By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
March 9, 2010 - It was a sobering reminder to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates of the cost of the war in this country. In front of the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry, is a white-painted blast wall with the names of the 22 soldiers who have died on this mission. Gates is visiting Afghanistan to get the "ground truth" directly from the soldiers at the sharp end of the spear. He visited with soldiers at this base and also traveled to Now Zad to visit Marines who are liberating Helmand province from the Taliban.
The 17th Infantry is part of the 2nd Infantry Division's 5th Stryker Brigade based at Fort Lewis, Wash. The unit was supposed to deploy to Iraq, but President Barack Obama ordered more troops to Afghanistan, and the mission shifted. The soldiers arrived in July as the first Stryker brigade to deploy here.
And the soldiers walked into a buzz saw. The area around Frontenac was a Taliban stronghold. In their first 100 days at this former Canadian camp, 300 "significant activities" took place, covering the gamut from mines to roadside bombs to indirect fire to direct fire.
"You came into an area that was totally controlled by the Taliban," Gates said to about 200 soldiers at the battalion headquarters. "You fought for critical battle space, you bled for it, and now you own it. And you demonstrated extraordinary courage and determination in making that happen."
Gates said he wants to make sure that servicemembers in the fight get the tools they need to do the job. He noted he has read a memo calling for improvements to the Stryker wheeled armored vehicle to make it more effective in Afghanistan, and he is overseeing the effort to get more all-terrain mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to the fight. "There are 1,000 of these in theater," he said. "In the next month or so, we should ramp up to 750 a month."
Servicemembers in Afghanistan are getting a lot of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and more capabilities to counter improvised explosive devices, the secretary said. He added that he's paying special attention to ensuring wounded servicemembers are evacuated to a medical facility within an hour after they're hurt, which statistics show greatly improves their chances for survival. "One thing that is especially important to me [is having] enough medevac that we come as close as possible to that Golden Hour," he said.
Gates told the servicemembers he understands the stress their families face while they're deployed, and that he appreciates their sacrifices and support.
Serving northeast of Kandahar, the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry, is going to play a large role in the campaign. "Once again, you will be the tip of the spear," Gates said, "and I know you will bring the same courage and the same sense of duty to that effort that has already defined your deployment here."
The secretary visited Regional Command South leaders before taking a V-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft to Frontenac. At Kandahar, he awarded Silver Star medals to Army Lt. Col. John Morgan and Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 James Wooley.