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A Deadly Artillery Duel in Eastern Afghanistan

Despite Afghan Forces taking the lead, fighting can be as brutal as ever for American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.

Franz-Stefan Gady, Combat Outpost Wilderness, Afghanistan

"Stand By! Fire!" off shoots an artillery round into a clear, moonless August night on the Khost-Gardez Pass in Eastern Afghanistan. The gun crew, nicknamed "The Lost Boys," sporting body armor with shorts and t-shirts underneath, quickly reload the gun they had christened "10.000 Taliban" at deployment. After a few seconds, another shell bursts above ground a couple of thousand meters in the south, illuminating the mountainous terrain around it. As ISAF forces slowly pull out of Afghanistan, a fierce artillery duel between U.S. and insurgent artillerymen has played out here over the past few weeks.

Camp Wilderness lies in the heart of what the American military dubbed the K-G Pass, a mountain pass intersecting a rugged mountain range stretching for hundreds of miles to the north and south of the pass; crossing Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces in Eastern Afghanistan; and connecting the cities of Khost and Gardez. The base is home to about 100 US soldiers from Gunfighter Company of the 1st Battalion of the 506th Regiment as well as a platoon of artillerymen and their guns.

In the last few weeks, the platoon, under the command of Lt. John Orosz, has fired more than 600 rounds against Taliban mortar and artillery positions into the mountains surrounding Camp Wilderness. Camp Wilderness in turn has been hit almost daily by enemy shells in the past month -- often multiple times within 24 hours.

"In this part of the country, there are not many structures in place; therefore, we can fire more freely," states Lt. Orosz. "The enemy usually hides in bushes on mountain sides, which makes it easier for us to engage him." The platoon has so far 27 confirmed enemy kills. The mortar team has four enemy killed in action -- a number they proudly display on an old Afghan Army helmet riddled with bullet holes fixed on a wooden pole near one of their mortars. The duel between the two sides has continued for weeks with the US clearly having the upper hand. Firing rockets or mortars at the Wilderness so far has been tantamount to a death sentence.

On August 11 around noon, insurgents -- in all likelihood infiltrators from Pakistan -- fired again on the base. The first round hit, and soldiers quickly sped to one of the many bunkers spread over the compound. Everyone on the base sought cover except for the artillerymen, who ran to their guns. Within minutes, U.S. forces usually can locate the enemy position from where they were fired upon and can retaliate with massive counter-fire.

This time, however, American guns remained silent. An insurgent missile hit the artillerymen's barracks and exploded in their midst as they prepared to return fire. It killed Staff Sergeant Octavio Herrera and Specialist Keith E. Grace Jr. instantly. Another soldier, Sergeant Jamar A. Hicks, later died of his wounds at Forward Operating Base Salerno. Additionally, a few lay wounded -- among them Lt. Orosz. The platoon in one instant had lost almost a third of its men. The men were from B Battery of the 4th Battalion, 320th Artillery Regiment based out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The day before, a senior NCO had warned the soldiers, "You have been lucky so far, but remember, it only takes one lucky round..."

Staff Sergeant Daryl Cooper, the Joint Terminal Attack Controller, heard the first incoming rocket while in his quarters and hid under his bed until he heard the detonation. He then -- as usual -- rushed to the command center of the base and immediately contacted American planes circling the sky above Eastern Afghanistan to coordinate an airstrike. It only took about 15 minutes for the planes to drop four 500-pound bombs on the suspected position of the shooters. Conversely, there were no confirmed enemies killed.

Brad Riffel, a tall, grey-haired civilian from Texas working for a government-contracting agency responsible for the surveillance of the terrain around the base, located the enemy spotter in the mountain range overlooking the Wilderness, but by that time, the enemy rockets had found their target.

As Cooper coordinated the air mission and Brad searched for signs of enemy activity, 25-year-old Specialist Charles Lane, a combat-medic from Tennessee began treating the incoming wounded in the tiny field clinic on the base. "It was a mass casualty situation," he states. "One soldier had a wound the size of a fist." He stoically sums up his credo later on, "You do everything you can, but sometimes, someone out there on the other side says, 'He is mine! I am taking him now!'" Later, on the afternoon of August 11, I spotted Lane -- pale-faced and exhausted -- carrying the belongings of a dead soldier in a plastic bag.

That night in a sign of solidarity with the Americans, one could hear an Afghan artillery battery stationed to the southwest of the Wilderness shooting 120 mm rounds on the abandoned enemy position. The Afghans also sent combat patrols to find and eliminate additional enemy rocket teams.

The day before, Lt. Orosz, Staff Sergeant Herrera and some other men hiked up a hill overlooking the camp to meet with 1st Lt. Rahullah, the platoon leader of an Afghan artillery section and his team stationed there for lunch. The U.S. artillerymen were training the Afghans with remarkable success. One high-ranking officer told me earlier, "Before I deployed, the only thing I heard about this Kandak (battalion) was that they were pretty fucking bad! There has been a startling transformation in the last few weeks however." The mood at lunch was jovial. The Americans brought sodas and water. Future training sessions were discussed. At the beginning of the meeting, a soldier turned to me, "You don't want to be near me when the rockets hit. They usually land right next to me!" "Yeah, don't be near him when we have any incoming. For some reason, he always ends up exposed and far away from a bunker!" another jokingly added.

More often than not, however, the Americans have caught the insurgents exposed. Fighters from Pakistan often film their attacks on American forces, so they can prove their deeds back home to get paid. Sergeant Matthew Davidson showed me a few clips in Gunfighter Company's Tactical Operations Center. The footage showed the impact of the incoming American mortar rounds; as the insurgents are killed off-screen, the camera eerily continues rolling. The Americans retrieved the video from a camera of an insurgent who had been killed by indirect fire from Camp Wilderness.

What worried Davidson the most, however, was another video showing an insurgent calmly re-adjusting the sight and range of the mortar after each shot and jotting down notes in a little notebook. He took it as a clear sign that the enemy is learning. In a separate discussion, Gunfighter's commanding officer, Michael Finch, concurred but also added, "30 rockets in 30 days. They were bound to hit something. The odds were simply against us. It will be tough for the guys for a couple of days!"

The war in Afghanistan is winding down, yet the enemy is as determined as ever to inflict mass casualties on U.S. troops. It is no coincidence that the Soviets fought their last engagement in the Soviet-Afghan War just a few miles southwest of Wilderness in what became known in military history as the Battle for Hill 3234. During the fight, the Soviets sustained heavy losses, while the rest of their forces slowly pulled out of Afghanistan.

U.S. forces also are bound to suffer more combat casualties despite Afghan forces taking the lead throughout the country. In all likelihood, the soldiers of Gunfighter Company and the 320th Artillery Regiment will be the last Americans stationed at Camp Wilderness. They are scheduled to leave at the end of the year. Until then, the deadly cat-and-mouse game of artillery barrages will continue, and right now, the score between the soldiers and the insurgents is even.

A version of this article has appeared co-written with Jay Pryce on McClatchy.

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