17 June 2008

Reporter's Notebook from Afghanistan

Kent Harris of S&S continues his on-the-ground reporting from Afghanistan.

Vicenza-based soldiers knew what needed to be done as their second tour in Afghanistan began

Few battalions in the Army have spent as much time as the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment getting to know their areas of operations.

Some soldiers in the Vicenza, Italy-based unit have served 25 of the past 40 months in Paktika province. They went on a 12-month tour in 2005-06, and followed it up with a 15-month stint expected to last until July.

Staff Sgts. Kevin Field and Matthew Fillinger and Sgt. Michael Fogleman all served in the same platoon when the 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped into Iraq in 2003. They’re still serving as Sky Soldiers.

The men said they’ve noticed differences between the unit’s two rotations to Afghanistan. ...

"We’re doing a lot of the same things in different ways," Fillinger said. "I don’t know if we’re doing them better than we were previously, but the results are becoming more visible."

One of the biggest events during their previous rotation in Afghanistan was the first national election since the fall of the Taliban-led government. The soldiers said they see a lot more interest by local people toward their government this time around and it might just take time for something like that to set in.

Fillinger said that if he has to serve somewhere in this region, it might as well be where he’s invested some time. ...

Lt. Col. Mike Fenzel, the battalion commander, said his unit "knew all the names. All the places. We knew already what we wanted to focus on."

For Fenzel, that meant getting troops out near the border with Pakistan. Half a dozen combat outposts have been built or refurbished during the battalion’s current tour. ...

It can get a little monotonous at some of those locations.

"There are discouraging days," Fillinger said. "But every day, I get up and see those names of my friends up on the Wall (of Heroes). Those guys died for their country, whether they always agreed with it or not. They were doing what they were supposed to do."

He said even little changes in the people or province can help him refocus.

"You see that progress is being made and you’ve just got to take pride in it."

Baseball and reenlistment:

U.S. troops at Afghan combat outpost can’t get baseball off their minds

ZEROK, Afghanistan - A platoon of soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Division’s Company D seems to be always talking about baseball — especially when its members are manning the towers that protect Zerok Combat Outpost.

Their counterparts with the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment gave some of the ridges and mountaintops around the area female names to help quickly identify them during attacks. The Sky Soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade decided they preferred the names of Major League teams.

"I ain’t never going to look at baseball the same when I go back to the States," Spc. Corey McRae muttered while pulling duty in one of the towers recently. "I’m going to forever hate the Boston Red Sox." ...

Staying in the Army
A 15-month deployment to Afghanistan isn’t keeping a large percentage of the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment from staying in the Army.

First Rock — as the battalion from Vicenza, Italy, is known — has exceeded its retention goals across the board, according to Sgt. 1st Class Rafael Ortiz.

Ortiz, the battalion’s career counselor, said the number of re-enlistments for those who had just joined the Army is particularly high. The battalion was tasked to have 40 soldiers from that category re-enlist. A hundred chose to do so. Sixty-two soldiers in mid-career are re-enlisting, topping the goal of 50. And 23 soldiers with more service time are staying in, opposed to a goal of 17.

"Does that make any sense while we’re in a 15-month deployment?," asked Lt. Col. Mike Fenzel , the battalion commander.

Fenzel attributes the high numbers to strong leadership by the battalion’s noncommissioned officers and junior officers. Ortiz gives credit to Fenzel and Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Weik.

"Gathering intelligence about the enemy is good. Getting the time to analyze that information is even better."

First Rock tries new intel approach in Afghanistan

ORGUN-E, Afghanistan — First Rock has expanded the number of troops analyzing intelligence it picks up from various sources around Paktika province, according to Capt. Tim Culpepper, the team leader. Instead of having six or seven soldiers perform that task, the team has 42 analysts.

"We are gathering more information, but the real benefit is our ability to go through it all," Culpepper said. "If I had a normal S2 (intelligence) shop, I wouldn’t get through 10 percent of what we’re getting."

The battalion decided to try the concept when its leadership realized it had never seen a lot of the information gathered after yearlong stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. So each company was told to provide three two-person teams to help form the intelligence-gathering-and-analyzing team.

Culpepper said that company leaders were generally reluctant to give up the soldiers for the tasking, but they’re now seeing the benefits. ...

The three teams go through three rotations before starting the cycle over again. While they’re with the battalion, they work on projects targeting their unit or area of operations. In another rotation, they’re assigned to their company headquarters as intelligence liaisons to the battalion. In the third rotation, they’re assigned to do their normal jobs with the company. In that mode, Culpepper said, they’re picking up information about individual areas of operation that the battalion headquarters doesn’t have. So they’re the experts on their own areas of operations when they rotate to the battalion again.

"They know the space much more than I do," Culpepper said. "The battalion gains the best ground-level information. And the guys who are up at the battalion level are getting to see the big picture, which they can carry back to the companies."

There's much more at the links.

Click here for more 173rd ABCT Afghanistan posts.

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