U.S. Troops Describe Clearing Afghan Caves, Bunkers
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 27, 2002 U.S. troops sent in to mop up enemy bunkers in eastern Afghanistan at the tail end of Operation Anaconda were well trained, well equipped and ready to tackle whatever they encountered in the challenging mountainous terrain.
First Lt. Richard C. Phillips, 27, described Operation Anaconda to Pentagon reporters from his viewpoint as an infantry platoon leader. He was one of three soldiers who gave the press a telephone interview March, 27, 2002, from Bagram, Afghanistan. U.S. Army Photo.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
During a telephone interview from Bagram, Afghanistan, infantrymen 1st Lt. Richard C. Phillips, 27, Staff Sgt. Kevin A. Schiedeck, 24, and Spc. Jeffery E. Reen, 21, described to Pentagon reporters what Anaconda was like on the ground.
After a five-and-a-half-month deployment in the Kuwaiti desert, the three men of Alpha Company, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, went into the mountains of Afghanistan. They were to clear the caves of any remaining enemy fighters, equipment, weapons and ammunition they encountered.
"I took my platoon out there with three squads and we've done what's been asked," said Phillips, a platoon leader from Lake City, Fla. He said the combat missions at times seemed "just like a live-fire exercise."
"When we're out there, everything runs smooth and calm," he said. "People are focused. They know their job and what they have to do."
Cold weather didn't faze the well-equipped troops, but the rugged terrain presented a big challenge, the lieutenant said. Troops in some units broke ankles and twisted knees climbing the steep inclines, he noted.
"You just have to pace yourself and not overdo it," he said.
Moving through the mountainous area, Phillips said, the men encountered caves and mortar positions. The enemy had used the natural terrain to their advantage.
"We mostly found holes or natural ravines that had been built over into larger bunkers," he said. One bunker they destroyed was 14 feet long, he noted, but they could only see about five feet of it -- the other nine were inside a well-camouflaged hole in the rock.
"The bunkers were not just set up randomly. They were interlocked," Phillips pointed out. "Whoever designed the scheme for their defensive positions, they knew what they were doing. They were well emplaced."
The platoon found abandoned enemy positions with recoilless rifles, small arms and machine gun ammunition, mortar rounds and rockets still in their cases. They didn't come across enemy personnel in the caves.
"Mostly, we just blew up enemy equipment," he said.
On the other hand, Alpha Company's 3rd Platoon came across an enemy fighter holed up in a cave. The man was armed with gear apparently taken from U.S. soldiers slain earlier in the operation, Phillips said. Platoon troops shot the enemy dead when he reached for a U.S. light machine gun, the lieutenant noted.
"Fortunately, 3rd Platoon was able to kill him before he could use that weapon on them," Phillips said. "It wasn't a good feeling," he added, knowing the enemy "was trying to use our own equipment against us."
In that cave, the platoon recovered an M-249 squad automatic weapon, some commercial GPS devices and Kevlar helmets that had Rangers' names on them. "It was a pretty good feeling to return that equipment to some of the units here," Phillips noted.
Some of the bunkers Phillips' platoon came across had been bombed out. Others had been completely destroyed. "The bomb had landed practically directly on them," he said. "It was just a big crater with scorched earth. Some of the contents of the bunker would be battered, thrown about."
"We never found any enemy booby traps or mines," Phillips said. "I believe most of the enemy fled and were in such a hurry to save their lives they didn't have time to place any traps for us."
Schiedeck, from Cottage Grove, Ore., is one of Phillips' squad leaders. The staff sergeant said the platoon did two actual combat missions. The first was dubbed Operation Harpoon.
His unit's mission in Harpoon was to clear a section of the 'Whaleback,' a long, distinctive mountain ridge line, Schiedeck said.
"What we were looking for was caves, mortar positions, caches of ammunition and 'AF' -- al Qaeda or Taliban forces still in the area," he said. "We were going basically on a 'search and attack (mission)' to clear the positions as we went along and destroy any enemy forces that posed a threat to us."
The second mission came at the end of Operation Anaconda, he said, when they were again sent to clear a zone.
"This was a little more in depth, because when we actually hit the ground and got off the birds, we started rolling through the ravine and there were fighting positions everywhere," Schiedeck said. The Air Force had pasted the area with bombs the night before, so his unit was left with cleaning out all the ammunition and equipment the enemy had left behind, he said.
He described remnants of the enemy's presence. Bombs had blown bags of flour all over the mountainside. "There was mangled metal from vehicles. There was ordnance everywhere," he said.
The platoon has been in Afghanistan for only three weeks, Schiedeck said, but before that had been deployed to Kuwait since Oct. 4. They're ready to come home, he said. Asked if he had a message for the folks back home, he said, "Tell my wife I love her and my family I'll be home soon."
Reen, a 1st platoon team leader from Easton, Mass., and quiet through most of the interview, also spoke up to relay a message. "I'd like to tell my parents and my family that I love them and say hello to my friends back home," he said.
Phillips, too, took advantage of the opportunity. "I'd just like to tell my family that I miss them and think about them, and I can't wait to get home," he said.