All along the watchtower
Sunrise at a guard position on a forward operating base in southern Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

FORWARD OPERATING BASE MASUM GHAR, Afghanistan -- The air is damp from the recent thunderstorm and rain leaks into the guard tower where Pfc. Drew Johnson looks out with night vision goggles across the plain surrounding Combat Outpost Mushan. He rubs his hands together against the chill.

"At least it's not as cold as it's been the last few days," Johnson says. "Although, I'd rather be out on patrol. The time goes by faster."

When he's not shivering in a guard tower, Johnson, an M240 gunner in 3rd Platoon, A Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, is out with his platoon watching the roads recently built by Afghan security forces and the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division as they pushed further into the horn of Panjwa'i.

Third Platoon also patrols the surrounding villages with their Afghan National Army partners who are either finding and disposing of improvised explosive devices planted by Taliban insurgents, or engaging the locals, building on the relationship of trust and mutual respect that ISAF has established.

"We go out on 48-hour rotations and guard the roads," says Johnson as he moves into a sheltered corner of the tower, out of the wind. "It gives the farmers a feeling of security, knowing we're there making sure nobody puts new IEDs on the roads."

Building roads has been an important part of the mission in Panjwa'i. Roads serve dual purposes: they give security forces better access to the people, whose trust and cooperation are vital to suppressing insurgent activity, and they provide the local population more opportunity for commerce and better access to schools and hospitals.

"Even though I really miss my family, I'm glad I came to Afghanistan," Johnson says. "Just being in the Army has been a great experience. It makes you put your life in perspective. And my platoon, the guys that I deployed with, are some of the greatest people I've ever met. We've been through a lot together and I've made some great friends."

As the morning call to prayer for ANA soldiers at COP Mushan fades away, the jagged outlines of Afghanistan's famous mountains begin to appear along the horizon.

"This is an experience I'll never regret," Johnson continues. "There is a sense of accomplishment that we've done what we came here to do and that everything we did was successful."

Page last updated Tue January 31st, 2012 at 20:02