News: Spirit and Sacrifice live on at Tillman
Story by Spc. Ken Scar
PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan – For the vast majority of Americans the War on Terror is a decade old and a world away, but for the soldiers living and fighting on Forward Operating Base Tillman, a small fortress etched into a high mountain valley near the Pakistan border, it is on their doorstep every minute of the day, every day.
At FOB Tillman the enemy is never far away – hidden among the rifts and crumbling peaks of the broken terrain that surround it on all sides. Once, twice, sometimes five or more times a day they make their presence known by firing rocket propelled grenades toward the base. Then they disappear back into the wilderness. Then the soldiers of FOB Tillman go looking for them.
On Sept. 7, three platoons of soldiers from C Company, 3rd Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, Task Force 2-28, 172nd Infantry Brigade, along with dozens of their brothers in arms in the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Border Police stepped outside the wire to find bad guys once again.
The destination was a small observation post six miles out. Established by coalition forces on the Eastern shoulder of a mountain nicknamed Big Nasty that rises 1500 steep, scree-infested feet off the valley floor, the OP had been manned only sporadically for some time, allowing insurgents to use it as a point of origin for several RPG attacks. The American/Afghan war fighters were to put a stop to that nonsense.
The area around Big Nasty is known to be some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth to navigate by foot– and that’s taking what few established roads and foot trails that can be found, which U.S. infantrymen do not. They take the rough ground, shouldering over 100 pounds of body armour, weapons, ammunition, water and other supplies.
“All the weight makes you feel like Robocop when you walk,” said Spc. Ryan Debellis, a radio telephone operator for TF 2-28 from Tamaqua, Pa.
“There’s nothing light about the light infantry,” quipped Staff Sgt. Gregorio Florez of Abilene, Texas, a platoon leader for TF 2-28.
The main body stepped out the gate before dawn, hiking quietly past small camps of nomadic tribesmen dotted with wagons, tractors and colorful tents. Herds of camels and sheep stamped and grunted as they filed by.
As the sun rose, the contingent passed a small picturesque village carved like green and red steps into a mountainside, connected by irrigation canals from which the pleasant sound of cascading water could be heard. Children laughed and played in the terraced fields of corn, unaware of the forces moving across the hillsides above them.
Eight hours of arduous trekking later the column paused in a dry riverbed to take water and rest before beginning their ascent up the rocky backside of Big Nasty. They don’t get to rest long.
A group of insurgents, perhaps hoping to ambush the contingent as it continued upstream and then being thwarted when the entire element halted, attack with small arms fire and RPG’s from behind several boulders 250 meters away.
The U.S. and Afghan teams immediately respond with a wall of bullets and mortar rounds. The entire fire fight lasts maybe five minutes. When the dust and smoke settled the attackers had fled, perhaps realizing that they had bit off a lot more than they could chew.
Afghan National Army, ABP and U.S. soldiers smile, slap backs and high five each other. They have been fighting this war together for years.
This mission, however, had only just begun. It would go on for another twenty-six brutal hours. By the time it was over the element had climbed and descended thousands of feet of elevation, endured blazing hot afternoons and spent a long frigid night on top of Big Nasty, subdued yet another small arms attack by insurgents, and put nearly twenty hard miles under their feet.
The soldiers of TF 2-28 and their Afghan partners took it all in stride. To them it was just another day on the job, another day outside the FOB.
“The soldiers out here are doing an outstanding job, not only for their country but for each other,” said 1st Sgt. John Orbe, from Brooklyn, N.Y., Company C, TF 2-28. “Americans may be getting complacent about the War on Terror after ten years, he said, because they don’t see it on the news every day – but at FOB Tillman it’s as real as ever.”
“There are [still] thousands of soldiers putting their lives on the line out here every day – from my boys on patrol doing their missions to all the soldiers at the satellite FOBs, to the soldiers that are back on [larger bases] kicking boxes onto aircraft to make sure we’ve got food, ammunition and fuel,” he said.
In June of 2012 there will be another ten-year anniversary, one that won’t be marked like 9/11 but that will have particular significance to all the troops, past and present, engaged in the War on Terror. June 2002 was the month Pat Tillman – the FOB’s namesake - gave up a career in the NFL and joined the Army – instantly becoming an American icon.
One can’t help but believe he would be proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with his fellow American heroes who continue to sacrifice and sweat it out across the foreign landscapes of Afghanistan to keep his principles alive and finish the fight.