After months of delays due to bad weather and restructuring of mission priorities, the call finally came down, “The Gwashta Pass mission is a go.”
“Reapers”, the soldiers from the Mortar Platoon, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Red Currahee, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, TF Currahee, supported a battalion-sized operation to clear the Gwashta Pass, May 23-28 in Paktika province, Afghanistan.
The mortarmen and a platoon-sized element of Afghan National Security Forces comprised of Afghan National Army soldiers and Afghan Uniformed Police loaded into two CH-47 Chinook helicopters and set out in the middle of the night to secure more than 20 kilometers of terrain.
“This is a critical mission because it is a significant first step in opening the Gwashta Pass to provide logistical support to [forward operating base] Wazi Kwah,” said U.S. Army 1st. Lt. George Kane, native of Mercer Island, Wash., and mortar platoon leader. “It also lets the people in the region observe a strong coalition and ANSF presence which has been absent in the area for quite some time.”
The forces cleared the pass of improvised explosive devices and secured it. Once cleared, a convoy of more than 400 U.S. Army and ANSF personnel traveling in nearly 100 vehicles moved south to FOB Waza Khwah.
“Opening up those ground lines of communication is important because Forward Operating Base Waza Khwah had been an ‘air only’ FOB, meaning that supplies could only be brought in and out with aviation assets,” said U.S. Army Capt. Todd Tompkins, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Bn., 506th Inf. Regt., commander from Willoughby, Ohio.
According to Tompkins, the biggest challenge of this mission was moving through the terrain where reports indicated insurgents placed more than 2,000 IEDs.
“Once we have a clear path to and from FOB Waza Khwah, we can start bringing in new trucks and moving out old ones that no longer work and other equipment that is simply too heavy to be moved by helicopter,” added Tompkins. “This is also important for us to be able to transfer these [combat outposts] and FOBs over to ANSF control; we have to be able to bring our vehicles out for them to move theirs in.”
The 4th Attack Reconnaissance Bn., 4th Combat Aviation Bde., TF Gambler, 4th Inf. Div., TF Currahee, out of FOB Sharana, provides all military aviation support within the province.
“Gambler is great, and they do an outstanding job of supporting the Currahees on the ground, but if we can take back some of the logistical responsibility, that will free them up to provide support in other areas,” said Tompkins.
TF Red Currahees identified the most dangerous stretch of route Viper that connects FOB Waza Khwah to the closest base to the north, and then identified different key terrain points within that area where Red Currahee soldiers could provide overwatch and security for the convoy as it rolled through.
The Mortar Platoon was assigned to an area identified as Key Terrain 4 for the duration of the mission, centrally located so their mortar system could reach the north and south ends of the pass.
“The 81[millimeter] mortar system is an impressive weapon,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Bo Lathrop, the platoon sergeant of the Mortar Plt., 1st Bn., 506th Inf. Regt., from Moore, Okla. “The Reapers have the ability to change the way a battle is going in a matter of minutes because of this weapon.”
Throughout the night, the Reapers received instructions over the radio as to when, where and how many of which type of round to fire.
Over the five-night period, they fired at all hours, sometimes waking up from a dead sleep. They never missed a single mission.
“It’s incredible how quickly the soldiers can go from trying to eat a meal, or changing out their wet socks for dry ones, to being up on the gun making adjustments and hanging rounds in the tube,” said Lathrop.
Despite the challenge of such high-tempo of operations, the Reapers said they developed a form of internal motivation.
“Our platoon has adopted a motto: ‘Beast Mode.’ It began early in the deployment when we were attempting to traverse some difficult terrain while conducting a mounted patrol in Yaya Khel,” said Kane.
“Ever since, the men have utilized the phrase as a source of collective motivation when facing adversity as a light infantry platoon in combat does on a daily basis.”
The phrase can often be heard throughout the day as soldiers are faced with filling sand bags after staying up all night, or climbing a mountain to get a better vantage point.
The Reapers are tough, and they have to be to do what they do, said Lathrop.
On day one, the Reapers air assaulted into Gwashta, climbed up to their objective, dug in and prepared a hasty mortar pit. There, they stood ready for the inevitable call for support.
The first call came in just after night fall, and they continued to hang mortars steadily through the night, firing nearly 20 rounds.
“We fire illumination rounds above where we think the enemy might be. The rounds burn a bright light and are slowly lowered down by a parachute over that area. Even if we do not see any enemy, at least they know we are looking for them,” said Kane.
After four nights of firing nearly 100 rounds mixed between high-explosive rounds and two types of illumination rounds, the mission met its exfiltration criteria.
“Even though we did not get into a direct engagement with the enemy, they knew the Reapers were there waiting with the 81 mm; sometimes that is enough of a deterrent to keep the bad guys away,” said Kane.
The Reapers fulfilled their mission. The convoy made it to FOB Waza Khwah for the first time in more than two years, and all the Soldiers returned to FOB Sharana safely.
Article by Sgt. Matthew Graham, Combined Joint Task Force 1