Thursday, December 31, 2009

HUTAL, Afghanistan | Villagers stared at the Americans as they made their way into a small bazaar where goat meat hung from hooks amid stands of used clothing, pots, pans and various trinkets.

For the Afghans, the big Americans in full battle gear looked like beings from another planet. At each turn of the road, soldiers on the point knelt on the ground, automatic weapons ready. The men and women on the security walk were staggered in zigzag formation to keep casualties low in case Taliban sharpshooters were in the area and taking aim. Capt. Casey Thoreen, 30, the commander of the unit, monitored his radio for intelligence.

Fifteen minutes later, the unit arrived at a local clinic. It was empty and ominous looking with an open gate. Villagers in the bazaar began to leave. Shopkeepers closed their shops, throwing tarps over their goods. Children who had been cadging the troops for candy and pencils scattered.

“A suicide bomber is in the area,” Capt. Thoreen said after receiving a radioed intelligence report. “We’ve got to move, now!”

Last month, President Obama ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, which will bring the total contingent to about 100,000 by fall. For those already here, the hope is that the reinforcements will turn the momentum in an eight-year war that insurgents appear to be winning.

A reporter and photographer from The Washington Times who visited southern Afghanistan recently witnessed the hardships the Americans face. It’s an especially difficult security situation for the men and woman assigned to the small Combat Outpost Rath in the heart of Kandahar province’s Taliban territory.

“We haven’t been back here [the bazaar] since a suicide bomber took the life of several of our guys, ” said Staff Sgt. Daniel Paul Rabidou, 24, of San Bernardino, Calif., who was on protective duty that day. “You never know out here, who’s around what corner. We’ve lost some good men, and we need more out here to get the job done.”

Members of the Blackwatch unit, Bravo Company 2nd Battalion 1st Infantry Regiment, with the 5th Stryker Brigade, recall what happened to Capt. Ben Sklaver, 32, of Medford, Mass., in October. Capt. Sklaver was attached to the Stryker brigade but assigned to the 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion, U.S. Army Reserve, out of Greensboro, N.C.

A suicide bomber surprised Capt. Sklaver, Pfc. Alan H. Newton Jr. and an interpreter, killing all three, while they were in the town trying to improve relations with the locals.

Capt. Sklaver “was the kind of guy that cared about everyone,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Yost, 27, from Shelton, Wash. “Of all the people to lose their life that day, the suicide bomber took the one guy who truly cared and dedicated his life to the poor and someone who really believed that one day we’d find peace with each other.”

The psychological impact of losing those who have become a second family is part of what changes “us from young boys to men,” Sgt. Yost said.

Staff Sgt. Yost said he garners strength from his wife Kristen and their three young children: Aiden, 6; Kaylee, 5 and Riley, 6 months old — a family that has provided support during his multiple tours to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Staff Sgts. Rabidou, Yost and James Cross add that their longtime friendship keeps them grounded amid the daily dangers so far from home. Sgt. Cross and Sgt. Yost have been best friends since the 9th grade and were both born at Mason General Hospital in Shelton, Wash. Sgt. Rabidou first met Sgt. Cross when they joined the Army, and both men served two tours of duty together in Iraq before coming to Afghanistan.

“We call ourselves the trifecta of power,” Sgt. Cross said. The three men laughed.

“None of us want to let each other down,” he said. “We’re here for each other no matter what — we fight for each other and we’d die for each other.”

The three said they shared one wish: to make it out the country alive and whole before their deployment ends in July. Capt. Sklaver didn’t get a chance to fulfill his mission. The unit was going to try again in their first trip back to the bazaar since his death. The thud of their boots on the rocky dirt echoed in the quiet desert. Their equipment, ballistic gear and heavy backpacks made a mild day seem even warmer.

Their mission had brought them to the unassuming village of Hutal, known for its ties to the Taliban. A village school just outside Combat Outpost Rath stood empty. Taliban informants had made it impossible for children, especially young girls, to attend classes.

Instead, the girls, some as young as 4, could be seen gathering water from a nearby well and sitting alongside the salmon-colored walls of the village giggling and talking quietly.

The village clinic is also empty most days; only one doctor makes rare visits. Villagers say medicine is limited and most of what has been requested winds up being sold on the black market.

Afghans do go, however, to the combat outpost for treatment.

“We’re treating everyone from the U.S. soldier to the Afghan villager,” said Capt. Jason Paul Adams, the battalion’s physician assistant, from Louisville, Ky.

His medical facility still has speckles of blood on the white walls from treating an Afghan child who’d been injured while farming.

“Getting the clinic ready is hugely important for the local villagers, who really have very limited access to health care,” Capt. Adams said. “We want to provide them the best and if that means having to build another clinic in a more secure area, then that’s what we have to do.”

Most of the soldiers in the unit said they don’t mind the risk if they can succeed in winning the trust of the Afghan people. But several said the dangers aren’t worth it.

“I have a child back home and a wife,” said one soldier, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from his unit. “I ran through a mine field once and survived. You know, the only thing that went through my mind was my family back home. I thought what in the hell am I doing this for? I don’t even know if our generals or commanders even believe that we can win this war - if it is even a war to begin with. What would I be dying for? What did my unit members die for?”

Staff Sgts. Rabidou, Yost and Cross also suffer bouts of impatience with the fight.

On Sept. 14, the three survived an improvised explosive device attack on their Stryker convoy that killed platoon leader Lt. David Wright, 25 and Sgt. Andrew McConnell, 24.

“The day after we lost two of our soldiers I had to go back to the village where the insurgents carried out the attacks,” said Staff Sgt. Yost. “I sat with the villagers, knowing full well that some of them helped kill our own men, and I had to negotiate with them. It wasn’t easy at all. War is war, but we can’t go on fighting forever. There has to be a way to resolve this.”

The trio said their commander, Capt. Thoreen, gives them the balance they need to accomplish their mission. Despite the hardships, loss of life and the long deployments, they said they feel pride in their unit.

The feeling is mutual.

“You’ll never find a better group of men anywhere,” Capt. Thoreen said after the mission to the bazaar.

The men sat outside their barracks, drinking soda and eating snacks that had just arrived by mail from their families back home.

“Honestly, the greatest generation is right here sitting before you,” Capt. Thoreen said. “These guys volunteered - not because they were drafted. Some of them have already paid the ultimate price, and for that they will never be forgotten.”

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