Thursday, June 7, 2007

82nd Airborne Goes “all the Way” During Operation Achilles

By Army Sgt. Tony J. Spain
22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan, June 7, 2007 - Sounds from roaring engines and spinning rotors from the British CH-47 Chinook pierce through the night as the aircraft carries paratroopers of the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, on an air assault mission into the lower Sangin Valley near the Gereshk District.

Landing under the cover of darkness in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, the “heart of Taliban country,” the back ramp of the Chinook drops and paratroopers make their way off the helicopter to pull security duty. The Chinook begins to kick up dirt and debris as it roars off into the darkness, leaving the paratroopers in the poppy fields of the Sangin Valley.

This is the latest air assault mission for the 1/508th in a series of sub-operations under “Operation Achilles,” an operation ongoing since early March. Many of these paratroopers spent more than 40 days in the first and second sub-operations of Achilles, only to return to the battlefield after a six-day regrouping period.

It is just another day for the elite group from the 82nd Airborne Division. The paratroopers have a rich history since World War II of living up to their “all the way” motto by doing whatever it takes to accomplish what their country asks of them.

These parachute troops are going into places that have not previously had a U.S. presence and they are met with heavy resistance at times, said Army Lt. Col. Brian Mennes, battalion commander, 1/508th. “It shows there is nothing they can’t handle with competence, and that is impressive,” he said.

Achilles was launched at the request of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan government and is the largest coalition operation to date. It involves about 5,500 International Security Assistance Force soldiers, including 1,000 soldiers from the Afghan National Security Force and close to 1,000 paratroopers from Fort Bragg’s 82nd Airborne Division.

Nicknamed the “Red Devils,” the 1/508th continues to play a key roll in conducting the largest air assault missions of Operation Enduring Freedom in a region that has not seen military operations since the Soviet Union’s occupation in the 1980s. There have actually been three separate operations within Achilles, said Mennes.

The first mission was in the Ghorak valley and was pretty calm, he said, and except for some minor skirmishes Taliban fighters were virtually nowhere to be found. The second and third missions took place in the Sangin Valley, one in the Sangin district and this one near Gereshk. The Sangin Valley is one of the most productive poppy-growing regions in the world. That, coupled with its reputation as a Taliban stronghold, made conducting missions in the valley a true test for the paratroopers.

“The fighting in Sangin was a lot more intense,” said Spc. Jacob Allen, 3rd Platoon, Company A, 1/508th. “There was a lot more Taliban activity than what there was during the Ghorak mission,” he said.

In the Sangin district, paratroopers began their assault clearing buildings and ridding the area of Taliban. Then, after completing the mission, they helped the local Afghans communicate with the Afghanistan government and provide security. Much of the same was to be expected on the mission near Gereshk.

This mission near Gereshk is an ongoing effort in Achilles with the overall goal to disrupt Taliban operations in the Sangin valley by targeting the Taliban leadership, Mennes said. Unlike missions in Iraq and elsewhere in Afghanistan, the terrain does not allow the luxury of a humvee. Paratroopers must move on foot carrying all their gear as they advance forward through poppy fields, jumping irrigation canals and fighting the Taliban into the dawn.

Finally getting a chance to rest, these exhausted paratroopers made a command post out of an Afghan farmhouse. They set up guard positions around the perimeter and found a place to sleep on the rock-hard, uneven ground beneath them. “I applaud all the efforts of these guys. They have to live under fairly austere conditions when they come out here. There are no FOBs (forward operating bases), there’s no Internet, there’s no ice cream or dining facilities. So they have to suck it up a little bit,” said Mennes.

In the next couple of days, the regiment swept through the countryside with little resistance in search of weapon caches and the Taliban. There was a lot of enemy contact with the Taliban in the first couple days in both the Sangin district and this operation and then sporadic stuff after that, Mennes said. “We found in Sangin (District) multiple weapons caches. Everything from mortars, 107mm rockets, IED (improvised explosive device) making materials, explosives, small arms, heavy machine guns and ammunition.”

Paratroopers entered the second phase of the operation, focusing on winning hearts and minds. After most of the fighting died down, the paratroopers provided security and humanitarian assistance to the local populace. When a father showed up with his sick 11-month-old child at the paratrooper’s command post, Spc. Fred Rawcliffe, combat medic for the infantry regiment was there to provide aid.

“His dad told me he had been vomiting on and off for about a month, and he had diarrhea,” said Rawcliffe. “I just checked out some of the common causes for kids to be doing that, like ear infections, or possibly teething.” Rawcliffe also found out that they were still feeding the child dry milk and that he was not eating a lot of solid foods. “I told them he needs to be coming off the milk, especially if it is not his mom’s milk, and go to solid food. Also, make sure to keep him hydrated in case he is teething,” said Rawcliffe.

Events like these could win over support of the Afghan people and make it easier for the paratroopers to accomplish their overall mission. “This is part of phase two, reaching out, meeting and helping the locals,” said Sgt 1st Class John NeSmith, the platoon sergeant.

According to Mennes, the measure of success is not about body counts of enemy Taliban combatants, but rather giving the people of Afghanistan a sense of security in their government so they can bring in the Afghan National Security Forces for long-term security. “In this part of the operation, what we try to do is accomplish a network with Afghans and help them form a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Afghanistan,” Mennes said.

One of the main methods to do this is to host local shuras – village council meetings – to meet local elders and discuss problems and concerns in their local area. Mennes says the purpose of the shuras is to try and establish a contact between his paratroopers and the locals as well as between the locals and the Afghanistan government. “In Sangin we were really successful,” said Mennes. “We stood up the first couple of shuras and after that the Afghans started running their own.”

The regiment hosted three shuras for the locals and a medical engagement to help Afghans who need treatment. Operation Achilles continues in the Helmand province providing security for reconstruction and development objectives.

Photo - Spc. Ying Kit Tsui of 3rd Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division speaks to a local Afghan with the help of a translator in the Sagin Valley near Gereshk.


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