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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Portland Press Herald, Maine, Bill Nemitz column: Nemitz: No rest for the wary in Afghanistan

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DAND WA PATAN, Afghanistan -- The donkey spoke with his feet. And they weren't moving.

Three 20-liter containers filled with diesel fuel, each weighing at least 30 pounds, hung from the rope webbing draped over the pack animal's back.

And with the morning sun already blazing and a 2,000-foot climb staring him in the face, the donkey looked up at the two dozen Maine Army National Guard soldiers as if to say, "Guys, you've got to be kidding."

"He breaks a leg, he's done," said one voice in the crowd as Sgt. Jonathan Weeks of Ellsworth and Spc. Jeffrey Holmes of Houlton tried to coax the animal up the long, rocky trail.

Enter Bravo Company 1st Sgt. John Brooks of Glenburn, who ordered his men to remove one of the plastic jugs.

"I've got it," said Brooks, 39, hoisting the container over his head and balancing it atop his rucksack. "Just let me know if it starts leaking."

"Hard man, that first sergeant!" came a voice from the rear as Second Platoon, at long last, moved out.

Sunday was switch-out day at Observation Post 13, a ramshackle collection of sandbags, narrow passageways and just plain hardship high atop a ridge four miles from Combat Outpost Dand wa Patan.

For a week or two at a time, the three line platoons of Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry take turns manning what company commander Capt. Paul Bosse calls "our sun -- because it's the one spot everything else we do revolves around."

Even from the combat outpost four miles away, the reason is obvious:

The tiny observation post, "O-P" in soldier speak, commands a view of the relatively friendly Shepulah Ghar valley, in which the COP Dand wa Patan sits, and the more restive Pesho Ghar valley to the south.

Both are but a portion of Bravo Company's sprawling "battle area" on the often-porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As the Maine soldiers push forward with their mission to curtail insurgent traffic through the Pesho Ghar, they spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, deciphering the routes, travel patterns and safe houses that have long made the picturesque valley an attractive destination for incoming Taliban fighters and other insurgents.

"We've got it all catalogued and recorded," said Sgt. Frederick Moody of Gorham, who works with Bravo Company's intelligence unit and on this day was heading for the OP to oversee improvements to its communications system.

But first, Moody and his comrades had to get up there.

The day began before dawn, when a convoy of six armored vehicles pulled out of the combat outpost and traversed first a paved "hardball" roadway, then a series of bumpy dirt roads and finally a foot-deep river.

Finally, after 45 bumpy, lurching minutes, the trucks stopped in a field next to the Shepulah Fire Base, a fortified compound at the base of the mountains operated by the Afghan Border Police.

There, the platoon split up. Ten soldiers headed up a "wadi," a dry riverbed, with a new diesel-powered generator that would be hauled first by hand and then lifted by a series of ropes to the observation post -- at this point a mere speck on the distant ridge line.

The rest of Second Platoon hunkered down to wait for soldiers from Third Platoon to come down from the observation post and take control of the vehicles.

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