U.S., Afghan Soldiers Fight Their Way Out of an Ambush
July 25, 2007
FORWARD OPERATING BASE BERMEL, Afghanistan (U.S. Central Command, Afghanistan, July 27, 2007) - Up until the ambush, the early morning ride across the barren landscape of eastern Afghanistan was tranquil.
The air was filled with dust seeping in through the Humvee turret and the seating was cramped to make room for extra ammunition, water and electronics. The air conditioner was going full blast to cool the passengers. Sgt. Roy Heinicke was the truck commander.
"You can stop driving like we're in the X-games, Paguio," said Spc. Preston Stone, the vehicle's gunner to his driver.
"Hey, my bad man," shouted back Pvt. Mark Paguio, the driver.
Their mission in eastern Afghanistan was to ride out with the Afghan National Army to a series of villages north of the base to deliver humanitarian aid, gather intelligence and conduct village assessments. There was a warning about a possible suicide bomber in the area; nothing new for the cavalry scouts of 3rd Platoon, Anvil Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. The "Death Dealers" were led by the Afghan National Army's lightly armored Ford Ranger pickups.
The silence was broken by the muffled sound of a dull thud in the distance, which didn't register with Sgt. Heinicke at first, because of the thick armor practically soundproofing his vehicle.
"Did you hear something up there'" Sgt. Heinicke called up to Spc. Stone in the turret.
"Um....yeah, maybe," Spc. Stone replied, leaning out of his turret so he could hear. "It might have been an explosion. I couldn't tell."
"Nothing unusual being reported on the radio," Sgt. Heinicke remembered thinking to himself.
His vehicle was still at the backside of a hill, blocking his view of the forward group. When they rolled around the other side of the hill, everyone in the vehicle immediately noticed the landscape change. From an open, rolling plain with the occasional hill, the terrain abruptly became a stretch of sharp rises and dips dense with trees obscuring anything farther than 100 feet.
"What a bad place to get ambushed," Sgt. Heinicke said as the sturdy trucks carefully rumbled their way across the dirt path, trying to avoid the sharp, sizeable rocks that seemed to jut up behind every blind rise and drop off.
"We're taking small-arms contact up front," a calm voice crackled through the radio mounted on the vehicle's dash board. "We've got two downed ANA vehicles."
As if on cue, successive bursts of explosions and about a half-dozen automatic weapons firing were heard ahead.
"Get up on that ridgeline," Sgt. Heinicke shouted at Pvt. Paguio, who instantly gunned the engine.
As everyone lurched from a sharp bump on the way up the steep embankment, the platoon sergeant's Humvee carrying the platoon medic could be seen rushing up from the rear of the convoy to aid any wounded ANA.
Spc. Stone quickly scanned for targets with his Mark-19 automatic grenade launcher. All he could see was a billowing column of black smoke.
Spc. Jayme Pohovey, a medic, opened his Humvee door at the site of the downed ANA vehicle. The gunner behind him opened fire, providing cover with his 240B machine gun at the attackers sending a steady stream of brass cartridges to the ground.
The medic kneeled next to a wounded ANA officer, pulling out his aid bag, oblivious to the heavy fire around him.
"Okay what's wrong," he asked the officer, who was calm despite his injury.
"My stomach hurts," the Afghan replied, moving his bloody hand away from his abdomen, revealing a gaping stomach wound. The commander suddenly grabbed the medic's arm. "Helicopter, send helicopter," he said.
"You're going to be alright," Spc. Pohovey said trying to sound reassuring as he immediately cut away the man's shirt. His men looked back at Spc. Pohovey pleadingly. "He's going to be okay," he shouted at them.
More than 40 ANA soldiers fanned out around the convoy. As the fight escalated, several of them were wounded as they defended the position where Spc. Pohovey was bandaging the badly wounded officer's face and stomach.
Amid the fighting, casualties were put on stretchers, loaded onto vehicles and transported to a safer location where they could be medically evacuated.
The enemy weapons fire had largely died down; especially after the Humvee gunners pointed their weapons towards the enemy and began firing. The rapid bursts of concussive shells hitting the insurgent's fighting positions pulverized rocks and felled trees.
All the armored Humvee were now on line to perform a bounding maneuver on the enemy. Moving forward by sections, rise-by-rise, they slowly began gaining ground on the retreating insurgents.
The order came to provide "recon by fire" on the hill, to discover if the enemy had take up a defensive position there.
The job went to Spc. Stone, who fired off several 40mm grenade rounds onto the hilltop at a vanishing enemy.
The vehicle crews dismounted and began sweeping the area with the ANA on foot. Several water canteens, a rocket-propelled grenade and a jacket were all that was left of the attackers. Nobody was taking any chances and the ANA began setting up a mortar position on the ridgeline facing the steep hill.
An hour later, the area had been swept clear and the ANA, assisted by scouts, had established a good defensive posture on the ridgeline. Anvil Troop's 2nd Platoon had diverted from their original mission and established a helicopter landing zone. The Afghan commander had been medically evacuated to Forward Operating Base Orgun-E for surgery. Nine Afghan soldiers had been wounded but they were all alive.
It had been completely quiet for the last hour but an Afghan lieutenant wasn't convinced that the fighters were gone. He wanted to launch a few mortar rounds over the hill to make sure and then send in his men to clear it. His men began to make their way down the slope of the ridge to the base of the hill.
Suddenly, shots rang out again, ricocheting dangerously close to the mortar team and several scouts. A concentrated burst from several machine guns sent whizzes and cracks right past them as everyone ran for cover.
"Contact," yelled Staff Sgt. Brent Adams, a scout section leader, as he reflexively launched off a grenade from his M-203 and loaded another while taking cover behind his vehicle.
Bullets were audible as they tore through the air near their position.
"Hear that 'cat meow' noise'" Staff Sgt. Adams excitedly asked his radio operator, who had taken cover with him. "You know they're close when you hear that."
On the far side of the ridge, Sgt. Heinicke had been standing behind the hood of his vehicle, when several rocks popped up in the air near his location and he heard the whiz of several well-placed rounds fly over his head.
"They were just waiting up there," he said to Spc. Stone, ducking behind the hood. "They aimed those shots."
Spc. Stone was getting ready to blast something, searching for some positive identification of the enemy. He had to be careful, because the ANA were now streaming up the hill like ants. Down below him, behind the ANA, he saw a flash from a weapon firing as the rounds bounced off a tree next to him. Somebody moved behind a bush. He caught it out of the corner of his eye and aimed his weapon. A figure with a beard and non-military clothing stepped out from behind it. Spc. Stone fired, and the grenade exploded near the man, but missed. The man took off running but was spotted by an Afghan soldier who raised his weapon and unloaded on him.
Now inside his vehicle, the big noncommissioned officer known for his jokes, saw the insurgent take a firing stance and aim at the mortar team. Quickly stepping out of his vehicle, using the door for cover, Staff Sgt. Adams took aim and fired. Missing his first two shots, he found his intended target on the third try. The man walked a few more steps before he fell for good.
Nearing the top of the hill, the Afghans began a heavy assault, firing RPG's down directly into the midst of the again retreating insurgents, rocking the ground again and again. A dense cloud of grey smoke rose up, which was penetrated by the streaks of red tracers as the Afghans raked the area with a spray of machine-gun fire.
All during the firefight, the Afghan mortar team had been sending mortar after mortar raining down on the enemy position, braving a steady stream of machine-gun fire aimed directly at them.
When the smoke behind the hill finally cleared, the machine gun-fire stopped. The insurgents had fled. Sgt. Heinicke looked around for his cigarettes, but couldn't find his pack. He'd forgotten he'd left it on the hood during the confusion.
The hill had been cleared, and 1st Lt. Vinny DueAfA+-as, the 3rd platoon leader, made the assessment that it had been a force of about 20 fighters, operating in two teams. The second attack had been cover fire for the main body to retreat.
When they recovered the body of the insurgent who had been shot, he was identified as a low-level Taliban commander, responsible for a unit of about 30 to 40 men.
When the site had been cleared, the convoy moved to a nearby village, where the ANA and ANP went through and searched it just to be sure the insurgents hadn't taken refuge there.
They were nowhere to be found.
That was good enough for Sgt. Heinicke as he leaned against his vehicle late that afternoon. The scout platoon had been providing a cordon for the Afghan military searching the village.
They wouldn't be back for dinner that night, but everyone from 3rd Platoon would be coming back safe and sound, and none of the ANA had been killed, while insurgents in the area had lost a unit commander.
"We really turned it around on them," Sgt. Heinicke said. "What was meant as an ambush turned out to be a victory!"
It was not only a victory for the scouts of the 173rd ABCT, but for the ANA, emerging victorious from yet another battle with the Taliban.