Friday, March 12, 2010

We Don't Hear Enough About Our Heroes

I was talking with some friends of mine the other morning about the war in Afghanistan and how our troops are holding up. As the discussion progressed and we came to agreement about how to win the war -the way we armchair generals often do from the safety of our homes- my friend began telling me a story about some real life heroes serving over there. It occurred to me that we civilians just don't pay enough attention, nor give as much credit to some of the things our guys (and gals) are doing under fire every day.

I decided that I would use this little blog to tell some of those tales from time to time. Today I am going to tell you a story as it was told to Lance Benzel of the Colorado Springs Gazette:

Battle decorations were the last thing on 1st Lt. Mark Zambarda’s mind as he sized up an ambush that left his platoon trapped and nearly defenseless on an Afghanistan mountainside. Enemy fighters had seized the high ground and driven his men into a wide, open field — a classic “kill zone.” They had lost radio contact with their supporting units. They were out of water and nearly out of bullets. Unless something changed, and fast, nobody would survive. Zambarda, a 24-year-old West Point graduate, set off alone in an unlikely attempt to cross the nearly mile-long “kill zone” and reach a group of trucks from which he could call in covering fire. He alternated running and diving to the ground as insurgents took aim from above with machine guns and sniper rifles. Their bullets kicked up plumes of dirt on every side, getting closer all the time. After a half-hour, he reached a second platoon manning the trucks. Barely. “I came back with a bullet hole in my pocket,” he said.

The young platoon leader was one of two soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment who were recognized in January for reversing the course of the July 15 attack. Underscoring the chaos of the war in Afghanistan, the five-hour battle unfolded within walking distance of their base, Combat Outpost Michigan in Kunar province, along the mountainous border with Pakistan.

The two soldiers were awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor in battle, in a Jan. 11 ceremony in Afghanistan, where they remain deployed. Recipients of such medals don’t always live to recount their experiences.

The other man, Sgt. 1st Class James M. Goodin, was decorated in part for taking control of the trapped platoon and exposing himself to enemy fire to reach two injured comrades while Zambarda made his daring, solitary scramble to re-establish contact with supporting units.

Zambarda directed the other platoon’s vehicles to where they could fire on the enemy positions. Then he used their radios to call in mortar attacks and supporting fire from OH58D attack helicopters that drove the insurgents up the mountain. Goodin led the platoon’s escape across the same deadly path Zambarda traveled, this time with the benefit of covering fire, Army documents said. The award citations for Zambarda and Goodin paint a harrowing picture of a routine mission gone bad, complicated by eastern Afghanistan’s defining trait: the remote, mountainous terrain that scrambles radio communications and slows troop movements to an excruciating crawl. According to the Army’s account, the ambush came on the heels of a successful mission to disrupt an insurgent network. Zambarda’s platoon — with 16 soldiers — joined a squad of five Afghan National Army soldiers in a raid on a remote mountain mosque where, according to intelligence reports, insurgents were massing weapons and plotting an attack. After hiking a mile and half up the mountainside, the soldiers cordoned off the mosque and seized a “large cache” of rocket-propelled grenades and other munitions. They detained two enemy fighters, including one suspected of supplying insurgents with cash and weapons. Then, while preparing to return, they were ambushed. Zambarda said about 25 enemy soldiers attacked the platoon with rocket-propelled grenades, light machine guns and sniper rifles. At the time, based on the volume of fire, it felt like dozens, he said. The soldiers had support fire from helicopters, field artillery and the trucks below as they began their descent. But as they continued down the mountain their radio link to the helicopters and soldiers below grew choppier, and eventually faded altogether. Without a fix on their location, the supporting elements couldn’t fire without the risk of hitting their own soldiers. “In Iraq, communications is easy,” Zambarda said in a telephone interview. “You can talk from here to 40 kilometers away. Here, in some places, you can be 100 meters from the next guy and you cannot talk to him, because the terrain just gets in the way.”

As the battle wore on, exhaustion and dehydration began to take a toll. Zambarda estimated the July day exceeded 100 degrees, and the soldiers wore gear ranging from 60 to 80 pounds while negotiating a descent on par with Pikes Peak. Two soldiers had to be helped along after what Zambarda called a “crazy” incident in which a rocket-propelled grenade knocked loose a boulder the size “of a small ranch house” that tumbled down, injuring them. Meanwhile, the enemy fighters maneuvered in the hills above, and fired down on the soldiers. “We got to a point where we couldn’t move anymore, because of the volume of fire,” Zambarda said. “And we were just trapped. It was basically an open stretch of terrain at that point. There were no trees, no rocks — nothing to hide behind. “I just realized that in the absence of any communications, no one was going to make it out.”

The fact that everyone made it home alive — with the munitions and insurgents they set out to capture — was more important than any official recognition, he said. Back at base, the platoon members felt lucky to be alive. Comrades in their fifth tour told Zambarda, now on his first, that they’d never seen anything like the firefight they had survived. “What got us through,” he said, “was really just the adrenaline. A lot of guys, as soon as they got to quote-unquote safety, they passed out. They just went down.”

At this point it is easy to close by saying something like "Support Our Troops" -but I am going to ask a little more of you. I have asked it before and you'll hear me ask it again. The next time you see one of our soldiers, sailors or marines, just smile and say "Thanks for your service, we appreciate it". - It only takes a minute and, as corny as it may sound, it really does make them feel better knowing we do appreciate what they are doing.

No comments: