This is Combat Outpost Bari Alai
Hostile sniper and automatic weapon fire is a normal part of life here, provided by an enemy who strains to dislodge Afghan National Army and International Security Assistance Forces from the mountaintop in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
For example, in a 74-day period starting in February there were more than 50 recorded attacks against the base, U.S. Army officials said. The Soldiers who live here are well aware of how contested the base is.
“If you freeze up in combat, you’re either not ready to be a leader or you aren’t ready for a place like this,” said U.S. Army Spc. Shawn D. Hufford, of Evansville, Ind., the mortar noncommissioned officer attached to 2nd Platoon, Troop C, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, Task Force Destroyer.
The base was set on its high summit in the Ghazibad district in March 2009 and manned by the Afghan National Army. Officials named it for an ANA Soldier killed earlier that year.
It has been almost a year since a subsequent attack killed five Afghan soldiers, five ISAF advisors and a civilian interpreter, causing a fire that levelled much of the post. Despite persistent efforts, the enemy has not been able to duplicate that act since.
The base – 3,000 feet above sea level – oversees three valleys and at least ten major villages, providing a vast overlook of the surrounding territory, according to U.S. Army 1st Lt. Richard R. Rowe, 2nd platoon’s leader.
“It’s all about terrain,” Rowe said. “It’s a pretty volatile stretch.”
This position helps provide protection for neighbouring communities, the nearby district center and Afghanistan National Security Forces – as well as ISAF – as they conduct business with area residents.
The relative isolation of the post is an illusion, as ANA Soldiers at the post maintain contact with Afghan National Police who secure the communities below.
“We have a good partnership between the ANA and ANP,” Rowe said. “Now that it’s established, I can’t imagine not having it.”
Although there are taller mountains nearby, the post’s position is high enough to protect the Soldiers and low enough to help protect the community, Rowe said. This coverage is key to allow the government breathing space to build their institutions and community cohesion in the area.
“That’s why we’re here,” Rowe said. “We allow them to do that safely.”
This, however, requires a lot of time and a lot of watching from the mountaintop.
All along the watchtower
For the Soldiers at Bari Alai, days and nights are parcelled out in constant guard shifts, work details and the single hot meal served each afternoon.
Flies are constant companions to everybody on base. Traps help, but a person can kill two dozen flies in an area and not see a difference an hour later.
Compared to the previous year, the living conditions have improved, U.S. Army Spc. Colin T. McTamaney, of Pittsburgh, Penn., said. Previously, Soldiers stayed in an area covered only by dirt-filled Hesco barriers and a tarp. Now they have huts to sleep in.
“It’s not that bad,” McTamaney, a team leader, said of the Spartan environment. “You pretty much get used to it.”
Improvements are a constant process at Bari Alai. They range from U.S. Army engineers building overhead cover to the Soldiers who live there filling protective barriers. Structures and upgrades can literally appear overnight as a result of their work.
Stone walls and overhead cover give much of the base the atmosphere of a true fortress, including tunnel-like passageways lined by boxes of food rations and stacks of bottled water.
U.S. Army platoons with Task Force Destroyer have rotated through the post every four months or so, while many of the attached personnel have been there longer.
While boredom can sometimes be more common than enemy fire here, Soldiers learn to deal with both. Conversations roam through all manner of topics – relationships, food, family, life at home, movies, weapons and the absurd.
U.S. Army Spc. Shawn D. Hufford, who has been stationed at Bari Alai for 11 months, said during one three-day stretch in January, all personnel were required to stay full-time in their battle positions and in their protective gear. Soldiers spent the time asking each other “would you rather” questions.
For instance, would you rather be bitten in the stomach by a bulldog or have a bee sting your eye? It was a game of worst cases that only escalated with dark humor as the time stretched on without contact.
“If you can’t laugh about it, you aren’t going to be able to handle it,” Hufford said.
Soldiers at Bari Alai normally answer the whistle of missed enemy shots with the rapid percussion of .50 caliber machine guns and automatic grenade launchers. Then come the massive hammer blows of 120 mm mortar shells.
This can be followed by the thunder of 155 mm artillery support from Forward Operating Base Bostick or 2,000-pound bombs called in by Bari Ali’s Air Force Tactical Air Control Party that shake the mountainside.
Night time usually brings the more mundane sounds of construction and digging. Soldiers enjoy quiet when they can.
“It’s the frontier of battle,” U.S. Army Sgt. Rory K. Davis, of La Puente, Calif., said. “There are two moods up here. Either your adrenaline is pumping or you’re really tired.”
Davis, who serves as both the cook and an assistant gunner in the mortar pit, said everyone here concentrates on two goals – destroying the enemy and looking out for their fellow Soldiers. He said it does not matter what your military specialty is.
“You better stick to your guns and be ready,” Davis said.
Americans are not the only ones prepared for battle. The Afghan Soldiers with Weapons Company, 1st Kandak, are just as quick to grab their weapons when trouble starts.
“They don’t shy away from a fight,” Rowe said.
ANA 1st Lt. Mohammad Hazim, the Kandak commander, said through a translator that he appreciated the help ISAF provide the area. He said his men stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. Soldiers.
“If we didn’t have an [outpost] here, the enemy could easily move through the area,” Hazim said. “If we were not here, we’re pretty sure the enemy would use this against the community and against the government.”
When anti-Afghan forces are not attacking the base from hidden positions, they attempt to smear the reputation of Bari Alai, telling local residents the Soldiers there are jackals.
In turn, Soldiers shrug off the enemy name-calling and continue to keep watch.
“[They say] there’s no way the Americans have families, because no human being can go a year without seeing their families,” U.S. Army Spc. Josh L. Hastings of Brandon, Fla., said. “I think it’s a testament of how much we sacrifice.”
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