FORT CAMPBELL Ky. - Having lunch is a thing few people normally associate with danger. However, for deployed Soldiers any large gathering of personnel brings about risk of attack, so Soldiers in a combat zone must always remain vigilant for threats.
For more than 200 Soldiers, that threat became all too real last fall when a white phosphorus rocket headed for the dining facilities at Forward Operating Base Shank, Afghanistan. However, vigilant Soldiers from Battery B, 2nd Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment sprung into action using a capability new to Afghanistan and successfully intercepted the rocket. Knocked from the sky it landed causing no harm.
That moment was one of the most important intercepts for the unit and one of the proudest memories Capt. Keith Kozal, the battery commander, has from his most recent deployment. His pride comes from the knowing his Soldiers helped save lives that day.
That intercept and others like it broke new ground in the fight in Afghanistan and set the standard for a successful air defense deployment.
"FOB Shank had a large amount of IDF in years prior and also last year as well," said Kozal, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich. "We were there to protect the FOB and personnel against indirect Fire."
They protected it with a Land-based Phalanx Weapon System. The LPWS mounts a 20 mm Gatling gun on a trailer and links its ability to rapidly spew out bullets to advanced detection equipment. It is the U.S. Army's version of the Close-in Weapon System used on naval ships. Kozal said it was the first time the Army used this weapon in Afghanistan.
"Once we brought that in there, the FOB was no longer a dartboard," he said. "We actually could shoot back against the rockets and intercept them and stop them from causing as much damage as they were causing prior to us being there."
The battery deployed to Afghanistan in July 2013. However, to prepare for the deployment wasn't a simple task. The unit had to transition from using the Avenger weapon system to using the LPWS, and the battery faced challenges during the transition. According to 1st Sgt. George Palmer, the battery first sergeant, many of the Soldiers the unit deployed with were new to the battery, assigned specifically for the deployment. After the battery completed all of their mandatory training, they conducted more training for their mission at Fort Campbell, and then went to Fort Sill, Okla., for 45 days to complete their training. However, they quickly bonded.
"It was one team and it was outstanding," stated Palmer, a native of Mason, Ohio.
Deployment was the next step and upon arriving in Afghanistan, the Soldiers received a warm welcome.
"Really the biggest appreciate we seen was the moment we got on ground the help of all of the agencies on the FOB pitching in to get our LPWS sites built up and everything in place so it could become operational," said Palmer. "It was really a team effort from throughout the FOB and we definitely felt important."
Once operational, the unit started intercepting incoming enemy attacks. Kozal stated that over the course of their nine-month deployment the battery successfully intercepted more than 40 attacks on FOB Shank.
"We saved lives with every intercept," said Kozal. "The mission was a resounding success. We sat with the brigade commander in here this morning telling us how we are the talk of the air defense world. We're the first Army unit ever to deploy as a C-RAM unit. It was an amazing success and I attribute that to the Soldiers of this unit."
Kozal said on the job training, being in the fight and always striving to do things better was the secret to their success.
"We never took a step backwards we were always looking forward, always getting better," he said.
"... It takes a gifted group of personnel to be able to do that," said Palmer. "We truly have that in our battery from the lowest Soldiers to the senior NCOs to the officers."
The new capabilities challenged the enemy and although they attempted to adapt it wasn't enough.
"They kept trying to defeat the system but they never were successful," said Kozal.
So after a successful deployment and handoff to their replacements, the Soldiers of Battery B returned to the cheers of overjoyed family members and friends at Fort Campbell. Stepping off the plane caused the crowd at their welcome home ceremony to erupt in applause. After a short ceremony on March 21, the warriors embraced their loved one again.
For the two leaders, both returning from their fourth deployment, they enjoyed seeing their Soldiers reunite just as much as they enjoyed being back with their families.
"It was great to see my family again, but to me it was more looking out and seeing all the Soldiers who's first time was reintegrating with their families," said Palmer. "We have great Soldiers and we have great families, and we received more than enough support downrange from the families."
By working hard as a team, the members of Battery B, 2-44 ADA, successfully introduced a new weapon in Afghanistan. That hard work paid off with each successful intercept, which saved lives and protected the base.
"This will be the standard to base all future deployments off of," said Kozal. "If units could have the success we had, then I would consider those successful deployments as well."
The 2-44th ADA, stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky. is supported by the 101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) on Fort Campbell, and is assigned to 108th ADA Brigade based out of Fort Bragg, N.C.