Monday, May 23, 2011
Infantry Soldiers Hold Border Hilltop During Afghanistan Attack
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
GAYAN DISTRICT, Afghanistan, May 20, 2011 – This week, members of 'Dog' Company maintained their hold on a key hilltop located just meters from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by winning a 14-hour firefight with insurgents.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Adam Petrone, filling in for a platoon leader on mid-tour leave, was the senior soldier on the ground with the 4th Brigade, 101st Airborne Division’s Third Platoon, Dog Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment.
The platoon was conducting a five-day operation, which included setting up a blocking position about three kilometers from the rest of the company’s positions.
“Our task was to destroy the enemy in the engagement area,” Petrone said.
The hilltop which the third platoon occupied is a now-disused observation point, so some sandbag-reinforced dug-in fighting positions already were in place. The soldiers added more sandbags when they reached position May 14, 2011 – a Saturday.
About 1 p.m. Monday, Petrone said insurgents attacked the platoon from 300 meters to the east, along the Pakistan border. The enemy used rocket-propelled grenades, multiple machine guns and small-arms fire.
“They were set up in three different spots; I’d say there were about 15 to 20 of them,” he said.
The attack started with machine-gun fire followed by around 10 RPGs, Petrone said. Six of the grenades hit the hilltop, while the rest went over.
“I know I felt one hit about 10 feet from my position,” he said. “They were pretty effective with machine-gun fire; they had us pretty contained in our foxholes.”
The platoon fired back with machine guns, squad automatic weapons, 90mm recoilless, hand-held 60mm mortars and other weapons, Petrone said.
“We just engaged them until they stopped shooting,” he said. “Total suppression was probably 10 minutes to push them back. They went back over the side of the ridge – we obviously didn’t push them too far back, since they stayed around the entire night.”
Petrone said he called for a medical evacuation after his medic was bitten twice by a snake before the fight started. “So the whole night we were there without a medic … [but] we had no injuries,” he said.
Intelligence reports through the night indicated the enemy kept advancing toward the platoon’s position. Those reports were important; the men on the hill couldn’t see more than about 40 meters because trees and a steep drop blocked their view, Petrone said.
Four air-weapons teams, two Apache helicopters at a time, and close-air support F-15s and F-16s stayed on-station throughout much of the night, he said, reporting enemy movements and firing at exposed insurgents.
Petrone theorized the insurgents thought they could take advantage of the platoon’s location away from the company’s other elements to overrun their position.
Air support kept pushing the enemy back, but fighters continued advancing through the night, Petrone said. “We could hear them, but we couldn’t see them,” he said. “We knew they were there, but we couldn’t find them.”
Around 3 a.m. Tuesday the platoon stopped hearing the enemy, Petrone said. By that time other Dog Company elements were moving to reinforce the third platoon’s position.
“I think [the enemy] probably saw them coming and retreated,” Petrone said. “Plus by that time the [Apaches] had shot a lot of rounds.”
By 10 a.m. Tuesday relief was in place, Petrone said, and the platoon was down to a third of its ammunition.
Petrone, who twice served in Iraq and is now on his third deployment, said the third platoon’s performance was “outstanding.”
“I think everything we did was exactly what we should have done,” he said. “We had good sectors of fire, good position, we didn’t take any injuries.”
The platoon’s previous fights have usually run 30 minutes or so, Petrone said, with one sustained five- to six-hour contact under movement.
“This fight was the worst one I think my boys have seen,” he said. “Not the contact; they’ve been in worse contact. But this by far was the most nerve-wracking, because there’s nothing you can do but scan your sectors and hope you see them before they’re within 35 meters.”
Dog Company commander Capt. Edwin Churchill monitored the fight from his hilltop position with first platoon 1,400 meters southwest of the third platoon’s location. The air support was helpful, he said, but couldn’t effectively penetrate the dense trees protecting the enemy.
Around midnight, Churchill called for two 500-pound bombs on the insurgent position.
“We only ended up engaging two more [enemy fighters] after that, for the rest of the night,” he said. “The bombs cleared a bunch of the tree cover and … had a tremendous psychological effect.”
Spc. Alan Vogel, a fire team leader with the third platoon, said the ammunition supply was one of his main concerns during the night-long fight.
Vogel’s team, firing weapons including a 90mm recoilless rifle and two light antitank weapons, fought from a dug-in position they called the “thunder dome.”
“I had to make sure the guys weren’t firing when we weren’t getting shot at, to conserve rounds,” he said. “We were on a mountain top, and what we had was what we had.”
“I’m a trigger-puller too,” Vogel said. “Team leader, you’re down there making sure that your guys are shooting, you’re returning fire, controlling rates of fire.”
Pfc. Steven Boertmann, a 19-year-old third platoon machine gunner, carried nearly his body weight in gear up the mountain where the fight happened.
“All together, about 120 pounds,” he said, noting he weighs 150.
Boertmann estimates he’s been in about 20 firefights during the deployment, but this week’s engagement was a little different.
“Being so close to the Pakistan border … this time we weren’t really ambushed, we were set into a position,” he said. Other than that, “It was what you expect in a firefight – to get shot at.”
The platoon was divided among seven fighting positions, he said, and shouted enemy positions and round counts back and forth to each other.
“There’s a lot of trust … you’re basically putting your lives in everyone’s hands,” he said. “Out here, no matter what you look like, age, your personality … everyone watches over each other. It’s like one big family.”
Boertmann likes his job, he said, because he can make a difference in a fight’s outcome.
“This is a career choice for me,” he said.