Capt. Jason Merchant, the Company A commander with Task Force Ironman, had said it many times before.
"Afghanistan is a hiding place," Merchant repeated as he trekked up a steep path in the village of Hind Dor, Afghanistan, March 31. He was referring to the unlimited availability of hiding places for weapons and contraband in the rugged terrain features that make up the country. That would soon become apparent.
The Soldiers who followed him, members of the company's 2nd Platoon, were on day six of Operation Promethium Puma, the ground portion of Operation Bull Whip, the largest air assault mission conducted by the 101st Airborne Division, Combined Joint Task Force-101, during their year-long deployment to Afghanistan.
The mission was conducted with air assets from TF Phoenix, a part of the 101st and Soldiers from the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Div., Task Force Red Bulls, of which Merchant's Soldiers are a part.
Clear the Galuch Valley from north to south was the mission objective, then the Soldiers were to establish a coalition footprint in the area which is a known insurgent stronghold and training area. Second platoon's mission was to eliminate insurgent forces, weapons and bomb-making materials from the valley.
On day six, the platoon's Soldiers, weary, dirty, tired and grisly-faced, were still climbing the mountains in search of their targets.
Two other units, one American and one Afghan, twice attempted to secure the valley in the past year, but, due to heavy enemy resistance, had to withdraw.
"The last time the Afghan National Army came in here, they were involved in a big fight and ended up needing to be recovered out of here after taking pretty heavy casualties and losses," said Merchant. "I was anticipating us coming into a pretty heavy fight here in Hind Dor."
But this time, there would be no resistance. Second Platoon, along with several hundred Red Bull and Afghan National Army soldiers air-assaulted into the valley in the early morning hours of March 26, without a shot fired. Though they did not face immediate contact, the platoon stayed alert and vigilant, ready for an attack at any time.
Loaded with an average of about 100 pounds of gear, including: food and water, clothing and survival gear in addition to ammunition and weapons systems, the Soldiers climbed dozens of rock walls leading up to the village of Hind Dor.
Once in the village, the platoon split three ways. One squad pulled security while another, teamed with their Afghan National Army counterparts to search the village. The final squad gathered biometrics information on Afghan occupants.
It didn't take long for the first discovery to be made. At 8:30 a.m., Pfc. Brett Turner, a Task Force Red Bulls forward observer, was walking along the terraces at the edge of the village when he noticed some overhanging rocks that appeared to have been dug under. He asked another Soldier to check it out.
Turner's suspicions paid off. Under the overhang were two armed rocket-propelled grenades. This was the first cache located in the operation.
"It's been a long time coming, after all the walkabouts with the commander," said Turner. "We've walked some pretty high mountains looking for stuff."
The discovery, the first of his career, was an early birthday present for the young Soldier, who turned 24 the next day. The platoon and the Afghan National Army uncovered nearly 20 caches in the valley, which was the most out of all the elements involved in the operation.
The platoon provided perimeter security while the Afghan National Army searched homes in the village. Second Platoon didn't physically enter the villagers' homes, but helped by searching the outside of houses, rock ledges, caves, mountain-fighting positions, bushes and exposed structures. The exception to this rule was the female engagement team, military women who search and interview Afghan women in accordance with Islamic culture.
Turner's cache find was relatively small due to the notable absence of men in Hind Dor. Locals said the insurgency had known for a couple weeks of the pending operation and left the valley.
"We pretty much thought they had grabbed everything they were going to use and got the heck out," said Skyler Moser, an automatic weapon gunner. "We weren't meeting any resistance and we weren't finding anything, so we thought it was all gone."
But it wasn't. A few Soldiers from the platoon, including Staff Sgt. Doug Walwer and his weapon's squad, pushed to a small set of buildings outside the main village. One building was on a hilltop and built up almost like a fort. It was under the building that the alert eyes of the Afghan National Army caught the outline of a rocket. After digging under the building, the Soldiers uncovered eight 57mm rockets.
Five minutes later, the villagers led them into a nearby structure where they found numerous types of explosives, a large chest of foreign army manuals and literature, a spool of copper wire commonly used in the production of improvised explosive devices, artillery shells, magazines, rocket shells, AK-47 and squad automatic machine gun rounds, rocket-propelled heads and other communication and military materials. The Soldiers pulled one item after another from the building.
Not a bad start for day six of Operation Promethium Puma.
Article by Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Matsonm, TF Red Bulls Public Affairs, Sgt. Mike Miller, TF Ironman