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Company Works to Flush Out Taliban During ‘Rock Avalanche’

By Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Caldwell, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan, Oct. 31, 2007 – Under the cover of darkness, soldiers from Company A, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne), air-assaulted about three miles south of their forward operating bases in the Pech River Valley earlier this month as part of Operation Rock Avalanche.

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Army Sgt. Chad Mohr (left) watches rounds land on target as Army Spc. David Hooker fires the MK19 machine gun at a known insurgent position Oct. 24, 2007, during Operation Rock Avalanche. The "Dragon Platoon" soldiers of Destined Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne), were occupying a ridgeline between the Pech and Shuryak river valleys in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. U.S. Army photo
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Operation Rock Avalanche was a multiple-company mission that ran Oct. 19-25 in the Chapa Dara, Korengal, Shuryak and Pech river valleys. Participating were “Able,” “Battle” and “Chosen” companies from 2nd Battalion; Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry (Airborne); and multiple companies from the Afghan National Army's 201st Corps. The companies were positioned into different areas of Kunar province at different times, hoping to flush insurgents out of one area into another, where U.S. and Afghan forces would be waiting for them.

Working from a vantage point 7,500 feet up, overlooking the Shuryak and Pech valleys, Able Company's four-day mission was to locate and destroy insurgent command-and-control and logistical elements operating in that area, Army Capt. Louis Frketic, the company’s commander, said.

After setting up a perimeter and establishing a command post on the top of Phase Line Ridgeway, 2nd Platoon was dispatched to the nearby village of Aybot. Previous intelligence had suggested that Taliban leaders might be holed up in that area.

"We were looking for two named (high-value targets). One of them is the commander of the entire Shuryak forces, and the other guy is an IED specialist," Frketic said. "We searched their compounds, and they were not in there or in the area."

Frketic and his paratroopers were not dissuaded. A low-level voice-intercept team from Company B, 173rd Special Troops Battalion (Airborne), was tasked to Able Company for the mission. The team had begun listening to Taliban radio traffic as soon as they hit the ground and already were getting “a bead” on insurgents operating in the surrounding valleys.

The team was an invaluable asset, one that Frketic said he uses every chance he gets to collect intelligence on the enemy.

"A lot of times we will start getting locations, and then we will pick up names," he said. "It is usually specific to that cell what kind of things they are talking about. Sometimes they will start talking about people, fighters, locations, ammo, or weapons systems that they have."

Even the smallest details, including specific words used, can yield valuable information, Frketic said.

"A couple days ago, right before the mission started, we heard a cell talking about their fighters and their leaders in the terms of soldiers and officers. Other times, we'll hear them talk about fighters and commanders. The one talking about officers and soldiers, that is a professional organization. Little details like that are very critical in my mind," he explained.

With so much Afghan National Army and U.S. military activity on the surrounding mountains and in the surrounding valleys, the Taliban were never sure of Able Company's position and never mounted an attack on the company. The voice intercept team used the time to continue to collect intelligence on enemy in the area. The formerly suspected enemy locations were now known.

Around noon Oct. 24, Frketic put that information to use and launched soldiers from 1st Platoon, Company D, into action. The platoon is a heavy-weapons platoon attached to Able Company for the deployment and commonly referred to as the Dragon Platoon. They had air-assaulted onto the ridgeline with their MK19 grenade launchers and M2 machine guns. A mortar team with an 81 mm tube from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2-503rd, also was put into action.

Their fire destroyed one command-and-control node operating in the Shuryak Valley. But destroying the enemy position was probably the easiest part of the mission for the MK19 gun team, said Spc. David Hooker, from Palestine, Ark., and a Dragon Platoon member.

"I've never air-assaulted in with a MK19 before," Hooker said. "But since we just set in and manned a blocking position, it was OK.

"The weight is the biggest challenge, getting it in and out," he said.

An MK19 without a tripod weighs 75 pounds, and ammo cans weigh between 40 and 60 pounds each, depending on the number of rounds in them. Many cans were brought for this mission.

The mortar team, one of the busiest in the battalion, also spent most of the day putting rounds on target. The team averages firing more than 1,000 rounds per month. "As far as firing goes, this is hands-down the most intense deployment that I have been on," said Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Thomas, of Nashville, Tenn.

While Howitzers are available for fire missions throughout Kunar province, the mortar teams are able to react the quickest when indirect fire is needed, Thomas said.

"We have eyes on a lot of the targets, and our response is a little bit quicker," he said. "The channels to clear the 155 go all the way through battalion and then back through their fires. Ours are cleared right here. If we are in direct contact, I can engage freely."

The number of rounds fired combined with the danger of their job has earned the team the respect of Thomas and the unit’s leadership. "These guys are awesome," he said. "Everybody has been put in for valor awards."

The mortar team and the pit in which they work are favorite targets of the Taliban, making it a dangerous job. "There is no overhead cover, and they stand out there and fire throughout the entire engagement and also in support after," Thomas said. "It's pretty remarkable what they do."

Early on the morning of Oct. 25, members of Able Company began what would end up as a 10-hour trek down treacherous, slippery and steep terrain back to their base -- no small feat for even the most fit paratrooper, yet a regular occurrence for soldiers in Kunar province.

"We go on ruck marches into the mountains every other day or every third day," said Staff Sgt. Brian Mading, from Bonita Springs, Fla., and a member of Headquarters Platoon. "The first couple are tough. Then, of course, the more you are doing it, the more you get built up.

"The guys that come here right out of basic or other units usually get broke down pretty quick or get into it pretty quick depending on what their physical fitness level was before," he said.

All of the gear these paratroopers carry is heavy: helmet, protective vests, rucksacks, weapons, ammunition, and water. It makes packing before the mission extremely important, leaving little room for extra cold-weather gear or even extra food.

During the trip down the mountain, the Able Company soldiers had hoped to “drop in” on some insurgents the low-level voice intercept team had confirmed were hiding out in villages in that area. But none were spotted, and no contact was made.

Frketic stressed that wasn’t a problem.

"Those villages are only a three- to four-hour walk from our base,” he said. “They'll be getting visits from us again soon."

(Army Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Caldwell is assigned to 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageParatroopers from Able Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne) move to a new position along their established perimeter Oct. 23, 2007, on a ridgeline between the Pech and Shuryak river valleys in Afghanistan during Operation Rock Avalanche. U.S. Army photo  
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Click photo for screen-resolution image(Left to right) Army Spc. Cody Martin, Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Thomasand Army Sgt. Steven Martin launch an 81 mm round from an M252 mortar Oct. 24, 2007, during Operation Rock Avalanche in Afghanistan. The mortar team from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne), was targeting known insurgent positions in the Pech Valley during the operation. U.S. Army photo  
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Click photo for screen-resolution image(Left to right) Army Sgt. Steven Martin, Army Spc. Cody Martin and Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Thomas launch an 81 mm round from a M252 mortar Oct. 24, 2007, during Operation Rock Avalanche in Afghanistan. The mortar team from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne), was targeting known insurgent positions in the Pech Valley during the operation. U.S. Army photo  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Capt. Louis Frketic (center), Able Company commander, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne), and Army Staff Sgt. James Green (right), a low-level voice intercept team leader assigned to Bravo Company, 173rd Special Troops Battalion (Airborne), discuss intelligence gathered by the team Oct. 24, 2007, in the Pech and Shuryak river valleys in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. U.S. Army photo  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Staff Sgt. Brian Mading (center), Able Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne), helps another soldier down the mountain Oct. 25, 2007, during a ruck-march back into the Pech Valley in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. The soldiers of Able Company marched down from an elevation of more than 7,500 feet back to their forward operating base. The trek took more than 10 hours to cover three miles because of the steep and slippery terrain. U.S. Army photo  
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