Face of Defense: Mortarman Shares Close Calls
By Army Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell
Task Force Bastogne
WASHINGTON, Dec. 22, 2010 Army Spc. Joshua R. Wood is a calm person; his voice barely rises above a whisper.
Army Spcs. Corey C. Canterbury, right, and Joshua R. Wood check their mortar tube and coordinates before firing mortar rounds on a mountainside overlooking the Ganjgal Valley, Afghanistan, Dec. 10, 2010. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Maybe that’s because waiting for the enemy to attack in a hastily built fighting position in the Hindu Kush Mountains makes everybody whisper, or maybe it’s because he just doesn't get that excited anymore.
Whatever the reason, Wood rarely raises his voice when asked about his three combat tours during his seven years in the Army.
Rarely that is, until he starts talking about blowing things up.
"I don't like troops in contact, but I enjoy dropping rounds and knowing that most of the time I hit the enemy," Wood said. "It's awesome to fire. It's just a thrill to drop explosives. The enemy stops firing after you drop your rounds and that's just a great feeling."
Wood, a mortarman from Pontotoc, Miss., assigned to 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, comes alive when asked about his job firing mortars in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province.
"Out here, we play a pretty big role," Wood said. "Usually when the troops get in contact, the mortars are there. They call us in to provide indirect fire on enemy locations to either destroy or disrupt them so we can move or gain fire superiority."
Just then Wood got a call. He began preparing fuses on the mortar rounds and punching numbers into his handheld computer.
Wood raised the pitch of his voice ever so slightly when he explained the technical specifications of his job and what's necessary to prepare for another fire mission.
Next, he fired a few rounds at the enemy, listened for impact and plunked back down into his fighting position to wait for more instructions from his forward observer.
Settled, he continued his conversation in his calm, relaxing southern accent.
"I almost got a bullet to the face once," Wood recalled. "It went right past my face and hit the wall behind me and cut my face up from the rock. I thought I was shot.
"That was probably the closest I've come to a bullet," he said. "I could feel the burn on my face for about 10 minutes. That was pretty intense, but we actually killed three dudes with a mortar round. That ended the fight there and I walked out of that valley."
He chuckled and had a faraway look on his face.
"I've had bullets crack around my face, around my cover. I mean, we all have. We've all been in some crazy firefights," Wood said.
But not everybody has done what Wood did a few months ago while in one of those firefights.
"We were walking through the Ghaki Valley," Wood said. "Our group took contact and, as we bounded back to hard structures, my platoon leader fell. I was about a 100 meters ahead of him. I turned around and saw that he fell. I ran back under heavy fire, picked him up and took him to safety."
He didn't raise his voice when talking about the incident. It was almost like he was explaining what he had for lunch.
"Later, another Afghan National Army soldier was walking around in the middle of the firefight with a bullet wound to his head," Wood explained. "I ran out with another soldier and we picked him up and put him behind some vehicles to let the medic patch him up.
"You just do it. You're just trained to do it. I didn't want to leave a friend out there," Wood continued. "I don't know, you just react to things and do what you're trained to do: to go help soldiers whenever you can, whether you're under fire or not."
He didn't seem especially impressed that he was awarded a Bronze Star with valor for these actions. For Wood, it was just another day deployed.
"The [platoon leader] I saved said that, as I was running, he could see bullets bouncing around my feet and around my head on the mountainside," Wood recalled. "I really wasn't paying attention to it, but it was pretty effective fire. It was pretty close. It was ricocheting off the vehicles and across the ground. You could hear it whizzing by your head. I don't know, I just remember running and picking him up. I wasn't thinking about the bullets. It was pretty heavy fire, though."
For a guy who joined the Army right out of high school because he wanted to do something different, this mortarman has seen a lot.
The forward observer called to Wood and his crew. It was time for another fire mission to quell the enemy. Wood perked up and started hollering coordinates back and forth. Well, not hollering, but there was definitely a little excitement in his voice.