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Troops Battle Elements, Violence to Bring Hope to Afghan Valley

By Sgt. Brandon Aird, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan , Jan. 23, 2008 – The sound of water dripping through the roof was a constant reminder of the weather outside Forward Operating Base Able Main.

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Army 1st Lt. Kareem F. Hernandez, a N.Y. resident and 2nd Platoon leader in Company A, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), talks on the radio while village elders and an Afghan National Police officer walk down a mountain during a patrol to Omar, in Kunar province, Afghanistan, Jan. 11, 2008. Photo by Sgt. Brandon Aird, USA

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

Two paratroopers, covered from the waist up in mud, tried frantically – and unsuccessfully – to divert a small pond that had risen above their building. Water was seeping through sandbags and running inside.

Three days of rain had turned the base into a field of puddles. Once the puddles were contained and their gear was safe, the paratroopers went back to work.

These paratroopers never stop patrolling the newly constructed Pech Road here. Night and day, through rain and snow, they patrol the $7.5 million Pech Road to bring security to an area known for violence.

They make up Company A, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), also known as “The Rock.”

Even though Company A is an infantry company, the company commander stresses that the troops’ main focus is helping and taking care of the villages in and around the Pech River Valley.

“We’re responsible for over 100 villages,” explained Army Capt. Louis Frketic.

The company works side-by-side with Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army troops to help bring security and development to the area.

“We’ve put a tremendous amount of effort into connecting with the people,” Frketic said.

One of the key ways the unit is accomplishing that task is through humanitarian-aid missions and assisting the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team as it builds infrastructure and constructs government facilities in the province.

“We, literally, do one to five humanitarian-aid missions a day between our platoons or facilitating the (Kunar PRT),” Frketic said. “We’ve done at least 500 since we got here. It’s astronomical. We’ve given out building supplies, food, Qurans, prayer rugs, clothing -- pretty much the entire spectrum of (humanitarian assistance).”

One of the biggest projects in the area has been the Pech Road, which over the last eight months has opened the area to new opportunities. Taliban extremists don’t want the region to prosper under the new government. Since arriving in country in May, Company A has been engaged in more than 150 fire fights with Taliban, al Qaeda and other anti-coalition militants.

Although the violence has prevented international aid agencies from operating consistently in the Pech Valley, it has not stopped Company A or the Kunar PRT from offering humanitarian aid or continuing the development of self-help projects, Frketic said.

Company A launches these efforts out of forward operating bases Able Main, Honaker-Miracle and Michigan -- all on the Pech Road. The three bases are strategically placed to enable Company A to engage more villages and cover a larger area. FOB Michigan is the home of 2nd Platoon, and they are on the front line of these efforts on a daily basis.

“Normally, on any given day, we have two patrols,” said Army 1st Lt. Kareem F. Hernandez, a N.Y.-area resident and 2nd Platoon leader. “In the morning, we usually go check on our elders to make sure they’re doing alright and see if they need anything.”

Hernandez and the Afghan National Police have built good working relationships with the village elders and area populace. After three days of rain and 6 inches of snow, 2nd Platoon and a squad of Afghan National Police walked 45 minutes to visit the village of Omar on Jan. 11. The patrol was conducted so Hernandez, Afghan police officers and the village elders could discuss future projects and security in the area.

While the patrol was intended to conduct business, the rapport built in the meeting allowed for some humor.

“Two weeks ago, we were in south Omar, and some guy started shooting at us from a house,” Hernandez told the village elders. “Halfway through the firefight, the house he was in caught on fire from a rocket. The guy actually set his weapon outside against a tree and started throwing buckets of water on the house.”

The village elders laughed when Hernandez told him the story saying, “The people up in south Omar are crazy.”

After the meeting, village elders walked Hernandez down the mountain and promised to visit him soon at FOB Michigan.

(Army Sgt. Brandon Aird is assigned to 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs.)

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Related Sites:
Combined Joint Task Force 82
NATO International Security Assistance Force

Click photo for screen-resolution imageAn Afghan National Police officer carries two rocket-propelled grenades during a patrol with 2nd Platoon, Company A, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), near the town of Omar, in Kunar province, Afghanistan, Jan. 11, 2008. Photo by Sgt. Brandon Aird, USA   
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