27 December 2007

The Sky Soldiers of the Korengal

A Black Hawk helicopter landing at the Korengal Outpost.

The Vanity Fair feature by Sebastian Junger is out. He was with the 173rd ABCT in Afghanistan this summer on a joint embed with Brian Ross of ABC News, who pitched their coverage with obscene headlines like "Ambush: Video Shows U.S. Troops Being Hunted, Killed". Junger is mostly able to leave politics aside and delivers a gripping (if borderline sensational) piece well worth a read, accompanied by great photography from Tim Hetherington.

A strategic passage wanted by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley is among the deadliest pieces of terrain in the world for U.S. forces. One platoon is considered the tip of the American spear.

They are the men of Second Platoon, Battle Company, of the Second Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Second Platoon is one of four in Battle Company which covers the Korengal.

Traditional airborne calling card.

The soldiers of Second Platoon lurch out of their cots and feel around for weapons in the electric-blue light before dawn. The dark shapes around them are the mountains from which they will get shot at when the sun rises. A local mosque injects the morning silence with a first call to prayer. Another day in the Korengal.

The men assemble with their trousers untucked from their boots and their faces streaked with dirt and stubble. They wear flea collars around their waists and combat knives in the webbing of their body armor. Some have holes in their boots. Several have furrows in their uniforms from rounds that barely missed. They carry family photographs behind the bulletproof steel plates on their chests, and a few carry photographs of women in their helmets, or letters.

Junger tells the story of these men, including many familiar names like SPC Hugo Mendoza and SGT Josh Brennan. Or SGT Kevin Rice and SPC Carl Vandenberge, whom I briefly met when they were later medevaced to Germany for injuries suffered in the attack which claimed the life of SSG Larry Rougle.

Junger writes of Vandenberge, "probably the strongest man in the platoon, who stands six feet five and weighs 250. Specialist Vandenberge doesn’t say much but smiles a lot and is reputed to be a computer genius back home. In June, I saw him throw an injured man over his shoulder, ford a river, and then carry him up a hill. His hands are so big he can palm sandbags. He turned down a basketball scholarship to join the army."

And of Rice: "He walks into the open like he’s in his bathrobe going out to get the morning paper..." "Bravery comes in many forms, and in this case it’s a function of Rice’s concern for his men, who in turn act bravely out of concern for him and one another."

Read the rest here including the photo gallery which illustrates the extreme conditions under which the paratroopers operate.

H/T Jules Crittenden

Click here for more 173rd ABCT Afghanistan posts.

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