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Gates Visits Base at Tip of the Spear in Afghanistan

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

FORWARD OPERATING BASE TILLMAN, Afghanistan, Jan. 17, 2007 – U.S. soldiers at this barren base in Paktia province live, eat and soldier with Afghan National Army soldiers doing their best to defend Afghanistan from an oppressive ideology.

With Pakistan only about 2 kilometers to the east, this is the sharp end of the stick.

The soldiers of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry, are the trip wire for Taliban infiltrators coming from Pakistan. If attacked, they are miles away from any ground help, but aviation assets can be there to help them in minutes.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited these soldiers yesterday and got a firsthand report from commanders and soldiers on life on the ground here and what conditions American and Afghan soldiers face.

Gates said today that he was impressed by the sense of camaraderie among the American and Afghan soldiers at the base. “They rely on each other; they patrol together, and I think there is a sense of being in (the fight) together,” he said.

Forward Operating Base Tillman is named for Army Sgt. Pat Tillman, a Ranger killed nearby in a much-publicized friendly-fire incident in April 2004. Tillman played football for the Arizona Cardinals before enlisting in the Army after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The helicopter flight to the base from the Afghan capital of Kabul takes about an hour. Soldiers at Tillman said the same trip by vehicle would take more than a day. Gates flew over snow-caped mountains and through passes to reach the base. There were few roads, and those that did exist were made of dirt.

Snow was on the ground, but it is so dry in the area that dust still kicked up in the rotor wash. Even with the temperature in the 30s, the soldiers were philosophical about the area. “You get used to it,” said Army Cpl. Travis Phillips, a mortarman at the base. “In the summer, it’s hot. In the winter, it’s cold. You adapt.”

As Phillips and other members of his company waited to meet the new defense secretary, they spoke about their interactions with the Afghans who share the base with them. “They try real hard,” said Army Spc. Thomas Dailey, a mortarman. “They work very hard on learning new skills, and they are quick to learn.”

The Afghan barracks is on one side of the base, and the U.S. facilities are on the other. Phillips said the Afghan and American soldiers eat at each others’ dining facilities and share news back and forth.

They continually work with each other to learn each others’ languages and show off their weapons, he said.

In addition, they plan patrols and convoys together. “We really are brothers in arms,” said Pvt. 2 John O’Brien. “When we go out the gate, we watch their backs, and they watch ours. They’re good soldiers.

“They have good patrolling skills and obviously they speak the language,” he added. “We’re all really comfortable with them.”

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