Headhunters search for their Afghan partners
August 19, 2011
FORT IRWIN, Calif.--Through the scorching heat of the Mojave Desert, a convoy of up-armored Humvees travels behind two Afghan National Army (ANA) trucks to the mock village of Shar-E-Tiefort in Nadir Province.
Appreciating the last few minutes of AC blasting against his face, Spc. Mitchell Giles searches through the truck's window for movement on the rooftops of the approaching community.
"There's someone moving on top of that blue Mosque, right there," said the vehicle's 50 cal. gunner, as every pair of eyes jump to the top of the tallest structure.
One-by-one, the vehicles park along the road leading to the village as 1st Lt. Noel Whitten, Headhunters platoon leader, gathers a group of Soldiers outside the entry of the village. "We're here to speak with the mayor to find out about their resources, like water, and the costs of chicken, rice and cooking oil," he reminds everyone.
"And you hold your weapon at the low ready. Scan the area with your eyes, not with your weapon's muzzle," interjects Staff Sgt. Clarence Thomas, Headhunters squad leader.
With his interpreter by his side, Whitten walks along side his ANA partners to meet with local leadership. Rather than a formal office meeting, the Headhunters quickly find themselves guided through the village's streets by the Mayor of Shar-E-Tiefort. Soldiers cautiously share smiles and rudimentary Afghan greetings as they pass shop owners and customers alike.
Among the clothing and fruit stands, a large blast erupts and gunfire ensues interrupting the bustling village and scattering both civilians and the MPs from Joint Base Lewis-McChord's 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, to find shelter and protection.
The Soldiers quickly take up a defensive position, crouching behind buildings or inside rooms, with weapon muzzles poised and eyes scanning for the perpetrator. The joint security force was separated, making it difficult for Whitten and Thomas to communicate with their unit.
Spotting the source of the attack in the window of a nearby second floor building, the Headhunters and their partners devised a quick plan. Sgt. Brandon Ford, a Headhunter team leader, departed with his team and ANA members across the courtyard as machine gun fire provided the Headhunters with much needed protection. A second team followed closely behind and entered through a different door.
Minutes that felt like hours passed as the remaining platoon members awaited the sparse radio updates sent from the teams. Static rumblings began transmitting a confirmation of one enemy dead and continued into a casualty report: Ford sustained a simulated leg injury after triggering a command-wire booby trap in the building.
A 9-line MEDVAC was radioed up to Sgt. 1st Class Cory Hawbraker, the Headhunter platoon sergeant, located with the vehicles out front, who began settting up a landing zone (LZ) for an air evacuation.
Leaving a security element in place and taking advantage of the 50 cal. on top of a Humvee, Whitten and his team used the vehicle for protection against enemy fire as they travelled along the village's perimeter to it's backside.
A medical litter was taken from the truck and Soldiers were sent through the house to evacuate Ford. Returning, not only with Ford, but with reports that there were two more enemy forces located in the building. The ANA and Headhunters now had a second building to rid of enemy. Dividing into two joint elements, one team travelled up rickety stairs as the second team went along the inner courtyard.
Using non-verbal cues to signal from the rooftop to the ground, both teams simultaneously kicked down their doors and fired their weapons, killing both enemy fighters. ANA and Headhunters searched both men and secured the area.
The Headhunters MP platoon travelled from the great Pacific Northwest to the National Training Center to run-through Afghanistan-based scenarios. The training is designed to throw numerous challenges and variables at the Soldiers to prepare them for situations they may see in the future.
"As military police, we work a lot with local leaders like mayors or police chiefs- we do KLEs [key leader engagements] and we talk to people on a day-to-day basis," said Whitten. Going through villages like that, you really need those communication skills to build rapport and also be aware of the numerous dangers of operating in an urban environment.
"They worked well under pressure, we had a couple learning points that we accomplished, said Hawbraker. "They learned from the first time, went back in and improved. Most importantly, they need to work together as a team and not work as individuals."
Their security tactics, ability to establish relationships and how they involve their Afghan partners will help the platoon leadership identify both skills they do well and those that need more training.
Ford agrees that training exercises like this definitely helps them learn more about one another. "Knowing common TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) and the reactions of the people around you when things go wrong is key."