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Combat Veterans Recount Grit, Valor, Air Support in Defeating Terror Troops

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 24, 2002 – Army 10th Mountain Division troops said teamwork, training and discipline negated al Qaeda forces' efforts to destroy them during March 2 fighting in Afghanistan's Shahi Khot Valley.

Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Abbott, a platoon sergeant, and other Afghanistan combat veterans recalled their experiences Oct. 22 here at the Association of the U.S. Army annual meeting.

Abbott recalled the terrorists enjoyed an early advantage in the Shahi Khot fight. "They had the high ground," noted Abbott, who holds the Purple Heart for wounds received in the fighting and the Bronze Star Medal.

History records that American infantry fought at Shahi Khot with grit and valor against a determined foe that was intimately familiar with the terrain. The battle was part of "Operation Anaconda," Abbott noted. Like its constrictor- snake namesake, Anaconda was designed to squeeze remnant terror forces operating in mountainous eastern Afghanistan near the city of Gardez.

Terrorist forces had been routed months before from Tora Bora, an area replete with fortified tunnels and other secure hiding places near the Afghanistan- Pakistan border. Only pockets of resistance remained. Acting on intelligence gathered by friendly Afghan forces and other sources, U.S. troops, including elements of the 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne divisions, flew by helicopter into the Shahi Khot region to engage the enemy.

Abbott and his fellow 10th Mountain soldiers disembarked into a cold, forbidding environment at the southern end of the valley, breathing oxygen-thin air at an altitude of 10,000 feet above sea level.

"That was a big valley, with a mountain ridge to our left, right and rear," recalled Staff Sgt. Andrzej Ropel, a squad leader.

Almost immediately, Abbott recalled, al Qaeda fighters entrenched on the ridges above welcomed the Americans with rocket-propelled grenades and rifle and mortar fire.

As the enemy fire rained down on them, Ropel said he was thankful he and others were wearing heavy flak vests. "The bullets would get stuck in the (vest- )plates so we didn't get too many casualties from (rifle) fire. Most of the casualties we had were from shrapnel from mortars," he explained.

Ropel, a recipient of the Bronze Star Medal with valor device, noted that the Americans shook off the initial assault from above and got down to work. Training and teamwork proved invaluable, he said.

"It's constant teamwork. You cannot achieve something (just) by yourself," the staff sergeant said. "When you're moving you have to have somebody firing at the enemy to provide you with some kind of cover."

Abbott and Ropel said the terrorists wanted to wipe them out. The Americans didn't cooperate.

"It's easier to defend than to be on offense," Abbott explained. "We kept them back. The majority (of the enemy) were out about 800-900 meters."

When some terrorists tried to creep up to around 200-300 meters, the 10th Mountain troops used disciplined fire to engage viable targets while conserving ammo, the platoon sergeant said.

"We fought them off," Abbott noted, adding that his savvy soldiers refused to be fooled by their wily foe. "That's the wrong thing to do -- you don't chase them into an ambush. We held them off (and) used our air-support assets.

"You identify targets," he continued, noting that an AC-130 gunship arrived that night and swept the ridges of enemy troops the infantry couldn't reach. That gunship crew did an outstanding job during the battle, as did F-16 fighter and B-2 bomber pilots, Abbott emphasized.

"Air support was remarkable. I know they spent some money on bombs," he added.

"It was great coordination between us and the Air Force," Ropel remarked. "Basically, (we received) air assets whenever, wherever we needed them."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSgt. 1st Class Thomas Abbott (left) and Staff Sgt. Andrzej Ropel of the Army's 10th Mountain Division describe their experiences fighting al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan's Shahi Khot Valley on March 2, 2002, during Operation Anaconda. The two met reporters Oct. 22 at the Association of the U.S. Army annual meeting in Washington. Photo by Gerry J. Gilmore.  
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