the camp to house his soldiers for the night, so crews would have to make do in terms of finding a place to sleep. Those with cots set them up next to the MRAPs, spread sleeping bags on them and slept outside in the cool night air. Others slept inside the cramped vehicles. Another group found refuge on the dining facility floor. Those with extra sleeping bags shared with those without.
But whether outside in the elements, cradled inside the cold, damp armored vehicles or bundled up on a concrete floor, the 3rd Platoon combat engineers felt fortunate to be off the road to rest and re-energize.
Army Spc. Ryan A. Dautenhaun managed to locate a stretcher stashed behind some boxes in the dining facility, and bragged about his find.
"I never knew sleeping on a floor could be so comfortable," he said, smiling broadly.
"Whatever," Army Staff Sgt. Chad A. Waters shot back. "At least we're dry."
Preparing to Move Out
Due to the loss of key vehicles the previous day, Mayfield's patrol was out of the route-clearance business for the time being. That meant that 3rd Platoon would have to remain in place at the remote outpost until another patrol from the 1141st Engineer Company could come to escort them back, he told his men the following morning.
The good news was that the second patrol, led by Army 1st Lt. Mitchell Boatright, already was on its way.
In the meantime, Mayfield and his senior enlisted soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Brad Burkhart, instructed crews to grab breakfast and prepare to move out. The Houn' Dawgs responded immediately, securing and stowing personal gear, disassembling cots and rolling sleeping bags.
As hard as the dining facility's floor was, those who slept inside the chow hall fared better than those outside. A light rain had fallen through the night, and the soldiers who slept on cots were shivering and damp. Those who slept in vehicles were feeling the effects of being cramped and cold, stretching and rubbing aching body parts for a few minutes before trudging to the chow hall for breakfast.
Following a meal of watery scrambled eggs, rubbery bacon, pancake-and-sausage sandwiches, coffee and orange juice, crews took time to attend, as best they could, to personal hygiene. Wash space was limited, as was hot water and bathroom facilities. In fact, the small outpost had only a pair of indoor toilets, both of which had long been out of service. The post's garrison relied on a few porta-potties and wooden outhouses. Refuse had to be burned.
The plan was simple: Mayfield would have his platoon assemble just outside the outpost and wait for Boatright's patrol to reach them. When it did, 3rd Platoon would fall in on Boatright's column, and together they would trek back to Salerno.
But by mid-morning, Mayfield's stranded platoon began to have doubts about their "rescue." Boatright's patrol had encountered three IEDs – one of which had detonated on an RG-31 armored personnel carrier – and the patrol had barely made any distance at all.
"We might have to stay another night," truck commander Waters said over his vehicle intercom shortly after Mayfield had updated his platoon about Boatright's progress.
"If we do, I get the stretcher again," Dautenhaun, seated behind the wheel, said quickly.
"No way!" countered Army Spc. Eric J. Phillippe from the gun turret. "Not if I get it first."
"I hope we do have to stay," Waters said. "I'm not anxious to get blown up again."
Just after midday, Waters called Mayfield to advise him of suspicious activity.
"Leader, there's a guy in a white vehicle about 90 meters off our 1 o'clock," Waters said. "He's been sitting there for about two hours now watching us. He's been out of the vehicle to talk on what looked like a cell phone. He left once but came back and parked in the exact same spot. Should we go talk to him?"
Mayfield answered that Waters and his crew were to keep an eye on the man and report any further suspicious activity, but should do nothing else for the time being.
They didn't have long to wait.
About 20 minutes later, the crew noticed another man walking at a 90-degree angle from the vehicle stop about 30 yards in front of it and motion the driver to follow. The man on foot then led the vehicle behind some nearby structures and out of sight.
"Phillipe, can you see them?" Waters asked after he lost sight of the pair.
"No," said the gunner. "Call it in?"
"I will," answered Waters, who then keyed the radio microphone and reported the incident to his platoon leader.
Mayfield answered that he would contact an Afghan National Army contingent and have them send some men into the structures and see if they could find, then question, the men. In the meantime, he instructed the crew to continue scanning the buildings for any sign of the men.
Fewer than ten minutes later, the first mortar rounds struck within a few dozen meters of the combat outpost. U.S. soldiers in two guard towers facing the attack immediately opened up with .50-caliber machine guns, and a few seconds later, an American mortar team also was returning fire.
As hunkered down Houn' Dawg crews watched from the safety of their vehicles, the ensuing firefight unfolded on a small cluster of hills to their right-rear position. Explosions could be seen at distances of more than 500 yards as tracer rounds from the .50-caliber machine guns raked the hillsides.
Within minutes the "battle" was over.
"Unbelieveable," Waters said. "Two guys disappear and the next thing you know we're taking rounds. No coincidence there, huh?"
"None at all," Dautenhaun deadpanned.
Stranded for Another Night
By 4 p.m., it was evident that Boatright's patrol wouldn't make it to the outpost in time to link up with Mayfield and turn back for Salerno, so Mayfield ordered his trucks back inside the wire and told his soldiers to be prepared to spend the night.
Boatright's patrol, by the time it reached the outpost later that evening, had encountered seven IEDs – two of which were "hits" on his vehicles, one of which had to be recovered and towed.
In a TV room next to the small dining facility, Waters and his crew sank into well-worn black and brown couches, fatigue evident on their unshaven faces, rifles cradled casually in their laps. They paid little attention to the basketball game being broadcast on the big-screen television and instead reflected on the day's events.
"You don't think our enemy was expecting us, do you?" Phillippe asked his truck commander.
"Oh, yeah," Waters answered. "Seven IEDs. You just know they were just expecting us to turn right around and head back today."
Boatright's platoon bore the brunt of the enemy's retaliatory tactics that Waters believes were intended for his column.
As was the case with Mayfield's men, Boatright's crews also suffered no battle injuries. But they didn't escape unscathed. That evening, when they arrived at the outpost, a damaged vehicle being towed by the convoy's wrecker overturned, injuring the three soldiers inside and forcing them to be evacuated by helicopter.
"Those boys sure had a busy day," Dautenhaun said. "Let's hope tomorrow is better."
The dining facility's concrete floor was a bit more crowded that night. Some of the men who had slept outside and in cramped vehicles the night before opted to join their comrades inside. The area was much more crowded, but everyone got a good five hours sleep.
In the morning, the crews again prepared to move out. This time, two battered and tired platoons of the 1141st assembled outside the wire, in preparation for what they believed would be a danger-filled journey back "home." But 30 minutes stretched into 45 minutes, then an hour – and still no order to move out was forthcoming.
"I just bet you we are going to wind up staying here again tonight," Waters said into the intercom.
"Nah, we'll go back today," Dautenhaun replied. "There's no reason to stay."
"I'm just saying, we may wind up here again," Waters said, explaining that even between the two platoons, the convoy overall was short of important mine-hunting vehicles.
"Well, we can't stay forever," Phillippe said from his turret.
Almost on cue, the convoy was ordered to proceed down the winding dirt road leading away from the outpost and onto the main highway leading back to Salerno.
"Here we go again," Waters said.
Back to Salerno
It took several hours for the convoy to reach Salerno after making numerous stops to interrogate potential IED sites. Each stop ate up the clock as weary crews fought through fatigue and stress to reach their destination. One mistake, they all knew, could be disastrous.
The afternoon sun was sinking behind distant ranges, as the day's crystal-clear blue sky began to fade. Local Afghans seen in abundance throughout the day were now becoming scarce, no doubt retiring to their homes for the evening.
As dusk approached and the outskirts of Salerno were in reach, the shadows from nearby mountains – and the convoy's vehicles – grew longer. Inside Waters' vehicle, haggard crewmen stared out at the Afghan countryside, emotionless and exhausted. Their overnight mission had devolved into a three-day odyssey of risk, danger and no small amount of accomplishment.
That night the worn-out Houn' Dawgs fueled their battered vehicles, unloaded and stowed weapons, washed off the dirt, put on clean uniforms and sat down at their own dining facility for a hot, leisurely and well-deserved meal.
Afterward, they retired one by one to their quarters, basking in the relative privacy of their shared hooches to e-mail a loved one, make a phone call, play an X-Box game, read a book or just relax while listening to music on an iPod.
Another mission down, but by tomorrow or the next day, it would be time to take on the next one.
The only sign of humanity in the pitch-dark base was the tiny red, green and blue blackout lights carried by individual soldiers as they made their way through the night.
That, and the sound of the base's 155 mm howitzers firing at a distant enemy.
(This is the conclusion of a two-part series. Part 1 was published yesterday. Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty serves with the 203rd Engineer Battalion.)