News: San Mateo native mans the big guns in war on terror
Story by Spc. Ken Scar
PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Ten years ago, U.S. Army Pfc. Erik Park was 12 years old growing up in San Mateo, Calif. When his father told him one September morning that the World Trade Center had gone down, he only had one response: “What’s the World Trade Center?”
Today, a decade after 9/11, Park – a 2007 graduate of Alma Heights Christian Academy – fights in the war on terror from Forward Operating Base Orgun-E, a small walled-in fortress dug into an isolated high-mountain valley in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.
The only way in or out is by helicopter, or a 35-mile dirt road to the next-nearest base that takes 18 to 24 hours to navigate. One would be hard pressed to find a place further away from San Mateo in distance or atmosphere.
Even the atmosphere hanging overhead is different, the elevation is a mile and a half above sea level so the air is thin - and that suits Park just fine. Thin air means less resistance against projectiles that fly through the atmosphere to their target.
Park - a member of 3rd Platoon, Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment, 172nd Infantry Brigade – is the “number one” man on a team that operates a massive M-777A2 155mm howitzer. All members of the team are numbered according to their specific job and have synchronized tasks that have to be executed with precision, echoing cannon teams throughout history, particularly British naval teams from the Napoleonic Wars.
Park’s job is to help load, elevate, and aim the “triple seven” then pull the lanyard that ignites the charge - in short, he’s the triggerman.
“The feeling of being on the gun line with my friends and with my chief is exciting,” said Park, explaining that one of the main functions of the howitzer teams is to react quickly to indirect fire – rocket propelled grenades or other explosives that are indiscriminately lobbed at the base by insurgents in the hopes of hitting something.
This means they are on call 24/7 for the entire year they will spend on Orgun-E. 3rd Platoon can return fire immediately after the attack begins, often returning fire before the attack is over.
“When everyone else is in the bunkers, my guys are at the guns,” said 3rd Platoon leader Capt. Anthony Pearson of Findley, Ohio.
The triple seven is a 9,000-pound solid steel goliath that is so well balanced when the barrel is down that its crew can easily rotate it on its two wheels like an I-beam on a Seqway scooter. Once it has been set, however, it is a monster that can launch its engine block-sized rounds over mountains with deadly accuracy.
“We take everything into account [when aiming],” said Pearson. “From the wind speeds and directions at different altitudes and the spinning of the round, to the rotation of the Earth.”
Just as the naval cannons of the Napoleonic wars would blow the wooden walls of enemy ships into millions of pieces of shrapnel, a round from a triple seven will shred everything within 50 meters of its strike – rocks, dirt, trees, vehicles - into a shock wave of deadly projectiles.
After only one month at Orgun-E, Park and his team have already sent plenty of rounds over the mountains to wreak havoc on enemy positions.
“These guys are hungry,” said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Powell, the howitzer section chief. “They always want to fire. It’s a good thing.”
One month in to his one-year deployment Park is introspective about his mission here, in a war that was started when he wasn’t even old enough to know or care what the World Trade Center was.
“I’m glad I’ve been to Afghanistan, so I know how it feels,” he said. “I’m glad I can be here to protect people.”
“He’s a good soldier. He’s squared away and dependable. I can see him being a gun chief some day,” said the section’s gunner, Sgt.Carl Ellebb.
With the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 only a few days away, Park has simpler goals.
“I just want the people back home to know we’re still out here fighting for our country.”