By night, the troops brace for Taliban mortar attacks. By day, they carry heavy gear and weapons over rocky ledges in scorching heat, stopping only to rehydrate, sometimes with the help of intravenous drips.
Life with the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment in southern Afghanistan is a battle not only against a stealthy and stubborn enemy but against some of the earth’s harshest natural elements.
“I am hungry, thirsty and dirty. Welcome to my world,” said Sgt. 1st Class Gonzalo Lassally, 31, of Deltona, Fla.
Lassally is among the scores of U.S. soldiers dug into a sun-bleached peak as part of Operation Mountain Thrust. It is the largest offensive against the Taliban since the government of that radical Islamic group was ousted nearly five years ago.
The soldiers, part of the 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, N.Y. — along with three embedded Associated Press journalists — were dropped by helicopters to the remote hilltop in southern Helmand province several days ago.
Their mission is to block Taliban supply and transport routes.
During the past few months, Taliban fighters have stepped up suicide bombings and ambushes across the country, particularly in the south, in a bid to derail Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government.
An unfriendly desert
More than 10,000 American, Canadian, British and Afghan soldiers are participating in Mountain Thrust. They are definitely on hostile turf.
Taliban forces have long held sway in this vast, inhospitable, rocky brown desert. Little but some small cacti survive in daytime temperatures nearing 110 degrees.
Sweat pours off troops carrying dozens of pounds of gear and weaponry up, down and along rocky ledges as they patrol Baghran Valley.
Spc. David Valdiva is beet red from exertion, soaked in sweat and looking near collapse as he lugs 90 pounds of gear, including a 30-pound machine gun. “It’s an honor to carry the gun,” he says, uncomplainingly.
“I’m just not doing too good today because of the minimal food and water,” adds Valdiva, of Altaloma, Calif.
Too much sun and little water have led some troops to give each other IVs to prevent dehydration.
“Williams, you got an IV for me? I think I’m delusional,” Cpl. Bradley Courson, 22, of Calcium, N.Y., says to a company medic.
An IV is the fastest way to rehydrate, said company doctor Capt. Peter Muench, 29, of Silver Spring, Md., but he warned against soldier-administered IVs. “Their sterile techniques aren’t the best,” he said.
Out of about 120 soldiers in the unit, a half-dozen hydrated with IV drips. Lassally had a friend administer an IV on Tuesday, leaving bloody trails on his arms. He said he felt “refreshed” afterward.
Resupply means more hard work.
Dozens of soldiers and one donkey, rented for $10, lugged more than 7,000 pounds of food and water from the valley floor to their mountaintop ridge Thursday. It had been air-dropped by coalition aircraft because no helicopters were available to deliver it closer.
More supplies at last
The extra supplies mean the troops get 12 bottles of water to drink per day, instead of eking by on five or six as they had been. They also now have two MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) food packs this day, instead of the one they’d been limited to earlier.
“I hate this place. You can drop the devil here and he’d hate it,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Rice, 39, of Eugene, Ore. “I’m pissing orange and they want me to shave with my drinking water. Ain’t gonna happen.”
AP Television News producer Andrew Drake found shade in a nearby cave, where he set up his equipment.
Company commander Capt. Jared Wilson, 28, of Petaluma, Calif., told the solders before they left on their mission to expect hardship.
“Does it suck carrying all that stuff? Roger that,” Wilson said Thursday. “They don’t show that in Hollywood. They don’t show you getting dehydrated.”
The senior noncommissioned officer in the company, 1st Sgt. Russell Jacobs of Edgar, Neb., said the Army is a 24/7 job.
“You bust your ass from time to time,” said Jacobs, 46, who is a 21-year Army veteran. “When you’re deployed for a year at a time, it’s a hard year.”
A love-hate relationship
But despite the lack of water, the heavy labor, extreme heat and constant jokes about craving a cold beer, many soldiers stuck on this mountaintop say they love it.
“As much as the Army sucks, I still love it,” Lassally says. “When you get put into situations like these, you don’t sweat the little stuff anymore.”
Temperatures at night drop only to the 80s, too hot for tents, so the troops sleep under stars that seem particularly bright because of the lack of electricity in the area.
One night this week, soldiers in the valley came under mortar attack. They responded with tracer fire and mortars, and called in air support that targeted two nearby compounds.
The next day, troops trudged down the hill to assess the damage at the compounds, where they believe Taliban militants had removed the bodies of several of their comrades killed in the U.S. counterattack.
An elderly couple living in one of the compounds also died from the U.S. fire. Residents said Taliban forces had taken over the settlement and were using it to plan attacks against U.S. troops. On an adobe wall, troops discovered rough sketches of American positions on the hilltop.