- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2002

From combined dispatches
BAGRAM, Afghanistan For 2nd Lt. Christopher Blaha, fighting the war on terrorism in Afghanistan was more than an opportunity to serve his country; it was also an chance for personal payback.
The 24-year-old from Great Neck, N.Y., lost two friends in the September 11 terrorist attacks, including his best friend, Andrew Stergiopoulos, 23, an employee of the bond-trading firm Cantor-Fitzgerald at the World Trade Center.
Lt. Blaha and hundreds of other soldiers returned yesterday to Bagram air base, exhausted but exhilarated after an eight-day battle that officers say killed 500 al Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas in the wind-whipped ridges of eastern Afghanistan. Other reports gave higher terrorist death tolls.
While fighting with the Army's 10th Mountain Division, Lt. Blaha said, he wrote Mr. Stergiopoulos' name on every one of his grenades.
"There was definitely a vindictive side," Lt. Blaha said yesterday upon returning from the front. "I can go back and tell his family everything."
Besides Mr. Stergiopoulos, 23, the lieutenant also mentioned New York City firefighter Jonathan Ielpi, a 29-year-old husband and father of two young sons.
Soldiers returning from the front lines yesterday as part of what U.S. officials called an ordinary troop rotation described extreme conditions rugged terrain, thin mountain air, high winds and temperatures that dropped well below freezing. One night it snowed more than 3 inches.
Yesterday, 10 CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters brought about 400 soldiers back to the air base north of Kabul. Most had served for the entire eight-day operation. All appeared exhausted and unshaven but thrilled to be back.
"It's great to be breathing normal air again," said Sgt. David Wilcox, dumping his heavy battle gear onto the ground.
Soldiers said they would be calling home as soon as possible to let loved ones know they were all right.
"Lordy, lordy, we're home," one soldier shouted. Others shook their heads as if they could hardly believe they had survived. Some hugged their friends, while others sat quietly reflecting on what they had been through.
"I guess now I'm a veteran," said Spc. Chad Fuller, 22, of Potsdam, N.Y. "It was scary. The worst part was probably taking the incoming mortars."
Spc. Fuller said he thought about the September 11 terror attacks during the mountain battle.
"I was thinking about the families of the people that were in the buildings," he said. "It feels great to be a part of this operation, to actually be able to come over here and make a difference."
Spc. Fuller said most of the fighting occurred in the first two days of the battle, with only sporadic mortar fire coming from the Taliban and al Qaeda troops after that.
"I was in awe from all the air support we got," said Pfc. Steven Bishop, 19, of Wausau, N.Y.
He described the week as more exciting than scary even after a mortar round landed 50 yards away from him.
"We've got bigger and better toys than they've got," he said, "so I was pretty sure."
The troops had no sleeping bags for the first three days of freezing temperatures and had to sleep on the ground with just small blankets to shield them.
Because of the cold, soldiers kept moving at night and mostly slept, if at all, during the day, lying close together to conserve body heat. One soldier developed hypothermia before sleeping bags arrived.
"It was always cold, and it's just hard to stay cold for that long," Lt. Blaha said.
At least eight Americans and three Afghans supporting the U.S.-led coalition died in the opening days of the offensive, but Taliban and al Qaeda forces took far worse punishment.
Sgt. Corey Daniel, a 23-year-old who commands an eight-man "FIST" forward observation unit, said resistance had waned over the last few days as the terrorists ran out of ammunition and mentally wilted under nonstop bombing.
"They were in a panic at the end," Sgt. Daniel said. "I can tell you because I have the optics [binoculars] to see them.
"The last couple of days weren't like the first night. Those guys are getting bugged out."


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