08 November 2007

Able Company locks-in on Taliban during Operation Rock Avalanche

More on Rock Avalanche, which I am posting in its entirety because the SETAF website doesn't support permalinks.

These incredibly brave guys are doing amazing work under harsh and dangerous conditions. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers.

KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Under the cover of darkness, Soldiers from Able Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne) air-assaulted approximately three miles south of their forward operating bases located in the Pech River Valley Oct. 22 as one part of Operation Rock Avalanche.

Operation Rock Avalanche was a multiple-company mission running from Oct. 19-25 in the Chapa Dara, Korengal, Shuryak and Pech Valleys. Participating were Able, Battle and Chosen Companies from the 2-503rd, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry (Airborne) and multiple companies from the Afghan National Army's 201st Corps. The companies were positioned into different areas of Kunar Province at different times hoping to flush insurgents out of one area into another where U.S. and Afghan forces would be waiting for them.

With a vantage point from 7,500 feet up and overlooking the Shuryak and Pech Valleys, Able Company's four-day mission was to locate and destroy insurgent command-and-control and logistical elements operating in that area, according to Capt. Louis Frketic, Able Company Commander.

After setting up a perimeter and establishing a command post on the top of Phase Line Ridgeway, 2nd Platoon was dispatched to the nearby village of Aybot. Previous intelligence had suggested that Taliban leaders might be holed-up in that area.

"We were looking for two named [High-Value Targets]. One of them is the commander of the entire Shuryak forces and the other guy is an IED specialist," said Frketic, "We searched their compounds and they were not in there or in the area."

Frketic and his paratroopers were not dissuaded. A Low-Level Voice Intercept Team from Bravo Company, 173rd Special Troops Battalion (Airborne) was tasked to Able Company for the mission. The team had begun listening to Taliban radio traffic as soon as they hit the ground and were already getting a bead on the insurgents operating in the surrounding valleys.

The team was an invaluable asset; one that Frketic uses every chance he gets to collect intelligence on the enemy.

"A lot of times we will start getting locations and then we will pick up names," said Frketic, "It is usually specific to that cell what kind of things they are talking about. Sometimes they will start talking about people, fighters, locations, ammo, or weapons systems that they have."

Even the smallest details, including the specific words used, can yield valuable information, said Frketic.

"A couple days ago, right before the mission started, we heard a cell talking about their fighters and their leaders in the terms of soldiers and officers. Other times, we'll hear them talk about fighters and commanders. The one talking about officers and soldiers: that is a professional organization. Little details like that are very critical in my mind," explained Frketic.

With so much Afghan National Army and U.S. military activity on the surrounding mountains and in the surrounding valleys, the Taliban were never sure of Able Company's position and never mounted an attack on Able's position. The LLVI team used the time to continue to collect intelligence on enemy in the area. The formerly suspected enemy locations were now known.

Around noon Oct. 24, Frketic put that information to use and launched Soldiers from 1st Platoon, Destined Company into action. The platoon is a heavy-weapons platoon attached to Able Company for the deployment and commonly referred to as the Dragon Platoon. They had air-assaulted onto the ridgeline with their MK19 grenade launchers and M2 machine guns. A mortar team with an 81MM tube from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2-503rd was also put in action.

Their fire destroyed one command-and-control node operating in the Shuryak Valley. But destroying the enemy position was probably the easiest part of the mission for the MK19 gun team, said Spc. David Hooker, from Palestine, Ark., and a Dragon Platoon member.

"I've never air-assaulted in with a MK19 before," said Hooker, "But since we just set in and manned a blocking position it was okay."

"The weight is the biggest challenge, getting it in and out," he said.

The MK19, without the tripod, weighs 75 pounds and the ammo cans weigh between 40 and 60 pounds each depending on the number of rounds in them. Many cans were brought for this mission.

The mortar team, one of the busiest in the battalion, also spent most of the day putting rounds on target. The team averages firing more than 1,000 rounds per month.

"As far as firing goes, this is hands-down the most intense deployment that I have been on," said Staff Sgt. Brandon Thomas, of Nashville, Tenn.

While there are Howitzers available for fire missions throughout the Kunar Province, the mortar teams are able to react the quickest when indirect fire is needed, said Thomas.

"We have eyes on a lot of the targets and our response is a little bit quicker," said Thomas, "The channels to clear the 155 go all the way through battalion and then back through their fires. Ours are cleared right here. If we are in direct contact, I can engage freely."

The number of rounds fired combined with the danger of their job has earned the team the respect of Thomas and the Rock leadership.

"These guys are awesome," said Thomas, "Everybody has been put in for valor awards."

The mortar team and the pit in which they work are a favorite target of the Taliban, making it a dangerous job.

"There is no overhead cover and they stand out there and fire throughout the entire engagement and also in support after by hitting exfil routes," said Thomas, "It's pretty remarkable what they do."

During the night of the 24th, Dragon Platoon was flown back to Able Main, but early the morning of Oct. 25, the remainder of Able Company began what would end up a 10-hour trek down treacherous, slippery and steep terrain back to their base. No small feat for even the most fit paratrooper, yet a regular occurrence for Soldiers in Kunar Province.

"We go on ruck marches into the mountains every other day or every third day," said Staff Sgt. Brian Mading, from Bonita Springs, Fla. and a member of Headquarters Platoon.

"The first couple are tough. Then, of course, the more you are doing it, the more you get built up," said Mading.

"The guys that come here right out of basic or other units usually get broke down pretty quick or get into it pretty quick depending on what their physical fitness level was before," said Mading.

All of the gear these paratroopers carry is heavy: helmet, protective vests, rucksacks, weapons, ammunition, and water. It makes packing before the mission extremely important, leaving little room for extra cold-weather gear or even extra food.

During the trip down the mountain, the Able Company Soldiers had hoped to 'drop in' on some insurgents the LLVI team had confirmed were hiding out in villages in that area. But none were spotted and no contact was made.

That's okay, according to Frketic.

"Those villages are only a three-to-four hour walk from our base. They'll be getting visits from us again soon."

Story and photos filed October 29, 2007 by Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Caldwell, 173rd ABCT Public Affairs.

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