Unit's Comic Misadventures Still Lead to Successful Mission
By Spc. Mike Pryor, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
MIANASHIN, Afghanistan, Oct. 21, 2005 The airdrop of supplies in the morning had fallen far from the mark, leaving water bottles and boxes of food strewn for hundreds of yards across the mountain. The paratroopers had spent the afternoon carrying box after box down from the ridgeline, but several large loads still needed to be transported. With daylight rapidly disappearing, the company seemed to have run out of options.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Sheppard of Company A, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, prepares to move out on an improvised donkey convoy near Lwar Kowndalan, Afghanistan, Oct. 3. Sheppard and other paratroopers used donkeys to transport airdropped supplies off a mountain and back to their patrol base in town. Photo by Spc. Mike Pryor, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Luckily, that is when "donkey man" showed up.
Army Spc. Daniel Boyle spotted the old man leading a team of donkeys up a hill in the distance. With a flash of inspiration, Boyle realized the donkeys might be the solution to the unit's transportation problem, on this mission earlier in October.
He beckoned the man over and began to negotiate. They quickly reached an agreement, and before long, each donkey was loaded up with an enormous bundle of supplies and ready to move out.
Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Sheppard mounted the lead donkey. He slung his weapon on his back and gave a gentle jab with his heels to spur the animal forward. As the donkey started trotting off, a sudden thought occurred to Sheppard. "Hey, how do I make it stop?" he hollered. But by that time the unlikely convoy was already on the move.
As the incident with the donkeys shows, "adapt and overcome" was the strategy on display when paratroopers from Company A, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, and counterparts from the Afghan National Army conducted a five-day operation in Afghanistan's Mianashin region, north of Kandahar, in early October. The operation resulted in the detention of three Taliban leaders and the destruction of two enemy safe houses.
"On a mission like that, you never know what situation you're going to find yourself in. That's why we just try to stay flexible and make the most out of whatever breaks we get," said Capt. Michael Shaw, Company A commander.
The operation began with a pre-dawn air assault into the town of Lwar Kowndalan Oct. 1. Two Chinook helicopters, with an Apache gunship for support, delivered the paratroopers in a clearing just outside the village. The paratroopers flung themselves out of the Chinooks into a wall of dirt and dust kicked up by the propeller blades. The helicopters took off seconds later. As the dust settled, the paratroopers could see they had landed in a graveyard.
They moved out quickly and encircled the town by squads. Their objective was to capture several high-ranking Taliban operatives known to live in the village. With the Afghan soldiers leading the way, the troops searched several houses and in no time had taken three enemy fighters captive.
The soldiers were also on the lookout for a safe house used by Taliban forces in the area. After several hours, Shaw decided to set up a patrol base from which to continue the search. He chose a high-walled, fortress-like compound surrounded by orchards. Ironically, soon after occupying the building, the paratroopers realized it was actually the safe house they were looking for.
The next day, after loading the three detained enemy fighters onto a Chinook for transport to a secure location, the company moved out on a punishing hike through the mountains to the town of Gardeneh. The sun beat down mercilessly as they trudged along, sliding on the shale-covered hillsides and getting snagged in tangled thorn thickets. It was only a two-mile hike, but with the heat and the altitude, it felt more like 20.
The village lay on top of a hill and at the foot of a cluster of immense boulders. A search of the homes failed to turn up any evidence of Taliban presence, but one old man informed the paratroopers that approximately 50 Taliban fighters had recently moved through the area. Shaw had his men set up an observation point at the old man's house in hopes that the enemy might pass by again that night.
While they waited for night to fall, another problem presented itself: The paratroopers were almost entirely out of food and water. They would have to live off the land. They paid the old man to butcher one of his goats and drank water from his well after purifying it with iodine tablets.
Late that night they sat around the fire eating broiled goat meat with their hands and drinking sweet Chai tea. "What part is this?" asked one paratrooper warily as he fished a hunk of goat meat out of the pot. "Don't ask. Just eat," someone answered.
Later, when most of his men were in their sleeping bags or on guard, Shaw went to sit by the old man's side to thank him for the hospitality. Knowing the Taliban would harm the old man if they knew he had helped U.S. forces, Shaw asked the man for a strange favor. "I want you to lie to them. Don't tell them you helped us," he said.
In the morning the company hiked several miles farther out to search another compound, then circled back and made the journey all the way back to their base in Lwar Kowndalan to await resupply.
From the roof of their compound, the paratroopers saw the C-130 fly over, and crates of food and water attached to green parachutes came tumbling out of the plane's hold. Sheppard's squad was dispatched to retrieve the supplies. Hours later, he rode back into the compound on the back of a donkey, leading the rest of his improvised convoy behind him. "Cool! War donkeys!" exclaimed Pvt. Adam Richter.
The re-supply had also included humanitarian aid supplies for the local people. All afternoon and into the evening the villagers filed into the compound one by one to receive rice, beans, sugar, tools, radios, and other supplies. The paratroopers did their best to distribute the material according to need, but everyone seemed to be equally needy.
"Ask him how many people are in his family," 1st Lt. Sean McDonough, the company's executive officer, told his interpreter as one boy approached to receive his portion of the supplies. "He says he has five brothers and five sisters," the interpreter said. "Oh brother," sighed McDonough.
Operations continued the next day as the platoon discovered another abandoned safe house and several caves that had been used as shelters or staging points for ambushes. Using mortar fire, M-136 anti-tank missiles, and hand grenades, the paratroopers destroyed them all.
Company A was due to be "exfiltrated" by Chinook helicopters just after sunrise Oct. 5. But before they could leave, there was one last piece of unfinished business -- the compound they had been living in. Rather than leave it intact for the Taliban to use, Shaw gave the order to destroy the building and the remaining supplies in it with claymore mines.
Staff Sgt. Richard Eldridge emplaced the mines, setting one inside a room in which someone had scrawled some fitting graffiti: "Up Yours Taliban," it read.
When everything was set, Eldridge crouched down just outside the gates of the compound and detonated the mines. There was a tremendous blast and then a cloud of smoke, and dust came drifting out of the gates. Poking his head inside, Eldridge saw that the explosion had split the main building straight down the middle. The compound's days as a safe haven for Taliban fighters were over.
The paratroopers moved out to the pickup zone. Soon they heard the "WHUPWHUPWHUP" of the incoming Chinook helicopters, and less than 45 minutes later they were back at Kandahar Airfield, looking forward to a well-earned day of hot chow, hot showers, and sleep on comfortable mattresses. And no more donkeys.
(Army Spc. Mike Pryor is assigned to the 1st Battalion, 325th Infantry.)