4 years ago
From The Global Post:
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — While battle rages on in warmer climes around the world, the fighting season in Afghanistan is drawing to a close as bitter cold descends upon its mountains and deserts.
American troops typically serve yearlong tours in Afghanistan, so they all must learn to operate in both the heat and the cold, even if the fighting largely subsides. The largest military bases in America are in places like Texas, California and the southeast — many soldiers garrisoned there have little experience in cold-weather soldiering.
For the Taliban, the winter poses nearly insurmountable tactical difficulties. Frozen mountain passes cut off supply chains, radio batteries fail quickly and campfires are easily spotted by drones and thermal cameras aboard attack helicopters.
Between mid-November and early April, particularly at high elevations, attacks on soldiers decline dramatically.
“There are a few hard-core guys that will still set the occasional IED or ambush,” said Terry Arsenault, a former Special Forces soldier who does security contracting work in Afghanistan. “Many [Taliban] head into the cities to live out the winter, some head to Pakistan, others just hunker down in their villages. Mainly they just try to survive.”
Even in the restive southern province of Kandahar, the site of the U.S.-led coalition’s major offensive this past summer and fall, although the weather doesn’t have quite as a dramatic effect on militants, their supply chain is severely disrupted through attrition.
“Because so many [fighters] look for warm places to hole up and plan, the ones who do stay quickly run out of supplies and ammo and are unable to fight for long,” Arsenault said.
And so as the violence wanes, complacency and low morale become the chief problems affecting U.S. soldiers, according to 1st Sgt. David Fiske, of D Company, 1-187 Infantry. Fiske and most of his company were stationed at Combat Outpost Zerok, an austere post 8,000 feet above sea level in Paktika province. Winter temperatures there can dip to 20 degrees below zero.
“The excitement of fighting gets replaced by boredom and long guard shifts in the cold,” Fiske said. “The winter is so much harder on soldiers here — some of them really fall into deep depressions.”
As first sergeant, Fiske’s foremost responsibility is to make sure his soldiers are fit and healthy, so he has learned a great deal about keeping morale up when the temperature falls. He said he often pulls guard shifts with his troops and encourages competitions to stave off boredom and keep skills sharp.
“If you live strictly by Army regulations, with no imagination, your company will suffer,” Fiske said. “You’ve got to nurture ideas among your men — like inventing games, fitness competitions, marksmanship competitions, whatever you can imagine.”
In the primitive, nameless outpost Fiske and his men recently occupied in Talukan, burning fires, around which troops crowded around, joking and playing cards, offset the cold nights and lack of electricity.
“Having the campfires at night gives soldiers something to look forward to — it’s like a community event,” Fiske said. “It also allows me to keep my finger on the company’s pulse and hear what issues are coming up. The loss of light discipline is worth the tradeoff in morale.”
The average Sergeant Major is not characterized by his delicacy. The job requires a sandpaper-grade sternness, pain-inducing vocal projection and withering facial demeanor that can vaporize the slightest precursor of trouble with a single glance. And as the senior enlisted man in a battalion, the sergeant major has to deal with plenty of misguided would-be trouble-makers.
At home it is DUI’s, motorbike crashes, fights and so on – on deployment the infringements are less excessive, but still worthy of the sergeant major’s gruff discipline. “My job,” says Samuels, “is not to control the 1,000 Marines in the battalion. It is to control the 30 Marines who won’t follow what the other 970 are doing.” He says he has to “keep his foot in every door”, and be able to answer all the questions the battalion commander asks him – “which is a lot”.
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But even with the forbidding exterior, there are a few cracks. On one inspection tour Samuels arrived at an outpost in Kilo Company where the 12 Marines, living in the corner of a field, had adopted a local stray dog as a pet.
“Bad for hygiene,” said Samuels gruffly when he first spotted the dog, and said if there was no other way, the Marines needed to take the dog out to the desert and shoot it.
He sat down to discuss other issues, and as he did so the dog lay down at his feet, and Samuels absent-mindedly began petting the dog. When he was ready to leave, the Marine in charge asked delicately “about shooting the dog, Sgt. Major?”
Samuels uttered a guttural grunt, which the Marines interpreted as a negative, and he then turned around to leave.
Rules are rules, and sometimes rules are dumb. NCOs can decide when they need to be followed and when they don’t. Any backpacker and camper knows that a campfire is everything to morale on the trail. And no one should ever come between a man and his dog. Nothing to see here folks. Move along. Let the NCOs do their job.