(VIDEO OF PATROL INCLUDED BELOW)
As we walk around Forward Operating Base Apache, where we have been co-located with American soldiers from the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, we pass by hundreds of NATO soldiers from Romania. It’s then that I realize- I don’t know a word of the language to be able to communicate with anyone from Romania. Get me on the Afghan side, though, and it’s like being back at home.
I jumped into the back of a Stryker Fighting Vehicle along with Private First Class James Gress of Kalispell, Montana. He’s a Flathead High School Brave who just graduated back in 2009 and already has a wife and newborn child. Mike Overstreet rode in the back hatch of the Stryker a couple vehicles back. After passing through the Afghan Army Base, we drove into the city of Qalat- passing several children, shopowners, a traffic circle, and what seemed like hundreds of little motorcycles carting around covered wagons filled with people or produce.
Private Gress’ Platoon Leader, Lieutenant Dave Anderson, makes a quick stop at the Zabul Provincial Headquarters before moving on to the Police Training Center. That’s where we sat down for a cup of chai with an Afghan National Police (ANP) Colonel. While Private Gress and the rest of his platoon manned the Strykers and the MATV up armored vehicle outside, Lt. Anderson and other key platoon leaders met with the ANP Colonel discussing the issues of the day, personnel, and police operations.
Then it was off to the nearby bazaar for a foot patrol with the Afghan National Police. “Best part of the day,” as Gress describes it, a chance to get out on foot and get some fresh air. The Afghan Police led the way with their AK 47’s at the low ready, greeting Afghans walking by. As we neared the shops, the children flocked around Gress and his fellow soldiers- a familiar event for any soldier who has served on the streets of Iraq or Afghanistan. “Mister. Chocolate? Pen?” the children ask.
As Gress and the other soldiers provide overwatch, Lt. Anderson and the ANP talk with a local shop owner, attempting to get more information on some abandoned Afghan Army uniforms which contained a Kabul Bank debit card.
Mike Overstreet kept the kids busy by taking pictures, while I took the camera across the street to interview some of the Afghan guys monitoring the patrol. “De Kum Zai?” I asked a couple turban wearing guys smoking cigarettes. (Pashto for “where are you from?”) The one guy laughed and threw the same question back at me. “America…Montana,” I said. “Montana?” he asked me with a crazy look on his face. He then said he was from Zabul.
While talking with the soldiers, they describe Qalat as more of a transient city- a logistics hub for Southern Afghanistan. You can certainly get that feeling as we walked the street along the bazaar. I didn’t so much fear an enemy threat, as I worked to pay attention to the hordes of vehicles passing by while I whipped the video camera around, gathering footage of the patrol. Gress just smiled as the kids circled around him. Meanwhile, Lt. Anderson ran into some old associates. His platoon, for the last several months, had been assigned to a more remote Forward Operating Base (FOB) out closer to the mountains named FOB Mizan. And, as they walked the bazaar, one of the locals from out near Mizan, who was in town for a shopping trip, said hello.
We then got back into the Stryker’s and made our way back to FOB Apache. I’ve ridden in a lot of military vehicles, but hanging out of the back hatch of the Stryker was a great time- especially since I had a video camera. You could see everything, and it was a much smoother ride than the big, bulky MRAP’s. We also had the opportunity to ride in one of the M-ATV’s during our time at FOB Apache. The M-ATV was designed to replace the Humvee. While containing better armor than the humvee, it also maneuvers more like an up-armored SUV so that it can better handle the mountainous off-road terrain in Afghanistan better than the bulky MRAP’s.
The platoon’s medic, who hails from Florida but actually has family in Montana, summed up the days trip best: “I see it as answer to prayer,” says Specialist Robert Brattin, on not losing any of his soldiers. Brattin then gave a special shoutout to his “Grandpa Hoy” who lives near Helena, adding “to everybody out there who supports the Armed Forces, or doesn’t know what we’re doing over here; check into it. It’s a lot of work out here. It really encourages me to see people who support us, but we’re teaching these people to support themselves, and I love it. And everybody in Montana: you got an awesome state. I love it up there.”
For Gress, he gave some shout outs to his old coach at Flathead High School, said hello to family back home- but first and foremost, he wanted to wish his wife Happy Anniversary on March 15th.